Is Helton headed to the Hall of Fame?

January 21st, 2021

Will be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

As we anticipate the 2021 Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame voting results, scheduled to air Tuesday on MLB Network, it’s a question on the minds of many, particularly in the Rocky Mountain region. Based on how Helton has been polling on Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker, it appears he’ll fall short of the 75 percent threshold required for election.

But Helton is gaining steam with seven years of eligibility remaining on the BBWAA ballot, and with Larry Walker being elected as the first Rockies player to reach the Hall of Fame last year, Helton might very well be on his way to eventual enshrinement in Cooperstown.

As we all know, a Hall of Fame vote is subjective -- there are any number of ways to break down what a Hall of Famer is in the mind of a voter, and it’s quite possible that no two voters have the exact same criteria. So let’s explore one that is particularly germane in Helton’s case: a player’s peak.

It’s fitting that Helton, who wore No. 17 and spent his entire 17-season career in a Rockies uniform, is the quintessential example of a player whose peak so outstripped the rest of his career that he seemed to be on his way to a first-ballot Hall of Fame election before his candidacy eventually became questionable for some. He was at the proverbial peak of the mountain at the turn of the century, and now there is no guarantee he’ll be elected.

From 2000 through '05, there were two players in baseball who produced more WAR (Baseball Reference) 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.

Helton’s career numbers don’t reflect his incredible run in that six-season span -- over his other 11 seasons, he posted 19.7 WAR. In other words, thanks largely to injuries later in his career, Helton produced two-thirds of his career WAR from 2000-05. It’s likely why the former Rockies first baseman hasn’t yet been inducted in Cooperstown, though he has time.

What about other players in baseball history who had a tremendous career peak during which they put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers before fading the rest of the way?

Here’s a Helton breakdown, followed by three cases very much like his -- two of which involve Hall of Famers:

Todd Helton
68.1% of career WAR from 2000-05
Currently on Hall of Fame ballot
Average production from 2000-05: .344/.449/.626 (158 OPS+), 34 HR, 7.0 WAR

65.2% of career WAR from 1952-57
Elected to Hall of Fame in 1980
Average production from 1952-57: .310/.401/.598 (157 OPS+), 38 HR, 7.2 WAR

“The Duke of Flatbush” was in the middle of the great debate over New York center fielders in the 1950s, when fans argued about who was best -- Snider, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. That’s pretty great company for Snider, and that was during the greatest period of his career. But as with Helton, Snider’s peak was off the charts before injuries cost him much of the rest of his career.

It also didn’t help that Snider moved with the Dodgers into a cavernous ballpark -- the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum -- that had been designed for football, after spending the first decade of his career at hitter-friendly Ebbets Field with its right-field porch 297 feet away. Like Helton, Snider’s Hall of Fame candidacy did suffer somewhat because of his home ballpark for so many years. Nevertheless, Snider was eventually elected in his 11th year of eligibility.

Back then, players were on the BBWAA ballot for 15 years. That’s down to 10 now, so that would be just beyond the cutoff for Helton. Still, it’s interesting to note that Snider received just 17 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility and worked his way up to 86.5 percent by Year 11. Helton garnered 16.5 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility in 2019, and was up to 29.2 percent last year. He figures to be higher than that this year.

66.5% of career WAR from 1925-31
Elected to Hall of Fame in 1953
Average production from 1925-31: .372/.415/.622 (159 OPS+), 24 HR, 6.5 WAR

It’s uncanny how similar Simmons’ career numbers are to Helton’s. They both finished with an OPS+ of 133. Simmons, an outfielder who spent most of his career with the Philadelphia A’s in three stints between 1924 and ’44, played in 2,215 games. Helton played in 2,247. Simmons produced 68 WAR. Helton produced 61.8. OK, so there is at least one big distinction -- Helton’s nickname of “Toddfather” is much cooler than Simmons’ “Bucketfoot Al.”

Simmons was on his way to becoming one of the greatest sluggers in baseball history with a spectacular seven-season span from 1925-31. But by his own admission, he didn’t work as hard after his contract was purchased by a struggling White Sox club in '32. That team was coming off a 49-102 season. Simmons spent three seasons with Chicago before his contract was purchased by the Tigers, for whom he posted an .867 OPS with 13 homers in '36, his fewest home runs since his '24 rookie campaign.

The Washington Senators then purchased Simmons’ contract and, following two unremarkable years there, he spent the 1939 season with the Boston Bees and Cincinnati Reds. He returned to the A’s in '40 and spent the final four seasons of his career primarily as a player-coach with the A’s and Red Sox. After racking up 46.7 WAR over the first eight seasons of his career, Simmons produced just 21.2 WAR over the next 12.

60.3% of career WAR from 2000-05
Not elected to Hall of Fame
Average production from 2000-05: .292/.406/.584 (154 OPS+), 35 HR, 6.1 WAR

Interestingly, here we have a case of a player whose peak overlaps Helton’s. Edmonds was a monster during this span, helping the Cardinals reach the World Series in 2004 alongside the man Helton is trying to follow into Cooperstown, Walker. Edmonds received National League MVP Award votes in five of those six seasons and won Gold Glove Awards in all of them.

Unlike the other players discussed here, Edmonds’ peak came later in his career, from his age-30 to age-35 seasons. Prior to that, he had been known as a solid hitter with a tremendous glove in center field, hitting .290/.359/.498 (119 OPS+) for the Angels.

With his peak performance coming later in his career, Edmonds’ production dropped off significantly beginning in 2006. The Cardinals traded him to the Padres following the ’07 season, but he hit just .178 in 26 games before he was released. Edmonds then signed with the Cubs and posted a .937 OPS with 19 homers in 85 games down the stretch for Chicago.

Edmonds sat out the 2009 season before signing with the Brewers in ’10. He produced well enough at the plate to garner interest on the trade market and was dealt to the Reds. But he injured his right Achilles after just 13 games in with Cincinnati, which effectively ended his career. In his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, 2016, he received 11 votes and fell off the ballot.

Helton’s hope
Players with careers similar to Helton’s have been elected to the Hall of Fame and historically, there hasn’t been controversy over their worthiness. Yet some, like Edmonds, not only didn’t reach Cooperstown, but fell off the ballot entirely after their first year of eligibility. Past isn’t necessarily prologue here, but it’s interesting to note in view of the remainder of Helton’s bid to become the second Rockie to receive the ultimate individual honor in baseball.