If Larry Walker is to make it to Cooperstown, voters will need to be convinced that it wasn’t just Coors Field that drove his offensive numbers. The same could be said of his longtime teammate and fellow Rockies legend, Todd Helton.
Helton at least has eight years beyond the 2020 ballot for voters to see that he was great with or without the thin air in Denver. This is Helton’s second year on the ballot, and Helton is in greater danger of falling off the ballot than enshrinement though neither outcome is particularly likely. According to Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker, the first baseman received 16.5 percent of the vote in his first year, falling well short of the 75 percent needed for induction, but still a good distance away from the 5 percent threshold potential Hall of Famers need to earn to remain on the ballot.
Helton’s is an interesting case, though. Of the 17 first basemen to accumulate more bWAR than Helton’s 61.2, only four are not yet in Cooperstown. Those four are Mark McGwire (62.2), Miguel Cabrera (69.6), Rafael Palmeiro (71.9), and Albert Pujols (100.3). That’s two active players, who of course aren’t eligible yet, and two of the bigger faces of the Steroid Era. No steroid-related suspicion surrounds Helton’s career, but if Walker’s failure to hit 75 percent is any indication, the fact that Helton played half his games at Coors Field is nearly as damaging. Just comparing Helton’s WAR and JAWS scores to other major leaguers, he has a much stronger case than his first-year ballot would indicate.
Of the 21 Hall of Fame first basemen, the average put together 66.8 bWAR and 54.8 JAWS. Again, Helton put up 61.2 and 53.9, so Helton isn’t too far off in either category. In Helton’s seven-year peak, he outpaced the average Hall of Famer at his position 46.5 to 42.7. Helton’s peak was easy to overlook because over his career, he only made five All-Star teams and never won an MVP, but that’s more of an indictment of voters than of Helton’s ability. It also didn’t help that Helton was overshadowed by two all-time greats when he reached his peak.
By black ink, 2000 was Helton’s best year by far. That year, he led the National League in hits (216), on-base percentage (.463), and bWAR (8.9) while leading the majors in batting average (.372), slugging percentage (.698), OPS (1.162), total bases (405). He set a post-WWII single season record for most doubles in a year (59). He received one first-place MVP vote in a fifth-place finish.
Helton was the third-best position player in the majors from 2000-2004. He just happened to overlap with Alex Rodriguez, an inner-circle Hall of Famer, and Barry Bonds, who had the greatest four-stretch by any player in baseball history. Helton’s lowest OPS and OPS+ in that five-year span were 1.006 and 148 respectively, and both of those came in 2002. Over that time, he slashed .349/.450/.643. His 160 OPS+ in that time ranked fifth in the majors. That mark is of course park-adjusted, so he was 60 percent better than league-average regardless of where he played.
Over his career, Helton’s home-road splits are a little more pronounced. On the road, Helton hit .287/.386/.469 which translates to a tOPS+ of 80. That’s a better slash line than, say, Derek Jeter’s .310/.377/.440, but it doesn’t immediately pass muster when compared to Hall of Fame first baseman. It can be hard to properly evaluate a hitter’s performance, especially in pre-humidor Coors, but if a voter is only looking at Helton’s road numbers, they are ignoring half of his career. A better way to go about it would be to use Baseball-Reference’s neutralized stats to get a clearer picture of who Helton was as a hitter. Putting Helton in 2019’s run environment, and in a neutral park still shows Helton as having Hall of Fame-level production.
Even knowing his WAR, JAWS score, and neutralized stats, Helton might not pass the bar for certain voters, especially small-Hall ones. Still, it’s hard to argue that Helton was underappreciated when he was playing. Helton certainly shouldn’t be closer to falling off the ballot than making it through.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.