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Todd Helton’s Mile-High Stats Were Too Damn Good To Believe

This is the Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players, our weekly opportunity to pay respect to talented athletes who deserve better legacies.

So far in this space, I’ve usually highlighted players with modest conventional numbers that belied their true contributions. But this week, let’s change it up a bit. I want to talk about a player with great traditional stats — some of the best of anybody at his position, in fact. According to our method of translating those standards into a Hall of Fame probability,1 this player looks like a no-brainer pick for Cooperstown. And yet, he is probably not going to make the Hall (or, at the very least, he faces an uphill battle). How can both of those things be true?

Welcome to the career of former Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, whose numbers were so good — particularly during his prime — that they crossed over from impressive to suspicious. As a result, Helton is the player nobody seems to know quite how to handle.

HOF resume: Todd Helton, 1B

Category Value Rank at Pos.
Career WAR 58.4 21
Peak WAR 44.7 12
JAWS 51.5 19
HOF Monitor 175 11
HOF Standards 59 6
Black Ink Test 16 21
Gray Ink Test 143 21
Implied HOF% 91% 7

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

If Helton has a 91 percent chance to make the Hall of Fame based on his traditional stats, why are we even talking about him here? Well, he has been on the ballot twice now — unlike Kenny Lofton, he at least has not been cast aside already — but he hasn’t made a ton of progress in the voting relative to where eventual Hall of Famers typically are at this stage of the process. In his debut on the ballot in 2019, Helton got 16.5 percent of the vote; last year, he bumped that up to 29.2 percent. If we look at the average player who was on the ballot between 1976 and 2011 and who missed out in a given year but made the Hall within their first 10 years on the writers’ ballot,2 that player picked up 48 percent of the vote in Year 1 and 51 percent in Year 2:

So, with 29 percent of the vote in his second appearance on the ballot, Helton is currently well behind schedule to make the Hall. To be more precise about it: If we try to predict Helton’s chances by regressing whether a player got in (within 10 years) against vote share and years on the ballot, we would expect a player with his share through two appearances to get in just 19 percent of the time. It’s not impossible for Helton to catch up down the line, but it’s going to be tough.

Why haven’t voters responded more favorably to Helton’s incredible numbers, though? He has more than 2,500 career hits — with an impressive .316 career batting average — to go with 369 home runs, 592 doubles, 1,406 runs batted in, 1,335 walks and a career on-base plus slugging of .953 (18th-best in MLB history). He also won three Gold Gloves for his defensive work at first base. Players with the stats most similar to Helton’s include Jeff Bagwell (Hall of Famer), Edgar Martinez (Hall of Famer), Luis Gonzalez, Vlad Guerrero (Hall of Famer) and Orlando Cepeda (Hall of Famer). There’s only one problem with his stats, but it’s a big one: For his entire 17- year career, Helton played half his games at the hitter’s haven of Coors Field, and as a result his stats have been largely discounted.

Bill James has a great story that illustrates how Helton’s numbers are basically too good to be taken seriously. “Dick Stuart one year in the late 1950s hit 66 homers for Lincoln, Nebraska, in the Western League,” he wrote in The Bill James Handbook 2019. “Stuart would say later that when the Pirates had some minor league player who hit 35 homers they would get all excited, but when he hit 66 homers they didn’t know what to say about that, so they just ignored the fact that it had ever happened.

“Helton’s numbers are like that; they are SO good that nobody knows what to do with them.”

In a certain way, this is similar to how we might be tempted to treat the off-the-charts statistics of players like Wilt Chamberlain (50.4 points per game in 1962) or Wayne Gretzky (92 goals in 1982). At a certain point, stats can pass beyond what we can interpret in a normal frame of reference and start to become so cartoonish that they make us wonder if the circumstances were just, well, too easy. Was Wilt so dominant because most of the competition was just so much shorter and less athletic? Was Gretzky so prolific because goalies were just smaller and less technically skilled?3

And was Helton so productive simply because of the Denver altitude?

It is true that Helton’s numbers were much more mortal on the road than at home. Although he logged 51 percent of his career plate appearances in Colorado, he produced 55 percent of his hits, 57 percent of his total bases, 61 percent of his RBIs and 62 percent of his home runs there. Helton’s overall career OPS of .953 fell to .855 outside of Coors, a gap of 98 points that ranks among the worst road-vs.-overall differentials in MLB history.

