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Todd Helton had an off-year in 2006, hitting half the homers that he hit (please forgive the alliteration) 2 or 3 years ago. Even at that, he is still a good hitter and a fine fielder. He is now 32, and at a career crossroads.

The Tennessee-born and educated Helton was drafted with the 8th overall pick of the 1995 draft by the Rockies. He reported to the Sally League that summer and struggled, hitting .254 without power. He started 1996 in New Haven in the Eastern League, and put up almost identical numbers to Gabe Gross in his age 23 season there, .332/.425/.486. It was no fluke- Helton walked 51 times and struck out 37 in 319 at-bats. He was promoted in late season to triple A Colorado Springs, where he hit well. He opened up 1997 in Colorado Springs, and found that he could take advantage of the altitude to add power. He earned a late season cup of coffee in the Show, and did not look back.

He was immediately a good player, even allowing for Coors inflation, hitting .315 with 25 homers in his rookie season at age 24. In 1999-2000, Coors was an incredible place to hit; BBRef lists as a 129 and 131 batting park over those 2 years. Helton took full advantage, gaining power and becoming a feared slugger. In 2000-01, he hit over .350 with 91 homers and 201 walks. By 2003-04, the park was not quite so extreme, but Helton was still hitting .350 with over 30 homers and over 100 walks a season. His production has fallen off each of the last 2 seasons, with injuries playing a role. His defensive abilities have also declined some over the last 2 years, but he is still capable with the glove.

So, who are his comparables? Fine fielding first baseman with excellent control of the strike zone and good but not outstanding pop. Hmm. My nominations- Will Clark, George Sisler, Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez and John Olerud. I've thrown in Larry Walker, not because he is similar as a player, but rather to show the effect of Coors on a marginal Hall of Famer's superficial statistics. Here is the chart, as of age 32 (with Sisler's caught stealing estimated based on pro-rated data):

Helton 5106 1700 286 864 686 36 25 .333 .430 .593 143
Clark 5548 1667 218 709 920 59 44 .300 .379 .492 140
Sisler 5440 1916 81 331 233 312 171 .352 .393 .496 141
Mattingly 6173 1908 209 488 385 14 7 .309 .357 .479 130
Olerud 5902 1768 207 1016 802 11 13 .300 .404 .476 133
Hernandez 6090 1840 128 917 798 96 57 .302 .392 .445 133
Walker 4592 1431 262 532 807 190 56 .312 .389 .567 141

Context sure matters. In two of Sisler's big years, 1919 and 1920, he hit 10 and 19 homers. It doesn't sound like much, but he was 2nd in the league both seasons in homers and in slugging. He probably had about as much power as Helton. Also note that Walker at age 32 had played 1/2 his career in Montreal, a favourable pitching environment, and 1/2 in Colorado. His raw numbers would have been even higher had he played his entire career in Colorado up to that point.

Allowing for some decentralization of batting statistics in favourable hitting environments, and for Sisler's speed, it can certainly be argued that Helton, Clark and Sisler are in a tight knot, modestly ahead of Mattingly, Olerud and Hernandez. The latter 3 had been more durable as of age 32 (although Mattingly had back troubles by then, and it was pretty clear that the end of his career was not going to come close to the beginning).

Will Helton go into the Hall of Fame? Should he? Assuming a normal slow decline from here, it's a tough question on both counts. If he plays another 5-6 seasons and averages 20-25 homers and hits .300, he will put up some very impressive superficial numbers. For his career, he would likely end up a little behind Will Clark, who is out of the Hall of Fame, and a fair bit ahead of George Sisler, who is in. My guess is that he would go in, as he would be a borderline decision on merit and the superficial statistics would influence enough voters to make the difference. As for the "should he?" question, ask me in 5 years. I suspect that the answer will be "no", but I am very uncertain about it.

Next, we take a look again at the first basemen I discussed in 2004- Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Fred McGriff, Carlos Delgado and Jim Thome.
Hall Watch 2006- Todd Helton | 10 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Craig B - Monday, October 30 2006 @ 06:34 AM EST (#157299) #

Two years ago I thought Helton was on a pace to be a deserving Hall of Famer.  I'm no longer so sure; his production has slipped significantly and as a hitter (adjusted for park) he has fallen behind contemporaries such as Jason Giambi, Lance Berkman, and Vladimir Guerrero.

Obviously, if you're still being mentioned in the same phrase with these guys, who have a profile that generally fits a Hall of Famer.  And Helton's raw numbers (helped by all those years in Coors Field) are better than those adjusted nubmers.  But while analytcal types complain that the writers don't understand park effects, they claim to understand Coors Field all too well.  Unfortunately, like most analytical types, that understanding usually takes the form of writing off as indecipherable anything that happens in Denver or accomplished by a member of the Rockies.  It will take decades, not years, to put Helton in the Hall as a result.

