Today the Colorado Rockies will be honoring former first baseman Todd Helton with a mainly water-inspired doubleheader, concluding a weekend of festivities culminating in the retirement of his jersey number on August 17th, 2014. The man affectionately known to Rockies fans as “The Toddfather”, in part because of the humorous Rockies television commercials, will be the first player to have his number retired by the Rockies.
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, he stayed in his home state for college by accepting an athletic scholarship to the University of Tennessee where he played football and baseball. As a backup quarterback, he showed enough to be ahead of freshmen Peyton Manning on the depth charts. In baseball, he was backing up nobody, winning the National Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year in 1995 and subsequently drafted eighth overall in the first round of the 1995 draft by the Colorado Rockies.
He rose through the minors quickly, debuting in 1997 and supplanting Rockies fan favorite Andres Galarraga to become the full-time starter in 1998. Helton quickly generated fans of his own, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1998 to Kerry Wood and garnering enough respect among his peers for his work ethic to become the club’s representative.
While serious with his hitting approach and his dedication to the game, as Troy Renck from the Denver Post observed, “Behind clubhouse doors, Helton exhibited a dry wit, drawing laughs from veterans and puzzled looks from rookies.”
His best season came in 2000 when he led the major leagues in traditional statistics such as batting average (.372), hits (216) and RBIs (147) and more advanced metrics including slugging percentage (.698), on-base percentage (.463) and OPS (1.162). The trifecta of average, slugging and on-base percentage gave him the National League’s “percentage triple crown”. And for those who questioned baseball at altitude, especially in the prehumidor days, he led the National League in road batting average with a .353 mark.
A departure from the swinging (and often missing) Blake Street Bombers of the past, he was adept at working the strike zone, annually posting an on-base percentage of over .400 from 2000-2007 while only once in his career did he ever strike out more than 100 times. That kind of prowess earned him the Silver Slugger award four times, one each year from 2000 through 2003. Yet the five time All-Star was also a stellar fielder, earning three Gold Gloves and a local reputation, as an ex-quarterback, as a master of the 3-6-3 double play. As the star of the Rockies 2007 “Rocktober” playoff push (and sporting a new beard), Denverites remember him recording the last putout in the 2007 National League Championship Series that propelled the Rockies into the World Series, fistpumping yell and all.
Things took a turn downwards as injuries started piling up. Early in 2006 he missed a few games with acute term or, as BaseballProspectus aptly described “in laymen terms, one helluva stomachache”. Then in 2008 he was diagnosed with a degenerative back condition and as it worsened, so did his power. However, he continued to get on base and used his veteran savvy in other ways to compensate.
He retired after the 2013 season as the Rockies all-time leader in games, runs, home runs, RBI and most of the slash stats, finishing second in the franchise only to Larry Walker in batting average.
Even through injuries, Renck noted that “Helton has endeared himself to teammates and coaches with his work ethic. To the end of his career he has groused about days off, and on more than one occasion has hit batting practice until his hands bled.”
“If you aren’t going to go all out, then why do it?” Helton said.
Outside of Denver, where does Helton fall in the pantheon of first basemen who ever played the game? Jay Jaffe from Sports Illustrated used his JAWS system to evaluate Todd Helton’s Hall of Fame credentials versus other first basemen. Adjusting for altitude and ERA, Jaffe concluded that Helton’s strong peak where he racked up the third most Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in the post expansion era after Albert Pujols and Jeff Bagwell helps to offset averaging just 1.1 WAR from 2008-2013. Overall, Jaffe thinks Helton has a “very reasonable but hardly air-tight case for Cooperstown”, ranking Helton at 14th among first basemen in terms of JAWS. That would still place Helton above eight current Hall of Fame first basemen even if he is slightly behind contemporaries such as the recently elected Frank Thomas.
Hall of Famer or not (and I’ll biasedly and unbiasedly think he is), Todd Helton is a Rockies icon, having played his entire career with one team and doing so at a stellar level on both sides of the ball, at Coors and away from Coors. Perhaps he would have gotten more fame and more time on the postseason stage playing in a larger media market. Part of it, as Jerry Crasnick observes, is a function of his personality as a guy who works hard, works quietly, and kept the focus on the game. And if he got fame, he often used it to defer attention to those he considered true heroes.
Even when the attention turned speculative, such as when trade rumors swirled that he might be traded from the Colorado Rockies to the Boston Red Sox before the 2007 season, Helton kept his head down instead of stirring the pot, letting ownership know he preferred to stay with the Rockies. As Helton “>spoke to Renck “Going to the World Series with the Rockies was better than winning it with the Red Sox,” Helton said. “My favorite moment is still that last out of the National League championship, knowing we were going to the World Series.”
And, as fans, our favorite moments, plural, were watching our Todd Helton be that good for that long and respecting the talent, the hard work and yes, even the dash of humor that he brought into our lives.