August 11, 2009
Prospectus Hit and Run
Is Todd Helton bound for the Hall of Fame? On the surface, that's not exactly a burning question, even given the resurgent Rockies first baseman's .323/.400/.505 showing to date. At 35 years of age, under contract through 2011, and approaching no major milestones, it's not as though his moment of reckoning has arrived, though he did recently become the 50th player to reach the 500-doubles milestone. That has to count for something, right?
When it finally arrives, Helton's Cooperstown candidacy will be built upon numbers compiled under what have been arguably the most optimal conditions ever afforded a hitter over an extended period of time. He did his best work in high-altitude Coors Field at a time when scoring rates soared higher than they had been in seventy years. His monster performance of 2000-42 homers, 147 RBI, and a .372/.463/.698 line-was produced while playing half his games in a ballpark that increased scoring by 25 percent relative to the league, this in a year when the league average of 5.0 runs per game was higher than any year since 1930 (although it did match 1999's rate). His decline from that lofty peak has been masked by his hitter-friendly park, to the point that his career rate stats are still a sterling .328/.427/.569, numbers he hasn't exceeded since 2004 (save for a .445 OBP in 2005).
A year ago, Helton's career appeared to be on the ropes. He hit just .264/.391/.388, and the back problems which have sapped his power-he hasn't reached 20 homers since 2005-shut him down after July 2 save for two September pinch-hitting appearances. PECOTA saw his reduced power and playing time as the beginning of the end, projecting a .291/.405/.447 weighted mean performance for 2009, and just 1,300 remaining plate appearances through 2012 before he left baseball at the age of 38. Instead, he's recovered to rank fourth in the NL batting race, with a .302 EqA, which ranks 20th in the league, a modest rebound. Will it be enough?
In his heyday, Bill James built several tools to grapple with question of a player Hall-worthiness. His Similarity Scores use career totals to determine which players are the closest matches to the player in question, occasionally offering surprising parallels with Hall of Fame implications. His Hall of Fame Monitor score credits players with points for the types of accomplishments, mostly seasonal, which tend to impress BBWAA voters-batting over .300, collecting 200 hits, winning a batting title or an MVP, playing in a World Series-with a score of 100 representing the average Hall hitter at the time James devised his system some 25 years ago. His Hall of Fame Standards score, introduced in his 1994 book, The Politics of Glory, fulfills a similar task, but it also compares players' career totals to those already in the Hall, with 50 points being average.
Among Helton's ten most similar players (visible at Baseball-Reference.com, three of the top four-Johnny Mize, Chuck Klein, and Hank Greenberg-are in Cooperstown, and he scores 161 points on the Monitor test and 51 points on the Standards test, again suggesting that Helton is Hall material. However, a lot has happened since James introduced those tools, including two waves of expansion, league levels of offense 10 to 15 percent higher than those of the 1980s, and the introduction of the best hitters' park in baseball history. These were all factors which have benefited Helton tremendously, and all of them call into question the utility of such metrics across widely varying offensive levels.
Frustrated by that problem, in 2004 I introduced a system for comparing Hall candidates to the enshrined players at their position in terms of their career and peak value, both measured in terms of Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP)-our combined accounting of hitting, pitching, and fielding value relative to a freely-available reserve or minor league callup. Via the system now known as JAWS (or 'JAffe Warp Score,' an admittedly cumbersome and self-conscious acronym), a player's career WARP total, his peak total (his seven best years), and his overall JAWS (the average of career and peak) are evaluated in the context of the average scores at a player's primary position to gauge his Hall-worthiness. Park and league contexts are built into WARP, so that players in low-scoring environments such as 1960s Dodger Stadium can be measured on the same scale as those from high-scoring environments, such as turn-of-the-century Coors Field.
According to JAWS, Helton makes for a decidedly below-average Hall of Fame candidate at present. He entered the year with 54.6 WARP for his career and 46.1 for his peak, for a JAWS of 50.4. He's currently on pace for a season WARP of 4.4, which would not only boost his career total but rank as his seventh-best season, upping his overall JAWS score to 52.6. The average Hall of Fame first baseman, by comparison, scores at 75.8 for career, 48.4 for peak, and 62.1 overall. Just four of the Hall's 18 first basemen score lower than Helton, and three of them-Frank Chance, Jim Bottomley, and George Kelly-were elected by the much more permissive Veterans Committee. Helton needs to defy age and his bad back to produce four more seasons equivalent to this one to reach the career average for Hall first basemen, and even then his peak would rate as slightly below average.
JAWS is a prescription to improve the Hall's rolls via the election of above-average candidates. It is not, however, a predictor of what the voting body will do, as the 2009 balloting clearly illustrates. While Tim Raines (94.3 career/54.9 peak/74.6 overall JAWS) is clearly ahead of the Hall's established standard for left fielders (84.2/.52.5/68.4) in career, peak, and JAWS, but Rock received just 22.6 percent of the vote. On the other hand, Jim Rice (55.1/39.6/47.4) was elected with 76.4 percent on the ballot, a result that has as its foundation the lack of recognition of the influence that hitter-friendly Fenway Park had inflating Rice's statistics (to say nothing of inflating his legend). Indeed, the Hall is littered with hitters who accumulated hefty stats in favorable environments, though many owe their elections not to BBWAA voters but to the cronyism of the VC, which made a habit of grabbing flash-in-the-pan offensive stars from the 1930s, including the aforementioned Klein, whom JAWS ranks as 20th out of the 22 right fielders in the Hall.
Which isn't to say that a hitter can't use his park to help his case for Cooperstown. Among the all-time home-run leaders, Mel Ott benefited more than any other, hitting 72 percent more homers in the cozy Polo Grounds, which had distances below 280 feet in its left- and right-field corners, than he did on the road; Ott nevertheless ranks as the third-best right fielder in history behind Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron as far as JAWS is concerned. Ernie Banks, Jimmie Foxx, and Frank Robinson all hit at least 20 percent more homers at home than on the road, yet they rank as above-average Hall of Famers, too.
However, Helton isn't likely to reach the 500 home-run club (he has 321), and even the 3,000 Hit Club is light years away (he has 2,081 so far). He's thus far untainted by the steroid scandals which have characterized the era, but lacking the mythical status of Rice-there are few if any venerable Denver scribes penning paeans to the fear he struck in the hearts of opposing pitchers come 2020-and also likely lacking an MVP award or a World Series ring, he'll be left with the numbers alone to try and make his case with. And those numbers ain't all they're cracked up to be.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .