Joe Posnanski, writing about the value of walks for the second time this week, makes an aside about Todd Helton:
“Here’s the irony of Coors Field: It undoubtedly helped players put up ENORMOUS numbers. And at exactly the same time, it undoubtedly made those numbers look like mirages. Todd Helton’s career numbers are .324/.424/.555 which are absurd. And you get the sense that if he had put up significantly WORSE numbers but played his whole career somewhere else, his career might be valued higher.”
Todd Helton has been a puzzle for me for a long time. Early in his career, when he was putting up crazy numbers, especially when he chased .400 in 2000 and ended up leading the league in hits, doubles, RBIs, average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and total bases, it seemed to me that people didn’t talk about Coors Field enough. Although in retrospect, the fact that he only finished fifth in the MVP vote that year with those crazy numbers says that I wasn’t the only one thinking his numbers were out of whack because of Coors, even though it felt like I was.
But, as with Larry Walker, who appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot this year, it’s hard to get a handle on just how good Helton really has been. It’s probably harder for Helton than for Walker, because we got a glimpse of Walker in the wild. Helton has only played in Colorado, while Walker played in Montreal for six years at the beginning of his career and St. Louis for a year and a half at the end.
Is Joe right? Would Helton be valued higher if he’d played his entire career elsewhere? I decided to try to figure out what that career might have looked like so far.
Here’s the raw data: In his career, Helton has hit .324/.424/.555 with 333 home runs in 1,930 games. That .300/.400/.500 line is sometimes called the magic ratio, and it pretty much means you’re a really good hitter.
At Coors Field, Helton has hit .356/.454/.628 with 204 home runs in 977 games. Everywhere else, he has hit .291/.392/.481 with 129 home runs in 953 games. You can see the difference right away. No magic ratio away from Coors. In addition to hitting 75 more home runs in only 24 more games, Helton has also hit 26 triples at Coors and only nine on the road.
If you just doubled Helton’s road stats, he’d be a pretty fair player. A first baseman with a career line of .291/.392/.481 and 258 home runs through age 36 is nothing to sneeze at. Then again he’s likely not a five-time All-Star who’ll probably get some Hall of Fame consideration. Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor, which measures how likely a player is to be enshrined, not how deserving he is, has Helton well above the level of “likely.” It doesn’t take ballparks or era into account, just raw stats.
But it’s not fair to just double Helton’s road stats. Players on other National League teams get to come into Coors Field for road games, after all. A player in the N.L. West would have 11 chances a year to hit at Coors under the current scheduling system.
So I decided to try to see what Helton might look like if he were just the player he is on the road, but he got to play some road games at Coors. Helton has played more games at Dodger Stadium then any other road park, 103, so to give him the benefit of the doubt, let’s give him 103 road games at Coors Field, hitting at the same rates he’s really hit there, and then turn the rest of his home games into road games, where he’ll hit at the same rate he’s always hit at on the road.
Make sense? No? Good.
By playing only 103 games at Coors, Helton loses 874 games off his total, so we’ll extrapolate his 953 real road games into (953+874=) 1,827. That is, we’ll multiply his totals by 1.91710388. And then we’ll shrink his 977 Coors games down to 103 by multiplying his totals by 0.10542477. Then we’ll add those two together to get the 1,930 games of the new, non-Colorado Rockie Todd Helton.
We’re back from the commercial and we’ve done the math and here’s what Helton looks like: .298/.399/.496, with 269 home runs. Again, that’s a pretty good player. There are Hall of Fame first basemen who have similar numbers through age 36, though all with more home runs, and we’re still not accounting for era.
For example, Willie Stargell, through age 36, had hit .282/.360/.529 with 388 home runs. More power, especially home run power — the non-Rockie Helton would have 498 doubles to Stargell’s 356 — but less getting on base. Then again, Stargell played in the second deadball era. His career at that point had been 1962-76, when scoring straddled four runs per team per game. In Helton’s era it’s touched five runs and has always been above 4.5 until the last two years. Stargell’s OPS plus through age 36 was 148. Helton’s is 137. Keep in mind OPS plus accounts for ballpark too.
Here’s something off-topic but incredible that I discovered about Stargell. Through his age 36 season, his triple-slash line was, again, .282/.360/.529. Here it is for the rest of his career, which was six more seasons: .279/.362/.529
I looked for other players who had a similar stat line to non-Rockie Helton and I found one. Kevin Youkilis. Through his age 31 season, Youkilis’ career line is .294/.394/.497 with 112 home runs in 791 games. He got a late start to his career and has only been a full-time player for five seasons, and who knows what he’s going to look like at 36, but if you’re looking at that non-Rockie stat line of .298/.399/.496 and trying to figure out what that looks like in real life, it looks something like Kevin Youkilis, so far, with the caveat that Youkilis plays in a pretty nice ballpark for hitters too.
