Posted September 02, 2013

Todd Helton collects his 2,500th hit but Hall of Fame case remains up in the air

Colorado Rockies, Hall of Fame, JAWS, Todd Helton
Todd Helton, Rockies

Todd Helton could be in his final days in a Rockies uniform. (David Zalubowski/AP)

On Sunday afternoon, Todd Helton collected his 2,500th career hit, reaching what’s likely to be the last major milestone of his 17-year career and giving Rockies fans a chance to shower him with adulation. The 40-year-old first baseman hasn’t officially announced that he’s retiring at the end of this season, but given his age and his expiring contract, it is a distinct possibility.

That didn’t detract from the moment. Facing Reds reliever Curtis Partch in the seventh inning at Coors Field, Helton worked Parch for six pitches before slicing a drive down the leftfield line on the seventh and legging out a double. The crowd of 30,594 rose to honor the player who holds virtually every major franchise record for offensive production: games (2,226), plate appearances (9,366), runs (1,389), RBIs (1,393) doubles (584), homers (365), total bases (4,53), walks (1,329) and Wins Above Replacement (61.4). Here’s the hit, from MLB.com:

And here’s a career highlight reel that MLB.com put together for the occasion:

Indeed, Helton has accomplished plenty during his time with Colorado, which began on Aug. 2, 1997. He earned All-Star honors five straight times from 2000 to ’04, and won three Gold Gloves and a batting title. He also won the slash-stat Triple Crown in ’00 when he hit .372/.463/.698 and accumulated more WAR than any first baseman of the post-1992 expansion era besides Albert Pujols (92.8) and Jeff Bagwell (70.1).  Helton also helped the Rockies to the postseason in ’07 and ’09, and hit .333/.412/.467 in his lone World Series appearance (in ’07).

While Helton has put up an extremely impressive batting line ( .317/.415/.540) during his career, playing half his games in the most favorable offensive environment in modern history has been a huge part of his story. At Coors Field, he has posted video game-level numbers (.346/.442/.607) for the sixth-best OPS at home since 1916 and the second-best of the post-World War II era (4,000 plate appearance minimum):

Rk  Player  Years PA  HR  AVG OBP  SLG  Home OPS Road OPS Dif
1 Babe Ruth 1916-1935 5096 346 .347 .484 .701 1184 1150 34
2 Ted Williams 1939-1960 4954 248 .361 .496 .652 1148 1082 66
3 Jimmie Foxx 1925-1945 4678 299 .345 .453 .663 1116 966 150
4 Barry Bonds 1986-2007 6124 379 .301 .449 .618 1067 1037 30
5 Lou Gehrig 1923-1939 4660 251 .329 .436 .620 1056 1102 -46
6 Todd Helton 1997-2013 4793 224 .346 .442 .607 1049 857 192
7 Rogers Hornsby 1916-1937 4627 164 .361 .439 .593 1032 996 36
8 Frank Thomas 1990-2008 5011 312 .305 .424 .599 1024 925 99
9 Albert Pujols 2001-2013 4197 226 .325 .417 .597 1014 1003 11
10 Stan Musial 1941-1963 6331 252 .336 .427 .582 1009 944 65

Elsewhere, Helton has hit very respectably (.288/.387/.470), but hardly at a historic pace. As you can see by the last two columns of the above table, his homefield advantage was far greater than any of the other nine hitters in that group.

As I noted in the context of former teammate Larry Walker’s Hall of Fame case, the combination of Helton’s home park with league scoring trends is the most favorable in history among players with at least 6,000 PAs, according to a Baseball-Reference.com stat called AIR. Using an all-time average of a .335 on-base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage, AIR indexes the park and league conditions under which each hitter has played into one number in the manner of OPS+, with 100 as league average, over 100 as favorable for hitters and under 100 as favorable for pitchers. Here’s the top 10 using the 4,000 PA cutoff from the Walker piece. As you’ll see, it includes quite a few former Rockies:

Rank Player PA AIR
1T Todd Helton 9366 122
Neifi Perez 5365 122
3 Vinny Castilla 7305 120
4 Dante Bichette 6777 117
5T Larry Walker 7958 116
Earl Averill 7160 116
Ski Melillo 5402 116
Rip Radcliff 4398 116
9T Jeff Cirillo 6026 115
Joe Vosmik 6007 115
Odell Hale 4057 115

Has Helton done enough to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame? Last month, I took a look at the active players who had the best cases using my JAWS system, which measures the career and peak values of each player against the average enshrined player at their position. (Alas, I missed Helton in my initial roundup, then corrected the error in my follow-up.) Helton has accumulated 61.3 career WAR, which falls short of the average Hall of Fame first baseman (68.2). He’s substantially above the standard on seven-year peak score, 46.5 to 43.2, but even so, his 53.9 JAWS is still a couple points short of the standard (55.7).

Overall, he ranks 14th in JAWS among first basemen, below eight Hall of Fame first basemen but above 12 others. Note that in this reckoning, Stan Musial is included as a first baseman, while in last winter’s iteration, he was classified as a right fielder for having accumulated more value there. More recent changes in replacement level — such as the one that calibrates B-Ref’s version of WAR to the same scale as that of FanGraphs — tend to bump Musial from one spot to the other. In any event, here’s the current top 20 at the position (the entire leaderboard is here):

Rk  Player Career Peak JAWS
1 Stan Musial* 128.1 64.2 96.1
2 Lou Gehrig* 112.5 67.8 90.1
3 Jimmie Foxx* 96.5 59.5 78.0
4 Albert Pujols 92.9 61.5 77.2
5 Cap Anson* 94.0 41.8 67.9
6 Roger Connor* 84.2 47.0 65.6
7 Jeff Bagwell 79.5 48.2 63.8
8 Dan Brouthers* 79.4 47.2 63.3
9 Johnny Mize* 70.9 48.8 59.8
10 Frank Thomas 73.6 45.3 59.5
11 Jim Thome 72.8 41.6 57.2
Avg HOF 1B 68.2 43.2 55.7
12 Rafael Palmeiro 71.8 38.8 55.3
13 Willie McCovey* 64.4 44.8 54.6
14 Todd Helton 61.3 46.5 53.9
15 Eddie Murray* 68.2 38.9 53.6
16 Hank Greenberg* 57.6 47.7 52.6
17 Mark McGwire 62.0 41.9 52.0
18 George Sisler* 54.2 47.0 50.6
19 Keith Hernandez 60.1 41.0 50.6
20 Harmon Killebrew* 60.4 38.1 49.2

(* = Hall of Famer)

If Musial is classified as a right fielder, the averages across the board are 64.7, 42.1 and 53.4, which would put Helton right above the line. Even so, it’s worth noting that contemporaries Pujols, Bagwell (who’s been on the ballot for two years), Thomas (who becomes eligible this winter) and Thome (who won’t be eligible until 2018) have better scores and stronger cases than Helton. The latter trio may well raise the JAWS standard by the time Helton is eligible, which assuming he does pack it in after this season wouldn’t be until 2019.

Beyond the appropriate adjustment for environment that lets the air out of his park-inflated numbers, the big problem with Helton’s case is his rapid decline after 2007, the season he turned 33. To that point, he had hit .332/.430/.583, with 303 homers and accumulated 54.5 WAR while averaging 154 games a year since 1998, his first full season. Due to surgeries for back, hip and knee ailments, he has averaged just 108 games, 10 homers and 1.1 WAR a year since the beginning of ’08, hitting a cumulative .280/.376/.428. Only twice in that span has he been worth more than 1.0 WAR, while three times he’s been worth 0.3 or less; this year, he’s in the red at −0.3 on .252/.321/.407, with 11 homers in 355 PA. Replace those three years (net 0.0 WAR) with one-win seasons and he’d be a hair’s breadth from the current JAWS standard for first basemen.

