Coors Field aside, Rockies first baseman Todd Helton has been an offensive force in his own right. Colorado’s first-round pick in the 1995 draft has a career 142 wRC+, meaning his park and league-adjusted weighted on-base average is 42 percent better than the league average. Possessing zen-like plate discipline and plus power, Helton has been a fixture in the Rockies’ lineup for 14 years.
A back injury sapped Helton’s bat and ended his season early in 2008 (105 wRC+, with a .124 ISO), but he rebounded in 2009 to produce a quality 135 wRC+. While no longer a massive power threat, Helton’s ISO rebounded to .164. Heading into 2010, CHONE and ZiPS expected some decline for the 36-year-old. The FANS were more optimistic:
CHONE: 125 wRC+, .146 ISO
ZiPS: 132 wRC+, .151 ISO
FANS: 140 wRC+, .167 ISO
Helton is still drawing plenty of free passes this season, walking in 15.9 percent of his plate appearances and swinging at just 18 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (27.4% MLB average in 2010). But his power output has dried up like a banquet beer in the blazing sun.
Among big league hitters with at least 100 PA, Helton’s .036 ISO ranks ahead of only Cesar Izturis (.021) and Juan Pierre (.007). Entering play Monday, Helton has yet to hit a single home run. Even with his on-base chops, Helton’s bat has been 15 percent worse than the MLB average in 2010 (85 wRC+).
Nothing much has changed with his batted ball distribution. Helton’s hitting line drives 27.5 percent of the time (25.3% average since 2002), ground balls 35.2 percent (35.7% since ’02) and fly balls 37.4 percent (39.1% since ’02). However, the lefty batter is pulling the ball less and hitting more to the opposite field, an approach that generally leads to less pop. Here are Helton’s spray numbers this year compared to 2009 (from Baseball-Reference):
sOPS+ is a stat that compares a batter’s park-adjusted performance in a given split to that of the league average. An sOPS+ of 100 is average, while an sOPS+ above 100 means the hitter is better than the league average.
In ’09, Helton was excellent when he pulled the ball, besting the league average by 43 percent. He also did pretty well when hitting to the middle and opposite fields. This year, his pull percentage is down, and he has been nine percent worse than the league average when he hits the ball to right field. Note the big increase in pitches hit to the opposite field, 17.2% in ’09 to 27.8% in 2010, and his abysmal performance when going oppo (40 sOPS+).
According to our Pitch Type Run Values, Helton has typically slammed fastballs (+1.50 runs per 100 pitches seen since 2002). But in 2010, he’s at -0.44 runs per 100 when he gets challenged with a heater.
It’s dangerous to draw bold conclusions from a month and a half of games. But Helton’s mild performance when pulling the ball, increased percentage of pitches hit to the opposite field and problems against fastballs paint the picture of a player whose bat has slowed. Helton likely won’t continue to “compete” with Izturis and Pierre for the title of least powerful hitter in the majors –his rest-of-season ZiPS calls for a .284/.394/.417 line with a .132 ISO–but his days of cracking lots of extra-base hits are over.
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