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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.