[Article also up at The Crawfish Boxes!]
Last week, I covered the large number of Hall of Fame candidates seeing big increases in vote totals (in particular Scott Rolen, who’s leading the field in that regard). Because the ballot is less crowded than it’s been in a long time, voters finally have a chance to properly consider a lot of players who they would have had to leave off in years prior due to the ten-person limit on the BBWAA ballot.
Which is why I want to take a deeper look at Todd Helton. I didn’t vote for him last year on my hypothetical ballot, but I was very open to the idea. There just wasn’t enough space for him, though, between Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay joining the ballot, Mike Mussina on the precipice of induction, Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker coming to the end of their windows, and so on. Now that there are a few more openings to work with, there’s definitely more space to consider him. And I’m hardly the only one with that idea; Helton has already picked up 28 new voters (while losing just 3). That’s one of the bigger jumps we seen, and increases his 16.5% debut performance on the 2019 ballot to 35.4% in the early returns.
So what does the case for Todd Helton actually look like? Starting with the big milestone numbers, he didn’t quite reach 3000 hits or 500 homers, but his totals of 2519 and 369 weren’t shabby, either. Neither were his 1406 career RBI, and his 592 doubles are actually nineteenth-most all-time.
Add in his strong batting eye (1335 walks), and you have one of just seventeen batters in history to maintain a .300/.400/.500 batting line in 8000 more plate appearances. The other sixteen players on that list include fourteen Hall of Famers, Larry Walker (who stands a strong chance of joining them this year), and Manny Ramirez (who has his own issues). And I know it’s easy to just dismiss that as Coors Field, but he still kept a 133 OPS+ (which is adjusted for home field, remember), a mark that is tied with Orlando Cepeda and better than a third of the Hall of Fame’s first basemen.
In fact, only ten first basemen ever have kept a mark that high or better in 9000+ PA; it is genuinely rare to find first basemen who hit as well as Todd Helton did, for as long as Todd Helton did. And of course, Helton’s career value wasn’t just a product of hanging around forever, either; he’s one of just 45 players since 1901 to post four or more seasons with a 160 OPS+ or better. That’s as many as Jeff Bagwell, Sammy Sosa, Joey Votto, and Reggie Jackson; it’s more than David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Ken Griffey Jr., Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, and so many others.
If you prefer value stats to get a fuller picture of his game, Helton holds up fairly well there, too. With 61.2 WAR (Baseball-Reference version), he’s seventeenth all-time among first basemen, at a position where there are twenty-one inductees. And if you’re the type of voter who prefers peak value to career numbers, Helton looks even better; his Wins Above Average (WAR, but it compares to a hypothetical average starter rather than a hypothetical AAAA player) total of 32.8 moves him up to fifteenth, and the 7-year peak component of JAWS places him tenth at 46.5.
Put it together in JAWS, and you get the fourteenth-best first baseman of all-time, with a 53.9 score. He’s within one of the position average (54.8), sandwiched in between Willie McCovey and Eddie Murray. And even more impressively, he’s ahead of eleven of the twenty-one inducted Hall of Famers. Hall Rating, another of my favorite stats for contextualizing Hall of Fame value, puts Todd at 120, or 20% better than the Hall minimum.
And if you’re one of the people that likes to say that there’s more to the Hall of Fame that statistics, I think Helton more than fills that role. He was and still is the undeniable face of his franchise, becoming the first Rockie to get his number retired. He also made the All-Star team five times, won three Gold Gloves and four Silver Slugger Awards, and posted a season for the ages in 2000. Voters at the time were a little wary of Colorado seasons at that point, but with twenty years of hindsight in our favor, Helton probably should have been the MVP that year (he finished fifth instead).
One other thing that I was struck by while researching this is a question I asked about Billy Wagner: is he the best Hall-eligible player at his position? With Wagner, you could answer yes, with some qualifications (mostly that he lacked innings and the position of closer is pretty new). Helton…might be in a similar place, actually?
Looking over his positional rankings, I was struck by how few snubs there are at first base compared to some other positions. As a result, there just aren’t many guys that make you say “But if we put Helton in, why wouldn’t we have put [X] in, too?” Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are both ahead of him in WAR and JAWS, but they’re both future first-ballot guys regardless of what happens to Helton. Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire are ahead of him in WAR, but we know why those two aren’t in, and it doesn’t apply to Helton.
If you’re against inducting steroid users, Helton’s probably the best first basemen not in the Hall that’s eligible. If you don’t mind steroid users being inducted, every first baseman ahead of Helton is in Cooperstown, will be as soon as possible, or would have been already were it not for steroids. Either way, that seems like a strong pitch for his candidacy. And given that he’s more or less at the JAWS standard for the position, it’s not like he’d be weakening the Hall’s standards at all.
I know I’ve seen some fans of Helton worry that he may have difficulties picking up votes, based on Larry Walker’s struggles to date. The concern is that voters are discounting batting stats from Coors Field, but I don’t think that’s the case. Voters generally haven’t worried about voting for Rockies in awards (outside of right around 2000, unfortunately for Helton), and Walker’s well-roundedness looks like a number of other snubs we’ve seen in Cooperstown history (as I mentioned in my article on him, he was basically if Lance Berkman’s bat came with one of the twenty or so best gloves in right field history).
Helton’s case, meanwhile, is a lot more straight-forward to understand, based on great offense, solid counting numbers, and some historic seasons. And sure enough, in just his second year of eligibility, he’s posted the type of gains that have led to eventual election in the past, with that 35.4% I mentioned in the opening standing through 142 ballots. He’ll drop for sure when the final numbers come out, but he still has a decent chance to finish above 30%, a mark that Walker didn’t reach until his eighth year on the ballot. Given the relatively empty next few ballots, Todd Helton has a good opportunity to move up the voting totals in the next few years, and given his place in the history of the game, I think he definitely deserves an eventual induction.