Todd Helton had a pretty nice major league career for a backup quarterback. The one-time Tennessee QB announced he'll retire at the end of the season, after a 17-year career that has seen him hit .317 with 367 home runs, 2,505 hits and 1,397 RBIs.
While Rockies fans get to say goodbye, the question for the rest of us: Is he a Hall of Famer?
That's really a two-part question, of course: (1) Does he deserve to make the Hall of Fame. (2) What are his chances?
The initial reaction of many may be to compare him to Don Mattingly, another first baseman who had a high peak value but suffered back issues that hurt his effectiveness. As you can see from the list below of recent first basemen, however, Mattingly isn't really in the same ballpark as Helton. The list includes each player's career WAR and then their best five consecutive seasons.
Jeff Bagwell 79.5 (five-year peak: 34.4)
Jim Thome 72.8 (26.9)
Rafael Palmeiro 71.8 (26.3)
Mark McGwire 62.0 (29.8)
Todd Helton 61.1 (37.4)
John Olerud 58.0 (27.0)
Will Clark 56.4 (27.7)
Fred McGriff 52.6 (26.7)
Jason Giambi 51.2 (34.7)
Carlos Delgado 44.3 (26.1)
Don Mattingly 42.2 (28.8)
Helton is way ahead of Mattingly in both career value and peak value -- Helton, in fact, has the best five-year peak on the board. That period ran from 2000 to 2004, when he hit .349/.450/.643 while averaging 37 home runs and 123 RBIs. While Helton hit .300 five times after that, he was never the same in the power department, reaching 20 home runs just once and never again reaching 100 RBIs.
As superficial as that 100-RBI barrier is, it could work against Helton since first base is viewed as an RBI position -- a reason great all-around players like Olerud and Keith Hernandez fared poorly in Hall of Fame voting -- and he topped that 100 mark just five times. Like those two, however, Helton earned value with his glove (since 1950, he ranks seventh on Baseball-Reference's list with 73 runs saved at first base). As good as Helton was at the plate, his offensive WAR actually rates below that of Giambi, McGriff and Clark, and just ahead of Delgado.
Some of that is the Coors Field factor in measuring his value. He's hit .345/.442/.607 at home (225 home runs) versus .287/.386/.470 on the road (142 home runs). That's another knock against Helton, in the same way it's hurt former Rockies teammate Larry Walker, who has hovered at just over 20 percent of the vote in his three years on the ballot. In fact, compare their career numbers:
Helton: .317/.415/.539, 133 OPS+, 367 HR, 1,397 RBI, 2,505 H, 1,394 R, 37 SB
Walker: .313/.400/.565, 141 OPS+, 383 HR, 1,311 RBI, 2,160 H, 1,355 R, 230 SB
Walker won an MVP and didn't get to spend his entire career in Denver. I don't see a whole lot separating those two, except Walker was a Gold Glove right fielder and Helton a Gold Glove first baseman. I'd have to rate Walker the better Hall of Fame candidate (his career WAR is also much higher, at 72.6), but the fact that he hasn't fared well in voting probably doesn't bode well for Helton.
If Helton hadn't suffered the back problems, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Three more peak years and he'd be a slam dunk. But like Mattingly, that's not what happened. There's also the issue that none of those first basemen above separated themselves from the pack, except Bagwell, who received 60 percent of the Hall of Fame vote last year, putting him on path to get to the needed 75 percent. Palmeiro and McGwire obviously have no shot right now given their PED history, but voters haven't given much support for McGriff (493 home runs, 1,550 RBIs), either.
For me, Helton falls just under the line. Take away Coors Field, and I wonder if he's John Olerud. That's not meant as a criticism, just that nobody thinks of Olerud as a Hall of Famer. I think Helton's initial time on the ballot will mirror Walker's -- about 20 percent of the vote.