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Todd Helton: One Of Fantasy Baseball’s First Studs

Todd Helton is now retired. I’m sad to see him leave the game, and I think everyone else is as well. Dude is legend.

Now, these positional profiles have generally focused on how things changed for a player, sustainability and 2014 outlook. At the end of the first base series, however, I wanted to just look back and appreciate Helton, who, it turns out, was one of the top stars of the beginning of the ‘modern era’ of fantasy baseball.

Now, Helton wasn’t fantasy relevant this year. He hit 15 home runs, sure, but his average sat at .249 and he ranked just 39th among first base eligible players in terms of total fantasy value.

This has actually been common over the past six years or so; Helton had a surprisingly strong 2011 (thanks, .302 average) and a solid 2009 (.325), but 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013 all saw him ranked outside the top-30 at the position. There’s nothing wrong with that for a player in his age 34 to 39 seasons, and the fact that he even had two useful seasons in there is impressive.

But he was off the fantasy radar for the most part, and it may leave some forgetting just how dominant he once was. There was a time when Helton was the league’s premiere hitting first baseman.

Year 1B Rank Age
2013 39 39
2012 43 38
2011 16 37
2010 33 36
2009 14 35
2008 43 34
2007 12 33
2006 17 32
2005 9 31
2004 2 30
2003 2 29
2002 4 28
2001 1 27
2000 1 26
1999 n/a 25
1998 n/a 24
1997 n/a 23

When Helton’s career started in 1997, fantasy baseball was still somewhat in it’s infancy. By the time Helton was 25 (1999), though, things were beginning to grow. The internet was becoming more of a household item, Yahoo opened its first fantasy games, and the Fantasy Sports Trade Association was created to officially organize and promote the industry.

While fantasy baseball games in some incarnation have existed for a very long time, the way it’s currently played is relatively new to the past 15 years or so.

And Helton was one of the game’s first stars. From 2000 to 2004, he topped all first basemen in average, runs and RBI and ranked fourth in home runs. He ranked first, first, fourth, second and second in fantasy value at the position in those years. In fact, his 2000 season (.372-138-147-42-5) was the most valuable hitter season at any position, and his 2011 (.336-132-146-49-7) trailed only Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.

Section Age PA PA Rank AVG AVG Rank R R Rank RBI RBI Rank HR HR Rank SB SB Rank
1997-2013 23-39 9453 1 0.316 3 1401 2 1406 3 369 7 37 16
2000-2004 26-30 3448 1 0.349 1 627 1 615 1 186 4 20 10
2006-2013 32-39 4026 15 0.289 7 477 17 491 19 98 30 4 45

Helton was successful in part because of the park he played his home games in (Coors Field), but his wRC+, which adjusts for environment, had a valley of 141 in his peak stretch. He was not a ballpark mirage, using elite discipline, a strong contact rate for a so-called slugger and a beautiful line-drive swing to provide elite, balanced production regardless of the park.

Of course, there’s always the drop off.

In Helton’s case, he started swinging a bit less and making contact a bit more, though his strikeout rate climbed in his later years. In terms of his batted ball profile, he hit more groundballs at the expense of a few line drives and fly balls. Coupled with a decline from his peak years of HR/FB rate, his drop in power is understandable. His drop in average was somewhat due to BABIP, which also shouldn’t be surprising – he slowed down as he got older, and high BABIPs tend to be difficult to maintain with age.

His decline, then, wasn’t really unique. Small changes (strikeouts, speed, power) accumulated and he got worse in his later years. This was and is no surprise.

The reason I wrote this up wasn’t really to break things down analytically as we normally do. But in reflecting on Helton’s career towards the end of the 2013 season, especially following his emotional press conference, I realized I had forgotten just how good Helton was for an appreciable amount of time.

Helton retires as a likely Hall of Famer. He should also find himelf in the unofficial Fantasy Baseball Hall of Fame, as he was truly one of the game’s first studs.