Saturday, June 13, 2009

Todd Helton, the Hall of Fame, and a Rain-Delayed White Sox Game

This past Thursday, I attended my first game at U.S. Cellular Field since September 20, 2006 when the Tigers came to town and beat the Southsiders 6-2 in what was, for all intents and purposes, playoff caliber baseball. The Tigers were in town on Thursday, as well, albeit on a much drearier, rainier day. Caleb and I sat through a three hour rain delay before the game began, during which we had a couple beers, listened to stadium organist Nancy Faust play all manner of amazingly hilarious renditions of popular music from the past forty years (her first selection after we arrived at the ballpark at 12:45 was this), and watched 7+ innings of the Brewers-Rockies series finale on the jumbotron.

* * *

It was while watching the Brewers game that I saw a familiar poll question appear on the bigscreen: is Todd Helton a first-ballot Hall of Famer? Len Kasper and Bob Brenly brought up this very question when the Rockies came to town earlier this year, and then as now I felt as though the commentators were asking the wrong question. The question, I thought, shouldn't be whether or not Todd Helton is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but whether or not Todd Helton is a Hall of Famer at all. With those questions in mind once more, I decided to do a little digging into Todd Helton's Hall of Fame case.

Any discussion of Todd Helton's Hall of Fame candidacy, of course, has to begin with his 2000-2004 seasons, during which he was an absolute monster. Just to put Helton's performances during that stretch into perspective, I took his five year season lows and put them all together to create his worst composite season during that period:

.329/.429/.577, 1.006 OPS (147 OPS+), 182 H, 39 2B, 2 3B, 30 HR, 319 TB, 98 BB, 104 SO, 0 SB, 5 CS, 107 R, 96 RBI

Obviously, those numbers don't add up due to my ridiculously imprecise "methods," and it's worth noting that a whole lot of those lows are from Helton's 2002 campaign, but I can't imagine a single major league GM who wouldn't love to add that kind of production to his lineup for even one year, let alone five. That's a superstar year, and it is in every way possible the worst year that I could cobble together for Helton during his five year peak.

But the next issue that any Helton-for-the-Hall discussion needs to deal with is his power outage after the '04 season. Since 2004, Todd Helton has never hit more than 20 home runs, and he's done that only once. In fairness to Helton, he still gets on base like a beast (if he maintains his .384 OBP for the rest of the 2009 season, it will be his lowest since 1998, his first full year in the bigs), and there are plenty of Hall of Fame hitters who either lost their power or never had any in the first place. Of course, most former power hitters who went on to the Hall of Fame enjoyed longer peaks than Helton (whose power peak lasted six years, including 1999), and most of the guys who never had any power in the first place were slick glove and/or speed men up the middle of the diamond (with some obvious exceptions like Boggs and Gwynn). Helton is a first baseman, and this year's Hall of Fame voting was not particularly kind to the most recently eligible all-OBP no-SLG first sacker.

Still, there's no denying that Helton was a monster for five or six years, and has been a very valuable ballplayer for another three or four. But how valuable, exactly, and how has his value stacked up against Hall of Fame hitters in general and, in light of the first ballot question, first-ballot hitters in particular?

The first question seems like the logical place to start. Helton's numbers were eye-popping during his peak years, but so were those of a lot of other players in the early aughts (lest we forget). So how good was Helton in context, and how valuable has he remained post-peak? Pretty valuable, as it turns out, as recently as 2007. Here's how Helton's numbers have translated into baseball currency (runs) over the course of his career, including adjustments for position:

Offense includes batting, baserunning, and GIDP values; Defense includes TotalZone and infield double play numbers, and Positional is the RAR system's way to account for different positions on the diamond. Math whizzes who aren't familiar with RAR will notice that the three values I've given first don't add up to the total RAR values. That's because I haven't graphed the replacement level values that go into converting from "raw" runs above average to runs above replacement.

But the graph is still telling: during his peak years, Helton was worth between 60 and 90 RAR for the Colorado Rockies, and much of that was on the strength of his bat (though it's worth noting that Helton's reputation as an excellent glove man at first is warranted; he has been above average on defense throughout most of his career). But are those big seasons enough for Cooperstown to come calling?

