Baseball Hall of Fame: Upcoming Borderline Candidates, Part 2

Baseball Hall of Fame: Upcoming Borderline Candidates, Part 2
06 Nov
2017
Not in Hall of Fame

Index



2019: Lance Berkman, Todd Helton, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Michael Young

The 2019 ballot offers two pitching candidates, starter Roy Halladay and reliever Mariano Rivera, both of whom are likely to be elected in their first year of eligibility. That might not be good news for pitchers Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte, both of whom are also on the 2019 ballot for the first time as well, but how will that affect position players Lance Berkman, Todd Helton, and Michael Young?

Lance Berkman and Todd Helton

As one of the Houston Astros' "Killer B's" in the 2000s, could Lance Berkman follow teammates Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell into the Hall of Fame? The switch-hitting outfielder and first baseman lacks their auspicious resumes, but he did compile a record that certainly puts him on the bubble—and thus he requires a closer look.

Berkman got his start with the Astros in 1999 as a corner outfielder, playing in 34 games with 106 plate appearances before returning to the minors. The following season found him back for 114 games, posting a .297/.388/.561/.949 slash line, good for a 130 OPS+ and a 132 wRC+, while he slugged 21 home runs, drove in 67 runs, and scored 76 runs as he placed sixth in Rookie of the Year voting.

By 2001, his age-25 season, Berkman was firmly ensconced in the Astros' lineup, unleashing a blistering .331/.430/.620/.1.051 slash line, generating a 161 OPS+ and 164 wRC+, as he established career highs in batting average (.331), hits (191), and doubles with a Major League-leading 55 while scoring 110 runs and driving in 126 as he helped Houston to the postseason. His bWAR of 6.5 wins (6.8 fWAR) was certainly All-Star caliber, and indeed he made the first of six All-Star squads.

For an eight-year period, from 2001 to 2008, Berkman's slash line was .303/.417/.564/.980 with a 151 OPS+ as he averaged, per season, 37 doubles, 33 home runs, 101 runs scored, 110 RBI, and 102 walks against only 107 strikeouts. He was selected to five All-Star teams while he finished in the top ten for the National League's Most Valuable Player five times including 2002, when he led the NL in RBI with 128, and 2008, when his 46 doubles were an NL-best.

In addition to 2001, when they were swept by the Atlanta Braves in the NL Divisional Series, the Astros went to the postseason in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, Houston made it to the NL Championship Series, where they battled the St. Louis Cardinals after besting the Braves in five games in the Divisional Series. In that series, Berkman's torrid .409/.480/.591/.1.071 slash line with one home run, three runs batted in, and five runs scored helped the Astros power past the team that had swept them three years earlier. Berkman kept up his hot hitting against the Cardinals, posting a .292/.400/.750/.1.150 line as he blasted three home runs and drove in nine runs in an exciting, see-saw series in which the Cardinals eventually triumphed.

The Astros seemed poised for greatness in 2005, again facing the Braves in the Divisional Series, whom they dispatched in four games with Berkman hitting one home run and driving in five runs with a .357/.500/.643/.1.143 slash line; that home run, an eighth-inning grand slam in Game Four that closed a five-run Braves lead, enabled the Astros' Brad Ausmus to tie the game in the ninth and thus sending the game into extra innings—and the longest postseason game in MLB history, finally won by Houston in the bottom of the 18th inning on a Chris Burke home run, with Burke having entered the game as a pinch-runner for Berkman in the tenth inning.

Then, facing the Cardinals once more in the Championship Series, the Astros prevailed in six games despite losing a chance to clinch the series at home in Game Five when the Cardinals' Albert Pujols crushed a memorable three-run home run off Astros closer Brad Lidge to give St. Louis a come-from-behind victory. Berkman's bat cooled slightly as he hit .286 although of his six hits, two were doubles and one was a home run, and with four walks his on-base percentage of .400 gave the Astros scoring opportunities as Houston went to its first-ever World Series. There they faced the fired-up Chicago White Sox, intent on ending a decades-long World Series drought (as had the Boston Red Sox the year before) as they swept the Astros in four games although Berkman did his part with a .385/.526/.538/.1.065 line and six RBI.

With Jeff Bagwell's retirement following the 2005 season, Lance Berkman moved to first base as he continued to hit well, driving in at least 100 runs a season between 2006 and 2008 and establishing a career-high in runs scored with 114 in 2008, which also saw him lead the NL in doubles with 46, the third and final time he would hit at least 40 doubles in a season, while his 45 home runs in 2006 were also a career high. But following a dip in production in 2009 that continued into 2010, the Astros dealt Berkman to the New York Yankees in mid-2010. Although Berkman reached the postseason with the Yankees, he was soon a free agent as the Yankees did not re-sign him.