Like Walker, Helton has a very reasonable but hardly air-tight case for Cooperstown, with the final reckoning on his fate worth waiting for until he’s eligible. For now, with the Rockies (65-73) going nowhere, we can at least hope that he gives fans a few more moments to cheer him in recognition of his outstanding career.

23 comments
ChristopherBoyne
ChristopherBoyne

Seems to me that it's more important to judge a man for where he played than what he did while playing there. Top 20 doubles hitter in the history of the game. His history of back problems had not only decreased his career batting average,but his ability to reach 3000 hits. He is easily the best scooping first baseman I've ever seen, but also the most underrated defensive first baseman I've ever seen. If he plays on either coast his entire career he wins 8-10 gold gloves. Whether he makes the hall of fame or not, he is the greatest player in his franchises history. Behind Derek Jeter he is the greatest player to play for one franchise his entire career in this generation. Whatever you may think of him,to me he an all time great.......and I'm a cardinal fan. The best gap to gap hitter I ever saw. I'm in for the hall

anticubicle6782
anticubicle6782

Why are we celebrating 2,500 hits?Is that the new 3,000?

JustinParisi
JustinParisi

Why is no one talking about Helton's defense?

 His career fielding % is 6th. He won 3 Gold Gloves. While he's not the greatest defensive 1B ever, it has to be discussed in his HOF creds along with his hitting numbers. For 3 years, he was considered the best at his position. For most of his career, he was in the discussion.

Granted, his HOF case is borderline, but when he's right around the average for 1B offensive numbers and better than many of the 1B defensively...

Ericfollowedbyanumber
Ericfollowedbyanumber

When you're calculating averages for the AVG HOF 1b, are you using mean or median? If you're not using medians, that would be useful to see, as it limits the effects of an outlier like Musial or High Pockets Kelley.

HOFPufnstuf
HOFPufnstuf

Yes. Helton has been in decline since 2007. Same year baseball put in random testing for p.e.d.s

Sorry Jay. Once again you complicate a question that is quite clear to the average fan living outside of Denver. Helton in HOF? answer is no way. Not too complicated.

chipdavis
chipdavis

No way. No How. Juuuust a little outside.

olaf27
olaf27

Much like Soriano, I think Helton will get in. Time has shown that after a decade. sportswriters tend to look at numbers differently. I would bet in 2025, people are wondering why its taken so long for him to get into the Hall.

ndog
ndog

What about all of the great pitchers who were lucky enough to play their home games in good pitcher's ballparks?

pu5erfish
pu5erfish

He's going to get in.  While it's true that he put up those numbers in the most hitter-friendly park in the league, he did it in the steroid era without their taint ever having brushed against him.  There's going to be an impetus for the writers to reward a player who might be on the fence, but who is widely perceived as honest over the competition he played against who weren't.  As well they should.

John NoLastName
John NoLastName

My sense is that Todd Helton was a very good hitter who belongs in the Hall of Not Quite.

I don't like seeing such a fuss made over his playing in Colorado, however. A HOF player is a HOF player, it doesn't matter where he played. Plenty of ballparks favor hitters, just as others favor pitchers. So what? Are we going to discount players who hit in Wrigley or Fenway, notorious hitter's parks? Are we going to take away some of Mel Ott's short-porch homers in the Polo Grounds? How about Jimmie Foxx's Green Monster homers? Are we going to take away Whitey Ford's Yankee Stadium victories because right-handed hitters had to deal with Death Valley?

 Coors is a Major League ballpark, and Helton hit against Major League pitchers.Those are the only relevant facts.

MichaelC
MichaelC

Fair or unfair, playing in Colorado will definitely hurt Helton's case. Solid pros had hugely inflated numbers: Galarraga .944 OPS (5 years), Vinny Castilla .870 OPS (9 years), Dante Bichette .892 OPS (7 years), Ellis Burks .957 OPS (5 years), and Matt Holliday .938 OPS (5 years). Larry Walker had a ridiculous 1.044 OPS during his 10 years as a Rockie. Helton had a great career but I'm not going to give him too much credit for sticking with one team ... after all, Colorado chose to give him a 9 year $141MM contract in 2003. Also, I understand MVP voting can be skewed at times but Helton finished a high of 5th in the voting in 2000. He finished 7th and 9th two other years ... so three seasons with top 10 MVP finishes which tells you that his huge numbers didn't resonate with BBWAA voters, who also happen to vote for the HOF.

