HOF debate: Does Helton get enshrined?

January 7th, 2022

With the Hall of Fame election announcement approaching on Jan. 25, debate season is in full swing -- is he a Hall of Famer? Is he not? A group of MLB.com experts recently gathered to discuss the candidacy of former Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, who made a significant jump in voter support in 2021. Will he inch closer to 75 percent this year?

Alyson Footer, editor/moderator: When we think of dominant first basemen from the 1990s and 2000s, I think we can all agree that Todd Helton is one of the first who comes to mind (or at least one of the first … four? Five?) He’s gained momentum in Hall of Fame voting, having jumped 15.7 percent from 2020 to ’21, garnering 44.9 percent of the total vote. This is his fourth year on the ballot. Let’s open with this -- is he a Hall of Famer?

Manny Randhawa, reporter/producer: He's a push for me. Borderline candidate. But I'd vote for him.

Bill Ladson, reporter: No question in my mind. Yes, he is a Hall of Famer.

Thomas Harding, Rockies beat reporter: Yes. I understand there are some borderline aspects to it, but I think when all is said and done the answer will and should be yes.

Mark Feinsand, executive reporter: I think he’s close, but he’s not there for me. His run from 1999-2004 was HOF-caliber for sure, but he didn’t string enough of those years together.

Ladson: I looked at Helton’s Wins Above Replacement (61.8, per Baseball-Reference), and it’s better than some former first basemen who are already in the Hall of Fame -- Harmon Killebrew (60.4), Willie Stargell (57.5), Tony Perez (54) and Gil Hodges (43.9). Helton is more than just the greatest player in Rockies history. I believe Helton did enough to gain entry into the Hall of Fame and we'll find out this month that he's going to gain even more ground in the voting.

Footer: Manny wrote a great analysis piece a year ago examining Helton’s candidacy, making some really intriguing points in his favor. One was this:

From 2000 through '05, there were two players who produced more bWAR than Helton’s 42.1 -- Alex Rodriguez (52.8) and Barry Bonds (51.7). There were only four -- Bonds, Albert Pujols, Jason Giambi and Manny Ramirez -- who had a higher OPS+ than Helton’s 158.

That’s only six seasons, and, as Manny also pointed out, it doesn’t tell the entire story of Helton's career. But that kind of sample size, as we like to say in the biz, gives a compelling argument, no?

Ladson: I think it does. From ages 24-33, Helton put up some great numbers for the Rockies. What impressed me the most was his on-base percentage during that period. For eight consecutive years, he posted a .400-plus OBP. His best year was in 2004, when he had a .469 OBP. He ended his career with a .414 mark.

Randhawa: Helton is one of those guys who had a tremendous peak -- he was on his way to Cooperstown before injuries. The question is: Does that peak get him in?

Feinsand: I agree with you, Manny. But those injuries happened and they’re part of his story. Don Mattingly had a similar peak. He was considered the best player in the game -- until injuries hit.

Harding: I do think the longevity of the peak is an issue. But even with further study, it's a plus. The Jay Jaffe calculation puts Helton's seven-year peak ahead of the average Hall of Famer's peak over the same period. And his career puts him exactly at the Hall of Fame average.

Randhawa: I don't subscribe to this way of looking at it, but it's worth adding: If Gil Hodges is a Hall of Famer, Todd Helton is easily a Hall of Famer.

Footer: Let’s tackle the gigantic elephant in the room -- half of Helton’s fabulous career took place at Coors Field, which, stating the obvious, favors hitters. I personally do not think he should be penalized because he played in conditions not in his control. He was a Rockie for 17 years, and he should be judged on what he did in the Major League environment he was handed. Do you think the Coors Field factor is a justifiable knock on his numbers? (1.048 home OPS, .855 road -- which, by the way, is nothing to sneeze at.)