However, his old adversaries the Cardinals did, and Berkman responded in impressive style, becoming the NL Comeback Player of the Year in his age-35 season, finishing seventh in MVP voting, as he posted a .301/.412/.547/.959 slash line, good for a 163 wRC+ and a career-high 164 OPS+, as he clouted 31 homers, drove in 94 runs, scored 90 runs, and walked 92 times against 93 strikeouts. Playing right field for the Cardinals, Berkman helped them into the postseason. Despite managing just four hits in 18 at-bats against the Philadelphia Phillies in the five-game NL Divisional Series, he struck early with a three-run homer in the first inning of Game One off Roy Halladay, and although the Cardinals would lose that game, they would win the series in five games. Against the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Championship Series, Berkman batted .300 with four runs scored and two runs batted in as the Cardinals bested the Brewers in six games to advance to the World Series against the Texas Rangers.

In Game One, Berkman drove in the first runs of the World Series with a two-run single in the fourth inning as the Cardinals would go on to win the game and eventually the Series in seven games as the Rangers seemed all but certain to take the Series in Game Six as the Cardinals were down to their last strike before David Freese's dramatic ninth-inning triple. But although Freese and Albert Pujols are remembered for their hitting heroics, Berkman lashed out a sizzling .423/.516/.577/1.093 slash line while scoring nine runs and knocking in five in the Series, including a single in the bottom of the tenth inning in Game Six to tie the game once more, a hit that came with two outs and two strikes on him as the Rangers were yet again one strike away from winning the World Series. Instead, the Cardinals won in seven games to give Berkman his only World Series ring.

That proved to be Lance Berkman's swan song, however, as he endured two lackluster, injury-prone seasons before calling it quits following the 2013 season. Berkman ranks 28th all-time in OPS, or on-base plus slugging percentage (.943), with those component rankings being 40th in slugging percentage (.537) and 43rd in on-base percentage (.406), 54th in OPS+ (144), 59th in bases on balls (1201)—and it is impressive that in a free-swinging, high-strikeout era, Berkman struck out just 99 more times than he walked—while he ranks 39th in intentional walks (160), and 81st in home runs (366).

Measured as a left fielder in Jaffe's JAWS ratings, Berkman is 20th, with only five left fielders ranked above him not already in the Hall of Fame. One of those is Pete Rose, who is infamously ineligible for the Hall of Fame, while Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez, both tarred with the PED brush, have their own notoriety.

Lance Berkman produced a career slash line of .293/.406/.537/.943, derived from 1905 hits, 422 doubles, and 366 home runs, as he scored 1146 runs and drove in 1234 while drawing 1201 bases on balls. Berkman had an excellent career, but it is hard to call it a Hall of Fame career given the caliber of his contemporaries.

Yet Berkman has one singular quality: He was a switch-hitter, one of the best of his era. But was he one of the best of all-time, and is that a significant enough factor to bolster his Hall of Fame case?

Lance Berkman
One of the best switch-hitters in baseball history--but is that enough to get Lance Berkman in the Hall of Fame?

The following table lists qualitative statistics, and is ranked by weighted on-base average (wOBA), for selected switch-hitters in the integrated (post-1947) era, weighted toward Berkman's own playing career. Four of the ten are already in the Hall of Fame; one, Pete Rose, would surely be in the Hall already were he not barred from baseball; one, Bernie Williams, was on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2012 and 2013; and one, Carlos Beltran, a fellow "Killer B" with Berkman, is still adding to his probable Hall of Fame resume, appropriately back with the Houston Astros in 2017.

Selected Switch-Hitters Ranked by wOBA

Player

Slash Line

wOBA

wRC+

OPS+

bWAR

fWAR

+ Mantle, Mickey

.298/.421/.557

.428

170

172

109.7

112.3

Berkman, Lance

.293/.406/.537

.400

144

144

51.7

56.1

Jones, Chipper

.303/.401/.529

.397

141

141

85.0

84.6

Williams, Bernie

.297/.381/.477

.373

126

125

49.5

43.9

Teixeira, Mark

.268/.360/.509

.371

127

126

51.8

45.0

+ Murray, Eddie

.287/.359/.476

.365

127

129

68.3

72.0

+ Raines, Tim

.294/.385/.425

.361

125

123

69.1

66.4

+ Alomar, Roberto

.300/.371/.443

.359

118

116

66.8

63.6

= Beltran, Carlos

.280/.352/.489

.359

119

120

70.2

67.9

Rose, Pete

.303/.375/.409

.354

121

118

79.1

80.1


+ Indicates a Hall of Fame member.

= Indicates a player still active as of the 2017 season.

In several of the categories above, Berkman is second only to Mickey Mantle, the greatest switch-hitter of all time, while he compares almost equally as an offensive player with Chipper Jones, who will in all likelihood already be in the Hall of Fame when Berkman makes his debut. Jones hit ten points higher than Berkman, who bested Jones in on-base and slugging percentage, but overall the two hitters are roughly equivalent by these measures.

Does Berkman have sufficient counting numbers to bolster his case? The following table lists selected quantitative statistics for this sample of ten switch-hitters, ranked by hits.

Selected Switch-Hitters, Total Hitting Statistics, Ranked by Hits

 

PA

H

2B

3B

HR

R

RBI

BB

Rose, Pete

15890

4256

746

135

160

2165

1314

1566

+ Murray, Eddie

12817

3255

560

35

504

1627

1917

1333

Jones, Chipper

10614

2726

549

38

468

1619

1623

1512

+ Alomar, Roberto

10400

2724

504

80

210

1508

1134

1032

= Beltran, Carlos

10844

2685

555

78

432

1563

1571

1074

+ Raines, Tim

10359

2605

430

113

170

1571

980

1330

+ Mantle, Mickey

9907

2415

344

72

536

1676

1509

1733

Williams, Bernie

9053

2336

449

55

287

1366

1257

1069

Berkman, Lance

7814

1905

422

30

366

1146

1234

1201

Teixeira, Mark

8029

1862

408

18

409

1099

1298

918


With the fewest plate appearances of the ten, Berkman ranks correspondingly low in the counting numbers; only he and Mark Teixeira did not reach the 2000-hit plateau although Teixeira got to both the 400-double- and 400-home run mark. The Hall of Fame values counting numbers, an indicator of a career long enough to compile big totals, and without a streak of dominance in his career, Berkman will not impress voters with his quantitative record.

But could the versatility of his switch-hitting impress those voters? How good of a hitter was Lance Berkman from each side of the plate? The following table lists both select qualitative and quantitative statistics based on the players' hitting as a left-handed batter and is ranked by on-base percentage (OBP).

Selected Switch-Hitters, Left-Handed Hitting Statistics, Ranked by OBP

 

PA

H

2B

HR

BB

BA

OBP

SLG

Berkman, Lance

5989

1501

338

316

967

.304

.420

.575

+Mantle, Mickey

6590

1482

205

372

1260

.281

.418

.547

Jones, Chipper

7686

1956

402

361

1144

.303

.405

.541

+ Raines, Tim

7356

1849

325

119

958

.294

.387

.431

+ Alomar, Roberto

2186

2047

376

142

781

.314

.386

.456

Rose, Pete

11471

3083

566

119

1209

.307

.384

.419

Williams, Bernie

6176

1574

314

179

699

.292

.373

.466

+ Murray, Eddie

8684

2233

375

362

958

.293

.369

.491

= Beltran, Carlos

7935

1949

377

309

822

.279

.354

.483

Teixeira, Mark

5516

1240

266

297

612

.260

.350

.508


As a left-handed hitter, Berkman noses past Chipper Jones and even Mickey Mantle with his classic 3-4-5 slash line while piling up impressive counting stats despite 600 fewer plate appearances than Mantle and more than 1600 fewer than Jones.

The following table lists those select qualitative and quantitative statistics based on the players' hitting as a right-handed batter, and it should be noted that switch-hitters are more likely to bat left-handed given the preponderance of right-handed pitching in any era. Also, some hitters had some instances of hitting with the "wrong hand," such as hitting left-handed against a left-handed pitcher, although this is not statistically significant.

Selected Switch-Hitters, Right-Handed Hitting Statistics, Ranked by OBP

 

PA

H

2B

HR

BB

BA

OBP

SLG

+ Mantle, Mickey

3231

906

134

161

458

.329

.432

.574

Williams, Bernie

2877

762

135

107

369

.308

.397

.503

Jones, Chipper

2928

770

147

107

368

.304

.391

.498

Teixeira, Mark

2162

622

142

112

306

.287

.383

.512

+ Raines, Tim

3003

756

105

51

372

.293

.381

.410

Berkman, Lance

1825

404

84

50

234

.260

.360

.417

Rose, Pete

4414

1171

180

41

357

.293

.351

.384

= Beltran, Carlos

2906

736

178

123

251

.282

.345

.505

+ Murray, Eddie

4134

1022

185

142

375

.276

.340

.445

+ Alomar, Roberto

2871

677

128

68

251

.267

.335

.410


As a right-handed hitter, Berkman falls sharply in batting average in comparison to his left-handed batting although his ability to get on base is an impressive 100 points higher than his batting average. Still, Berkman winds up in the middle of this sample.

But although Lance Berkman is one of the best switch-hitters in baseball history, this quality is unlikely to push him past the threshold and into the Hall of Fame either as a singular phenomenon or as part of his overall record. Berkman did finish in the top ten for Most Valuable Player voting six times, he made six All-Star squads, and he did lead the league in doubles twice and in runs batted in once, but without gaudy counting numbers or a streak of hitting dominance to distinguish himself in an era of high talent compression, Lance Berkman will not be elected to the Hall of Fame.

By contrast, Todd Helton did post some gaudy numbers, but the slugging first baseman who played his entire 17-year career with the Colorado Rockies will encounter the flip side of the "Coors Effect"—the benefits of playing his home games in the high, thin, dry air of Denver's Coors Field—as his playing record is scrutinized for Hall of Fame legacy, although the park did begin using a humidifier to store game baseballs in 2002, the sixth year of Helton's career and his fifth as a starting player, to dampen effectively the ball's travel when hit.

