Todd Helton is on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the fifth time this year. Last year, Helton climbed to above 50 percent for the first time at 52 percent after making big strides in his second and third years on the ballot. He has been trending in the right direction and deservedly so. Let's dive into why the great first baseman has a strong case for Cooperstown.
Todd Lynn Helton was selected by the Colorado Rockies with the eighth overall pick in the 1995 MLB Draft out of the University of Tennessee. Helton was also drafted out of high school, with the San Diego Padres taking him in the second round in 1992. Instead of signing, though, he opted to go to college. The Volunteers of Tennessee have had a lot of great players make the major leagues, including starting pitcher R.A. Dickey who was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round of the 1996 MLB Draft. Their highest draft pick ever was second baseman Nick Senzel, who the Cincinnati Reds selected second overall in 2016. Tennessee will have another top five pick this year in right-hander Chase Dollander. The Rockies took another player from the school in 2022, selecting outfielder Jordan Beck with the 38th overall pick. All that aside, though, no University of Tennessee star has turned out to be greater than Helton, and it will take a lot to top his career.
Helton didn't take long to make the show, as he made his major league debut on August 2, 1997 (a year before I was born). In his official rookie season of 1998, the left-handed hitter finished as the runner-up for the National League Rookie of the Year award. That season, he mashed 25 homers with 97 RBI, .911 OPS, and 114 wRC+. Two years later, in 2000, Helton made his first of five All-Star Games while leading the league in doubles (59), RBI (147), average (.372), on-base percentage (.463), slugging (.698), OPS (1.162), and total bases (405). Sammy Sosa is the only other player in the post-160 expansion era to record over 400 total bases. These strong numbers led to him receiving MVP votes as he finished fifth, the highest MVP finish in his career. Although, he really should have won it. More on that later. He had two other top 10 MVP finishes, in 2001 and 2003. The only other time he led the league in an offensive category was when he led with a .445 OBP in 2005. Along with being a five-time All-Star, Helton was also a three-time Gold Glover, and four-time Silver Slugger. In seven of his 17 seasons, he recorded at least 40 doubles and at least 30 homers six times.
What Helps His Case
Along with hitting for a high average - .316 career batting average - and for power - 369 career homers and .539 slugging - Helton was a great all-around hitter. He had more walks (1,335) than strikeouts (1,175) in his career and had over 100 walks in a season five times. That included 127 walks to 72 strikeouts in 2004. The Toddfather had a 61.8 career bWAR, 54.9 career fWAR, and a peak fWAR of 44.7. The average peak WAR for first basemen during that stretch was significantly lower than that. In an eight-year peak from 2000-07, Helton had an OPS+ of 149 with his 117 in 2006 the only season below 130 over that stretch. Let's compare Helton's peak seasons to another first baseman who just got voted in by the Contemporary Era Committee for the 2023 class, Fred McGriff. The great first baseman did a lot of waiting, but the two have very similar peaks. McGriff really should have gotten in a lot sooner, while Helton looks to be heading towards getting in sooner rather than later. Their peak years also so happen to be both of their fourth through 11th seasons.
Helton's peak bWAR of 46.6 is ranked 10th among first baseman all time, and he has a higher JAWS (54.2) than McGriff, Gil Hodges, and David Ortiz. JAWS is Jay Jeffe's Wins Above Replacement score that ranks a player's worthiness for Cooperstown and compares them to currently enshrined legends. His JAWS is higher than the average for first baseman, which is 53.4. While Helton never won an MVP award, he really should have in 2000. His bWAR of 8.9 was nearly two wins better than Kent, who is also on the ballot. Andruw Jones was ranked second in the National League with an 8.2 bWAR. That was the year that he won the slash line Triple Crown and had the highest OPS among qualified hitters in the majors.
Before you try to bring up the "Coors effect", Helton was just as good away from Colorado as he was there. In the 2000 season, he slashed .353/.441/.633 away from home and could have won the MVP on away stats alone. At Coors Field in his career, Helton slashed .345/.441/.607 with 227 home runs in 4,841 plate appearances. Even with "discounted" numbers due to elevation, it's not like they would be that much worse with a normal elevation.
If you need anything else to convince you, Helton was the ultimate Rockie and undeniably is "Mr. Rockie". After No. 17 played all 17 of his seasons with Colorado and helped them to their only World Series berth in 2007. He was the first Rockie to have his number retired by the franchise, with his 17 being retired in 2014.
What Hurts His Case
There isn't much that hurts Helton's case, as he had a pretty consistent career. Even when he started to fall off a bit as he entered his mid-30s, the numbers were still very respectable. The injury bug bit him, as he suffered acute terminal ileitis, a painful inflammation of the small intestine, in April 2006 which landed him on the shelf. His production slipped to the lowest point, but Helton still recorded an 118 OPS+, 2.3 WAR, and 15 homers. There were only two seasons after his "cup-of-coffee" in 1997 in which he played less than 100 games. In 2008, Helton played just 83 games as he was diagnosed with a degenerative disc in early July. He hit just .264/.391/.388 with seven homers that season. Then in 2012, he played just 69 games after undergoing season-ending surgery to repair the labrum in his right hip. On-field stuff aside, one blemish on Helton's record is that he was arrested for driving under the influence and reckless driving prior to the 2013 season. But off-field issues shouldn't effect the Hall of Fame case, especially since he moved past it and made up for his mistake.
Getting up to 52 percent last year is definitely a good sign for Helton, especially now that the big steroid guys, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, are off the ballot. So far this year, he is tracking at 78.8 percent through 96 public ballots. Even if he winds up not making it in on the 2023 ballot, Helton is only on his fifth year. So it is very likely that he makes it into Cooperstown much sooner than Larry Walker, who waited 10 years to get in. Either way, Helton deserves all the love and there isn't any reason he shouldn't be in.