Todd Helton Tries To Ride Again

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
Alfonso Soriano 46 336 13.7%
Nick Markakis 75 578 13.0%
Giancarlo Stanton 38 293 13.0%
Carlos Quentin 44 353 12.5%
Paul Konerko 64 535 12.0%
Brennan Boesch 36 308 11.7%
A.J. Pierzynski 46 405 11.4%
Jason Kipnis 23 203 11.3%
Lance Berkman 48 424 11.3%
Pat Burrell 25 225 11.1%
Bobby Abreu 54 490 11.0%
Vernon Wells 40 364 11.0%
Omar Vizquel 24 220 10.9%
Nick Johnson 25 232 10.8%
Todd Helton 48 446 10.8%
Josh Willingham 49 456 10.7%
Delmon Young 42 394 10.7%
Freddy Sanchez 31 291 10.7%
Jim Thome 27 254 10.6%
Matt Wieters 44 417 10.6%
Carlos Lee 50 477 10.5%
Chris Davis 24 229 10.5%
Adam Lind 40 384 10.4%
Jon Jay 33 317 10.4%
Adam LaRoche 37 359 10.3%
Jeff Keppinger 41 398 10.3%
Jason Kubel 42 408 10.3%
David Eckstein 27 263 10.3%
Nelson Cruz 39 381 10.2%
Carlos Beltran 40 392 10.2%
Adam Dunn 49 483 10.1%
Mitch Maier 24 237 10.1%
Adam Kennedy 37 368 10.1%
Joe Mauer 55 552 10.0%
Denard Span 57 575 9.9%
Jhonny Peralta 46 465 9.9%
Mitch Moreland 21 213 9.9%
Brad Hawpe 25 254 9.8%
Justin Morneau 34 346 9.8%
Omar Infante 43 439 9.8%
Adrian Gonzalez 61 623 9.8%
Garrett Jones 35 358 9.8%
Scott Podsednik 32 328 9.8%
Andre Ethier 51 523 9.8%
Yadier Molina 43 444 9.7%
Danny Espinosa 26 270 9.6%
Hunter Pence 50 522 9.6%
Vladimir Guerrero 29 303 9.6%
Geovany Soto 31 324 9.6%
Ryan Sweeney 28 296 9.5%

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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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN Insider. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

21 Responses to “Todd Helton Tries To Ride Again”

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  1. Table says:

    Borderline hall of famer for me. Better than Fred McGriff, Carlos Delgado, and Derek Lee, but not as good as Pujols, Bagwell, Thome, and Thomas. Not sure what to do with him to be honest…..I guess If I’m saying yes to Berkman I can say yes to Helton too.

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  2. Hurtlockertwo says:

    A bad, over the hill, Todd Helton is still better than a yong, good James Looney.

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  3. Jmpmk2 says:

    Plays better defense than any of those guys ever did, and his well-rounded hitting stats are truly remarkable. In an era full of slugs who hit nothing but home runs, Helton did it all, and can be found on countless all-time lists.

    I hope MLB eventually sees the advantages of Coors Field aren’t any different than, say, the embarrassingly short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium. The exclusion of Larry Walker and — eventually — Todd Helton from the Hall of Fame has been bad for marketing baseball in Colorado and needs to change. These were two of the best baseball players of their era, no matter how you twist it.

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  4. elstunk says:

    Being Mr.Rocky gives him 2 extra credit points…which puts him 1pt over my line for HOF. Great career.

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  5. Urban Shocker says:

    In terms of the GIDP chart-is that a really meaningful number?
    I notice for instance that Helton is at 10.8%, but all the separates him from Denard Span is .9%?

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  6. Stuck in a Slump says:

    I’ve seen a rash of Rockies fans belly aching about the lineup claiming that Tulo should bat lower than fourth in the order, and raving about Rutledge batting second and it absolutely baffles me.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been flamed for claiming that Helton should be batting second and Tulo should be batting third (there really isn’t a better hitter on the Rockies when Tulo is healthy) with CarGo fourth.

