The Case for the Hall: Todd Helton

“Hall of Famer” is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Todd Helton. You’re not alone; Helton is currently polling at just 18.9% with 47.6% of the electorate having revealed their respective ballots as of publication of this article. But just because you don’t immediately think Helton deserves enshrinement in Cooperstown does not mean that he shouldn’t get a spot. To start off Helton’s Case for the Hall, let’s play everyone’s favorite Hall of Fame comparison game.

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One of these players is obviously Todd Helton (it’s Player A). The other two are both Hall of Fame first basemen. If you know anything about the fielding of Hall of Fame first basemen, then it might be easy to figure out who Player C is, but Player B is not all that easy to figure out. Before we put names on Player B and Player C, though, let’s look at Helton’s numbers in comparison.

Helton had by far the best average of the three in this group though it must be noted that he played his entire 17-season career in Coors Field, a stadium notorious for its hitter-friendly conditions. He also had the best OBP and his slugging was just one one-thousandth of a point behind Player B, who had the best mark. He had the most hits of the group and the fewest home runs and RBI. Helton’s DRC+ is a point above Player B and two points above Player C. Overall, it’s a pretty close fight between Helton and the other two gentlemen offensively. There’s nothing in this profile we didn’t already know; Helton was a great hitter though he didn’t hit for as much power as the typical first baseman of his era and he also played elite defense. Additionally, his DRC+, which is, statistically speaking, the best at aggregating total offensive performance while also accounting for era, ballpark, and other similar factors, indicates that Helton was an excellent hitter in spite of playing in Coors Field, not because he played in Coors Field.

By the way, Player B is Jeff Bagwell and Player C is Willie McCovey. Bagwell got in on his seventh ballot though he initially got a lot more love than Helton is getting—in Bagwell’s first year he garnered over 40% of the vote. McCovey was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in spite of his horrendous defense; the electorate did not really consider defense or advanced stats for most players at this point so the fact that McCovey had over 500 home runs made him a shoo-in for Cooperstown. Now, back to Helton.

Helton’s career was, for the most part, quietly great. He was not the subject of any controversy and once he earned the starting gig after the departure of Andres Galarraga, he just stayed on the field and hit. He was, without question, one of the best hitters in baseball during his tenure in the bigs—from 1999 to 2005, a span of seven seasons he triple-slashed .341/.442/.621—but never won an MVP award and only finished once in the top five. In 2000, unquestionably his best season, he triple-slashed .372/.463/.698 (!!!!), each leg of which led all major league players, and also hit 42 home runs and drove in a league-high 147 runs. According to both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference, he led the National League in WAR with more than eight, and that accounts for the fact that he plays half his games in Coors Field. He likely should have been MVP in 2000 but, unfortunately, voters still cared how an individual’s team performed throughout the season and because Helton’s Rockies finished fourth in the NL West, he was mostly overlooked for the award.

Aside from his elite hitting, he was a great defender as well. Helton’s 105 Rtot (total defensive runs saved) are second all-time among first basemen behind only Keith Hernandez (who should also be in the Hall of Fame, but that’s an argument for a separate time). This play of his, where he gets Matt Carpenter with the hidden ball trick, is one of my favorite defensive plays of all-time.

Helton’s raw fWAR and rWAR totals may not necessarily be as high as the other two folks mentioned in the comparison, or even as high as the average Hall of Fame first baseman, but his credentials otherwise certainly point to the fact that Helton deserves entry to Cooperstown. Still, though, his Hall of Fame metrics match up well to those of other Hall of Fame first basemen. Here is a table of Helton’s numbers in comparison with all Hall of Fame first basemen as well as just live-ball first basemen:

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Furthermore, Helton’s 53.9 JAWS, a metric that averages a player’s career rWAR with the rWAR they accrued during their seven-year peak, is only slightly below the average Hall of Fame first baseman’s JAWS of 54.7. His career 61.2 rWAR is also below the average Hall of Fame first baseman’s career rWAR of 66.8, but his seven-year peak rWAR of 46.5 rWAR is higher than the average of 42.7 for the same subset of players. According to Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor statistic, which measures how likely a player is to gain entry to Cooperstown (100 is about a 50/50 shot), Helton is at a 175, which gives him a pretty likely chance of getting enshrined at some point.

My point here is this: admitting Helton to the Hall of Fame would simply put him in the company of players with which he already belongs. He does not have the home run or RBI totals to compete with big power hitters like Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, or Willie McCovey, but he more than makes up for it with his excellent bat-to-ball skills, pitch recognition, and defense. Helton isn’t going to get in this election cycle—he might not even get in before 2023 and his path might look something like Jeff Bagwell’s—but I have a good feeling that he will get in at some point.

(Photo Credit: Christian Petersen via SB Nation)

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