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Baseball Hall of Fame: The partisan case for Todd Helton

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Rockies fans know it, and the evidence suggests it: Helton’s a Hall of Famer

Hall of Fame ballots are out, and completed ballots are beginning to trickle in. And, for the first time, we’ll be tracking the ups and downs of Todd Helton’s vote, who is eligible for the first time. Thanks to Ryan Thibodeaux’s public ballot tracker, we can heap praise on those who vote for Helton — you’re the best, Adam Rubin! And we can also cry “of course a guy who voted for Omar Vizquel and not Todd Helton is named Assenheimer.”

I’m going to assume that most readers here want to see Helton in the Hall of Fame. Even “small hall” folks with Bench-ian standards probably recognize that the Hall is not, in fact, small, and that a club that includes Bill Mazeroski should most definitely also include Helton. So let’s not start with the question: Should Todd Helton be in the Hall of Fame? And instead get that “YES!” answer out of the way and lay out the unapologetic, emotionally driven but still backed up by evidence case for Todd Helton’s Hall of Fame bona fides.

The stats

Hall of Fame cases involve more than a dissection of numbers, but this is where they generally begin. Helton’s unadjusted slash line has typically meant automatic inclusion. There have only been 22 players to have played more than 1,000 games and maintained a slash line of at least .300/.400/.500. Of those 22 players, 15 of them are in the Hall of Fame. The seven who are not are either active or have special circumstances surrounding their exclusion. The six other than Helton are:

  • Manny Ramírez
  • Larry Walker
  • Edgar Martínez
  • Joey Votto
  • Mike Trout
  • Shoeless Joe Jackson

Martínez will likely be elected this round, while Votto and Trout are shoe-ins once they retire. I’m confident Walker will make it in by way of a Veteran’s Committee vote, and the only that could keep Ramírez out is a history of PED use, and even he may make it in. The only one here who’s extremely unlikely to ever make it in is Shoeless Joe, and that’s because he was banned from baseball.

Helton’s raw slash line, however, is double damned not only because part of his peak was in pre-humidor Coors Field, but also because it was the height of the steroids era. But, we can say to the detractors that his adjusted stats are also Hall of Fame worthy.

Helton’s career OPS+, which adjusts for park and era, was 133. Unlike his unadjusted stats, his OPS+ doesn’t find him in a group with mostly Hall of Famers. But it also does not not find him in a group with some Hall of Famers. There have been 27 first basemen with a career OPS+ of at least 130, and 12 of them are in the Hall of Fame. This includes players like Jeff Bagwell and Willie McCovey, even though their adjusted lines were in the upper 140s rather than the lower 130s. Helton’s career OPS+ matches that of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda.

Of the 15 first baseman with an OPS+ over 130 who are not in the Hall of Fame, three are active (Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, and Freddie Freeman), one isn’t yet eligible for a vote (Prince Fielder), two are PED cases (Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro), and one is named Dolph (Camilli). The point is: There may be more non-Hall of Famers with with a 130-ish career OPS+, but it’s not an exclusionary point.

Finally, there’s the Hall of Fame specific stat. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system remains the gold standard for evaluating Hall-worthiness. It looks at career Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference’s model), WAR during a 7-year peak, and uses those figures to identify a JAWS score. Players on the ballot can then be compared to others who played their position using era adjusted figures.

Helton’s 53.9 JAWS score ranks 15th among first baseman and is negligibly short of the 54.7 average among 21 Hall of Fame first baseman. Of the 14 players ahead of him on the list, 12 are Hall of Famers, two are future Hall of Famers (Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera) and one is named Rafael (Palmeiro). Helton’s JAWS score is higher than Hall of Fame first baseman like Cepeda, Harmon Killebrew, and Tony Pérez.

How Helton put together his JAWS score is usually used as a mark against him, but it can also be put to his advantage. Helton’s career WAR falls short of average, but his peak was above average among Hall of Fame first baseman. His peak, in fact, is 10th best among first baseman in baseball history. Eight of the nine players ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, and the ninth is future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols. Helton’s 7-year peak was better than Frank Thomas’s. It was better than Willie McCovey’s. His peak should be reason enough to cast a vote for Helton.

The narrative

Hall of Fame cases may begin with numbers, but that’s not where they end. There are narrative elements involved as well — how meaningful was the player to his team, city, and baseball? Were there any standout moments that elevate him above other players with similar stats? The story-side of things is exactly why the mentioned-above Bill Mazeroski has his faced bronzed in the Hall of Fame.

Here, Helton has an edge. Nearly three years ago I made the case that while Larry Walker had a better career than Helton, Helton had the Hall of Fame advantage because he has the better story. I stand by it. Helton was homegrown and played his entire 17-year career in Colorado; he was a key part of the most memorable run in Rockies history; his pose when recording the final out of the 2007 NLCS is his indelible moment; and his number 17 is the first, and thus far only, number the Rockies have retired to sit next to Jackie Robinson’s 42. If elected, there will be no question about which hat will be on his plaque, and that matters.

The Conclusion

Don’t be an Assenheimer — vote for Todd Helton. As Rockies fans know, and as the evidence supports, he deserves it.