Ladson: The critics bring up Helton’s home/road splits. It’s a big difference, but playing in a certain ballpark should not be held against him. David Ortiz took advantage of Fenway Park. Most of the Yankees' left-handed sluggers took advantage of the short porch in right field.

Harding: That .855 road OPS, remember, is not the same as .855 in other parks. Early on, the Rockies were summarily discounted because few took the effort to really study what it means. I think Dan O'Dowd, Colorado's GM for much of Helton's career, put it perfectly on MLB Network -- It's not like the Rockies play half the schedule at Coors Field and half at a normal environment. The Coors factor is so drastic, in both directions, that you never play in a normal environment. You are overcoming real challenges in both places.

Randhawa: We've got park-adjusted stats. He had a career 133 OPS+ and averaged 4.5 bWAR/162 games. For me, that's borderline. And in.

As Thomas points out, JAWS has Helton at 15th all-time among first basemen. Every one of the guys ahead of him on that list is either in or will likely be in the Hall, aside from Rafael Palmeiro. And the guy after Helton, too -- Eddie Murray. Then follows Mark McGwire, two more HOFers and Keith Hernandez.

One note on Helton’s .855 OPS on the road: Larry Walker's was .865. Ken Griffey Jr.’s was .860.

Feinsand: How can Coors Field NOT be considered in Helton's candidacy? He has a .345/.441/.607 slash line at home, .287/.386/.469 on the road. He hit 227 homers with 859 RBIs at home, 142 homers with 547 RBIs on the road. He has almost the same number of plate appearances at home and away from Coors. He was a good player on the road and a Hall of Famer at home. That can’t be discounted.

I’m not saying Helton doesn’t have a compelling case, but I don’t see him as a slam dunk, obvious candidate.

Harding: There, Mark, I will agree. I don't think he is a slam dunk. I am saying that his candidacy deserves a deeper dive than maybe other players. It happened with Walker, and I think that helps Helton's candidacy.

Ladson: Besides watching Helton play, my talks with Thomas over the years convinced me Helton is a Hall of Famer. I love Helton’s career line of .316/.414/.539. Only six players in baseball history -- Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial and Ted Williams -- had equal or better numbers in each of those three categories.

Randhawa: In my opinion, the argument about penalizing a guy for his home park was boosted when park-adjusted stats became available. A .287/.386/.469 line is pretty solid for a guy coming down from altitude -- the "Coors Field hangover" is real.

Feinsand: “Pretty solid” isn’t a Hall of Famer, though.

I just look at Helton’s career numbers, and it’s hard to assess just how much Coors Field helped him when you consider his numbers away from there. I think he’s a very solid borderline candidate. I have yet to vote for Helton myself, though I’ve been close. I don’t think I am ready to say I will never vote for him -- especially since my ballot should have some much-needed open spots next year -- but I don’t think it’s an automatic by any means.

Harding: Here's how I look at the splits: Let's say I am evaluating a Yankees player -- home runs for a lefty hitter to right field and to the gaps, I'm going to be a little skeptical. If it's a Red Sox player -- a hitter who goes the opposite way -- I'm going to wonder how many shots off the Green Monster are flyouts in another park. But here is the difference that needs to be looked at: The flight of the ball from the pitcher's hand to the plate is not drastically different whether you are at Yankee Stadium, Tropicana Field or Busch Stadium. The flight of the ball from pitcher's hand to the plate is decidedly different at Coors Field from everywhere else, and Rockies hitters are going back and forth between the two. It's a situation that affects everything.

Remember, we are not talking scores of Rockies players with Hall of Fame numbers to evaluate over a 30-year span. We are really talking about only two guys: Walker and Helton. If it were 15 or 20 players over that period, then it's easier to knock them.

Feinsand: Well, Thomas, we’ve seen some guys play at Coors Field for a shorter period of time and put up HOF-type numbers, no? Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos González.

Those guys had some great years with the Rockies, then were unable to duplicate them elsewhere. We’ll see if Nolan Arenado ultimately falls into that category.