LomaxHunter
LomaxHunter

@anticubicle6782Hello anticuble6782, I don't think Jaffe is implying that 2,500 hits is the new 3,000.  He is just pointing out that Helton has hit a very significant career milestone and since he is near the end of his caree,r it makes sense to review some of his Hall of Fame case.

Only 85 other players have reached or exceeded this hit total and 64 (74%) of them are already in the Hall.  Additionally, several that are not in are ineligible since they are still active or recently retired, so that percentage will increase over time.  A few notable names - Palmeiro, ARod, Manny Ramirez, and Bonds - will have difficulty getting votes due to the connection to PEDs.

3,000 hits is still 3,000 hits.  Of the 28 men who have reached that milestone, 24 (85%) are in.  Of the four remaining, one is still active (Jeter), one just finished his first year of HoF voting (Biggio), one is a PED poster child (Palmeiro), and the other is banned (Rose).

So if you hit the 3,000 mark, you're in - unless you embarrass the game or break the rules and get banned.  If you hit the 2,500 hit mark, you have a very good shot, but it is not a sure thing, hence the article.

LomaxHunter
LomaxHunter

@Ericfollowedbyanumber Hello Eric..., since he used the term "average" I would assume he is calculating the mean since those terms are interchangeable.  I'm too lazy to check right now! :)

Twen15
Twen15

@John NoLastName All of those WAR numbers are park-adjusted, so to answer your series of questions, yes. But those guys were still good enough to get in anyways. Todd Helton just doesn't quite level up.

psychprof
psychprof

@MichaelC I like your use of MVP voting in this discussion.  though I always liked Helton and he seems like a good man and very good player, I don't think Helton's numbers are impressive enough, esp with the park-inflated numbers.  the info in the column shows he has particularly benefited at home relative to many other top 1Bmen.   as for MVP voting, he's not impressive there.  Bagwell won an MVP and finished top 3 two other times, Frank Thomas won 2 MVPs and finished top 5 several other times, Larry Walker 1 MVP and top 5 just one other time, David Ortiz in top 5 MVP voting 5 times.  in comparison Helton's weak.  just one more piece of data.

Ericfollowedbyanumber
Ericfollowedbyanumber

@LomaxHunter @Ericfollowedbyanumber You're right--they usually are interchangeable, but I figured that someone who has his own WAR system might be fussy about the choice of terms. Either way, I'd like to see if it makes a difference! Thanks for the reply.

Ryan1
Ryan1

@psychprof @MichaelC 

Ortiz is a DH though and voters seem to believe Bagwell was juiced. Playing in Boston also helps Ortiz. 

Ryan1
Ryan1

@Twen15 @Sportsfan18 

Doing it in the steroid era, if voters believe he is clean

Bagwell is believed to have used, then McGwire and Palmerio are confirmed users. 

So then where does he then place in his era. Frank Thomas is the top player. Where does Helton stack up against others.

Fred McGriff is another guy that in his era, looks borderline but if he is clean having played in the 80's and 90's - now is he an HOF?

Twen15
Twen15

@Sportsfan18 I agree that his counting stats are in line with the typical HOF first baseman but WAR takes into account park and era effects that show that Helton is below the average HOF first baseman.

 Another part of this discussion that was not brought up by the author is the presence of the other current first basemen on the ballot. McGwire (~580 HR), Palmeiro (500 HR/3,000 Hits), and Bagwell (450 HR/1500 RBI) all have appreciably better counting statistics than Helton, not to mention Pujols, who seems like he will be a lock. So, if you want to go by counting stats, Helton does not compare favorably either. I still think Helton was/is a great player. But he does not have a great shot at induction.