Todd Helton: Do Not Retire Just Yet

Rockies first baseman Todd Helton committed an error on Wednesday night — couldn’t get his foot on the bag — and Colorado lost. The 38-year-old hall-of-fame contender has the second-worst numbers of his career — .332 wOBA and 99 wRC+, not counting his abbreviated first season in 1997 — and he is becoming the scapegoat of a miserable Rockies team.

Who would blame Helton for calling it a career? He has 8,044 plate appearances, 354 home runs and 61.8 WAR on his resume. He has been a solar flare among bottle rockets.

But if we dig into his 2012 numbers, we find baseballing pride of Tennessee should have a few more years left in his bat.

Helton is a special a hitter — and a curious one. He has a career .330 BABIP — despite playing first base and never really having much in the way of foot speed — and he has one of the league’s rarest traits: He walks more than he strikes out. How rare is that? Extra-long-graph-worthy rare:

Does this unique hitting profile predispose Helton toward longevity? Well, maybe. Look at some of the other names high on that list:

1. Joe Morgan
2. Barry Bonds
3. Greg Gross
4. Wade Boggs
5. Mike Hargrove
6. Willie Randolph
7. Carl Yastrzemski
8. Mike Scioscia
9. Ron Hunt
10. Mark Grace
11. Ozzie Smith
12. Brian Giles
13. Pete Rose
14. Tim McCarver
15. Rusty Staub
16. Butch Wynegar
17. Rickey Henderson
18. Ron Fairly
19. Tim Raines

But then again, we’ve already constrained ourselves to guys who played about five seasons or more (minimum 2,500 plate appearances), so it shouldn’t be surprising to see Bonds, Yastrzemski, Grace and Raines dotting the list — the cutting room floor is thick with forgotten names.

But all careers, even the best, end at some point. Some folks in Colorado are saying it might be time time for Helton to consider retirement — and though Wednesday’s error proved the catalyst for this latest outbreak, it’s unlikely Helton would be receiving any such demands if he were smashing the baseball. The issue comes down to Helton as a hitter — not as a fielder. So is he finished?

At present, BIS reports Helton is hitting liners at a 25% rate, and his grounders and flies are coming at perfectly Helton-esque levels. As such, his slash12 xBABIP suggests he will return to a very normal — normal for him, at least — BABIP. And since he started his career as a slow runner, we cannot assume a drop in speed could result in his drop in BABIP (.328 BABIP in 2011, .240 BABIP in 2012).

Using the FI wOBA De-Lucker, we can effectively imagineer the wOBA Helton would have ’twere he sporting his .306 xBABIP, instead of his current .240 BABIP.

As we can see above, Helton rarely had a FI wOBA (1) higher than his actual wOBA or (2) much different than his actual wOBA. The FI wOBA tool underestimates doubles-and-triples experts as well as guys who play in extreme ballparks (like Helton’s Coors Field). Yet, in 2012, Helton is a whopping 41 points beneath his FI wOBA.

Even in Helton’s bad seasons of 2008 and 2010, FI wOBA stuck pretty close to his actual wOBA. That it has remained high while his wOBA has plummeted means he is still walking, striking out, and homering at paces commensurate with a strong hitter. The difference then becomes the balls in play.

Can age melt a hitter into nothingness? Yeah, I think so. But Helton’s 88 point year-over-year drop in BABIP outrages common sense. Has he performed poorly in recent seasons? Yes, but the makeup of those struggles share almost nothing with the present downturn.

Maybe Helton himself — having earned about $150 million from the Rockies — may not want to stick around just to see how far he can go. All indications suggest Helton is proud of his career — though probably not his three bad seasons (2008, 2010 and this year). If he thinks this present struggle might hurt his future hall-of-fame candidacy, maybe he says: Fare thee well, baseball.

And when a player nears 40, like Helton, the front offices of the world get understandably trigger-happy. Teams cannot afford to wait to see if a low BABIP is luck-based when a single win or loss can make the difference between ignominy and glory — or disgrace and employment. Maybe the Rockies will make the first move in this tricky tango?

But his batted-ball data and his recent history suggest he’s askew in a new way, suggest Todd Helton’s still got “it,” but also has some bad luck. And frankly, I don’t think Helton is finished. I think the safe bet here is the same safe bet as the last 15 years: Helton is gonna hit.




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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


51 Responses to “Todd Helton: Do Not Retire Just Yet”

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  1. Juan B says:

    You mean he walks more than he strikes out

    +16 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      Ohhhhhhh. I got so confused.

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      Yeah that was a high profile typo, lol. I was like “What? My conception of Todd Helton is SO OFF!” and then i looked back and forth at the sentence and chart about a thousand times before scrolling down here to see this comment.

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      • Well-Beered Englishman says:

        I actually went to Baseball Reference before scrolling down to the comments.

