I love Baseball-Reference.com, as does every right-thinking North American. Of all the hundreds of things that site has given us as baseball nerds, however, one of my favorite is its nicknames. I mean, everyone knows that Babe Ruth was “The Bambino” and “The Sultan of Swat,” and most know that Honus Wagner was “The Flying Dutchman,” though it’s good to have those things recorded on there just in case. But did you know that Walter Johnson was not only “The Big Train,” but also “Barney” for some reason? You may have heard David Eckstein referred to as “The X Factor” back in the day (I prefer the alternate spelling “Ecks Factor”), but how about “Just Enough”? And from five seconds from now through the end of time, will you ever be able to think of Billy Butler and not think of his perfect-but-somehow-not-yet-universal nickname, “Country Breakfast”?
It gets weirder: one of Pablo Sandoval‘s three nicknames is “Fat Ichiro,” which I love because that has the ring of a name that just has to be race-based…but it’s not! And then there’s my favorite of all: Lou Gehrig, Biscuit Pants. That has a story that I’m sure I once knew, but I don’t even want to know it anymore. I picture Sean Forman sitting there in his (mom’s) basement, conjuring these names from thin air and giggling madly to himself, and dammit, that’s just exactly as I want it to be.
“The Toddfather” is hardly “Biscuit Pants,” but I was similarly confused and surprised to learn that that’s apparently the nickname of Colorado legend Todd Helton. I’m on the fence on that one. On one hand, it’s kind of obvious, and could be (and, I assume, more or less has been) applied to every person who has been alive since 1972 and has happened to be named Todd. On the other hand, though, it fits this Todd pretty perfectly; he’s the Rockies’ longest-lived and probably still most beloved star, and he was kind of the grizzled veteran on the team’s first World Series squad in 2007. So, I like it for him. I think.
Anyway, it was announced yesterday that The Toddfather needs season-ending surgery.
(Not to bury the lede or anything. But if you’re reading a “TPA Dispatches” post for news, I’d like to congratulate you on your first visit to Getting Blanked!)
Helton insists it’s not the end; next season is the last of his current contract, and he plans to come back. But: he’ll turn 40 during that season, he even has an old guy injury (to the cartilage in his right hip), and while he was suffering through arguably his worst season (.238/.343/.400, 88 OPS+, 0.0 WAR), it was hardly an outlier — he’d had an OPS+ below 100 and WAR below 1.0 in two of the last four seasons.
Helton’s slowing down, and missing 1/3 of a season at age 38 for repairs to a bad hip isn’t likely to make him any better. Assuming he does come back, it’s possible the Rockies will be without hope or any viable big-league ready first basemen, in which case they might just run him out there as much as they possibly can and bask in the farewell-tour glow, but if not, it’ll be a little like Jeff Bagwell’s swan song (except without the World Series berth), where he spent considerably more time coaching, inspiring and sitting on the DL than he did at first base.
So this is effectively the end, even if it’s not The End, and it’s a good time to stop and appreciate what we had in Todd Lynn Helton.
As much of a football player as a baseball player at Tennessee, Helton stepped in as the team’s starting quarterback as a junior after an injury, only to give up that spot three weeks later after his own injury, in favor of a kid named Peyton Manning. He was the whole show on the baseball team, though, and was drafted eighth overall by the Rockies in 1995 — six spots behind Padres catcher Ben Davis, nine spots ahead of the Jays’ Roy Halladay.
He debuted in Denver in late 1997, and after a couple seasons of warmup, Helton, altitude and all, was one of the all-around best players in baseball. From 2000-2005, he hit an insane .344/.449/.626, averaging 34 home runs, nearly 50 doubles, 120 runs, 116 RBI, and 106 walks per season while striking out only 80 times a year. He was also spectacular defensively, winning three Gold Gloves while excelling under all the various fielding metrics. In 2000 — easily his best season — Helton led the league in batting average (.372) and RBI (147), along with hits and doubles; his 42 homers left him eight shy of the Triple Crown (he did win the “saber triple crown,” with his league-leading .463 OBP and .698 SLG).
Of course, he was also hitting in the best environment for hitters that the game has ever seen (apart from Lake Front Park 1884, possibly), but still: OPS+ adjusts for park effects, and Helton’s was 158 for those six seasons. Only four hitters from that period (min. 3000 PA) were higher (Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Jason Giambi, and Manny Ramirez) and each had 400 or more fewer plate appearances during the period. And it’s not often that a first baseman improves his standing moving from offense-only stats to all-inclusive ones, but when you figure in that great defense, Helton jumps to third in all of baseball with his 40.4 WAR for those years, behind only Alex Rodriguez and Bonds. He likely deserved the MVP in 2000, and in a league without Bonds and a Dark Ages-style fear of The Coors Effect, he might’ve won that one and one or two besides. Six years is a good long time in baseball, and for those six years, Helton was one of the very best players in a game that was full of really great players.