Knowing what I know about Helton's back and having followed the situatiuon for three-plus years now (as a Todd Helton owner in fantasy ball, you grow very used to reading the entrails for guidance in interpreting descriptions of sore backs) I thjink his chance at the Hall of Fame, which rested on a couple of more batting titles, are likely gone.  What Helton needs, ironically, is for Coors to continue its decline as a hitter's paradise; once accomplished, people may one day forget about the park stuff.

Mike D - Monday, October 30 2006 @ 09:40 AM EST (#157301) #
Unless the argument rests on the inferiority of colour bar baseball, Mike -- which is a fair and complicated point -- I think it's insane to put George Sisler in a "tight knot" with Todd Helton and Will Clark.  If you really believe that George Sisler is a comparatively weak or marginal Hall of Fame candidate beyond that specific issue, I'm happy to respond in greater detail.
Mike Green - Monday, October 30 2006 @ 09:54 AM EST (#157303) #
I wasn't accounting for the colour bar.  Sisler's peak is a little higher than Helton's or Clark's, but not much.  His career after his peak was not as impressive as Clark's due to the eye injury.  In the end, Clark had a better career in my view.  Different people weight peak and career performance differently.

I had not fully appreciated how good Will Clark was from 1987-89 until I researched this piece.  Mike D, if you'd like to make the argument that Sisler was a much greater player than Clark, I would like to see it.

Mike D - Monday, October 30 2006 @ 10:31 AM EST (#157304) #

With all due respect, Mike G, I think most baseball historians would put the burden of proof on you to make the case, since yours is the minority view.  I will make three points:

* The eye injury was not a nick or a scrape.  He suffered a devastating infection that blinded him for the entire 1923/age 30 season (after going a ridiculous .420/.467/.594 in his age 29 year).  When he was well enough to see double, he returned to his livelihood and hit consistently .300 despite his significant handicap (and his contemporaries often wondered what might have been if a healthy Sisler had played several more years).  I therefore think Sandy Koufax is a better analogy to Sisler than, say, Keith Hernandez.

* Putting this aside, holding Sisler accountable for a walks-and-power deficiency (relative to his batting average, anyway) is a little like blaming him for not drinking Myoplex shakes after stepping out of the hyperbaric chamber.  He was perhaps the foremost dead-ball offensive weapon in baseball prior to his injury, and post-injury he became somewhat anachronistic because burly sluggers were transforming the game in a way the skinny Sisler couldn't.  As he was a brilliant player with superb bat control, I find it hard to believe that Sisler's walks wouldn't have been higher in an era with greater emphasis on patience.  His OPS+ decline post-injury reflected not only his injury-riddled sinking ship, but equally the rising tide of home runs.

* Don't forget about the value, not adequately reflected in OBP, of his speed and contact ability.  Leaving aside the relative importance of the running game in the dead ball era (has a recent study translated this?), the glove technology, field conditions, harsh official scoring, etc. made errors more plentiful -- every position in Sisler's era fielded about 20-35 percentage points lower than today, even in the outfield.  Thus, given his quickness and incredibly low strikeouts (ten top-10 finishes in at-bats per strikeout), it's safe to assume that he benefited from bad-hop errors more than most of his time.  Batter's strikeouts were costlier then than now.

Mike Green - Monday, October 30 2006 @ 12:44 PM EST (#157310) #
Statistically Sisler's best years were 1920 and 1922.  He was an excellent hitter, but the park-adjusted league OBP (Sportsmen's Park was a hitter's paradise) in those years was .360 and .364. In Will Clark's best years, the park-adjusted league OBP was .315 and .317.   If we're looking at peak performance, it was really Clark who played in the deadball era. 
If you stick in Helton's peak years from 2000-2004, they would fit right in with Sisler's peak from 1917-1922 albeit at a modestly lower level.

The comparison with Koufax isn't really helpful.  Koufax had pretty clearly the highest peak performance (1963-66) among the pitchers of the 1960s including Gibson and Marichal.  Sisler's offensive performance during his peak (1920-22) clearly fell behind that of Hornsby, who played in the same park. 

As for Sisler's ability to make contact in the deadball era, that is, in great part, a function of the times and the park.  Here are the team statistics of the 1917 St. Louis Browns. Here are the same statistics for the 1918 Browns. Or how about  1920? As you can see, striking out only 17 times in a season was good, but really nothing special.  In context, Helton's performance on the 2003 Rockies was pretty similar.  I don't know whether the appropriate multiplier for strikeouts in Sportsman's Park during the period 1917-1922 to compare with Candlestick of 87-89, or Coors of 2000-2004.  It might be 2.5, 3, or even 3.5.  When the player who strikes out the most on the club does so 37 times, and the pitching staff strikes out less than 3 per 9 innings, it's pretty clear that very significant adjustments must be made.

I do subscribe to the view that a strikeout is more damaging to the offence than a ground ball, but the differences are modest.  Helton made very good contact for a hitter with medium range pop.  Sisler was probably a little better in this respect, but not hugely so. 

