In, Out or In-Between: Todd Helton and Cooperstown

Posted: July 5, 2013 by The Cheap Seat Fan in MLB
Tags: , , , ,

ROCKIES_VS_LA_04_06_hc

The debate on the validity of numbers made by those that spend the majority of their seasons as members of the Colorado Rockies is nothing new. Ever since the club was founded and quickly became a fountain of youth for veteran bats that had long seen their better days elsewhere, as well as a springboard for borderline hitters elsewhere, the environment has been under dispute. However, until now, there had never been a player who had staked his entire career in friendly, Humidor regulated environment of the Rockies come up for inspection for the Hall of Fame until Todd Helton. And now, in his final season, the greatest Rockie of all-time will have his list of achievements taken not only under the microscope, but also stretched to be put in context.

Helton has been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball over the past 17 years. A career Rockie, he is the owner of eight major career records in offense friendly book for the club. Yet, if there is an element in baseball that is issued a more blanketed line of questioning than PEDs, it’s numbers produced with 81 games spent in Coors Field a year. How will this effect Helton when it’s time for him to be placed on the ballot for Cooperstown? Will he be held to an even keel with others of his era and position? Or will he instead be under review for being in the right place, most of the time? Here’s his case, coming and going.

The Numbers (Thru July 1st): .318 avg, 360 home runs, 1372 RBI, 2461 hits, 576 doubles, 1374 runs scored, .416 on-base percentage, .542 slugging percentage

The Case For: Helton is one the best hitters of the 2000’s by far. He is the only player in MLB history to have 100+ extra base hits in consecutive seasons, and is tenth all-time in on-base percentage. After coming up during the 1997 season, he quickly became one of the most consistent performers at the plate of any era, hitting over .300 for ten consecutive seasons and only once under .315. His masterpiece season was in 2000, when he won his sole batting title, with a .372 average and 147 RBI, made on 216 hits, including 42 home runs and 59 doubles. While power was never absent from his game (six seasons of 30 or more home runs, two over 40), his true calling card was the double. His steady, level swing made him a terror in the gaps, and he has 10 consecutive seasons with at least 35 doubles, making him the only player in MLB history to achieve this as well. His career total is good for 20th best all-time. A winner of four consecutive Silver Slugger awards, his patient approach often forced pitchers to deliver to him; he has only has one season of greater than 100 strikeouts and eight straight years of totaling more walks than K’s, with seven seasons where he did not total more than 70 strikeouts.

He is also far from a one-dimensional player, as in his prime he was one of the best defensive infielders in baseball. He is a winner of three Gold Glove awards, and was an asset as a defensive stopper in an offensively inclined ballpark. He’s also the definition of a company man, and is the third most tenured active player to spend his career with one club.

The Case Against: This is where the situation gets sticky for Helton, and where all of those prestigious accomplishments begin to be diluted for some. Coors Field has produced a record amount of offense in its time, like no other field before or since it. The lighter atmosphere is kinder to bats, and it is a pretty solid advantage to have on your side for half a season, as it has hosted several record-setting seasons for home runs. And while regulation of the baseballs used in Coors (via a humidor to regulate the density of the ball) have changed things some, he has still benefitted from a thin air home half of his career games. This can aid the line drive ball, which is his greatest tool, and it slightly has.

In his career, he is a .347 hitter at home, compared to .289 on the road, and has 142 more extra base hits at home as well. Perhaps the greatest difference in splits is the impact it has on his home versus road on-base + slugging percentage (OPS). At Coors, his total is an incredible 1.052, which when placed on an even keel with the greatest totals of all-time, would sit at the fourth best of all-time, right in-between Lou Gehrig and Barry Bonds. That is hallowed ground in baseball heaven, and is quickly brought back to mortality by his road OPS of .861, which would be good for 133nd of all-time, yet right between Darryl Strawberry (a upper-tier Hall of Very Good member) and Jesse Burkett (an actual Hall of Famer) all-time.

Along with Lou Gehrig and Bill Terry, Helton is one of three first basemen ever to hit at least .315 for eight consecutive years.

Along with Lou Gehrig and Bill Terry, Helton is one of three first basemen ever to hit at least .315 for eight consecutive years.

Similar Players (through age 39)

  1. Larry Walker (.313 avg, 383 home runs, 1311 RBI, 2160 hits, 1355 runs, 471 doubles)
  2. Frank Thomas (.301 avg, 521 home runs, 1667 RBI, 2468 Hits, 1494 runs, 495 doubles)
  3. Chipper Jones (.303 avg, 468 home runs, 1623 RBI, 2726 hits, 1619 runs, 549 doubles)

Cooperstown Likelihood: Helton’s career is a study in differences, but not extremes. He had a five year run from 2000-2004 that was as productive as anybody has ever had. Some of it was encouraged by location, but a lot of it was him being a great hitter as well. In many cases, the “yeah, but” approach has handicapped him from getting many of the individual awards that could he for the taking. Helton has flown below the radar for much of his career; in part due to being in a sort of media nowhere land in Colorado, but also not being a highlight player. Yet he has not only been one of the most productive, bad team players of all-time, he has also been one of the most consistently above-average to quietly great players of any era as well. Despite averaging posting an average year of .336, 30 home runs, 108 RBI and 188 hits from 2000 to 2007, he never finished higher than fifth in any MVP vote and is only a five-time All-Star in his career. As far as magic numbers, injuries curbed his chance at 400 home runs (which would qualify well for a line drive hitter of his variety), as well as 3,000 hits (which would be a clincher in his case).

Injuries curbed his later years, starting at about 34 years old, which also ended his chance at big accumulation marks. He went from averaging 154 games a season his first ten years, to only playing in better than 124 once in his last six years. Regardless, the OPS difference once again paints the easiest picture of understanding Helton’s credibility. He is neither the 4th best all-time that he has been at Coors, nor is he the 133nd all-time that he was on the road. The truth is found in the middle, which would be just about at 65th all-time. That’s where you would find Bill Terry, the star manager and first baseman of the 1920s/30’s New York Giants, as well as a likewise undervalued contributor in the big picture at the position.

In the end, Helton is among the very best hitters of his era, and has made a quietly historic impact in his career. While there could be some apprehension in the vote results covering him, in the same fashion that former teammate Larry Walker experienced in his initial appearance on the ballot, the truth should eventually set him free.

So when the question is asked if Todd Helton is in, out or in-between Hall of Fame status, the answer should be IN…even if it takes the clouds clearing up some to realize it.

For more on the season as it develops in real time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

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Comments
  1. Great analysis. Finally someone who can look at Coors Field with a realistic viewpoint instead of simply dismissing every statistic that came from the park. Of course it helped him, but that can’t completely dismiss the guy as a player. All too often I hear national analysts talk about Coors Field like it creates all stars out of below average, fringe minor leaguers. That isn’t the case.

    (From a biased perspective) I believe that Coors Field actually hurts players road numbers as much as it helps their home numbers. After spending 10 days seeing breaking balls that don’t snap as much, they go to sea level and it takes two or three days to adjust, but their swings are all messed up.

    Matt Holliday is the perfect example of a guy whose numbers stayed the same after leaving. He was labeled a Coors Field hitter because his home/road splits were so big. In St Louis, his numbers are almost identical to what they were at Coors.

    Good work.

  2. […] mere hours apart. I’m not here to break down their Hall of Fame chances — in fact, Matt Whitener has already done that for Helton — though I do think both players deserve a plaque in Cooperstown. I’m here to appreciate […]

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