It's only natural, when a player of Todd Helton's stature announces his impending retirement, that we think about his legacy, what he meant to the game, and whether he might belong in Cooperstown in five years. That's a complicated question these days, as players are left off of ballots seemingly at random, and the list of qualified candidates stretches well past the hard limit of ten that each writer can vote for. Yet, Helton also presents many challenges both for traditionalists and for statistical wonks beyond even that.
Traditional advocates are going to point out that every other eligible player who has hit .300 while chalking up 2500 hits and 300 homers has made it in. Indeed, that club is made up almost exclusively of inner circle Hall of Famers: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, George Brett and Rogers Hornsby, plus Al Simmons. More recently, Vladimir Guerrero, Chipper Jones, and Manny Ramirez have also reached that level, though they are not yet eligible, as has the still-active Alex Rodriguez (though A-Rod may drop off this list, given that he's hitting exactly .300 for his career).
Statheads will look at Helton's wins above replacement (WAR) and see that he'll finished solidly in the middle of the Hall of Fame first basemen, besting luminaries like Hank Greenberg, George Sisler, and Bill Terry (although most of the players below him are fairly controversial additions by the notorious Frisch-led Veteran's Committee).
It's not like Helton is a longevity candidate like Fred McGriff, either. He's got serious peak value. For that I'll leave you in the capable hands of Andy of High Heat Stats:
Todd Helton is one of just 20 players in MLB with at least 3 seasons of 60+ batting runs (reminder this number is already park-corrected).— High Heat Stats (@HighHeatStats) September 16, 2013
That's a pretty impressive number. There's no doubt that, at his peak, Helton was one of the best hitters in the National League, and perhaps its top first baseman from 2001-2003.
Of all of Helton's numbers, the one I keep coming back to is .856. That's his OPS in road games. It's a very good mark, but among players with more than 1000 games on the road since 1990 it ranks just 46th. Helton ranks below Brian Giles, Ryan Howard, Ryan Klesko, the aforementioned McGriff, John Olerud, and Jay Buhner. Meanwhile, at home, his OPS was 1.047, which checks in as the fourth-highest since 1990 in a list that includes fellow former-Coorsers Ellis Burks (30), Andres Galarraga (29), Dante Bichette (21), Matt Holliday (8) and Larry Walker (2). I know Helton wasn't as good as his home OPS, and I suspect he was better than his road mark, but I have to believe his true talent lies at least somewhat closer to the latter. I understand that batting runs and WAR are park-corrected figures, but I also wonder whether we're correcting enough for the Coors Effect, and are thus overvaluing Helton and Walker.
I also think about how Helton never finished higher than fifth in the MVP voting, and made only five All Star Games. I think about how he played in just two postseasons, and didn't hit well in them. I think about the mark he left on the game outside of Colorado, and I'm not really sure he made one.
That said, I'm more than willing to be convinced. Helton sits right on the border for me, and I want to keep an open mind. The problem is that we may not have as much time to think about it as Helton deserves. Yes, we get five years, and maybe that gives us more detailed data on players like Helton and Walker (who I would support for the Hall, actaully) and on Coors Field itself. But by 2018, he will still have to deal with not just the remnants of the Steroid Era that still clog up the ballot, as well as the same rumormongering and suspicion that is currently dogging Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza. Helton's career falls almost entirely within the so-called Steroid Era, and while he never had the bulging muscles of some of baseball's other sluggers, he did hit a ton of homers and played with PED users. Even if he isn't tagged as such, he could fall victim to the combination of voters who refused to vote for any player from this era, those still baffled by what to do with Coors Field, and the crowded ballot.
That's the saddest part. No matter how rigorously he's examined and how complete the case is that you can build in his favor, there's still a damn good chance that none of it will matter. These are the times we live in. Todd Helton may not deserve to get into the Hall of Fame, but he deserves better than to be a casualty of the BBWAA's continued intransigence and incompetence.