What the Helton?

Today’s Baseball Prospectus/ESPN Insider double dip concerns the Rockies’ Todd Helton, and in particular his Hall of Fame chances. If you were quietly minding your business by not thinking about Helton’s Cooperstown case, you weren’t alone; I was somewhat surprised when I was offered the assignment:

Is Todd Helton bound for the Hall of Fame? On the surface, that’s not exactly a burning question, even given the resurgent Rockies first baseman’s .323/.400/.505 showing to date. At 35 years of age, under contract through 2011, and approaching no major milestones, it’s not as though his moment of reckoning has arrived, though he did recently become the 50th player to reach the 500-doubles milestone. That has to count for something, right?

When it finally arrives, Helton’s Cooperstown candidacy will be built upon numbers compiled under what have been arguably the most optimal conditions ever afforded a hitter over an extended period of time. He did his best work in high-altitude Coors Field at a time when scoring rates soared higher than they had been in seventy years. His monster performance of 2000 — 42 homers, 147 RBI, and a .372/.463/.698 line — was produced while playing half his games in a ballpark that increased scoring by 25 percent relative to the league, this in a year when the league average of 5.0 runs per game was higher than any year since 1930 (although it did match 1999’s rate). His decline from that lofty peak has been masked by his hitter-friendly park, to the point that his career rate stats are still a sterling .328/.427/.569, numbers he hasn’t exceeded since 2004 (save for a .445 OBP in 2005).

The first line of that second graf now has some additional information to back it up. Via Baseball-Reference.com’s Sean Forman, I’ve obtained a long-sought leaderboard for B-R’s AIR stat, which indexes the combination of park, league and era scoring levels into one number to provide an idea of how favorable or unfavorable the conditions he faced were, scoring-wise, with 100 being average. Helton tops the list:

Player                PA    AIR
Todd Helton 7494 124
Neifi Perez 5365 123
Vinny Castilla 7305 120
Dante Bichette 6777 118
Fresco Thompson 2780 117
Mel Almada 2702 117
Beau Bell 2997 117
Terry Shumpert 2159 117
Larry Walker 7958 117
Garrett Atkins 3002 117
Brad Hawpe 2620 117
Ed Morgan 3205 116
Jack Burns 3900 116
Ski Melillo 5402 116
Earl Averill* 7160 116
Rip Radcliff 4398 116
Quinton McCracken 2700 116
Matt Holliday 3420 116
Don Hurst 3681 115
Dick Porter 2790 115
Max Bishop 5678 115
Odell Hale 4057 115
Moose Solters 3651 115
Joe Vosmik 6007 115
Mike Lansing 4486 115
Rusty Greer 4370 115
Jeff Cirillo 6026 115
Chad Tracy 2493 115
Sammy Hale 3067 114
Gene Robertson 2415 114
Butch Henline 2331 114
Bing Miller 6675 114
Mickey Cochrane* 6055 114
Mule Haas 4749 114
Marv Owen 4147 114
Billy Rogell 5819 114
Bruce Campbell 5337 114
Charlie Gehringer* 10096 114
Eric McNair 4805 114
Luke Sewell 5896 114
Jimmie Foxx* 9599 114
Danny Bautista 2681 114
Darren Bragg 2790 114
Pokey Reese 3082 114
Chris Stynes 2539 114
Jeffrey Hammonds 3354 114
Richard Hidalgo 3884 114
Tony Womack 5299 114
Todd Walker 4991 114
Henry Blanco 2480 114
* Hall of Famer

Eight of the top 11 players on the list spent some amount of their careers with the Rockies. Of the four Hall of Famers who make the list, it’s interesting Averill ranks as one of Helton’s top 10 comps via Bill James’ Similarity Scores method; I listed the three HOFers who are among his top four comps (Johnny Mize, Chuck Klein and Hank Greenberg) but didn’t mention Averill in the actual article.

In any event, the older Jamesian metrics (Similarity Scores, Hall of Fame Monitor and Hall of Fame Standards) suggest Helton is a Hall of Famer and provide a chance to (re)introduce JAWS in on the ESPN site. I’ve written about JAWS for SI.com (not once but twice), and former BP colleague Jonah Keri used JAWS for an ESPN piece a few years ago, but this breaks a small bit of new ground for me, which is exciting.

According to JAWS, Helton makes for a decidedly below-average Hall of Fame candidate at present. He entered the year with 54.6 WARP for his career and 46.1 for his peak, for a JAWS of 50.4. He’s currently on pace for a season WARP of 4.4, which would not only boost his career total but rank as his seventh-best season, upping his overall JAWS score to 52.6. The average Hall of Fame first baseman, by comparison, scores at 75.8 for career, 48.4 for peak, and 62.1 overall. Just four of the Hall’s 18 first basemen score lower than Helton, and three of them—Frank Chance, Jim Bottomley, and George Kelly—were elected by the much more permissive Veterans Committee. Helton needs to defy age and his bad back to produce four more seasons equivalent to this one to reach the career average for Hall first basemen, and even then his peak would rate as slightly below average.

JAWS is a prescription to improve the Hall’s rolls via the election of above-average candidates. It is not, however, a predictor of what the voting body will do, as the 2009 balloting clearly illustrates. While Tim Raines (94.3 career/54.9 peak/74.6 overall JAWS) is clearly ahead of the Hall’s established standard for left fielders (84.2/.52.5/68.4) in career, peak, and JAWS, but Rock received just 22.6 percent of the vote. On the other hand, Jim Rice (55.1/39.6/47.4) was elected with 76.4 percent on the ballot, a result that has as its foundation the lack of recognition of the influence that hitter-friendly Fenway Park had inflating Rice’s statistics (to say nothing of inflating his legend). Indeed, the Hall is littered with hitters who accumulated hefty stats in favorable environments, though many owe their elections not to BBWAA voters but to the cronyism of the VC, which made a habit of grabbing flash-in-the-pan offensive stars from the 1930s, including the aforementioned Klein, whom JAWS ranks as 20th out of the 22 right fielders in the Hall.

I took the assignment thinking Helton really had no chance in Hell at the Hall, and while I remain unconvinced that he belongs — barring an especially productive late-30s run — I did come away with more respect for his accomplishments. Guys with .307 EqAs, excellent plate discipline (1095/862 career K/BB) and defense worth about five runs above average per year don’t grow on trees. That doesn’t mean we should put them all in the Hall of Fame, however. Consider the contemporary first base/DH types who rank above Helton according to JAWS:

Player           Career  Peak   JAWS
Frank Thomas 105.4 66.4 85.9
Jeff Bagwell 97.2 62.8 80.0
Albert Pujols 78.7 71.9 75.3
Rafael Palmeiro 96.0 52.6 74.3
Jim Thome 84.7 50.6 67.7
Mark McGwire 79.7 52.4 66.1
John Olerud 79.9 50.2 65.1
Will Clark 74.4 50.2 62.3
AVG HOF 1B 75.8 48.4 62.1
Jason Giambi 64.3 50.3 57.3
Fred McGriff 65.6 45.8 55.7
Carlos Delgado 61.3 42.8 52.1
Mark Grace 60.2 41.0 50.6
Todd Helton 54.6 46.1 50.4

Helton’s surpassed Grace and has more or less pulled even with Delgado, but it will take one outstanding year or two OK ones to move past McGriff, and yet another one to top Giambi — and he’d still be shy of the Hall standard. Suffice it to say, he’s got his work cut out for him.

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