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Todd Helton Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile

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Colorado Rockies franchise player Todd Helton announced his retirement this past weekend. Here's a look at how he rated as a prospect and where he stands in historical context.

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Todd Helton
Todd Helton
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Todd Helton was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the first round in 1995, from the University of Tennessee. He was also a quarterback on the football team and started in the fall of 1994 until suffering a knee injury and being replaced by Peyton Manning. Helton was healthy by spring '95 and thrived for the baseball team, seeing action as both a closer and a first baseman. He threw 47.2 consecutive scoreless innings at one point, but scouts preferred him as a hitter, projecting him to hit for both average and power while playing excellent defense at first base. He was drafted by the Rockies with the number eight overall choice.

Considered very advanced, he was sent directly to full-season ball and played for Asheville in the South Atlantic League. He didn't thrive, hitting just .254/.339/.333. He controlled the strike zone reasonably well (32 strikeouts, 25 walks in 201 at-bats) but hit just one homer; his power was quite disappointing. However, the jump from the NCAA to Low-A isn't always automatic, and the scouting reports remained solid.

Helton was assigned to Double-A New Haven to open 1996. He didn't have any trouble at this level, hitting .333/.425/.486 with 51 walks and just 37 strikeouts in 319 at-bats. He hit just seven homers, but knocked 24 doubles. Scouts expected the power would grow, and his plate discipline was exceptional. He finished the year with a .352/.439/.521 run through 21 games at Triple-A Colorado Springs.

I had him rated as a Grade A- prospect entering 1997, noting that "his MLE suggests he could hit in excess of .360 in the majors, helped along by Coors Field, of course." But I didn't think this would all be park illusion, writing that "he has real hitting talent and will be a Rookie of the Year candidate as soon as he gets a chance to play."

The Rockies still had Andres Galarraga around at that point, so Helton went back to the minors for 1997, hitting .352/.434/.564 for Colorado Springs, with 16 homers, 61 walks, and 68 strikeouts in 392 at-bats. Promoted for the stretch run, he hit .280/.337/.484 with five homers in 93 at-bats. Scouting reports remained excellent.

I rated Helton a Grade A prospect entering 1998, ranked behind Adrian Beltre, Ben Grieve (oops) and Paul Konerko among hitting prospects. Based on seeing him in Triple-A, I wrote "he has a smooth swing that can drive the ball to all fields, his power is growing, and his plate discipline is very good. Unlike some Rockies hitters, he will remain an above-average hitter even on the road. Scouts like him to a cross between Mark Grace and Don Mattingly at their peaks."  I concluded with this flourish: "Helton is a good bet to eventually win a batting title in Coors Field, and if his power escalates further, he could be a Triple Crown threat."

As you know, Helton never won that Triple Crown, but he did have a tremendous run of success from 1998 through 2007 until injuries and age began to take their toll. He did win that batting title by hitting .372 in 2000 at he age of 26, also leading the league in hits, RBI, doubles, OPS, and SLG. He was the face of the franchise, although his DUI this past February did sully his reputation a bit. He dealt with it contritely.

Ignoring park effects for the moment, Helton hit .317/.413/.539 for his career, with OPS+133, wRC+132, and a career WAR of 55.7. He was a five-time All Star and won three Gold Gloves before his defense deteriorated with age.

The problem for Helton and his historical reputation is Coors Field: he obviously benefited from the environment. Joe Posnanski had an interesting observation about this a couple of years ago. The original quote seems to have vanished from the internet so I don't have a direct link, but it is referenced here.

"Here’s the irony of Coors Field: It undoubtedly helped players put up ENORMOUS numbers. And at exactly the same time, it undoubtedly made those numbers look like mirages. . .you get the sense that if (Helton) had put up significantly WORSE numbers but played his whole career somewhere else, his career might be valued higher."

With the proper statistical adjustments, we can work around the Coors issue. Using the "normalizing" tool at Baseball Reference, Helton would have hit something on the order of .292/.387/.496 with approximately 323 home runs in a neutral park/league environment, still impressive in historical terms. Also keep in mind that WAR adjusts for park effect. His career WAR of 55.7 puts him in the neighborhood with first baseman like John Olerud (57.7), Fred McGriff (57.2), Bill Terry (57.0), Norm Cash (54.6), and Will Clark (52.0). As for the minor league comps, Mark Grace checks in at 45.7, Don Mattingly at 40.7.

wRC+ is also park-adjusted, and his 132 mark in that column puts him in territory with Clark (136), McGriff (134), Rod Carew (132), Keith Hernandez (131), and Olerud (130) among first basemen with 8000 or more plate appearances.

That all seems reasonable to me. Once we adjust for Coors, Helton isn't a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, but he was still damn good. He's borderline and there are worse players who have been selected. Cliff Corcoran put this well back in February when discussing Helton's Hall chances: The Hall of Fame will not suffer from the lack of Todd Helton, nor would it suffer from his inclusion.

Ultimately, I don't think he gets in any time soon but perhaps the Veterans Committee will feel differently in 2050.