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    • Derek R-C says:

      Also, I don’t know if he is the scapegoat of the team. I would say the starting pitching is the scapegoat.

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      • Cidron says:

        naa, scapegoat should be the GM.. you know, the guy who assembled this mess.

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      • The Foils says:

        A scapegoat is something that gets all the blamed but doesn’t deserve to carry all the blame.

        The pitching staff and/or the GM actually DO deserve the lionshare of the blame. So they’re not scapegoats. They just suck.

        +22 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • My echo and bunnymen (Dodgers Fan) says:

        ^Yep

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  2. Anon says:

    “he has one of the league’s rarest traits: He strikes out more than he walks.”

    I believe the strike out and walk were transposed.

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  3. jj says:

    Paragraph 3: ‘He strikes out more than he walks.’ I think this is the other way around and makes for better support of your charts.

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  4. Slats says:

    I didn’t realise one of the leagues rarest traits was striking out
    more than walking.

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  5. Rippers says:

    I’m happy for FanGraphs to pay me to proof read their articles before they’re published.

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      Outta the way, I’m a professional copy editor with a resume and everything. Heck, I’m writing this comment while I’m supposed to be proofreading!

      +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Psst says:

      “I’m happy for FanGraphs to pay me to” awkward please reword

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  6. JS7 says:

    I know we don’t like to complain about these errors because FanGraphs has such fantastic content and it’s free!

    But surely it only takes a couple of minutes to proof read and realise a major mistake like the above one.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • The Foils says:

      How many minutes does it take for fifteen people to post the same comment about it? More?

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    • James says:

      If you write a lot, I am sure it is fairly easy to miss these types of errors even with proofreading. For example, if you know what the meaning of the sentence is supposed to be, your brain can process it without noticing the transposing. Based on the preceding phrase “one of the league’s rarest traits” in combination with the graph, it should’ve been obvious to any reader.

      One of my favorite things about Fangraphs is that the comments are not moderated and can be quite interesting when you get through all the editorial nits. Let’s keep it that way.

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      • bstar says:

        You’re missing the point. The point is there should be AT LEAST one other person proofreading these articles to find embarrassing, all-too-common errors like this and it’s pretty obvious that, still, this is not happening.

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      • In fact bstar, as you will note in my comment below, two people did in fact read this article. The typo was fixed in an early revision, but such is the nature of the internet and human imperfection that the typo did not remain fixed while all the others around it disappeared — those typos, I am proud to report, you will not find.

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      • bstar says:

        Fair enough, Bradley. Thanks for the response.

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  7. 81 says:

    Good job for pouncing on that one, internet.

    +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. busch says:

    Does the graph only consider players who are retired? Surprised that Chipper isn’t on there.

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  9. Would you believe it? This article was edited over five times, by two different professional writers and editors, and yet one mistake slipped through.

    Oh well. Time to delete the article I guess, amirite?

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    • JS7 says:

      I feel sorry for you Bradley! It’s a great article though,just one slight mix up.

      It only needs to say ‘walking more than striking out’ and then it is fine.

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    • L.UZR says:

      Y’all never complain when porn sites have typos.

      +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Jason B says:

        Not so fast my friend. This bunch probably would…

        “Boobies?! What boobies?!? All I saw was that split infinitive and the dangling participle!”

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      • Well-Beered Englishman says:

        Common porn site typos:

        girl-on-grill action!
        kicky fetish
        her enormous beasts

        …and most disturbing for late ’90s Tigers fans…

        steamy hot ficking!

        Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Mike Newman says:

      You are a good man Woodrum! Your patience under fire from the grammar police is noted!

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    • Jason H says:

      …christ, don’t tell people that. It was bad enough when we thought you typed it up and hit submit without a second thought….

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  10. Cidron says:

    Wow guys. More people ripping the author for his typo than legit comments of the content. Guess you guys didnt read the other posts regarding the typo.. Once was enough, twice got the point across, those that were in excess *shakes his head* .. what point were YOU trying to get across that wasnt already stated?

    +13 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Jason B says:

      THIS.

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    • Jon L. says:

      I think people are equating the level of confusion they felt with the magnitude of blame. Perhaps some Fangraphs readers are a little OCD and are not so good at set-switching.

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  11. wont let me post without a name says:

    It’ll be tough to get into the Hall since he will probably get punished by the voters for the ballpark he played in like Jim Rice was. Except Helton actually put up very good road numbers, unlike Rice, even if they weren’t amazing like his home stats were. I hope he gets in someday.

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  12. Jim says:

    Comment about Fangraphs authors editing their work

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  13. Jason B says:

    I like some of the names that were chosen to represent different points on the graph. In particular, that Dale Sveum is at the very bottom, and was a major-league hitting coach (and now the manager for a team that is like 9,000 games below .500).

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    • CJ says:

      Better is that known saber-hater Joe Morgan leads the list. Morgan’s attitude toward sabermetrics always amused me, because the sabermetrically-inclined fan is almost certain to rate Morgan the player more than the average fan.

