Drafted 10th overall about nine months after some little-known guy named Peyton Manning unseated him as the starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee, Todd Helton has seen it all during his time in Colorado. He has not, however, aged very gracefully. At the age of 39 — and coming off a year in which he hit .238 in 69 games — he is once again tasked with proving there is still life in his aging bat. It will probably be his final season in a major league uniform.
The concept of the retirement tour isn’t common in sports, although we have seen it over the years. Bobby Cox and Chipper Jones are recent examples, and Mariano Rivera is about to embark on one of his own. Helton is unlikely to receive the same type of adulation, even if he does make the official proclamation that 2013 will be his final season. In fact, thanks to his drunk-driving arrest just before spring training, he may not be warmly received in visiting cities at all. Because of the injuries that have plagued him in recent years, he is also unlikely to play as well as Jones did in his last hurrah.
Helton was one of the best hitters in the early aught’s. From 2000 to 2005, his 156 wRC+ was bested only by Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Jason Giambi and Manny Ramirez. Those who point to Helton being a Coors Field-created miracle lost steam here, since wRC+ is park and league-adjusted. Since then, his career has been robbed of much of its luster. The drop is most pronounced in the Rockies’ leaderboards, where Helton once was No. 1 in nearly every category. Following the ‘05 season, he was the franchise leader in batting average and on-base percentage. But 2006 was sort of the beginning of the end. Helton hit decently enough — .302/.404/.476 for a .376 wOBA — but it wasn’t up to his standards and his career average dropped below Larry Walker‘s by the season’s end. In 2010, his poor performance did the same to his OBP.
Helton has never topped Walker on the Rockies’ leader board in wOBA or wRC+, which now puts the question of who should be considered the Rockies’ best player into sharp relief. Walker aged much more gracefully. The bearded Canadian hit .325/.431/.583 in his three final full seasons in Colorado. That’s a far cry from the .270/.366/.414 line Helton has posted the past three seasons.
Six years ago this was an altogether different debate. The Rockies were fresh off the franchise’s first World Series appearance, and while Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki were the stars of that 2007 club, Helton was the rock. He hit .320/.434/.494, good for a .401 wOBA — the eighth time he had topped .400 wOBA in nine years — and he was the emotional leader of the team. His walk-off home run in the nightcap of a doubleheader against Takashi Saito turned the Rockies’ postseason dreams from purple fantasy to stone-cold reality.
Recent seasons have not been as kind. “Age catches up with you, especially over a 162-game season,” Helton told David Laurila a few weeks ago. “You’re always making adjustments, and as you get older — and get sore every day — you have to make more and more.” Thanks to a degenerative back condition, as well as hip problems — both of which required surgery — Helton has indeed needed to make plenty of adjustments.
In 2008, a bulging disc in his back was sitting on a nerve and causing numbness and pain in his legs. That further exacerbated what was already a serious problem. Following offseason surgery, he enjoyed a comeback season in 2009 — .325/.416/.489 — disproving those who had left him for dead. He had another revival in 2011 after a poor 2010 season, but then slumped badly in 2012 thanks to his hip problem.
Now in the final season of a contract signed in March, 2001, and extended/re-worked in March, 2010, he is trying to get back into the saddle. Health — and the ability to defy Father Time — will the determining factor. Helton’s approach hasn’t changed. “I’ve always been kind of see-the-ball-hit-the-ball,” Helton said. “If I’m right, it doesn’t matter who the pitcher is.”
When the Rockies’ video crew started loading video onto players’ iPods and other mobile devices a few years ago, Helton dabbled with it but ultimately decided it was too much information. In his case, it‘s hard to argue. The Tennessee native entered the season as just one of 63 players since 1901 who has walked more times than he has struck out in his career [minimum 1,000 walks], and one of just 49 who walked more than 200 more times than he has struck out. Maybe the better phrase is see-the-ball-watch-the-ball.
While he is still able to watch the ball with the best of them, it’s been awhile since you could say Helton has been “right.” In breaking down his hitting mechanics, Helton knows there are things he can work on. “Some hand movement — getting good separation — is probably the biggest thing I’ve gotten away from,” Helton said. “Just getting the separation from my hands to my front foot, which gives you more power and that extra second to recognize pitches.” The unfortunate thing is he will have fewer opportunities to make those adjustments. The Rockies, in an effort to keep Helton healthy for the whole season, will be even more judicious with his playing time. He received his first off-day of the season in the Rockies’ third game.
More days off and hitting in the bottom half of the lineup may make it even harder for Helton to develop rhythm. Over the course of a season, lineup construction may not matter much on a team level, but Helton could probably use the extra plate appearance to get — and stay — sharp in the batter’s box. “There are certain things I have to think about to try to get my body to do what it could before,” Helton said. Hitting Helton second in the lineup on days he plays would give him the extra plate appearances he might need to get in sync.
Hitting him second is a non-starter for the Rockies, because as Denver Post reporter Troy Renck relayed over Twitter, the team is worried about him being erased on the bases — specifically in ground-ball double plays. And there’s reason for the Rockies to be concerned in this regard. From 2009 to 2012, there were 292 players who were on first base during a double-play situation (ie, zero or one out) at least 200 times. Of those 292 players, Helton ranked 15th in percent of times he was erased going to second on a double play.
|Player||# of times out at 2B in GIDP||# times on 1B in DP situation||% times out at 2B in GIDP|
Helton has been a liability on the basepaths. But does that matter, in comparison to Josh Rutledge, the player who will spend most of his time in the two-hole? Over four seasons, Helton was erased on GIDP’s 48 times, for an average of 12 times per season. If you divide 48 out by his games played during that time — 462 — the number drops ever so slightly, to 10.3. In looking at the 203 Steamer projections, we see that if we prorate the projections to 600 plate appearances, Helton is projected to reach first base (1B+BB+HBP) 35 times more than is Rutledge. So, even if Helton were to continue to be erased in double plays at his current rate, he’d still come out ahead of Rutledge.
There would be other benefits to hitting Helton second, as well. In 283 plate appearances last season, Helton walked 39 times. In 291 PA, Rutledge walked just nine times. Among players with at least 250 PA last season, Helton’s 13.8% BB% ranked eighth in the game, while Rutledge’s meager 3.1% ranked 298th out of 302 players. Helton also sees more pitches. Sticking with the minimum 250 PA threshold, Helton’s 4.14 pitches-seen-per-plate-appearance ranked 35th. Rutledge’s 3.58 P/PA ranked 258th.
Now in his 17th major league season, Helton isn’t the player he once was, but then he set the bar awfully high. And he’d be an easy addition for the next class of the “Hall of Nearly Great.” As he embarks on what could be his final season, he has to show he has yet another comeback in him. The odds are long, but he’s been counted out before.
Story by Paul Swydan. Interview by David Laurila.
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