The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2019 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Baseball at high altitude is weird. The air is less dense, so pitched balls break less and batted balls carry farther — conditions that greatly favor the hitters. Meanwhile, reduced oxygen levels make breathing harder, physical exertion more costly, and recovery times longer. Ever since major league baseball arrived in Colorado in 1993, no player put up with more of this, the pros and cons of playing at a mile-high elevation, than Todd Helton.
A Knoxville native whose career path initially led to the gridiron, ahead of Peyton Manning on the University of Tennessee quarterback depth chart, Helton shifted his emphasis back to baseball in college and spent his entire 17-year career (1997-2013) playing for the Rockies. “The Toddfather” was without a doubt the greatest player in franchise history, its leader in every major offensive counting stat category save for triples, stolen bases, caught stealing, and sacrifice hits, none of which were major parts of his game. He made five All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves, a slash line triple crown — leading in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in the same season — and served as a starter and a team leader for two playoff teams, including Colorado’s only pennant winner. He posted batting averages above .300 12 times, on-base percentages above .400 nine times, and slugging percentages above .500 eight times. He mashed 40 doubles or more seven times and 30 homers or more six times; twice, he topped 400 total bases, a feat that only one other player (Sammy Sosa) has repeated in the post-1960 expansion era. He drew at least 100 walks in a season five times, yet only struck out 100 times or more once; nine times, he walked more than he struck out.
Because Helton did all of this while spending half of his time at Coors Field, many dismiss his accomplishments without second thought. That he did so with as little self-promotion as possible — and scarcely more exposure — while toiling for a team that had the majors’ sixth-worst record during his tenure makes such dismissal that much easier, and as does the drop-off at the tail end of his career, when injuries, most notably chronic back woes, had sapped his power. He was “The Greatest Player Nobody Knows,” as the New York Times called him in 2000, a year when he flirted with a .400 batting average into September.
Thanks to Helton’s staying power, and to advanced statistics that adjust for the high-offense environment in a particularly high-scoring period in baseball history, we can more clearly see that he ranked among his era’s best players — and has credentials that wouldn’t be out of place in Cooperstown. But to an even greater extent than former teammate Larry Walker, a more complete player who spent just 59% of his career with the Rockies, Helton’s candidacy is off to a slow start. He received just 16.5% of the vote in his first year, 3.8% less than Walker did in his 2011 debut. Hopefully, he can benefit from a less crowded ballot than Walker faced for much of his candidacy, but he’s a long ways from Cooperstown right now.
2020 BBWAA Candidate: Todd Helton
|Avg. HOF 1B
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