Todd Helton believes Minor League players’ path to the game has changed -- not necessarily for the worse or the better, but for the harder.
Helton’s distinguished 17-year career as a first baseman, all with the Rockies, could earn him a place in the Hall of Fame when the Baseball Writers' Association of America votes are released on Jan. 23. He is heading into this year back with the organization as a special assistant to the general manager concentrating most of his efforts on Minor League hitters.
“A lot of guys when they get out of the game think the game’s easier,” said Helton, who was involved in the Rockies’ personnel discussions during this week’s Winter Meetings. “I think the game’s harder, just watching it. I still think I relate. It’s such a hard thing -- to hit. I’m very realistic. They’re still going to make an out 70 percent of the time. I’m more concerned with their approach, how they attack each at-bat, not their skill level.”
Building an approach and maintaining it at the Major League level has been a vexing proposition throughout the club’s 31-season history. Everything from the flight and break of pitches to how the ball carries off the bat is advantageous to hitters in Denver’s mile-high atmosphere, yet the behavior of the baseball is radically different on the road and there is less room for the ball to land in the outfield everywhere else. Six months of toggling between the two atmospheres is a factor that’s difficult to combat and often poorly understood nationally.
The quality of Major League pitching combined with the atmosphere at Coors Field can’t be duplicated in the Minors, but the Rockies are challenging what Helton believes is a legitimate group of prospects.
Switch-hitting middle infielder Adael Amador (the Rockies’ No. 1 prospect according to MLB Pipeline), outfielders Yanquiel Fernandez (No. 2), Jordan Beck (No. 4) and Zac Veen (No. 5), infielder-outfielder Sterlin Thompson (No. 6), catcher Drew Romo (No. 9) and third baseman Warming Bernabel (No. 10) were all pushed to Double-A Hartford as among the youngest players in the Eastern League. All had their fair share of slumps and injuries. It’s possible all but Romo, who made it to Triple-A at season’s end, could begin 2024 at Hartford along with another notable hitter, outfielder Benny Montgomery (No. 8).
Once the players make adjustments based on 2023 struggles, they could push for the Majors by season’s end. But as Helton is aware, struggle is part of that process. Helton, himself, struggled during his development. He and Clint Hurdle -- his hitting coach in the Minors and Majors, then his manager, and now a Rockies special assistant who works alongside Helton -- call Helton’s .254 season at Class A Asheville in 1995 in his first pro season the “summer of 4-to-3” for all the grounders rolled to second base.
“[Pitchers] are going to have better stuff,” said Helton, who said ideally he and Hurdle will spend more time around the Major League club when prospects they’ve worked with make that climb. “They pitch backwards -- you’re not going to see a fastball every time, especially if you’re a three- or four-hole hitter, in a 2-0 or 2-1 count. We talk about stuff like that.
“When I tell you they’ve got good players coming, they do. I’m not just saying that to appease anybody. The Double-A team -- I don’t know if they’re going to win or not because of pitching and I don’t deal with pitchers -- they’ve got some guys that are special. There’s a different sound in [their bats].
“And they hit the ball where it’s pitched. I love hitting the other way, and all young players, it should be ingrained to hit the ball the other way. You can always pull the ball.”
Helton went to the team’s complex in the Dominican Republic to spend time with Rolando Fernandez, the team’s vice president of international scouting and development, and saw much of the same.
“Both our Dominican teams were 1-2 in hitting in the Dominican Summer League, with 50 teams down there,” Helton said. “Just listening to [Fernandez] talk about hitting, if they keep doing what they’re doing with their process of hitting, there are going to be some good players to come along.”