My immediate thought was to simply compare Helton's production to that of the already enshrined. Fortunately for me, several folks over at Beyond the Box Score (JBrew and TucsonRoyal in particular) have already done quite a bit of legwork in order to establish baseline Hall of Fame performance levels using Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which frequent readers of NLCS (both of you!) will recognize as one of my favorite statistics. (To put my first graph in context, 10 RAR ~ 1 WAR.)

My next move was to use JBrew's data for average Hall of Famer WAR and compare it to Helton's 12-year career (as of the end of 2008):

As you can see, Helton's best seven seasons compare favorably to those of the average Hall of Famer, but then Helton falls off a comparative cliff.

But the question raised by both the Cubs and Brewers telecasts that prompted me to perform this analysis in the first place was not whether Helton is a Hall of Famer, but whether Helton is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Comparing him to the average resident of Cooperstown doesn't do much to answer that question. So I narrowed the dataset down to include only those players who were inducted into the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility (data available here).

As it turns out, all but six first-balloters (Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson) played recently enough that most or all of their careers are included in Sean Smith's historical WAR database. Once I had worked out what the average first ballot inductee's WAR looked like, I graphed Helton again, this time against the very creamiest of the crop:

Helton still stacks up pretty well in his top seven seasons; in fact, there doesn't seem to be much of an upward jump in Cooperstown standards when we limit the HoF WAR sampling to first balloters:

In general, the difference between a first ballot Hall of Famer and the average Hall of Famer (importantly, the "average" HoFer values include first balloters) is about half a win per year. Based on WAR, we can see that during his peak years Helton was playing like a borderline first-ballot Hall of Famer, then like a slightly below average Hall of Famer during his remaining good years, and that he's been well below the average immortal in the remaining five years of his career. And this twelve year WAR graph is something of a best case scenario right now, as most players who end up in Cooperstown these days played for much longer than 12 (soon to be 13) seasons:

That's an awful lot of ground for Helton to make up. In order for him to look like a first ballot Hall of Famer, he'll need another five or six years in the 3-5 WAR range, and Helton is already 35. That doesn't mean he won't be a Hall of Famer if he hangs up his spikes tomorrow; hell, he might already be a first ballot Hall of Famer in the eyes of enough voters for him to find himself at the podium in 2014 accepting his election as the Rockies' first representative in Cooperstown. But by at least one metric (and one that I tend to put a lot of stock in), he sure doesn't look like a first ballot Hall of Famer—and perhaps not even like a Hall of Famer, period.

In light of this, perhaps the question that we should be asking isn't "Is Todd Helton a first-ballot Hall of Famer?" or even "Is Todd Helton a Hall of Famer at all?" but rather "Why are we asking about Todd Helton's Hall of Fame chances right now?" His peak, while impressive, probably won't be enough for enshrinement on its own given the historical context, not to mention park effects, which I haven't even mentioned in my analysis [EDIT: though they are accounted for in WAR] but which will absolutely come into play any time a Rockie finds his way to a Hall of Fame ballot. And who knows? Helton could surprise us all and put up four or five good years before calling it quits. So let's wait and see what the next few seasons have in store for Helton, as well what next year's vote has in store for the first legitimate Hall of Fame candidate to put up most of his numbers in Denver, Larry Walker, before we go trying to figure out if Todd Helton has punched his ticket to Cooperstown.

* * *

I was, of course, unable to argue my point so clearly off the cuff, but Caleb and I talked of Helton and the Hall regardless. Were I to show Past Dave and Past Caleb the first half of this post, they'd both be rather surprised: we gave Helton a rather dismal shot at election at the time. But we were perhaps overly pessimistic, particularly in light of the ray of hope that was 2007.

When the game finally began around 4:00, Caleb and I had already been watching baseball and talking baseball for over three hours, but Chicago-Detroit didn't disappoint. Floyd pitched a gem, Thome and Granderson (the two players who both Caleb and I were most invested in) had big games, and thanks to Granderson's 2-run shot off of Bobby Jenks in the top of the ninth, there was plenty of drama late.

And of course, this was a Sox game, so when Ramon Santiago hit a solo home run in the eighth, the whole stadium gave him the booing of a lifetime (quoth Caleb, "Who bothers to boo Ramon Santiago?").*

*Before any furious Sox fans try to remind me: Yes, I'm well aware that Cubs fans en masse are just as bad.