What it comes down to is a discussion of the importance of peak vs. career value.  They've had this one at great length over at BTF.

Mike D - Monday, October 30 2006 @ 01:31 PM EST (#157311) #

Mike G, I think I might not have expressed myself as clearly as I would've liked.

Clarification #1:  By "dead-ball era," I was referring not to a time of statistical offensive deflation, but rather a style of play in which home runs were not and could not have been a major component of run scoring.  (Mind you, Sisler was a great star from 1916-1919, in which hitting numbers were deflated.  He started to post video-game numbers once the hitting surge of the '20s started.)  In Clark's era, although pitchers comparatively reigned, walks and homers were nevertheless an indispensable part of a club's offensive profile.  In Sisler's pre-1920 era, home runs were not realistic and his ability to hit for average, hit for extra bases and run the bases was more valuable than his OPS+ might imply today (although it was excellent).  After he returned from injury, he lacked both the physical power and the eyesight to be an OPS monster given the sea change in the league's style of play.

Clarification #2:  I didn't mean to rehash the strikeout/ground ball debate.  Rather, I'm saying that given the greater likelihood of errors on balls in play, it is statistically very likely that someone who has been Top 10 in at-bats per strikeout ten times (your "really nothing special" conclusion overstates the case); in stolen bases nine times; in triples eight times; and in singles thirteen times would get on base due to opposing fielding errors more than would his peers.  Of course, this (presumed) competitive advantage would not show up in his OBP.

Clarification #3:  My point about Koufax is not to equate his peak to Sisler's (though it isn't totally unfair); my point is that Sisler was fundamentally a very different player after his injury, such that his pre-injury stats should be weighted as heavily as Koufax's pre-injury stats (although Sandy played through great pain in '66).   Sisler was injured for his entire age 30 season, when Koufax finished his peak.  Perversely, Sisler would look better by a career OPS+ analysis if he had elected not to make a comeback and hit .300 six more times rather than staying home with his impaired vision.

By the way, Koufax was top 5 in ERA+ six times; Sisler was top 5 in OPS+ five times (and he finished sixth in '21), all prior to his injury.  I guess I'm just saying that it isn't fair to employ a "peak/career" analysis when the peak was suddenly truncated under these circumstances.

I'll look up his pre-injury Win Shares tonight to see if they help or hurt my case.

Mike Green - Monday, October 30 2006 @ 02:13 PM EST (#157312) #
Through age 29, Sisler's OPS+ was 154; Helton and Clark were at 144 and 145, respectively.  Hernandez was at 131, Olerud at 135 and Mattingly at 138.  Even at that, Sisler was not as durable in his 20s as Clark and Helton; in the deadball years 1917-19, he played 135, 114 and 132 games.

I am not arguing that Sisler was somehow less than a great player.  Don Mattingly was a great player at his peak in the mid 80s; George Sisler was somewhat better.  Both had their careers curtailed by injury.  It's a common story. 

Mike D - Monday, October 30 2006 @ 02:19 PM EST (#157313) #
Hang on a second, Mike.  World War I and its aftermath meant that the Browns only played 123 games in '18 and 140 games in '19, in which he ranked fourth and second respectively on the club in games played.  He was third on his team in games played in '17, when the Browns played 155 games.  He then played each and every game in '20.
Mike D - Monday, October 30 2006 @ 02:27 PM EST (#157314) #

And while we're at it, let's look at home park factors (per BBRef):

Sportsman's Park-AL (from 1915 until 1922):  96, 95, 96, 97, 103, 103, 106, 104.

Coors Field (from 1997 until 2006):  123, 119, 129, 131, 122, 121, 112, 120, 113, 107.

I note this while acknowledging that Sisler was a devastating home-park hitter that benefited from his park more than the park factors would imply.

Mike Green - Monday, October 30 2006 @ 03:22 PM EST (#157315) #
Good points, Mike D.  I had not realized that they pulled in the fences in Sportsman's Park in 1921.  Prior to 1921, it was 368 feet to left field; afterwards it was 340.  Prior to 1921, it was 335 to right-field; after 1921, it was 315 feet.  It was also much shorter to right-centre than to left-centre. 

Sisler's success at home likely was due to the fact that he hit left-handed.  Ken Williams, another lefty, put up Sisler-like numbers for the Browns in 1922-23, after the fences moved in.  Williams' 1922 home/road splits were reported in original Historical Abstract, and they were bizarre- something like .280, 7 homers on the road and .380, 32 homers at home.  I guess that's what happens when you play at a park with a fence as close as the Green Monster, but only 11 feet high. 

Anyways, my point wasn't that Helton was as good as Sisler at his best.  I was looking for comparable players as at age 32, and my own view remains that Sisler is not a bad comparison point, and certainly better than Mattingly.  In the same way, Will Clark is probably a better comparison point than Keith Hernandez. 

Hall Watch 2006- Todd Helton | 10 comments | Create New Account
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