Nevertheless, Helton is likely to encounter the same skepticism that faces his old teammate Larry Walker, who as of 2017 has languished on the Hall of Fame ballot for seven years, getting no more than 22.9 percent of the vote in any given year, and who played all but two years of his ten-year tenure with the Rockies in the pre-humidor era. Walker did spend his first six seasons with the Montreal Expos, whose Olympic Stadium was not considered hitter-friendly, and he finished the last two years of his career in St. Louis as a Cardinal. Crucially for Helton, though, he experienced a swoon in the second half of his career, and his inability to produce at Coors Field levels during that time may compound the bias.

Called up from the minors in August 1997, Helton hit five home runs in 101 plate appearances—three of those hit at Coors Field—before becoming the Rockies' starting first baseman the next season following the departure of Andres Galarraga. Helton posted a .315/.380/.530/.911 slash line with 37 doubles, 25 home runs, 78 runs scored, and 97 runs batted in to finished second to Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Kerry Wood in National League Rookie of the Year voting.

The left-handed-hitting first baseman delivered comparable results in 1999, even upping his home-run total to 35, before busting out in 2000, his age-26 season, to lead the NL in eight categories: hits (216), doubles (59), total bases (405), RBI (147), batting average (.372), on-base percentage (.463), slugging percentage (.698), and OPS (1.162), a slash line that generated a 163 OPS+, the first of four seasons with an OPS+ of 160 or better. In addition, he slugged 42 home runs, scored 138 runs, and walked 103 times.

For a ten-year period, from 1998 to 2007, Helton posted a .332/.432/.585/.1.017 slash line, generating a 144 OPS+, as, per season, he averaged 185 hits, 45 doubles, 30 home runs, 109 runs scored, 108 runs batted in, and 97 bases on balls while accumulating a 54.7 bWAR, an average of 5.5 wins above a replacement player per year, an All-Star-level caliber as he was picked for five consecutive All-Star squads from 2000 to 2004. In this period, Helton smacked 40 or more doubles seven times, falling just one shy twice, in 1999 and 2002, while he notched 54 in 2001 as he also hit 49 home runs, just one home run short of becoming the only hitter in Major League history besides Albert Belle to hit at least 50 doubles and at least 50 home runs in the same season. (Belle accomplished this in 1995.)

And while Helton led the NL in any offensive category only once apart from in 2000, when in 2005 he posted a league-leading .445 on-base percentage, he finished in the top ten of MVP voting only three times, with his best showing a fifth-place finish in his banner year of 2000.

Starting in 1998, Helton had eight consecutive seasons with 20 or more home runs, but after belting 20 in 2005, he never hit as many again. Helton still hit for average and got on base at a robust clip as he posted a .300 batting average and a .400 on-base percentage over the next two seasons, but his 2008 season, his age-34 year, marked a significant decline. Although he got on base at a .391 clip, his batting average fell to .264—more precipitously, his slugging percentage plummeted to .388 as he hit only 16 doubles and seven home runs in just 83 games and 361 plate appearances.

In fact, Helton had been diagnosed with a degenerative back condition in August 2008, and although he approached his previous form in 2009 (.325/.416/.489/.904, 127 OPS+) and 2011 (.302/.385/.466/.850, 117 OPS+), his last six seasons, from 2008 to 2013, his age-34 to age-39 years, saw him average 112 games and 449 plate appearances a year for a .279/.373/.430/.803 slash line, generating an OPS+ of 104, with 23 doubles, 11 home runs, 50 runs scored, and 53 runs driven in.

In career counting numbers, Helton ranks 19th all-time in doubles (592), 24th in intentional bases on balls (185) and 36th in bases on balls (1335) overall—in fact, Helton's 1335 walks against only 1175 strikeouts is remarkable for a power hitter in this free-swinging era—40th in extra-base hits (998), 62nd in total bases (4292), 77th in runs batted in (1406), 79th in home runs (369), 96th in runs scored (1401), and 97th in hits (2519). Qualitatively, Helton ranks 26th in on-base percentage (.414) and 37th in slugging percentage (.539) while that combination OPS of .953 ranks 19th as his OPS+ of 133 ranks 137th—and as OPS+ is both league- and park-adjusted, this reflects the "Coors Effect" that we will examine shortly. Helton's batting average of .316 is 67th all-time, and among Jay Jaffe's JAWS rankings for the top fifty first basemen all-time, that mark is topped, as of 2017, only by Miguel Cabrera's .318 among first basemen in the Integrated Era that began in 1947.

Defensively, Helton, who won three Gold Gloves at first base, posted a career Total Zone fielding runs above average (Baseball Reference version) of 106—third all-time for measurements made since 1953—and an Ultimate Zone Rating of fielding runs above average (FanGraphs) of 23.6 while his career defensive runs saved above average assessments are 32 (Baseball Reference) and 29 (FanGraphs), respectively. Having played the corner outfield positions in his call-up season, Helton was then exclusively a first baseman, and his 2178 defensive games at that position ranks 5th all-time as he finished 2nd in assists (1726), 3rd in double plays turned (2028), and 13th in putouts (18,889) at first, with his range factor per nine innings of 10.00 ranking 24th—and despite all those fielding chances, Helton's fielding percentage of .996 is the sixth-best all-time.

Todd Helton's fielding prowess wedded to his offensive production makes for a convincing Hall of Fame case—but can it overcome the obstacle called the "Coors Effect," the benefit of having played half his games every season at the hitters' paradise called Coors Field in the mile-high city of Denver?

To answer that, let's examine how Helton performed while playing at his home field compared to how he played while on the road. The following table lists the home-and-away splits for slash-line statistics (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage) for Helton and selected first-base contemporaries as well as right fielder Larry Walker, also dogged with the "Coors Effect" bias, ranked by home tOPS+, or the player's total OPS+ split relative to his home field.

Home and Away Splits for Slash Lines of Selected First Basemen and Larry Walker, Ranked by Home tOPS+

 

Home

Away

 

BA

OBP

SLG

tOPS+

BA

OBP

SLG

tOPS+

Walker, Larry

.348

.431

.637

120

.278

.370

.495

80

Helton, Todd

.345

.441

.607

119

.287

.386

.469

80

Teixeira, Mark

.282

.371

.548

111

.256

.350

.474

90

+ Thomas, Frank

.305

.424

.599

109

.297

.414

.511

91

Ortiz, David

.305

.400

.565

108

.267

.359

.538

92

Giambi, Jason

.288

.415

.534

107

.266

.385

.501

94

+ Bagwell, Jeff

.303

.417

.560

106

.291

.398

.521

94

= Cabrera, Miguel

.328

.406

.577

106

.308

.386

.535

94

Thome, Jim

.276

.406

.579

106

.277

.398

.529

94

Palmeiro, Rafael

.285

.375

.527

103

.291

.366

.502

96

= Pujols, Albert

.311

.396

.564

103

.300

.379

.563

98

= Votto, Joey

.305

.425

.543

100

.320

.427

.540

100

Olerud, John

.289

.394

.466

99

.301

.402

.464

101


+ Indicates a Hall of Fame member.

= Indicates a player still active as of the 2017 season.

tOPS+: OPS+ for a split relative to player's total OPS+. A value greater than 100 indicates how much better the player did in this split versus his overall performance, while a value less than 100 indicates how much worse the player did in this split versus his overall performance. Note that rounding conventions can result in the sum of a player's home and away tOPS+ values not adding to 200 exactly.

Not surprisingly, Helton and Walker performed about 20 percent better overall while playing at home (Walker's home tOPS+ is for his career and includes home records for his stints in Montreal and St. Louis), and about 20 percent worse overall on the road—with the 40 percent total gap illustrated by the dramatic differences in slash lines: Walker hit 70 points higher compared to his road batting average and slugged 142 points higher at home, while Helton hit 58 points better at Coors Field while slugging 138 points better there.

However, others such as Mark Teixeira, who played in hitter-friendly parks with the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees, also benefited from playing at home, as did David Ortiz, the bulk of whose career was played at Boston's hitter-friendly Fenway Park. (Although Ortiz was primarily a designated hitter, he did play first base on occasion, and Jaffe's JAWS rankings place him among first basemen.) On the other hand, John Olerud seemed to prefer hitting on the road while Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, and even Rafael Palmeiro, who spent several seasons in Texas, struck a balanced performance between home and the road.

The following table illustrates the differentials for hits and home runs between playing at home and on the road for the player sample above, ranked by the home differential for hits.

Home and Away Differentials for Hits and Home Runs of Selected First Basemen and Larry Walker, Ranked by Home-Hits Differentials

 

Home Hits

Away Hits

Home %

Home HR

Away HR

Home %

Helton, Todd

1394

1125

55.3

227

142

61.5

Walker, Larry

1193

967

55.2

215

168

56.1

Ortiz, David

1332

1140

53.9

241

300

44.5

Teixeira, Mark

945

917

50.8

225

184

55.0

+ Thomas, Frank

1246

1222

50.5

312

209

60.0

+ Bagwell, Jeff

1161

1153

50.2

234

215

52.1

Giambi, Jason

1010

1000

50.2

219

221

49.8

= Cabrera, Miguel

1305

1304

50.0

231

228

50.3

= Pujols, Albert

1456

1463

49.9

285

323

46.9

Thome, Jim

1157

1171

49.7

339

273

55.5

Palmeiro, Rafael

1466

1554

48.5

311

258

54.7

Olerud, John

1082

1157

48.3

134

121

52.5

= Votto, Joey

723

807

47.3

136

115

54.2


+ Indicates a Hall of Fame member.

= Indicates a player still active as of the 2017 season.

Again, the two players making their home at Coors Field lead the way, with Helton collecting 269 more hits, including 85 more home runs, at Coors, for home-differential percentages of 55.3 and 61.5, respectively. Walker, too, posted roughly comparable percentages, although Walker did not play exclusively for the Rockies, and we examine Colorado-specific splits below.