But the highlight of the day for both of us, by far, occurred in the bottom of the second when highly touted prospect Gordon Beckham strode to the plate and this happened. That's right, the kid's entrance music is "Your Love" by The Outfield. Beckham gave one of Edwin Jackson's offerings a pretty good ride to left center, but it died on the track. He got good wood on another pitch in his second at-bat against Jackson, but to no avail.

Fortunately, he hit a home run with "Your Love" and, in doing so, instantly became both Caleb's and my favorite player on the White Sox (sorry, Jimmy T.). He also softened the blow of having to watch A.J. Pierzynski hit a home run to right. As I said to Caleb, "If every Pierzynski home run is followed by Gordon Beckham walking to the plate to that song, I hope he hits 170."

Going into the top of the ninth, I laid out my plans for the ideal game: the Tigers would score two runs to tie the game and the White Sox would be shut down in the ninth, sending us to extras and setting up Gordon Beckham's first Major League home run, a glorious walk-off in the bottom of the whatever. When Curtis Granderson took Bobby Jenks deep to tie things up, things were looking good for the Perfect Game.

But the ninth inning didn't work out quite as planned. Brian Anderson led off with a single off Joel Zumaya. Zumaya then mishandled Chris Goetz's sacrifice bunt attempt and threw the ball away, putting runners on second and third. Josh Fields walked to load the bases, bringing up Scott Podsednik with a chance to win the game. I told Caleb that if Beckham couldn't win the game, a Podsednik-struck walk-off grand slam would be one hell of a consolation prize. He quickly agreed.

And then things got weird.

Podsednik fouled a ball towards the third base side that Brandon Inge chased like a madman. Inge lunged into the stands in shallow left with a bead on the ball only to have it deflected away by a Sox fan. While Inge, furious, began to argue for fan interference (an argument that Jim Leyland and some of his staff joined), the fan raised the ball triumphantly in his hands and turned to all corners of the stadium to bask in the adulation of the rest of the ballpark. (On our way out of the park, we walked right past this guy while he, gesturing furiously and with the ball still in his hand, screamed "I took it away from you!" at every Tigers fan he passed.)

I have an inordinate amount of respect for Section 510, which joined us in booing this jerkbag until we were blue in the face. This includes several fans who were decked to the nines in Sox apparel, one of whom yelled "Let 'em fuckin' play!" in front of his gradeschool daughter.

What made this scene even more odious is the fact that, during the rain delay, we'd been "treated" to the White Sox World Series film, during which we'd watched Joe Crede make his amazing catch in the '05 series in much the same spot at Minute Maid Park as Podsednik's foul had landed at U.S. Cellular. At the time, Caleb and I had talked about how classy the fans in Houston were for getting out of the way of a ballplayer in general, and an opposing ballplayer in particular, and allowing him the chance to make a play. We had no idea how portentious such a line of discussion would turn out to be.

It's worth noting, by the way, that with all of Inge's momentum taking him away from the plate, not to mention the fact that he fell into the stands to try to make a play, Anderson probably could have tagged up and scored from third even if Inge had caught the ball. But, as history will forever show, Podsednik got another chance, and hit a sharp grounder through on the right side to end the game. It's likely that the Sox would have won regardless, but it was a shame to see a fan intentionally break up a play like that.

Come on, guys. Let 'em fuckin' play.


  1. You did include park effects in your analysis because WAR corrects for park factors.

    Interesting analysis. I have to agree with just about every statement. Another thing to consider is the class Helton would be up against seeing as how if there are two or three other surefire first ballot HOFers then he probably won't have much of a shot. The Committee has a tendency to not give out more than three first ballots at a time.

    Also, Hell Yes! Gordon Beckham picked his own theme because he used the same song in the minors.

  2. I meant that I had not specifically discussed park factors. Obviously, WAR corrects for both historical context and park context (the two issues I raised with regard to Helton), but my point was that I had mentioned neither. Perhaps I overstated that point.

    One of the fun parts about blogging is that I find myself essentially "publishing" drafts.

    As for your confirmation of Gordon Beckham's awesomeness, I can only say, for what feels like the umpteenth time, "Amazing." I can't remember the last time I was so invested in a person's success based on such a petty reason, which is saying something given how much of an absurdist I am.

  3. Edited original post to clarify myself with regard to park effects and WAR. You were right, Caleb: I botched that sentence pretty badly. Thanks for the catch!