Thursday, January 20, 2022

Baseball Hall of Fame ballot: How Todd Helton is deservedly making his way toward Cooperstown

Long-time Rockies first baseman Todd Helton is on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the fourth time here in the 2022 cycle. He’s already seen a significant leap forward with the following percentages, needing 75 percent to become a Hall of Famer.

Here’s a look at his recent uptick:

  • 2019: 16.5%
  • 2020: 29.2%
  • 2021: 44.9%

That’s some serious momentum that should only continue as the voting body continues to evolve. In perusing comments on social media in Hall of Fame arguments, it seems worth reiterating here a point I make every year in the aftermath of the vote. It is regarding people questioning how vote totals can change so much. 

First, the ballot is different every single year and your vote is capped at 10 players. If there was no max, I might side with the people who believe vote totals shouldn’t move much. But with the max, it’s entirely plausible to see a good number of voters who believe more than 10 players are worthy of their vote. And then once a chunk of those worthy players come off the ballot, some of the players previously deemed worthy-but-missing-the-cut now get a vote. 

Remember, the voting body changes, too. There are voters who lose their voting eligibility and other scribes gain voting eligibility. 

In taking these two factors into account, it really isn’t difficult to see how the voting percentage of a player like Helton could change drastically over the course of several years. Especially moving forward with Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa in their 10th and final year on the current ballot, there will certainly be more open spots for Helton next year. 

There’s also simple mind changing. It happens. The voters are human. I re-evaluate every single player every single vote cycle in anticipation of getting my first ballot in 2024. I’m not unique. Many current voters do this every offseason. 

With Helton in particular, I believe we’re seeing a case unfold that pretty well illustrates the continued evolution of the voting body. 

Obviously throughout the years and decades, criteria on what constitutes a Hall of Famer has been evolving a bit. Sure, some of the most important stats remain, but we’ve moved through phases. There was the era where the triple crown stats mattered the most for first basemen like Helton. With the 369 career homers and 1,406 RBI, that might be a bit behind for some voters, especially with Helton’s longevity. 

Then we moved into knowing how important the triple-slash was. For Helton, that looks stellar at .316/.414/.539. 

Of course, there was the Coors Field factor. It’s so much easier to hit at Coors Field! So we have to discount Helton’s line, right? Just look at his 2000 season. 

Helton in 2000 led the NL in hits, doubles, RBI, average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, total bases and WAR. It wasn’t just that he didn’t win MVP. He finished fifth. Hardly anyone blinked at the time. If you search for articles about Helton being snubbed for MVP that season, you’ll mostly find a bunch of articles from these past few years. At the time, it was pretty well accepted he had a really good season that was artificially enhanced by Coors Field. 

And, really, we should adjust for ballpark. It’s one of the reasons we use stats like wRC+ or OPS+. Of course, Helton’s OPS+ in 2000 was third in the NL. It’s not like Coors was taking some glorified slapper into Barry Bonds territory. 

So, yes, give us the context, but let’s make sure to attempt to keep things in proper context without going overboard. On that front, we now know what a disadvantage playing 81 games in Coors is when a player heads out to the road. 

In raw triple slash (AVG/OBP/SLG) and runs scored, it’s pretty easy to predict every single season that the Rockies, regardless of personnel, will be one of the best offensive teams in baseball at home and one of the worst on the road. It’s something in the combination of the thin air — with what it does to both the movement of pitched balls and how the batted balls fly — and the gigantic outfield dimensions. Players make adjustments to hitting in Coors Field and then when they hit the road, it doesn’t work out. The pitchers are better, the ball doesn’t fly as much and the outfielders are closer. 

It seems that with Larry Walker getting into the Hall in 2020 and now Helton making a big push, the voters have started to come around to the context of the situation that, yeah, we need to factor in what Coors does for offense at home, but also what it does to hurt it on the road. 

Helton’s career 133 OPS+ doesn’t show a mediocre offensive player in the least. In his full case workup last year, I noted gigantic home/road splits in other Hall of Famers like Jim Rice, Roy Campanella, Kirby Puckett and Hank Greenberg. 

I also think there’s something to be said for Helton’s defense at first base. It is the least important defensive position, but it’s still important. 

Total Zone Runs attempts to figure the number of runs above or below average the player was worth at his position based upon the number of plays made, which means there’s a range component (think about a player not being able to get to a grounder versus one making a diving stop). Helton is second in MLB history among first baseman after Keith Hernandez, a legendary defender. 

In addition to the range, Helton had a great arm. He ranks second in MLB history in assists as a first baseman after Eddie Murray.

JAWS isn’t perfect (nothing is), but it measures Helton’s overall career as the 15th best in baseball history among first basemen. The JAWS figure of 54.2 is also exactly the average of the 22 current Hall of Fame first baseman. 

If we generally accept this measure has some accuracy, a player who is equal to the average Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer. This player happens to be one with a pretty damn good case in several other areas as well. And while it’s a new franchise, Helton is the best and most iconic Rockies player ever, too. 

Helton is now moving toward Hall of Fame enshrinement and it seems the correct call. 

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