Of the other first basemen, Ortiz also shows a majority percentage hitting at home—except for home runs, as 60 percent of his round-trippers were hit on the road, most likely due to the long distance to Fenway's right- and center field walls. Otherwise, the mode in this sample is the mean as the bare majority of hitters have roughly a 50-50 split between hitting at home and hitting on the road while most hit more home runs in their home parks than in other parks, with Ortiz and Albert Pujols being the exceptions, and we note that Jason Giambi, with ten more hits at home and two more homers on the road, played a season's worth of baseball at Coors Field in the just over three seasons he spent with the Rockies from 2009 to 2012.

Overall, hitting in a hitter-friendly home park remains an offensive boost, as Walker's and especially Helton's experiences demonstrate. But are their experiences typical among their teammates, and did the 2002 introduction of a baseball humidor, to dampen the effects of a ball traveling in Denver's high, dry air, have a material effect?

The following table illustrates the career home-and-away splits for slash-line statistics (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage) for notable Colorado Rockies players from both the pre- and post-humidor eras the team has experienced, ranked by home tOPS+, or the player's total OPS+ split relative to his playing at home. Note that players with the Rockies from 1993, the team's inaugural year, to 1994 played their home games at Denver's Mile-High Stadium while Coors Field was being constructed nearby.

Career Home and Away Splits for Slash Lines of Selected Colorado Rockies, Ranked by Home tOPS+

 

Home

Away

 

BA

OBP

SLG

tOPS+

BA

OBP

SLG

tOPS+

Bichette, Dante

.328

.365

.573

123

.269

.306

.424

76

Walker, Larry

.348

.431

.637

120

.278

.370

.495

80

Helton, Todd

.345

.441

.607

119

.287

.386

.469

80

Young, Eric

.302

.383

.422

115

.265

.335

.360

86

Castilla, Vinny

.295

.339

.518

114

.257

.303

.435

86

= Holliday, Matt

.316

.398

.558

114

.283

.359

.464

86

= Tulowitzki, Troy

.310

.382

.536

114

.269

.338

.453

85

Galarraga, Andres

.307

.368

.535

113

.270

.327

.464

87


= Indicates a player still active as of the 2017 season.

tOPS+: OPS+ for a split relative to player's total OPS+. A value greater than 100 indicates how much better the player did in this split versus his overall performance, while a value less than 100 indicates how much worse the player did in this split versus his overall performance. Note that rounding conventions can result in the sum of a player's home and away tOPS+ values not adding to 200 exactly.

Of the pre-humidor players, Dante Bichette (seven of 14 years in Colorado) and Vinny Castilla (nine of 16 seasons) fared best in Denver as Andres Galarraga and Larry Walker also posted gaudy numbers as Rockies—in 1993, Galarraga (five of 19 years) flirted with a .400 batting average before leading the National League with .370, while Walker (10 of 16 seasons) led the NL in batting three times during his Colorado tenure, winning the NL MVP award in 1997. Yet Walker and Galarraga especially had success outside of Colorado as well, as did Eric Young (five of 15 seasons).

By 2002, the Rockies had begun to use a humidifier to store game baseballs at Coors Field, and although the venue remains a hitters' park, the extreme effects of the thin, dry air in mile-high Denver seem to have been mitigated. Nevertheless, Matt Holliday (five of 14 years) and especially Troy Tulowitzki (10 of 12 seasons) have benefited from the still-hitter-friendly environment of Coors Field—as has Todd Helton, a career Rockies product.

Todd Helton
Can slugging first baseman Todd Helton break the curse of Coors Field and get elected to the Hall of Fame?

But the Coors Effect is real and inescapable, and even though I tried to make the case to mitigate the Coors Effect for Larry Walker back when I evaluated his Hall of Fame chances in 2013, he has not garnered much support among the voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). In fact, Walker fell to 10.2 percent of the vote in 2014, and although he has been trending upward since then, to 21.9 percent of the vote in 2017, he still has a huge gap to close to make the 75 percent minimum required for election to the Hall of Fame—and with only three more chances on the BBWAA ballot, Walker's chances look as thin as that fine Colorado air through which many of his balls, humidified or not, sailed for hits.

So, where does that leave Todd Helton's Hall of Fame chances? After all, Walker played his first six seasons in Montreal—with its Olympic Stadium not always a hitter-friendly park, "The Happy Wanderer" notwithstanding—and wound up his career with a season and a half in St. Louis, while Helton played his entire career in Colorado.

Can a ballpark jeopardize a player's chances for Hall of Fame legacy? Should a ballpark become an obstacle to that legacy? Coors Field has extreme park effects, but it is hardly the first ballpark in Major League history to favor its home hitters so generously—and the Hall of Fame has certainly rewarded some of those hitters with enshrinement throughout its history.

To illustrate the park effects on selected Hall of Fame players who played all or at least significant portions of their careers in hitter-friendly parks, we need to break down these hitters' tenures into separate evaluations of their hitting in those home parks. In addition to Helton and Walker, these players include Wade Boggs, David Ortiz (I wrote about Ortiz's Hall of Fame chances in April 2015, following his claim that he deserved to be in the Hall), and Carl Yastrzemski, who played much or all of their careers at Boston's Fenway Park; Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, who played much or all of their careers at Chicago's Wrigley Field; Frank Thomas, who played much of his career at the second Comiskey Park (then renamed U.S. Cellular Field and now Guaranteed Rate Field) when he played for the Chicago White Sox; and Chuck Klein, who played much of his career with the Philadelphia Phillies and in their home park the Baker Bowl.

