At age 39, Todd Helton’s 17-year career is nearing its end. When he retires (he has not announced any plans, but his contract with the Rockies ends in November), he will be considered for induction into the baseball Hall of Fame. Is the first baseman qualified to be a Hall-of-Famer, and will he be voted in (which are two separate questions)? Helton has put up incredible numbers, but there are some aspects of his career that will put his candidacy in doubt.
Helton has posted some gaudy statistics in his career. He is a lifetime .318 hitter who also has a .417 on-base percentage (OBP) and a .541 slugging percentage (SLG). He has 361 home runs, 1,377 RBIs, and 1,380 runs scored. His career bWAR stands at 61.2, which puts him in the company of players like Harmon Killebrew and Jackie Robinson, among others.
Coming into the 2013 season, Todd was also one of only 8 players in MLB history to own at least a .320/.410/.540 career slash line. Who are the other 7? Only Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams.
In 1997, the homegrown Rockie was in the midst of an outstanding season at Triple-A Colorado Springs when he received the call to the big leagues. In his first full season in 1998, the 24 year-old hit .315/.380/.530 with 25 home runs and narrowly finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting to the Cubs’ Kerry Wood. His career took off from there.
In 2000, Helton led the league in hits (216), doubles (59), RBIs (147), batting average (.372), OBP (.463), and slugging (.698). He walked 103 times and struck out in only 61 plate appearances. In 2001, he hit a career high 49 home runs. From 1998-2004, he averaged 35 home runs, 118 RBIs, with a .340/.434/.620 slash line. During that time he walked more than he struck out.
He was also one of the best first basemen in the league, and has 3 Gold Gloves to prove it.
Those numbers alone would make him an HOFer. But where he played and when he played will work against him.
Where he played: Coors Field
Like former Rockies outfielder Larry Walker, Helton’s home/road splits are dramatic, and will certainly catch the attention of HOF voters.
Walker’s overall career slash was .313/.400/.565, which would seemingly make him a lock for the Hall, but he hit .381/.462/.710 at high-altitude Coors Field in 2,501 plate appearances, which inflated his numbers.
Helton has a career .347/.443/.608 slash in the Mile High City, and a .289/.389/.473 mark everywhere else. He’s also hit 81 more home runs in the thin air (221) than anywhere else (140).
His sea-level stats are nothing to sneeze at, but are only borderline HOF-worthy.
When he played: The Steroid Era
Any slugger who played in the steroid era, typically viewed as the mid-90s through 2004 or so, is guilty by association. As former Mets and Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza found out this year, that’s enough of a reason to keep a player out of the Hall, at least on his first ballot.
Besides just playing in the era, Helton has been rumored, though with a dearth of evidence, to have dabbled in performance enhancing drugs. The most notable accusation came from the Rockies’ former radio announcer (then a play-by-play man with the St. Louis Cardinals), Wayne Hagin.
In 2005, Hagin said, “I’m going to say something that is the absolute truth, and he will be mad at me for saying it if it gets out, but Todd Helton, a tremendously gifted baseball player, he tried it. I know he tried it because Don Baylor told me. He said to me, “I told him to get off the juice, that he was a player who didn’t need that, get off it. It made him into a robot at first base defensively, and may have altered his swing.’ He got off it, but he is not unlike so many athletes who have tried it because they wanted to get into that level playing field.” (via ESPN)
Helton responded by denying the accusations, and threatening to take Hagin on a hunting trip “deep in the woods.” Hagin retracted his statement, saying the “juice” he was referring to was creatine, which was not a banned substance.
One could look at Helton’s numbers with suspicion as well. After hitting 42 home runs in 2000 and 49 in 2001, his total dropped to 30 in 2002, and he would never come close to 40 again. However, there could be an obvious reason for this that has nothing to do with drugs: The Rockies started storing baseballs in a humidor in the 2002 season in an attempt to tame the flight of the baseball.
Hall of Famer or Not?
Taking all of this into consideration, Todd Helton doesn’t quite have enough on the resume to be in the Hall of Fame. He was a very good, disciplined, powerful hitter, and a great fielding first baseman, but his numbers were inflated by Coors Field. Also, the fact that his home run total is below 400 puts him at a disadvantage compared with other first basemen in the Hall of Fame.
The voters are also likely to keep him out. However, it is possible that he can get in during a slow HOF year, perhaps on a vote by the Veterans Committee. There has been a similar push for borderline HOF first basemen Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez, and Helton was at least comparable, if not better, than each of those players.
For now, Helton will have to be remembered as an excellent all-around first baseman, and the best player in Rockies history.