It would’ve been a stretch to predict, at the end of 2005, that the 20 homers Helton hit in that season would be the high for the remainder of his career. He’d dipped all the way from 32 in 2004, but the rest of his game was there: 42 doubles supporting a still-excellent .534 SLG, a .320 batting average and a league-leading .445 OBP. But the next year was a dip across the board (.302/.404/.476, 15 HR). He had a nice bounceback in 2007 in helping the Rockies reach the Series, though he still hit only 17 homers. He was injured and bad in 2008, then back to the 2007 level in 2009, injured and bad again in 2010, almost all the way back up again in 2011, and then injured and bad again in 2012…with the difference this time being that the badness was largely independent of the injuredness (and that he’s almost 39). He still sports a 135 career OPS+, though — on par with the likes of Rafael Palmeiro and Fred McGriff — and is one of very few hitters (and very, very few power hitters) to have played any significant amount of time in the current era who walked more than he struck out.
It’s pretty rare for even a Hall of Famer to have more than six Hall of Fame-type years; the difference between a Hall of Famer and a near miss is the former’s ability to surround that elite stretch with five or six or ten more very good seasons. Helton might fall just short. Of his ten seasons (or partial seasons) outside of that 2000-’05 stretch, Helton does have six with an OPS+ at or above 118…but for a first baseman, that’s closer to “average” than “very good,” and only two of those seasons really significantly surpassed that mark. 2007 is the only non-peak year in which Helton posted a WAR over 3.0. For his career, Helton’s 58.5 WAR comes very close to the standard — it’s 108th among position players, and essentially equal to Mark McGwire’s (who’d be in if, well, you know), ahead of Harmon Killebrew and Willie Stargell. But it’s also behind Ken Boyer and Jack Glasscock.
Most guys around him are in, but plenty aren’t, and you could justify it both ways. (To this point, I’ve only been using rWAR, the version found on Baseball-Reference; I’ll just go ahead and tell you that fWAR and WARP tell basically the same story.) The two methods of which I’m aware for using WAR(P) to weigh career vs. peak performance — Adam Darowski’s wWAR and Jay Jaffe’s JAWS — come to opposite conclusions, with wWAR saying yes and JAWS no (and while you might note that the latter piece was written three years ago, Helton’s actually lost wins since then, per WARP). It’s a toss-up, basically. I’m a big Hall guy and a Helton fan, so I’d probably vote for him if I had room on my ballot, but your mileage may very legitimately vary.
It’s all moot, of course. Helton will retire a first baseman who didn’t hit 400 home runs, probably didn’t quite get to 2500 hits, never won an MVP, somehow hadn’t made an All-Star team in nearly a decade, and lost his only World Series. Plus, he played his entire career with Coors as his home park, and I’m pretty sure by this point (judging by what’s happened a guy with an even stronger case) the writers have decided that hitters who hit in Coors just don’t count, at all. He’ll probably escape the one-and-done fate of the similarly-arguably-qualified John Olerud, but not by a ton. He’ll have to wait for whatever has taken the place of the Veterans’ Committee twenty or forty years from now to really have a shot, if even then.
And while that may well be justified, continuing to overlook Helton is not. There’s no doubt he benefited significantly from his home park — for his career, he’s at an incredible .350/.447/.613 at home, and a (still great, but…) .289/.389/.475 elsewhere — but everybody gets a home field advantage, if it were that easy to hit at Coors, everybody would do it. Only should-be-Hall-of-Famer Larry Walker has (he comes in at .381/.462/.710, likely thanks in part to not having to deal with the humidor as much). And if you’re concerned about The Coors Effect overrating Helton’s offense (and really, we’re so concerned about that, the opposite danger seems more likely at this point), you should be at least as concerned about underrating his defense, which was incredible (to cherry-pick just one measure, Baseball Reference’s fielding runs, Helton comes in 8th all time among players who spent 75% or more of their innings at first).
I’ve always disliked the term “Hall of Very Good” — “very good” indicates an entirely different thing than “fame,” but if you don’t believe Helton is a Hall of Famer, he’s one of the inner-circle, elite members of the Hall of Something Not Quite on a Level with Fame. And I hope he comes back at age 39 and hits .330 again with 25 homers and makes this look ridiculous, but if we have effectively seen the last of Todd Helton, it’s worth taking a minute to realize that we’ve seen a really great thing (which just happened to arise in an environment that made it appear even greater).