The table below illustrates the home-and-away splits of these players' slash lines for their careers and during their seasons with a specific team, ranked by home tOPS+. For Helton and Walker, their listings include the performances before and after the introduction of the baseball humidor at Coors Field. The key beneath the table explains the players' tenures with different teams including resolution of seasons split between two teams.

Team-Specific and Career Home and Away Splits for Slash Lines of Selected Hall of Fame Players, Todd Helton, David Ortiz, and Larry Walker Colorado Rockies, Pre- and Post-Humidor Eras, Ranked by Home tOPS+

 

Home

Away

 

BA

OBP

SLG

tOPS+

BA

OBP

SLG

tOPS+

+ Klein (PHI1)

.420

.467

.760

133

.296

.357

.500

67

Walker (COL1)

.396

.466

.754

131

.282

.383

.521

66

Walker (COL-ALL)

.385

.465

.721

130

.279

.382

.508

68

+ Klein (PHI-ALL)

.368

.421

.642

123

.282

.342

.461

91

Walker (COL2)

.350

.461

.612

123

.271

.379

.465

76

+ Boggs (BOS)

.369

.465

.525

122

.307

.391

.400

78

+ Klein (CAREER)

.353

.410

.617

122

.286

.346

.466

77

Helton (COL1)

.375

.456

.705

121

.290

.373

.533

77

Walker (CAREER)

.348

.431

.637

120

.278

.370

.495

77

Helton (CAREER)

.345

.441

.607

119

.287

.386

.469

80

+ Klein (PHI2)

.312

.374

.499

119

.273

.322

.417

80

+ Thomas (TOR)

.281

.396

.547

119

.272

.355

.409

79

+ Boggs (CAREER)

.354

.443

.491

118

.302

.387

.395

82

Helton (COL2)

.332

.435

.565

116

.285

.391

.442

83

+ Yastrzemski (BOS)

.306

.402

.503

115

.264

.357

.422

86

+ Klein (PHI3)

.184

.260

.271

114

.202

.295

.305

127

+ Banks (CHC)

.290

.348

.537

113

.259

.311

.462

87

+ Klein (PIT)

.301

.382

.508

112

.261

.322

.455

84

Ortiz (BOS)

.311

.409

.591

111

.269

.362

.549

89

Walker (STL)

.315

.429

.561

110

.270

.375

.523

91

+ Williams (CAREER)

.302

.374

.525

110

.278

.349

.459

90

+ Thomas (CHW)

.313

.435

.611

109

.301

.419

.526

92

+ Thomas (CAREER)

.305

.424

.599

109

.297

.414

.511

91

+ Boggs (NYY)

.336

.412

.431

108

.290

.380

.382

90

Ortiz (CAREER)

.305

.400

.565

108

.267

.359

.538

92

+ Thomas (OAK)

.246

.342

.528

108

.274

.397

.444

94

Walker (MON)

.286

.364

.500

108

.278

.350

.468

83

+ Williams (OAK)

.234

.335

.378

105

.228

.330

.395

97

+ Williams (CHC)

.309

.378

.539

102

.283

.351

.466

99

+ Boggs (TBD)

.281

.350

.394

100

.298

.371

.386

100

+ Klein (CHC)

.296

.375

.547

93

.312

.370

.510

104

Ortiz (MIN)

.274

.353

.455

73

.257

.341

.485

91


+ Indicates a Hall of Fame member.

tOPS+: OPS+ for a split relative to player's total OPS+. A value greater than 100 indicates how much better the player did in this split versus his overall performance, while a value less than 100 indicates how much worse the player did in this split versus his overall performance. Note that rounding conventions can result in the sum of a player's home and away tOPS+ values not adding to 200 exactly.

CAREER: For players who played for more than one team, these are their statistics for their entire career.

Ernie Banks: CHC: With Chicago Cubs 1953–1971.

Wade Boggs: BOS: With Boston Red Sox 1982–1992. NYY: With New York Yankees 1993–1997. TBD: With Tampa Bay Devil Rays 1998–1999.

Todd Helton: COL1: With Colorado Rockies 1997–2001, before baseball humidor was in use. COL2: With Colorado Rockies 2002–2013, after baseball humidor was in use. COL-ALL: Total of all seasons played with Colorado Rockies, as defined above.

Chuck Klein: PHI1: With Philadelphia Phillies 1928–1933. CHC: With Chicago Cubs 1934–1936. (In 1936 played 29 games for Chicago and 117 games for Philadelphia; 1936 splits are counted as all Philadelphia statistics only.) PHI2: With Philadelphia Phillies 1936–1938. PIT: With Pittsburgh Pirates 1939. (In 1939 played 85 games for Pittsburgh and 25 games for Philadelphia; 1939 splits are counted as all Pittsburgh statistics only.) PHI3: With Philadelphia Phillies 1940–1944. PHI-ALL: Total of all seasons played with Philadelphia Phillies, as defined above.