    I would think that the ideal lineup would have to be the following:

    Fowler CF
    Helton 1B
    Tulowitzki SS
    Gonzalez LF
    Cuddyer RF
    Rosario C
    Insert 3B of the day
    Rutledge 2B
    Pitcher

    Rutledge would have to learn some plate discipline in the 8th spot as opposing pitchers are far more likely to try to pitch around him to get the pitcher up, plus his speed on the base paths would help him avoid a GIDP if the pitcher’s bunt goes bad (or he could steal if the situation warrants it).

    Helton has been a joy to watch when he’s healthy, and I really hope that if this will indeed be his final year that he can stay healthy and leave Rockies fans with positive memories instead of the one where he’s chronically injured and has lost his pop.

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    • jmpmk2 says:

      Basing Rutledge’s OBP ability on one half of a rookie season is pretty silly too. He’s a great candidate to grow confidence sandwiched in between three All-Star level players, and can be effective in that role with his speed and legitimate power. Rutledge may be holding that spot down for Arenado, but I think he’s the right player for the job in the meantime.

      What I would like to see every third day is yesterday’s lineup, with Eric Young Jr. leading off and Fowler hitting second. That’s serious OBP in front of Tulo and Cargo.

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      • Paul Swydan says:

        It’s not. Rutledge’s BB% has declined at every level. If he was seeing an above-average number of pitches per plate appearance, like say Will Middlebrooks, then perhaps the low BB% would not be a red flag. But in tandem, Rutledge’s decline in BB% and low P/PA in the majors define him pretty clearly as a hacker at this point in time.

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        • jmpmk2 says:

          Or a 22-year old, who skipped AAA to the majors and was too busy hitting the ball well to be drawing walks. Let’s see a full season in the majors before we start drawing conclusions about his OBP skills. I don’t see anything about his swing or plate approach that would indicate a player with at least an average walk rate.

          Let’s take this up again in six months.

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    • gnomez says:

      I’d swap Cuddyer and Rosario, but other than that, it looks good.

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  7. DSC says:

    HoF, for having about 7 good years? Nah. Good player though. Given his skills and playing in Colorado you’d think he’d be up over 7 or 8 in GY (great years, a stat an Angel blogger created; guys with the most GY are Lou Gehrig and Vladimir Guerrero) or above 160 in Game Impact (a stat used by a few sabers, hopefully more soon, that isn’t biased by position or opinion, but takes what you do and applies it to the game itself; For example, how often do you go 1st to 3rd or 2nd to home on an outfield single? ROE? Those stats are included in GI).

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  8. White Blood Cells says:

    There are other factors to being the two hole hitter than “double play percentage from first”. To be honest, that stat seems practically useless; the runner on first is the easy one to get out, no matter his speed. It’s the batter that is the difficult out to record. I don’t think that stat tells us much of anything.

    Anyway, Helton is station-to-station at this point in his career. Rutledge is a contact and speed guy. Sure he’s not going to walk much, but he’s got other tools; he bunted for a base hit yesterday and he hits a lot of line drives. Also, he’s fast enough to score from first on a double in the gap from Cargo or Tulo, an event that will happen quite frequently. Helton will have to stop at 3rd.

    Finally, Rosario bats behind Helton. I would love to see a Helton-walk, Rosario-dinger combination more than a few times this year.

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    • jmpmk2 says:

      I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rosario is batting behind Helton. You want to eliminate as many ‘solo-shot’ HRs as possible. Agree on all counts.

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  9. Mr Punch says:

    Helton, to me, is kind of like Dwight Evans – a player clearly much better than some Hall of Famers (say Tony Perez), but who’s unlikely to make it because the shape of his career was somehow wrong, and because insufficient credit attaches to being a really good fielder at a bat-first position. I’ve heard people argue Don Mattingly belongs in the HOF – Helton was incomparably better.

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  10. Mike says:

    Dewie Evans had a CANON – just sayin. I used to watch him throw out runners at Royals stadium from the warning track. And that stand alone moustache!WOW

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