Harding: None of those guys had anywhere near the peak of Walker and Helton. Those two are in the conversation because they maintained those numbers. No one is going to put Galarraga, Bichette, Castilla, Tulowitzki or González in a Hall discussion.

Feinsand: I agree, because they didn’t have the same number of great years. My point is that when you look at some of the seasons they had with the Rockies, the numbers far exceeded anything they did elsewhere. Walker’s case was aided by the fact that he put up very good numbers during his years with the Expos and Cardinals. Helton doesn’t have that distinction. It’s not his fault, but it is what it is. I would have no problem with Helton being elected to the Hall. I am just not there yet, in my mind.

Randhawa: Something Bichette told me once applies here, I think: "It's so easy to be good in Coors Field. But when you go on the road, it’s the first time you see a breaking ball in two weeks. And by the time you make the adjustment, you go back home. It’s a vicious cycle."

There's a reason no Rockies team in history has hit well on the road. And it's not personnel.

Footer: That’s a great point. It might be more than just a light air/normal air debate.

Randhawa: Exactly! A point in his favor. The light air is actually the reason breaking balls go flat at Colorado. Less air resistance. At sea level, the guy you saw last week has a wicked curveball again.

Harding: In 2021, the top two pitchers in the National League were Corbin Burnes and Max Scherzer. Both came to Coors Field and were awful.

Also, between the 2000 and '01 seasons before I joined MLB.com, I did a study of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. I looked at their numbers overall, their starts at Coors Field and their starts in their next game. Glavine was the only one whose performance at Colorado held. All the others had decisively poor performances at Coors, and -- the biggest thing I found -- their next start, their numbers were poorer than their previous game. Now, think about that. Then think about the change in conditions hitters also face.

Feinsand: If guys like Pedro, Schilling, Glavine and Maddux were awful at Coors Field, doesn’t that hurt the argument that the ballpark doesn’t help hitters? Rockies players don’t see the best version of the best pitchers when they face them in Colorado.

Harding: But it's not just that the pitchers were awful at Coors. It's the hangover effect, where their numbers did not bounce back in their next start, five days later. ... I am saying the Rockies face this repeatedly, throughout the season. If the pitchers have this issue, so do the hitters. As former manager Walt Weiss used to say, the first two games of a road trip, every average pitcher's sinker looked like Kevin Brown's. Brown had the best sinker in the game at the time.

Randhawa: I think much of it boils down to this: From 2000-05, Helton was a 58 percent better hitter than league average. He won three Gold Glove Awards and four Silver Sluggers. He should have been the NL MVP in 2000. But is that enough?

Feinsand: 2000-05 isn’t enough. Otherwise, Mattingly would be in, too.

Ladson: I think Mattingly should be in. Great defensively. Yes, he had back problems, but I also think he did enough to get in the Hall.

Harding: May I throw this out there? Should a player who has A) Hall of Fame-caliber numbers and B) stay with one team his entire career deserve to have that factored as a plus in his candidacy?

Feinsand: I love when players stay with one team for their entire career. But I’m not sure it matters in the Hall discussion. It just makes it easier to decide what cap to put on their plaque.

Randhawa: I agree.

Footer: Last question: Will Helton be voted into the Hall, eventually?

Randhawa: Helton will be elected to the HOF eventually.

Ladson: Yes. No doubt.

Feinsand: I don’t think Helton gets in this year, but I believe his percentage will continue to rise. Once the ballot thins out with the absence of Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, etc., I think he has a better chance of getting in sometime in the next 2-3 years.

Harding: I believe yes. One thing in his favor: He played throughout the steroids era without some of the stain of other players. I believe it will be close, and there may be voters who are more likely to vote for him because A) they took the time to evaluate Walker properly, and that puts them in better position to evaluate, and B) there may be voters who will factor in the 17 years with one team.