On Sunday, Rockies stalwart Todd Helton notched the 2,500th hit of his career. Fittingly, it was a double -- Helton now has 584 of them, good for 17th on the all-time list. This benchmark and the likelihood that Helton won't reach the next one (he's 40, not hitting much these days and in the final year of his contract) raise the matter of Helton's Hall of Fame chances.
In vacuum, it would be an easy call. After all, those hits and those doubles plus a career slash line of .317/.415/.540, three Gold Gloves and no whiff of PED use (always a consideration these days, given recent voting habits), Helton would be an easy admit. However, Helton has spent the majority of his career at Coors Field, a mile above sea level, and not in a vacuum. Insofar as his Cooperstown merits are concerned, there's no getting around the fact that of his 9,366 career plate appearances, 4,793 -- 51.2 percent -- have come in the most hitter-philic environment in baseball history.
Larry Walker's recent plight before the voters -- he was named on just 21.6-percent of ballots last time -- suggests that Coors Field does indeed carry with it a punishing discount for a hitter, which is as it should be. With Helton, though, will that discounting be enough to keep him out? Let's have a look at some numbers.
Over at the unspeakably necessary Baseball-Reference.com, they provide a nifty snapshot of each player's Hall of Fame case. Here's what Helton's looks like:
For the unitiated, here's what you're looking at:
Black Ink ... is a Bill James metric that measures how often a player led the league in a traditional statistic and, as you can see, compares his figure to the average Hall of Famer.
Gray Ink ... is another James tool that is similar to Black Ink but evaluates a player based on annual top-10 finishes rather than times leading the league.
Hall of Fame Monitor ... also by James, gauges how likely a player is to be inducted into the Hall. Note that the Monitor doesn't have anything to do with how deserving a player is.
Hall of Fame Standards ... again by James, assesses to what extent a player merits induction based on his total career value (as opposed to peak value).
JAWS ... stands for "Jaffe WAR Score System. Developed by Jay Jaffe, JAWS, using WAR, compares a player to the established Hall standards of his position (first base, in Helton's case) for total career and seven-year peak value and then arrives at a composite value. Go here for a more in-depth explanation.
As you can see from the above numbers, Helton's case is a mixed bag according to the four Bill James measures, and according to JAWS he's just shy of the average Hall of Fame first baseman. For what it's worth, though, 11 inducted first basemen have worse JAWS scores than does Helton, while just eight of those voted in best his mark of 53.9.
Does he deserve it? I would err on the side of saying no. Helton is, in my mind, right at the hazy line that divides Hall of Famers from the "merely" very good, but he's not quite over that line. Mostly, I say that because his adjusted numbers, which are recalibrated to reflect park and league conditions, don't measure up, in my mind, for a player who played the least premium position on the diamond.
That is, the standards for first basemen should be high indeed, and Helton's neutralized numbers (.292/.387/.496, 321 homers) don't quite pass muster. Mostly, I agree with JAWS, in that Helton gets it done in terms of peak value, but it's his just-a-bit-too-steep decline after age 31 that keeps him on the wrong side. On that point, his career OPS+ of 133, while excellent in broad terms, ranks just 131st all-time. That's darn good, but not quite enough for me when the subject is a first baseman's case for Cooperstown. Again, very tough call, and I wouldn't argue vigorously with anyone who thinks Helton belongs.
As for whether he gets when it comes time for the BBWAA voters to evaluate his case, I'm presently inclined to say he makes it. I think Helton will benefit greatly from not being linked to PEDs (assuming that doesn't change, of course) and his glove-work, and I also think the "one man, one team" dynamic earns candidates some credit in the free-agent era. As for Helton's offseason troubles, my perception is that off-the-field transgressions tend to matter less to current voters than, again, PED use -- never mind that driving drunk is more perilous to society than using banned substances.
Again, though, it's going to be close. Helton's not a first-ballot guy, and, assuming he retires after the 2013 season, he's going to become eligible as the changes to voting body already underway are taking even firmer hold. The new generation of voters are likely to care less about PED associations (or the lack thereof, in Helton's case), and, if my perceptions are any guide, more likely to apply the character clause to off-the-field happenings. That may hurt Helton within that bloc. With that said, I think the "old guard," which is a term I do not use as a pejorative, will still be the strongest force within the BBWAA. That should be in Helton's favor.
As well, I expect that ballot holdovers Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Tim Raines will be voted in (deservedly so, on all counts) by the time Helton is eligible. Of those not yet on the ballot but slated to be before Helton, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Ken Griffey Jr., Ivan Rodriguez, Pedro Martinez, Frank Thomas, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz should already be in. There still figures to be a bit of a bottleneck, what with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa likely to still left loitering, but it won't be as severe as it will be in the pre-Helton years to come.
To repeat, he's not going to be a first-ballot inductee, but I think Helton has enough considerations in his favor to get to 75 percent on, say, the third or fourth ballot. I probably wouldn't vote for Helton, but his election would hardly be an outrage. Even according to the most uncharitable interpretations, he's had a very, very good career.