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Rockies slugger nearing Hall of Fame – but should we care about Coors?

Todd Helton won’t need nearly as much staying power to earn election to baseball’s Hall of Fame than he exhibited in a 17-year career.

Helton, one of the game’s most dominant hitters at the turn of the century, is on the verge of reaching the 75% plateau required for induction, a tribute to a 10-year stretch in which he batted at least .300 and averaged 30 homers and 108 RBI per season.

While Helton called Coors Field home for each of his 17 seasons, his wizardry with the bat stretched far beyond altitude-aided home games. While playing half his games at sea level certainly dimmed some supporters from including him, Helton is getting closer every year.

He clocked 72.2% of the vote in his fifth year of eligibility, and once again should be right on the fence in this, his sixth shot. Long overdue? Let’s examine.

The case for Todd Helton

Helton played in a hitter’s haven, and his career peak coincided with the heart of baseball’s steroid era, which both affected the perception of his production and made it difficult to stand out. Those are two reasons why he never finished higher than fifth in National League MVP balloting.

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That was in 2000, when Helton produced his greatest season, leading the majors in hitting (.372), slugging (.698), OPS (1.162), doubles (59) and RBI (147). The Rockies finished 82-80 and fourth in the NL West, and Helton ceded the 1-2 spots in that MVP race to Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds of the first-place Giants.

Helton also had to take a number behind future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza and Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds. Yet that MVP race might have been litigated in a different manner in this era, since Helton led the NL in Wins Above Replacement (a career-best 8.9, 75% better than Piazza’s 5.1 and markedly better than Kent’s 7.2 and Bonds’ 7.7).

That year was Helton’s best, but it was not atypical.  Between 1998 – as a 24-year-old rookie – and 2007, Helton’s batting average landed between .302 and .372. He won a pair of batting titles and even though he played in massive and mile-high Coors Field, his adjusted OPS was 144 in that span, with four seasons at least 65% better than league average.

The peak was excellent. But the total resume lacked a statistical magic number that would have ensured enshrinement already.

The case against

Helton finished with 2,519 hits and 369 home runs – excellent numbers, but far from mind-blowing for a first baseman, especially considering his home park. His .316 career average, .414 OBP and .953 OPS are all Hall-worthy, but those numbers fell to .287, .386 and .855 in road games.

In 2002, after Major League Baseball began storing baseballs used at Coors Field in a humidor, Helton’s home run total fell to 30, after slugging 42 and 49 in the previous two seasons. Helton never hit more than 33 from his age 28 season until the end of his career.

Helton remained an excellent all-around hitter, posting a 165 adjusted OPS in both 2003 and 2004 before it dipped to 117 in 2006. Helton’s last great season – a .922 OPS and 61 extra-base hits in 2007 – resulted in the Rockies’ lone World Series trip in franchise history.

In his final six seasons, he retained his elite on-base profile, with a .373 OBP, but averaged just 11 home runs per 162 games, dropping him to near league-average in adjusted OPS. He retired at 39.

Voting results

Helton has made huge leaps since debuting with just 16.5% of the vote in 2019, pushing that number to 44.9% by 2021 and 72.2% last year. He fell 11 votes shy of the 292 required to reach 75%.

Realistic outlook

It’s not a stretch to suggest this is Helton’s year. He’s gained support as younger voters are added to the rolls, and is clocking 83.5% support in publicly revealed votes compiled by Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker.

Privately-held voters tend not to be so generous, and Helton will again be right on the bubble this year. Yet as he begins the second half of his ballot eligibility, it’s definitely a matter of when, and not if, Helton is enshrined.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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