I wanted my first piece for Batting Leadoff to serve as a bit of an introduction to myself as a baseball fan, but I also wanted to discuss a topic that is relevant during this year’s offseason. Since I grew up in Colorado, the Rockies have played as big a role in my baseball fandom as any Major League franchise. Therefore, seeing as he retired at the end of this season, and because he was one of my heroes as a young baseball player in the early 2000s, I decided it would be a good time to think about Todd Helton’s Hall of Fame Credentials.
As a Rockies fan, it has been painful to watch Helton play the past four seasons. Injuries have hampered his play since the 2009 season. Todd hasn’t played more than 124 games in any season since 2010, and he was all the way down to 69 games in 2012. The Rockies’ front office has been hesitant to bring in a young first baseman that might be able to replace Todd in the long run, although they did sign Michael Cuddyer two years ago. All of this adds up to a disappointing end to a 17-year career that could have ended much differently, and probably much better, for both Helton and the Rockies Organization.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t let the drawn-out and disappointing end to Todd Helton’s career make us forget the player he was in the early 2000s. Back in his heyday Helton was one of the most fearsome first basemen in the game. From 2000-2004 Helton racked up 34.7 WAR, per Fangraphs. Also during that five-year span, Todd managed 186 home runs, had a walk rate higher than his strikeout rate in all but one of those years, had two years of .300-plus Isolated Power (.326 in 2000, and .349 in 2001), and won three Gold Glove awards and four Silver Sluggers. In fact, even if Helton’s last four years are included, he still finished his career with a 14.1 walk percentage and a 12.4 Strikeout percentage. Todd also managed nine seasons with an On-Base Percentage greater than .400, and he finished with a .414 career OBP.
According the Baseball-Reference.com, Helton ranks 26th in career OBP, 36th in career Slugging Percentage, 20th in career OPS, 16th in career Doubles, 35th all-time in walks, and 28th in career Win-Probability-Added. If you’re inclined to use clutch-performance as a measure of player-value, Helton also finished his career ranked 26th in Situational Wins Added (WPA/LI), also per Baseball-Reference.
From the defensive side of things, advanced stats don’t love Helton’s performance at first base. However, I believe that we have yet to reach the point where these advanced statistics tell the entire defensive story (these all agree). Again using Baseball-Reference to look at Todd’s defensive work, we can see that he was no scrub. Todd finished 15th all-time in putouts (13th all-time among first basemen), 2nd all-time among first basemen in assists, and 6th all-time in fielding percentage as a first baseman. Add the three Gold Gloves he won in the early 2000s and you can argue that his defensive work would help his case for the HOF.
In a vacuum, Todd Helton’s resume seems worthy of a bid to baseball’s shrine. But, there are some important marks against Helton that must also be taken into consideration. For starters, he played every single home game of his Major League career in the hitter-friendly mile high air of Coors Field. I would argue that his offensive statistics would still stand up to the Hall Of Fame standard even taking into account his home park, but I do not speak for many of the voters. Of equal importance is the fact that Helton had the best years of his career during the peak of baseball’s steroid era. Voters have already shown that they are hesitant to vote steroid users into the Hall, and although Helton has never been accused of or caught using steroids, he might still be viewed as being guilty by association. Furthermore, just as I used Helton’s defensive numbers to build his HOF case, critics could point to some of his advanced defensive statistics as reasons that he shouldn’t be in the Hall. Finally, despite the fact that the blame should not be placed on Helton for only making two postseasons in his life, he was not able to help his bid by building bountiful playoff success.
As is the case for most players with the potential to to make it to Cooperstown, valid arguments can be made both for and against Todd Helton being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Although we had to endure a prolonged twilight to his career, I believe Helton’s numbers present a strong case. Todd never won an MVP award, but from 2000 until his lone World Series run in 2007 he was one of the best players in all of baseball. Although WAR does not tell the entire story, Fangraphs says Helton was the fifth best position player over that eight year stretch, and the only first baseman better than him during that time was Albert Pujols. Helton might not have maintained the same sustained brilliance that was the signature of many Hall of Famers, but he was at the top of the sport for nearly a decade. I believe that alone is enough to punch him a ticket.
Thus far I have merely presented reasons why I think Todd Helton SHOULD be inducted into Cooperstown, and I could write an entirely new post regarding whether or not he WILL be inducted. In the post-steroid era, it’s extremely difficult to gauge the opinions of those in the BBWAA. Helton’s chances of being inducted will likely take a hit because he will be grouped with Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and all the other known-users. Given time, however, we might see him become the first Rockie voted into the Hall of Fame. We will just have to wait.
In the meantime, fans of the Rockies and fans of baseball can be happy that they got to witness #17 light up Coors Field for nearly two decades. I hope that someday the members of the BBWAA can find it in their hearts to give him a place among the other all-time greats. Who knows, maybe they’ll surprise us.
Featured Image courtesy of http://www.mlb.com