I was able to stay up and watch the Rockies home finale Wednesday night. In an otherwise unremarkable season, they wrapped up with a very nice tribute to Todd Helton. Helton is sneaking out of the league this week in the shadow of the retirement of Mariano Rivera. His departure probably deserves more attention than it is getting. Then again, getting less attention than he deserves is sort of the perfect way to send off Todd Helton, who has spent his entire career in mile-high obscurity.
A couple years back, I wrote about evaluating the first baseman who played mainly between 1990 and 2006 (with the arbitrary cut-off of having played 1000 first-base games in that time). At the time, it was in the context of evaluating the careers of Jeff Bagwell, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro. I have the numbers in this computer but haven't updated the active players, but in general there hasn't been a lot of movement from where things stood at that time. Then, it came out with Jeff Bagwell as a clear Hall of Famer. By my (invented) standard, Bagwell and Thomas were dead even as the best of the era, with Thome third and Palmeiro fourth. Fifth was Todd Helton, ahead of Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, Jason Giambi, and others who seemed to get quite a bit more attention.
Helton's career was a sabermetric dream. He didn't compile huge counting stats, with "only" 2518 hits and 369 home runs, neither of which place him in the top 70 of all time. Despite that, he is 26th all time in on-base percentage and 36th in slugging. His 1334 walks are 35th all-time, and three times he led the National League in Times on Base. He rankes 16th all-time in doubles with 592, retiring with a huge lead as the active leader.
From 2000 to 2004, Helton was one of the best in the game. He had a rWAR higher than 6.0 in each of those years, with a five-season total of 37.4, higher than the five best seasons of some slam-dunk Hall of Famers, like Frank Thomas. He followed that up by leading the National League in OBP in 2005, but his power was starting to slip, never to return. After compiling a .643 SLG from 2000-04, he dropped to .534 in 2005, and never surpassed .500 again. He remained a difficult out, posting a .416 OBP in his age-35 season (2009).
A pet theory of mine is that players who peak early in their careers do worse in Hall of Fame voting. It makes sense - a marginal Hall of Famer seven years removed from being a dominant player is going to be fresher in the minds of voters than one 15 years removed. When Helton is eligible in 2019, he will be 15 years past his elite best. Add in the fact that his greatness didn't come in the traditional statistical categories and the natural bias against Coors Field sluggers having inflated stats, and Helton's chances are remote.
That's ok though. Helton has a new ranch, a new horse, and he gets to be remembered as the definitive player in the still-young life of the Rockies franchise. He was one of the few Rockies who played well in their only World Series appearance, and got to say goodbye to the Coors fans on Wednesday with a home run. He had a remarkable, memorable career, and baseball is better for having had him as one of its stars.