Pitcher List Hall of Fame Voting: Todd Helton
In December, the Pitcher List staff voted to send six players to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Todd Helton was not one of them. Dave Cherman thinks that was the right decision. Daniel Port does not. Below, they make their cases.
THE CASE FOR HELTON
Almost all franchises produce star players. The Colorado Rockies are no different. Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowiski, Eric Young, Dante Bichette, Charlie Blackmon, and Nolan Arenado are just some of the star major leaguers to wear the purple and black. But most teams have only one G.O.A.T. — a player who isn’t just a star, but the face of a franchise. This player is the icon of that team. They’re sacred.
For the people of Denver, that player is “The Toddfather.” Somehow though, despite this lofty status, it is a bit of a long shot that Helton will end up enshrined in the Hall of Fame. That leaves me incredulous. When you consider both his production, his place in the game’s history, and what he means to the city of Denver, I honestly can’t imagine a player more worthy of the Hall of Fame than Helton.
Any argument against Helton as a Hall of Famer hinges on one thing, and that’s his home field. Let’s tackle that first and get it out of the way. Coors Field is pretty universally known as one of the greatest hitting ballparks of all-time. The outfield is enormous and playing at such a high altitude both causes the ball to carry further and keeps breaking balls (especially curveballs) from breaking nearly as hard as they do in other ballparks. Helton played 82 games a year at Coors in every season of his 16-year career. Many folks opposed to his candidacy choose to hold this against him, claiming that his ballpark inflated his numbers and he really wasn’t truly elite compared to his peers. I just can’t bring myself to agree with this, largely because of his .OPS+, a stat that adjusts a player’s OPS to a neutral park so that every player is on a level playing field, both literally and metaphorically. Then it is normalizes it so that 100 is considered league average and each number above or below represents a percentage better or worse than that league average. This allows us to really get to the bottom of where Helton measures up with respect to his peers.
|Year||OPS+||OPS+ Rank||1B OPS+ Rank||Total batters|
Here’s the best 10-year stretch for Helton, starting with his 1997 rookie year and running right up until 2008, when his back started to give out on him. Once everyone’s numbers are adjusted to a neutral playing field, it’s pretty easy to see that Helton was right at the top of his class when compared to his peers, regardless of his home ballpark. Outside of his rookie year, when he did not qualify for the batting title, this 10-year stretch saw Helton land in the top 10 in OPS+ three times, top 20 six times, top 30 seven times, and within the top 60 nine times. That seems like a hitter who is well worthy of being considered one of the greatest of his generation and clearly one of the greatest first basemen of his generation. If it weren’t for Albert Pujols, Helton would have been hands down the greatest hitting first basemen of this era.
Another note on OPS+. Over his 13-year career, Helton put up a career OPS+ of 133, which is 133rd all-time. Considering that there have been more than 19,000 players in MLB history, that puts him in the 93rd percentile of players. Of the 237 players to play at least 5 years worth of games at first base, Helton ranks 33rd in OPS+. In other words, Helton’s production is a product of his Hall of Fame-caliber skill set and not his ballpark.
Let’s also take a look where he ranks among those 237 first baseman in a few other categories. During his career, he racked up 2,247 games played, which ranks 23rd all-time. Here are a few other rankings:
Once again, these rankings show that, especially within his own position, Helton is among the very best. So we’ve shown he measured up as one of the very best hitters of his era, and that he is one of the truly elite offensive first baseman, but what of his defense? A three-time Gold Glover, Helton has always carried a reputation for being an elite defender.
I’m a firm believer that the Hall of Fame has be more than the Hall of Statistical Milestones. It has to be a place to celebrate the players who were not only worthy based on their production, but also had a huge impact on the sport, or left a lasting impression on a city, or resonated with a fanbase. There might not be a player who this applies to more than Helton. If you talk to lifelong Rockies fans in Denver, they’ll tell you that they didn’t call Helton “The Toddfather” because it was witty. There’s always been a patriarchal feel to their relationship with him — that he was family. They really felt like they saw the quiet, jovial, laid-back, blue-collar mentality that makes up a large part of Denver’s self-identity reflected in their best player. That Helton is almost assuredly the greatest Rockies player ever likely plays a large part in this feeling, but it goes further than that.
Just look at his numbers down the stretch when the 2007 Rockies won 14 of their final 15 games to make the Wild Card play-in game:
Good Lord. I couldn’t pull that off in MLB the Show on Easy. The Rockies won the Wild Card game in 13 innings in what is likely the greatest game to date in Rockies history. Helton, of course, went two for four with two walks and a two-run HR. They only lost one more game en route to the World Series, where the Red Sox swept them. No one in Denver really seems to dwell on that World Series though. Instead, they focus on the incredible run that got them there in the first place. Those 21 games are almost every Rockies fan’s favorite memory and they will always consider Helton one of the central reasons that stretch happened. So this leaves me with one question for those who want to dismiss Helton’s Hall of Fame candidacy. If a player isn’t Hall of Fame-worthy after putting up a hitting career that is among the very best ever, winning three Gold Gloves, becoming widely considered the best player in franchise history, and captaining what is largely considered the greatest moments in franchise history, then who is?
– Daniel Port
THE CASE AGAINST HELTON
Daniel was very close to my big knock on Helton. It’s not the fact that he played at Coors; it’s the relatively disappointing numbers he put up away from Coors. It’s often said, including by Daniel above, that Coors Field is among the best hitter’s parks in baseball. Therefore, I want to ignore Helton’s dominance at Coors Field and look at how effective he was on the road. This should, in theory, paint a better picture of his talent level than his Coors numbers because we’re removing the elite ballpark. Daniel makes a strong case with OPS+, but Fangraphs has recommended using wOBA instead of OPS and wRC+ instead of OPS+, as they find it more accurate, so I will use those instead.
There’s no denying that at home, Helton was one of the best hitters of all-time. His Home wOBA, if it represented his career mark, would place 25th all time. His home wRC+ would tie him for 99th all-time with Freddie Freeman, JD Martinez, and Vladimir Guerrero. His home ISO would tie him for 73rd all-time with Bryce Harper and Edwin Encarnación.
But on the road, Helton was extraordinarily average. His career 121 wRC+ away from Coors is in line with the career mark of players such as Jason Bay, Carlos Santana, Ryan Howard, Justin Upton, and Carlos Quentin. None of those players deserve a spot in the Hall. His .363 wOBA is similarly poor, as it would be tied for 469th all-time if this was his overall career mark, tying him with players like Richie Sexton, Luis Gonzalez, and yup, Jason Bay. Yikes.
At the end of the day, a player is neither solely his home or road stats; he is a combination of them. But in the case of Helton, I see a player who, for 50% of his games, was extraordinarily average and was not an elite player in the league, while the other 50%, which included otherworldly dominance, was not based purely on his skill.
It would be one thing if Helton struggled against lefties, for example, because that is something the Rockies could game plan around. But what you can’t game plan for is someone falling harshly back to earth on the road, where you’re forced to play half your games. Had Helton put up better numbers on the road, closer to .300 and .475 AVG/SLG and a wRC+ and wOBA closer to his home numbers, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But as it stands, I just can’t justify Helton in the Hall of Fame.
If we’re going to take emotions into it, Helton deserves to be there. But I’m trying to be more objective. And as it pertains to the 2007 Wild Card game, Holliday never touched home plate and the Rockies shouldn’t have won. #GoPadres
– Dave Cherman
(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)