Friday, June 17, 2011

The Todd Helton Conundrum

Last year made it easy for those who are uncomfortable with Todd Helton's place in MLB history. The long-time first baseman for the Colorado Rockies seemed to hit a wall. At the age of 36, Helton batted only .256 and finished with an OPS+ of 85. Those who were uncomfortable with Helton as one of the great first basemen of all time felt relief that for the second year out of three, Helton dealt with health issues and finished under league average in batting statistics. The bad finish mercifully left Helton short of some of those magic Hall of Fame numbers. He wouldn't be a factor for the Rockies anymore after a year like that, would he?

So here it is a year later and at 37, the new debate with Todd Helton is whether or not he should go to the All Star Game. Surprise! His resurgent 2011 coupled with a terrific 2009 now puts the whole Helton problem back to square one. Helton's place in the game is again a problem. Why is Helton's career a problem? It's not because of PEDs. It's not because he was only occasionally brilliant. He was brilliant more than he wasn't.. Helton sparks such heated debates because of where he plays his home games. Todd Helton has played half of his major league games at Coors Field, a ballpark where a special machine had to be put in place to deaden the ball a little bit to keep it from flying all through the thin air.

In some ways, the Coors aspect of Helton's career casts a larger shadow than what Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire have to deal with. At least in their cases, it can be said that they were more talented than all the other...umm....creative body changers. Neither of those players were considered to play at "easy" ballparks to hit. For years, the Colorado Rockies have been known for extreme home and away splits. Fairly or not, Todd Helton is lumped into the same category. He is the successor to Larry Walker, who finished his own questioned career short of those magic vote-worthy numbers.

Jump back now to 2011. Todd Helton has a slash line of .315/.389/.523 while playing impressively in the field. In this second year of the new era of the pitcher, those numbers add up to a 133 OPS+. Ah, but what about that troublesome Coors home and away split? Uh oh. Problem. Helton's road OPS this season is .953. His home OPS is .880.

And what of his home and away splits for his career? Okay, maybe you have a smoking gun there. His career road OPS is .875. That's still pretty darn good. But his home OPS for his career is 1.076. That's a 200 point difference. Helton has hit 76 more homers at home than on the road. That is consistent with his slugging percentage at home being 140 points higher.

But Helton is certainly not the first player to have extreme splits at home and on the road. Wade Boggs finished with a home OPS 147 points higher than on the road. Ernie Banks had a home split 110 points higher than on the road. Sandy Koufax had a home ERA that was 56 points lower than on the road. Players don't often choose where they get to play their home games. Sometimes those home games work for you and sometimes they don't.

But Helton has performed in the age of knowledge. More Hall of Fame voters are conscious of advanced analyses. And as such, his historical context will be more hotly debated than perhaps Ernie Banks was in his time on the ballot. It is because of this new reality that Helton's sub-par 2010 made those bracing for such a debate to sigh in huge relief. 2011 adds another dimension to the future debate. Helton's Hall of Fame Gray Ink is already over standard. His Hall of Fame Monitor and Standards are already in black ink. The debate will happen. It would have happened if 2010 ended his career. The season he's putting together in 2011 will not make the debate any easier.

Now should he make the All Star Team?

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