When I worked for the Rockies, we spent a lot of time talking about Todd Helton’s hall of fame candidacy. When Helton recovered from a hairy intestinal issue in 2006 to post the seventh four-win (or better) campaign of his career in 2007, the going thought was that if he was able to just to do that a few more times, he would be a shoo-in for the Hall. He stood at 51.1 WAR through the end of his age-33 season, and had plenty of other accolades on his resume — five-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, four-time Silver Slugger, one of just 10 players to play in the Integrated Era to be a career .300/.400/.500 hitter, 10th all-time in on-base percentage, etc. Honestly, some of the debate was which statistical markers were the most impressive. And with the Rocktober run in the books, Helton was no longer the longest tenured player to not have played in the postseason.
But then age caught up to Helton in a big way. In the past six years, he has been able to add just 5.1 WAR to his ledger, and now after a poor swan song he stands in the gray area from a hall perspective. However, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom these past few years. So rather than wallow in what-ifs, I thought today we could look at five of the best moments from the final five seasons of Helton’s career.
Oct. 12, 2009: Last postseason game
It had been a trying series for Helton and the Rockies. They had lost Game 3 to the Phillies at home by a run, and were in the same position in Game 4. Helton, meanwhile, had only collected two hits in his first 15 at-bats when he stepped to the dish in the bottom of the ninth. He had scored twice that night, once after walking and once after reaching on a fielder’s choice, but hits had eluded him. But hey, everyone was doing the impossible that night. I mean, Dexter Fowler straight hurdled a dude. Down a run with Carlos Gonzalez on first and two outs, the team needed Helton. And in his last act in the postseason, he would come through, singling to center on the first pitch from Scott Eyre. Tulowitzki wouldn’t get to face Eyre of course — Brad Lidge came in and did what Brad Lidge always did, throw a slider in the dirt and get an awkward swing for his trouble. But for just a second, Helton had pushed that tying run right to the precipice of scoring, and the night had been alive with purple fever.
Sept. 14, 2010: Passes Ted Williams on the all-time doubles list
The Rockies had lost the night before, but before that had ripped off a 10-game winning streak, and a third Rocktober in four years was starting to loom thick in the air. But after the loss on Monday to the equally-hard-charging Padres, the Rockies looked poised to drop a second straight contest. San Diego scored two in the eighth and one in the ninth to build a three-run cushion for closer Heath Bell, who was at the height of his powers that season. He had come in to finish the eighth, just barely retiring Troy Tulowitzki on a deep fly ball to right field that if it had travelled just a little further would have tied the game. Now, instead of coming up with the chance to drive in Tulowitzki with the go-ahead run in the eighth, Helton was leading off the ninth, down three runs.
It had been a trying win streak for Helton. He had walked 11 times during the 10-game run, which gave him a tasty .500 on-base percentage, but the hits were few and far between. He was 3-for-17, and the cool moment that seemed like a gimme earlier in the month was now starting to seem elusive. Helton had passed Willie Mays on the all-time doubles list, but since both he and Williams were lefty swingers, passing him was a cooler accomplishment. And even though Bell had not allowed a hit in his five past outings, and had allowed just one run in his last 13, Helton ripped a double and the rally was back on. Colorado would come up a run short, dropping their playoff odds back under 10 percent, but at least the silver lining was that Toddy Ballgame had passed Teddy Ballgame. Helton now stands 16th all-time in doubles, but this one stands out the most to me.
April 26, 2011: The two-homer game
Once upon a time, Helton mashed multiple homers in games with pretty decent frequency. From 1999-2001, he had 18 such games. But since then the well had run dry. The biggest drought of his career would be from 2007 to 2011. Heading into the season, there was certainly no longer any reason to expect such power outburst. He had missed another month in 2010 thanks to his balky back. His slugging percentage fell under the .400 threshold for the second time in three years, and the 88 wRC+ he posted was the worst of his career. Things didn’t start much better in 2011, either. He homered in the season’s fourth game, but had not exactly been spitting out the extra-base hits since then — just five doubles in 49 plate appearances. He was reaching base at a good clip, but the power was nowhere to be found. But on Apr. 26, Carlos Gonzalez needed a day off, so Helton slid back into his once-familiar third spot in the batting order for the first time that season, and he got juicy with a couple of balls — particularly the second shot. That they came off of lefty James Russell made it just a touch more impressive.
April 14, 2012: The .751 WPA game
If you look at Helton’s game logs, you’ll notice that the top five are all from his glory days — 1999-2004, when he was a 30-home run smacking OBP monster. Two others in the top 10 are as well, and two others are from the 2007 run, including that time when an entire city — neigh an entire region — climbed on his back. But there is one exception — April 14, 2012. Just a simple April game. The win would improve the Rockies record to 4-4. Sixteen games later the team would dip under .500 and not climb back to even the rest of the season. But on this rainy spring evening, Helton would put the Rockies in the win column by finishing a comeback with a two-run walk-off blast against J.J. Putz:
It was his only hit of the game, but the leverage was so high that the performance stands as the sixth-most valuable of his career.
May 31, 2013: Pinch-hit homer ties the game in the bottom of the ninth
There are probably a couple of other moments I could pick here. His final two homer game from Aug. 30, 2013, or his pinch-hit grand slam against the Mets on April 29, 2012 are the two with which I wrestled most. But ultimately I picked this one because it was a battle. When Todd Helton was going right, he could battle any pitcher on the planet. There were only two batters who for me have always been appointment viewing — Helton and Manny Ramirez. Both seemingly could foul off any pitch. Both seemingly fouled off pitches for the fun of fouling off pitches. Did so with a smile on their face. This was one of those at-bats. The Rockies were kicking off a home series with the then-last-place Dodgers on the heels of losing six of seven, including dropping three of four to the Astros — the last two of which came at Coors Field. Then to start Friday’s game, the Dodgers jumped out to a 5-2 lead. The Rockies had loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth, but then Wilin Rosario hit a grounder to shortstop for a double play and then Jordan Pacheco grounded out to second base, killing the rally with only one run scored. But when DJ LeMahieu singled with one out in the ninth, up stepped Helton. And frankly, enough was enough.
Helton fell behind in the count 1-2, but worked the count full after seven pitches, fouling off the potential strike three twice in the process. Brandon League, who had relieved Kenley Jansen to close things out because Dodgers manager Don Mattingly hadn’t wised up yet, was throwing the same pitch every single time — fastball (four seam) at 93 or 94 mph. And why not? It had been awhile since Helton could reliably get around on 94. This night was different though. Helton fouled off pitch eight, pitch nine and pitch ten before uncorking the game-tying blast into the second deck.
The Rockies would go on to lose — not that there was anything Helton could have done about it. Rafael Betancourt replaced him, and then promptly gave up two runs in the 10th. As such, it would be easy to lose that moment, of Helton battling like the old days, and rewriting the script with one swing.
These may not be your five favorite moments of these past five years. Certainly there were other moments — round-number moments — 500 doubles, 350 homers, 2,000 hits, 2,500 hits, etc. I’ve never been one to focus too much on these round-number accomplishments, so I wanted to dig a little deeper. Maybe you like the pinch-hit grand slam better, or perhaps his homer to kick off his final game at Coors Field the other night strikes your fancy. All of these moments help make a career, and while his last five years might cost Helton a chance at enshrinement, there were still plenty of times worthy of remembrance. They didn’t come as consistently, but in those glimpses you could see the old Helton, and dream just a little bit.
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