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The Todd Helton Situation

As of June 15th the Rockies were 3.5 games behind the Padres for first place in the NL West and the general consensus is that the team is underperforming. With the pitching staff sporting a solid FIP of 3.67 (2nd in the NL) the finger pointing has turned to the offense. Whether or not the offense is to blame for the team’s “woes” (I’m somewhat skeptical, can you tell?) one thing is for sure, something is wrong with Todd Helton. Helton is experiencing what people are calling a “season long slump” (to which Chris Iannetta asks, “So does that mean there is such a thing as a ‘career long slump’?”) hitting .255/.361/.323 with 1 HR. He’s moved from third in the team’s batting order to sixth, and recently has moved back up to second in an attempt to get him kick started. Here I’ll examine what is different this year and why. First let’s take a closer look at what we already know: in 2010 Todd Helton sucks at hitting.

The first thing that should pop out at you here is not Helton’s subpar 2010 numbers, but how good his career numbers are. As a player ages and younger, faster, stronger, better looking players come along it’s easy to forget how great a veteran’s career has been, especially one as consistently good as Helton. Sure the T-1000 was super awesome with its mimetic metal alloy and shapeshifting and whatnot, but who paved the way for him? I’ll tell you who: Todd Helton.

Now look at those subpar 2010 numbers. Pretty bad. We are into June and Helton has accumulated a healthy 227 plate appearances. He hasn’t had a month with a wOBA higher than .335, in fact, he hasn’t had any period of anything close to resembling his career production all year. For a veteran player known for his solid swing mechanics and meticulous approach to hitting, it would seem that he would have figured it out by now. Or figured something out, it doesn’t even have to be IT. Just something.

“Maybe it’s just bad luck”, you say. Well, his BABIP is a pretty solid .309. Sure, it’s lower than his career mark of .336, but it’s not bad by any means. It’s not .318 wOBA bad. Of qualified players with BABIP’s between .300 and .310 only three of 19 have lower wOBA’s than Helton. Luck and BABIP have little to do with it.

Maybe he’s lost his great eye and is swinging at bad pitches. There might actually be something to this as it was reported that Helton was fitted with contact lenses on June 7th. However, nobody in that article seemed overly convinced they had fingered the culprit of Helton’s lack of production. Since getting fitted for the contacts his slash line is .292/.280/.333. Even in a small 25 PA sample, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the corrective lenses fix. The real question here is one of pitch selection, has there been a change? Given that his O-Swing% is 18% vs a career 17.6% chasing doesn’t seem to be the problem. If he were having problems recognizing pitch location or type his walk rates would most likely take a hit as well, but that’s not the case either. He has a solid BB% of 14.1% (career 14.5%). He seems to be seeing the ball just fine.

So what then? Where does that leave us? Is he really in a “season long slump”? A 227 PA aberration? Maybe, but let’s look at a few more pieces of data. One of the numbers that jumps out at me most is Helton’s 2010 K%. Known as someone who is a notoriously good two-strike hitter he has a career K% of 13.7% and has never had a K% above 17.7% (in 2001, when he posted an ISO of .349, so we’ll take it). As of June 15 Todd’s 2010 K% is 18.8%, the highest of his career and a far cry from the 13.4% of 2009. Helton has struck out 36 times in 192 AB in 2010, in 2009 he had 73 in 544. At his current pace he will accrue 102 strikeouts over 544 AB. He’s only ever K’d more than 100 times in a season once. Ok, now we’re getting somewhere: his balls in play are falling at a relatively normal rate, he’s not chasing pitches, he’s getting his walks, but he’s striking out at an abnormal rate. Maybe pitchers have changed how they approach Helton. Here is the pitch type data for 2009 and 2010 from TexasLeaguers.com:



Comparing these two tables gives us some interesting bits of information. If anything we can see that Todd is handling offspeed pitches better. Not only is he seeing more sliders (SL) and changeups (CH), but he is swinging at them less and whiffing less. This could be a pitch recognition issue, but I see something more glaring and problematic: fastballs (FF). Against fastballs his whiff rate is up, while foul and in play rates are down. Not only is he putting fewer fastballs into play, when he does put them into play he’s not doing much with them. Here’s what Helton did with fastballs put into play in 2009:

It’s clear that Helton sprayed fastballs all over the field pretty equally, and mashed mistakes to right field. Now take a look at 2010:

Big difference. The majority of the balls in play are to left field, and the mistakes he hits are obviously not going as far (as evidenced by his one home run). Granted, Helton has a history of driving the ball to the opposite field, but he has also shown the ability to hit fastballs to all parts of the park, something he is clearly not doing as effectively in 2010.

So what’s behind the Todd Helton Situation? All of this data suggests a slower bat. If you’ve watched him play you’ve no doubt seen him get beat by some pretty mediocre fastballs. Keep in mind Todd is going to turn 37 this year. Sure he played wonderfully in 2009 posting an OPS of .904, but that was coming off a year in which he only played in 83 games. Since 1961 only 22 players have had multiple seasons with an OPS of .900+ past age 35. The thing about bat speed is that once it’s gone it’s gone. The one hope is that there is a hitch or something mechanical in his swing that’s causing this, but, as I pointed out before, a hitter as good as Todd with the help of Don Baylor would have most likely identified a mechanical flaw by now.

As far as his numbers are concerned, if he continues to get regular at bats there does seem to be room for a small amount of regression (the good kind in this case). Will it be enough to keep him in the lineup? If not, what are the Rockies’ options? And what about next year and the year after that?