FanPost

Todd Helton Played Coors like MLB: the Show

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In many ways, the past 40 years represent a Golden Age for first baseman. Numerous Hall of Fame players dominate the period including several inner circle, slam dunk Hall of Famers. In chronological order they include: Eddie Murray, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. However, just off this level of performance we see numerous great players (potential Hall of Famers): Keith Hernandez, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, John Olerud, Carlos Delgado and Joey Votto. This does not even discuss current stars in Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidtt, or the ‘tainted’ players in Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi and Rafael Palemiro.

In this era, it’s fair to ask, how many of these players can enter the Hall of Fame? This was my complaint on Palmeiro (before we get to his positive steroid test): was Palmeiro ever the best first baseman in his own division (for get league, forget the game)? I do not know if this was clear.

Which brings us to Todd Helton, who’s career clearly matches up well with the second group of players mentioned. JAWS ranks Helton above all of them: Helton also leads the group in several statistical categories including batting average, on-base percentage, hits and doubles. The only reason, I believe, Helton is not in the Hall of Fame is his home park: Coors Field. Helton’s career remains quite storied, and deserves a full hearing.

2000 Baseball Season

Todd Helton’s 2000 season bares a full review: Helton absolutely destroyed the league in 2000. The year started out relatively harmlessly: a lone hit (a single) against Greg Maddux in Colorado. Helton heated up. In his second game he collected another hit along with two walks. Helton turned it on against Florida on April 8th mashing three hits, including a triple. He mashed two more singles against Alex Hernandez, before walking home a run (his lone RBI on the day) in the 8th inning. It was that kind of year for the Toddfather.

Helton posted another amazing game on May 1st in Colorado, knocking four hits against Montreal, beating up Dustin Hermanson. After a ground out in his first at-bat: Helton pounded two homers off Dustin in his next two appearances. The Expos switched pitchers to Anthony Telford, but Helton didn’t mind: he homered off him too, making it three home runs on the game.

Two days later Helton set his season record with a five hit game. In the bottom of the first Helton smashed a single to score a run (Hall of Famer Larry Walker batted ahead of Todd and moved to 3rd base). In the third Helton again singled in another run (this time scoring Walker), to extend the Rockies lead over Montreal. Helton would single three more times, and score a run, to complete the game. Helton posted two more four hit games in the month of May. For the month, Helton batted a truly insane .512 in 23 games.

Through August Helton legitimately challenged .400 batting a crazy .395 in 474 at-bats. Helton batted at least .315 every month before September and came off a month where he hit .476 for the month. Sadly, September proved to be his worst, and he fell off only batting .274 for the month (although he was still productive with a .983 OPS in September). Overall, Helton finished the year leading in the three rate states (including setting the 21st century record for highest batting average at .372, tied with Nomar Garciaparra that same year). Helton’s .372/.463/.698 were obviously great, but ‘tainted’ by spending over half the season in Colorado.

Helton took complete advantage of his home ballpark batting a scorching .392/.484/.786 at Coors, which is probably why Helton only finished fifth in the voting behind Bonds, Piazza and Edmonds. Jeff Kent won the award (an error, in my opinion: I would have given the MVP to Bonds or Helton) probably because he played second base.

July 22, 2009

2009 represented a rebound for Helton. Helton slumped in 2008 and, for the first time in his career, failed to bat .300. 2009 was not quite as good as previous seasons. Helton lacked some of his power, he did not walk quite as much as previous seasons, but he remained good enough to contribute. Then in July, Helton entered the 500 double club; a far less prodigious (but still impressive) club. The Rockies were competitive, and Helton faced Jon Garland. Helton singled in the first, and then in the third inning Colorado was behind. Jon Garland hit Seth Smith to put a runner on, and then Helton launched a ball which hit the wall in right field.

The Rockies wound up winning the game, and would make the postseason as the Wild Card.

