Is ex-rockies star Helton worthy of the Hall of Fame?
By Patrick Saunders, The Denver Post
Todd Helton and the Hall of Fame have been on my mind. Last weekend, I watched 50 baseball legends line up for a group photo on the hotel lawn in front of glimmering Lake Otsego in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Aaron, Greg Maddox … the list of baseball royalty went on and on. It is indeed a select, prestigious group who have their plaques mounted in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Saturday in Canton, Ohio, former Broncos running back Terrell Davis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was a long overdue honor for a class act.
Which brings us back to Helton, who becomes eligible for induction in 2019. Will he ever be enshrined in Cooperstown? I hope so, but it’s going to be a very tough road. With sabermetrics playing an ever-increasing role in the selection process, those who view Helton without sentiment are skeptical.
Jay Jaffe, the sabermetrician who developed JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score system), wrote this about Helton in 2016: “Helton will have his adherents, but his midcareer falloff and the voters’ resistance to Coors Field-inflated stats means that his trajectory won’t take him toward Cooperstown.”
Jaffe created JAWS “as a means to measure a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined, using advanced metrics to account for the wide variations in offensive levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history.” Got that?
Scour the internet and you will find many articles analyzing Helton’s Hall of Fame worthiness. Two that I found fair and compelling are Andrew Ball’s from Beyond the Box Score, and an analysis by Eric Garcia Mckinley of Purple Row in which he compares the chances of Helton and another former Rockies star, Larry Walker.
Something frequently noted is that almost every eligible candidate who had a career .300 batting average, 2,500 hits and 300 home runs has been enshrined. Helton finished his 17-year career with a .316 average, 2,519 hits and 369 homers.
But time and time again, Helton is penalized for playing his home games at 5,280 feet. When Helton retired in 2013, ESPN’S David Schoenfield wrote:
“He’s hit .345/.442/.607 at home (225 home runs) versus .287/.386/.470 on the road (142 home runs). … For me, Helton falls just under the line. Take away Coors Field, and I wonder if he’s John Olerud. That’s not meant as a criticism, just that nobody thinks of Olerud as a Hall of Famer.”
Of course, I can counter with some statistical arguments of my own.
Helton is among only eight players in major-league history to own at least a .316 career batting average, .414 on-base percentage and .539 slugging percentage (minimum 1,000 games played). The others: Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. All of them, except for the still-active Pujols, are in the Hall of Fame.
Helton is one of only two players in baseball history to have at least 2,500 hits, 550 doubles, 350 home runs and a career batting average of .315 or higher. Musial is the only other player to meet that criteria.
I understand the need to set a very high bar for a place in Cooperstown. The group photo reminded me of that. But I also know that it’s called the Hall of Fame and I think that a player’s role in a team’s history should count for something. To me, it matters that Helton played all 17 years for the Rockies. He was the face of franchise. He played the game with great skill, dignity and class. That should count for something. That should count for a lot.
Patrick Saunders is the president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America: psaunders@ denverpost.com