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  14. Good post. I don’t think he’s finished, he’ll still has some pop, but there is no doubt that he isn’t hitting the ball hard as often as he has in the past. I think that has more to do with his low BABIP than luck. Not to say luck hasn’t been a factor at all, but there are nights when he looks lost at the plate. He’s not the scapegoat though. You’d be hard pressed to find a Rockies fan trying to blame this mess on Helton.

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  15. Helton sure seems to be hitting balls with less authority and control than we are used to, but:

    >He has a line drive rate above 25% and above his career rate.
    >He still strikes out less than he walks.
    >His strike out rate is right around career levels.
    >most interesting, his ISO is the highest it has been since 2005.

    His peripherals suggest not only does he have a lot in the tank, but that he’s about as good as he’s been since 05. He is doing everything as normal except collecting singles. I don’t buy that completely, but I’d sooner be convinced he’s as an effective hitter as he was in 2007 as I would believe his career is on its last legs.

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  16. Billion Memes says:

    I’m pretty sure there’s a huge typo in your article Braddddley. Just thought you’d like to know. Helton sort of reminds me of Mark Grace. Lots of walks, lots of doubles. I think Coors probably helped his power numbers in his prime. A lot of his high babip’s over the years are likely due to him just being a good hitter, hitting the ball hard, etc. I for one think his decline this year is partially explained away by SSS luck, but also explained by age eroding his hitting skills a bit. However, to scapegoat Helton for the Rockies demise this year is ridiculous.

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  17. Grant says:

    I think Craig Biggio would have something to say about this

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  18. everdiso says:

    Typical Rays fan not editing their sh*t.

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  19. Billy Beane says:

    I’ll take him next year

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  20. themick says:

    TheToddfather may or may not be done but one thig for certain is that his overall numbers are head and shoulders above Sandbergs. And oh how everybody thought that yahoo was so darn good. Put Heltons stats up against his and then ask yourself does Todd belong in the HOF or why is Sandberg
    in the HOF.
    Might as well get this off my chest while I’m at it. Who gives a rats tail about proof reading, if you can’t figure out what is written or how it is spelled maybe this isn’t really the forum for you. Lets keep to the subject and forget about the ten or so comments that do not pertain to baseball ar it’s players.
    Just one Grumpy Old SOB putting in his two cents worth.

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  21. Jello says:

    There are still typos. Writers are not allowed to say “but the content is good” in response to typos. If you want people to view you as a professional, rather than some teenager that knows how to use Excel, you need to be typo-free.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • If you don’t mind then:

      Writers are not allowed to say[insert comma here] “but the content is good[insert comma or exclamation point here]” in response to typos.

      As a result, I will disregard your content.

      +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Jello says:

        I am an anonymous internet commenter, and, like all of my ilk, my contributions are pretty much worthless. But you’re putting your name on this article, which otherwise is quite good, and so there should be no obvious mistakes. I’m not hating, or anything like it. Silly typos, of which there are a lot on Fangraphs, make an article feel unprofessional and mailed-in. Sure, the NYT makes mistakes, too, but that doesn’t make it all right.

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    • Jigglin says:

      LIFE – time to get one, Jello.

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  22. Bookbook says:

    The New York times has typos. Every book I’ve ever read had typos. I’m Fairly sure life emerged due to a teensy miscue in the laws of physics…. About Helton: better or worse career than John Olerud?

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    • Olerud is a very close proxy. I would say they’re about even, though I think UZR undervalues first basemen a fair amount, which could give Helton the edge. And if Todd goes two or three more seasons, than he is the clear victor.

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    • Trevor says:

      The points in favor of Olerud would be fielding and park effects… depends on how much you weigh them.

      Olerud was one of the best fielding first basemen I’ve seen. I think his influence was a huge reason the late 1990s Mets and early 2000s Mariners. Helton’s been a pretty decent fielder most of his career, but he’s no Olerud there. The metrics I’ve been able to find seem to back this up, though a lot of the metrics don’t seem to go back far enough, especially for Olerud. The “fielding value” on their Fangraphs pages rates Olerud as creating a little less than twice as much value as Helton as a fielder in their careers.

      While Helton’s obviously created more raw value as a hitter, he was helped a lot by playing in Coors, while Olerud played his home games in SkyDome (rated as slightly hitter friendly his first couple of years before becoming neutral in 1993… the year Coors opened), Shea (slightly pitcher friendly) and Safeco (pitcher friendly). I still think Helton was a better hitter, but how much better?

      I think Olerud would’ve raked in Coors… small sample size, but he did manage .393/.493/.590 in the 19 games he did get to play there… Helton-esque numbers, right? Though pretty much all those bats were against Rockies pitchers of the late nineties; a lot of visiting players put up Helton numbers at Coors in those days.

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