September 1, 2013

Helton, aged 40, announced his retirement at the end of the 2013 season. Older, his bat slowed, Helton was not a productive hitter after 2009. However, Helton hung on long enough to collect some milestones. In September: Helton collected his biggest milestone with his 2,500th hit. In the bottom of the 7th in what would be a largely meaningless game, Helton faced Curtis Partch. The Rockies were already up 6-2 (thanks to a Cuddyer home run to start the inning), and Helton swiped a double down the left field line for his 2,500th hit. It is fitting Helton hit a double: Helton finished his career with 592 of them, 19 all time.

Outlook

There are two questions which dominate the Todd Helton Hall of Fame discussion. The first is how to handle Coors Field, which was a crazy hitter’s park throughout Helton’s career (especially in the Humidor days of Helton’s youth), and the sheer number of great contemporary, or near contemporary, first baseman. As I wrote earlier: Helton played in a Golden Age for first basemen.

Looking at his contemporary peers, here is a list of great first basemen who’s careers overlapped with Helton’s by OPS+:

Frank Thomas: 156

Jeff Bagwell: 149

Jim Thome: 147

Miguel Cabrera: 147

Albert Pujols: 146

David Ortiz: 141

Jason Giambi: 139

Carlos Delgado: 138

Todd Helton: 133

This list does not include some player’s like McGwire, Palmeiro and McGriff who peaked before Helton debuted. But, it could be a considered a damning list. Helton is among the few players who posted a .300/.400/.500 slash line; but Helton’s also pretty clearly the worst hitter on this list. Coors heavily boosted Helton’s career: he batted over 1.000 at home, and only .855 on the road. One thing for sure: Helton is not the best hitting first baseman outside the Hall.

Thankfully for Helton: offense is not the only component of his game. Helton won three Gold Gloves in his career, and likely deserved more. Helton ranks 9th all time in fielding runs for first baseman: Now, how valuable was Helton’s fielding? Most of the names ahead of Helton aren’t in the Hall of Fame: Keith Hernandez, Mark Texiera, Fred Tenney, George Scott and Wally Pipp are not Hall of Famers (although many consider Hernandez a Hall of Famer, and he has a case). Granted, Helton may have been a better hitter than all of them.

Overall, the combination of Helton’s superb hitting, and superior fielding, leads to a JAWS which would suggest Helton is the most qualified first baseman outside of the Hall of Fame. Looking at the list above: Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell, and Frank Thomas are in the Hall of Fame; Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz are almost assuredly earning induction the second they’re eligible. Todd Helton was not as good a hitter as Jason Giambi, and I would probably place him on par with Delgado, granted it’s close.

Is there room in the Hall of Fame for seven first basemen/designated hitters from this era? To me, this is the question. Granted, when every player ahead of you is a Hall of Famer, perhaps your case holds some merit. This would not be the first era where a massive number of all time great players played concurrently, during Helton’s career we saw the same thing with starting pitchers with Maddux, Clemens, Johnson, Glavine, Pedro, Schilling and Mussina. On its own: the numerous other great first basemen in his era is not disqualifying.

As for Coors, others could explain Coors better than I. However, I would point to this table from Jay Jaffe’s article on Helton this year at Fangraphs. Helton ranks 7th all time in home OPS, and every other player on that list is either in the Hall of Fame or would be if not for PEDs. Which, to me, is the point: only Hall of Fame caliber players can take advantage of the benefits Coors offered him as well as Helton did throughout his career.

Conclusion

Which, to me, then goes to the final question: is Helton the best first baseman outside the Hall of Fame? Short answer for me? Yes. I could argue for Mark McGwire over Helton, and there are several players close to him, but he edges in, in my book. Coors Field does weaken Helton’s case, and makes him a more borderline candidate than you would expect for a player with a career .300/.400/.500 slash line, but good enough to enter Cooperstown none-the-less. To put it more bluntly: Helton, by OPS+, was about as good a hitter as Fred McGriff except he was also a better base runner and fielder. If McGriff is the line for hitters as first baseman, then Helton’s other superlatives place him over it.

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