Which is why this whole business of making this kind of adjustment for one player and then comparing him to everyone else, unadjusted, is a rabbit hole and kind of stupid. But it’s my rabbit hole and my kind of stupid. And by the way Youkilis does not have much of a home-road split. He’s 22 points of OPS better at Fenway Park than elsewhere. Helton is 209 points of OPS better at Coors Field than elsewhere.
Helton’s career OPS of .979 has him 11th all time, immediately behind Rogers Hornsby, Manny Ramirez and Mark McGwire and immediately ahead of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. Heady company. The non-Rockie Helton’s career OPS of .895 would have him 72nd all time, still pretty good, but in a much different crowd. He’d be behind Bill Terry, Chick Hafey and Mickey Cochrane and ahead of Chase Utley, Hal Trosky and Youkilis.
Terry was a first baseman who’s in the Hall of Fame, though he played for the ’20s-’30s Giants, so he had a leg up. Hafey was an outfielder who’s in the Hall of Fame, though he had similar help by playing for the ’20s-’30s Cardinals. Trosky was a first baseman who had a short career in the ’30s and ’40s. He was never even an All-Star.
And don’t forget we’re giving Helton a little benefit of doubt by giving him 103 games at Coors Field. If Coors were in a different division from Helton’s home team, he’d have played a lot fewer games there. He’s played about 40 games in most non-N.L. West cities, with a low of 39 in Cincinnati’s two parks, Riverfront Stadium and Great American Ballpark. If we do all that same math for Helton only playing 39 games at Coors Field, we get a .292/.394/.484 line with 265 home runs.
There’s a better way to look at all this. I mean, it would be a strange world indeed if there were not a better way to look at all this. Baseball-Reference has a stat called “Neutralized Batting,” which converts a player’s stats to show what they would have been if the player had played only 162-game seasons — which Helton, as a post-1961 player, did anyway — in a league with historically average offense and in a neutral ballpark. In other words, it attempts to strip away park and era effects.
Helton’s neutralized career line: .301/.399/.514 with 295 home runs in 1,930 games. Very similar to our non-Rockie Helton and very similar, at least in terms of the rate stats, to Kevin Youkilis so far.
Getting back to Joe’s sense that if Helton had put up worse numbers but played his whole career somewhere other than Denver he’d be valued higher, a good question would be: Is Youkilis, at this point, valued higher than Helton? I don’t mean at the moment. Youkilis is in his prime and Helton is in bad decline. But I mean in terms of historical value.
I don’t know the answer to this question, and I don’t know that this little thought experiment has gotten me much closer to getting a handle on just how to value Todd Helton’s career. If you like Wins Above Replacement, Helton has 58 WAR, which puts him in fringe Hall of Fame company, ahead of Stargell, Terry and recent inductee Andre Dawson, to name a few, but also about three wins behind Keith Hernandez and Dick Allen, who are not in.
He’s also nine wins behind Larry Walker, who was named on only 20.3 percent of the ballots this year, and 12 behind Jim Thome, who’s still playing but is probably a lock because he’s hit 589 home runs so far.
It requires more thinking, but at the moment I think that the neutralized, non-Rockie Todd Helton would be a guy with a Hall of Fame case, but not a strong one, and I don’t think he’d get too far with the BBWAA voters with his home run total, which would be likely to end up not far above 300, and his batting average only around .300.
Because I believe the non-Rockie Helton’s stats represent the real Helton better than his real stats do, I obviously think the real Helton has a legitimate but not particularly strong Hall of Fame case too. I have a feeling he’ll get a little more love from the writers than the non-Rockie Helton would, especially if his batting average stays up around .320 and he gets close to 400 home runs. But barring a late-career revival that gets him to 3,000 hits — he probably needs five more solid seasons, which don’t appear to be in the cards — I think he’ll fall well short.
Early in Helton’s career I thought the baseball world overrated him, and while I think I was right about that, looking back, I think I underrated him. Now, to the extent that I can figure out what the baseball world is thinking, I think the baseball world and I have met in the middle. We look at Helton about the same way. He’s been a very good player, a face of a franchise kind of player, but not an all-time great. If he’s been undervalued because of people discounting his inflated numbers at Coors, it hasn’t been by much.
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Todd Helton: SD Dirk/Flickr Creative Commons
Bill Terry: Wikipedia
Kevin Youkilis: Keith Allison/Flickr Creative Commons
Coors Field: Matt Kozlowski/Wikipedia Creative Commons