So there are real questions about how much the thin Rocky Mountain air inflated Helton’s stats. In fact, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s aptly named “AIR” metric, Helton played in an environment 22 percent more favorable to hitters than the all-time MLB average. In some seasons, that number was nearly 40 percent.

But an .855 road OPS still ranks among the 100 best marks ever. And if we’re going to point out how much Coors Field inflates offense, we should also note the little-discussed issue of Colorado hitters having an abnormally difficult time coping with normal elevations. There’s a running theory that, because they’re accustomed to seeing the ball break less at high altitude, Rockies hitters are more likely to struggle when they visit most other parks in the league. If that’s true, then at least some of Helton’s huge home-road splits can be chalked up to the inherent disadvantage of adjusting to playing games away from Denver, in addition to the inherent advantage of getting to play home games there.

Either way, almost all sabermetric stats adjust for park effects, which gives us a fair way to judge players like Helton in spite of their extreme circumstances. According to adjusted OPS+, Helton’s production was 33 percent better than an average hitter’s after calibrating for park and league factors. (The average Hall of Fame first baseman’s OPS was 42 percent above league average, although a third of them had a lower OPS+ than Helton.) His 51.5 JAWS — an average of career and peak wins above replacement, using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs4 — ranks 19th at the position, slightly below the Cooperstown average of 56.5 at first base (although, again, about a third of HOFers at the position ranked lower).

And Helton’s peak was truly mind-boggling: From 2000 to 2004, he hit .349 with a 1.093 OPS (60 percent better than league average even after adjusting for park effects), averaged 37 homers and 50 doubles a year, won three Gold Gloves and produced 36.0 total WAR. Since 1901, only five first basemen5 ever had a better five-season stretch by WAR:

Helton peaked at a ridiculously high level

Best stretches of five consecutive seasons by MLB first basemen according to wins above replacement, 1901-2019

5-Year Totals
Player Years Ages Offensive Runs defensive Runs WAR
Lou Gehrig 1927-31 24-28 +411.8 -34.7 50.0
Jimmie Foxx 1932-36 24-28 +353.7 -13.7 46.2
Albert Pujols 2005-09 25-29 +303.9 +24.2 42.6
George Sisler 1918-22 25-29 +247.0 +6.2 41.1
Jeff Bagwell 1994-98 26-30 +275.6 -12.4 38.5
Todd Helton 2000-04 26-30 +274.6 -11.8 36.0
Frank Thomas 1991-95 23-27 +304.4 -88.5 36.0
Johnny Mize 1937-41 24-28 +272.7 -34.9 34.9
Jason Giambi 1999-03 28-32 +300.7 -64.6 34.3
Miguel Cabrera 2010-14 27-31 +255.0 -48.6 33.8

WAR totals were prorated to 162 team games per season. Offensive and defensive runs are relative to an average position player.

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Will that be enough for Helton to overcome Hall of Fame voters’ mistrust of stats accumulated high above sea level? Although he still has plenty of ground to make up, Helton can point to one encouraging sign: the 11th-hour induction of his former Rockies teammate Larry Walker this year. In 1997, the year Helton debuted, Walker had a career season (hitting .366 with 49 homers and a 1.172 OPS) in Colorado — the kind of high-altitude performance so ludicrous that it made people question whether hitting there was just too easy. Although those doubts dogged Walker’s candidacy for nearly a decade, he was finally able to break through in his final year on the ballot; we’ll see if Helton can eventually say the same. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: Anybody who produced the numbers Helton did belongs in the Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players.

Footnotes

  1. Based on a logistic regression I ran between Bill James’s suite of traditional HOF indicators — specifically, the Hall of Fame Standards, Monitor, Black Ink and Gray Ink tests — and an eligible player’s Cooperstown status.

  2. The amount of time a player was allowed to remain on the ballot changed from 15 years to 10 in 2014, so we need to retcon earlier players’ records to judge whether they made it within 10 years.

  3. Probably not, in both cases … but it makes you think.

  4. With each season prorated to a 162-game schedule in years where fewer games were played.

  5. A list that includes FiveThirtyEight’s patron saint of WAR, Jeff Bagwell.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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