David Ortiz: MIN: With Minnesota Twins 1997–2002. BOS: With Boston Red Sox 2003–2016.

Frank Thomas: CHW: With Chicago White Sox 1990–2005. OAK: With Oakland Athletics 2006 and 2008. TOR: With Toronto Blue Jays 2007–2008. (In 2008 played 16 games for Toronto and 55 games for Oakland; 2008 splits are counted as all Oakland statistics only.)

Larry Walker: MON: With Montreal Expos 1989–1994. COL1: With Colorado Rockies 1995–2001, before baseball humidor was in use. COL2: With Colorado Rockies 2002–2004, after baseball humidor was in use. STL: With St. Louis Cardinals 2004–2005. (In 2004 played 38 games for Colorado and 44 for St. Louis; 2004 splits are counted as all St. Louis statistics only.) COL-ALL: Total of all seasons played with Colorado Rockies, as defined above.

Billy Williams: CHC: With Chicago Cubs 1959–1974. OAK: With Oakland Athletics 1975–1976.

Carl Yastrzemski: BOS: With Boston Red Sox 1961–1983.

Isolating specific periods in a player's career helps to stratify the home-away effect, and the rankings overall reinforce their career rankings, and with Ernie Banks and Carl Yastrzemski having played their careers with one team and thus in one home ballpark, they provide a baseline of home-field advantage in a hitter-friendly park, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, respectively.

For example, Wade Boggs clearly enjoyed hitting at Fenway during his 11 years with the Red Sox—he didn't do too badly on the road, either—although his performance, coming early in his career, underscores that a player is likely to hit better earlier in his career regardless of where he played his home games; correspondingly, players' performances later in their careers are likely not to be as robust. There are exceptions, of course, as David Ortiz languished in Minnesota before he blossomed with Boston, although the move to a hitter-friendly park couldn't have hurt. Another point to consider is that players who spent just a short time with a team generate a smaller sample size that can yield greater variations.

The table below illustrates this stratification as it applies to the percentage differential for home-and-away hits and home runs, ranked by home-hits percentage differential.

Team-Specific and Career Home and Away Differentials for Hits and Home Runs of Selected Hall of Fame Players, Todd Helton, David Ortiz, and Larry Walker, Ranked by Home-Hits Percentage Differential

 

Home Hits

Away Hits

Home %

Home HR

Away HR

Home %

+ Klein (PIT)

55

35

61.1

6

6

50.0

Walker (COL1)

623

413

60.1

126

84

60.0

Walker (COL-ALL)

790

536

59.6

152

100

60.3

+ Klein (PHI1)

717

492

59.3

131

60

68.6

Helton (COL1)

458

333

57.9

93

63

59.6

+ Klein (PHI-ALL)

998

730

57.8

164

83

66.4

Walker (COL2)

167

123

57.6

26

16

61.9

+ Klein (CAREER)

1163

913

56.0

190

110

63.3

Helton (CAREER)

1394

1125

55.3

227

142

61.5

Walker (CAREER)

1193

967

55.2

215

168

56.1

Walker (STL)

92

76

54.8

16

16

50.0

+ Klein (PHI2)

234

195

54.5

29

19

60.4

+ Boggs (NYY)

381

321

54.3

13

11

54.2

Helton (COL2)

936

792

54.2

134

79

62.9

Ortiz (BOS)

1124

955

54.1

221

262

45.8

+ Boggs (BOS)

1133

965

54.0

49

36

57.6

Ortiz (CAREER)

1332

1140

53.9

241

300

44.5

+ Yastrzemski (BOS)

1822

1597

53.3

237

215

52.4

+ Banks (CHC)

1372

1212

53.1

290

222

56.6

Ortiz (MIN)

208

185

52.9

20

38

34.5

+ Thomas (TOR)

77

70

52.4

19

7

73.1

+ Williams (CHC)

1314

1196

52.4

231

161

58.9

+ Klein (PHI3)

47

43

52.2

4

4

50.0

+ Williams (CAREER)

1413

1298

52.1

245

181

57.5

+ Boggs (TBD)

109

101

52.0

8

1

88.9

+ Thomas (CHW)

1081

1055

50.6

263

185

58.7

+ Thomas (CAREER)

1246

1222

50.5

312

209

60.0

+ Williams (OAK)

99

102

49.3

14

20

41.2

Walker (MON)

311

355

46.7

47

52

47.5

+ Thomas (OAK)

78

97

44.6

30

17

63.8

+ Klein (CHC)

110

148

42.6

20

21

48.8


+ Indicates a Hall of Fame member.

Not surprisingly, this analysis yields similar results as the previous table: Hitting at home can be good for you, particularly if your home park is a hitter-friendly one. But that is a truism across baseball regardless of time and place, and thus the questions become: At what point does the "hitter-friendliness" of a ballpark become extreme? And is that sufficient grounds to disqualify a player from the Hall of Fame?

The answer to the first question is subjective, but the answer to the second question must be no. Why? For one thing, it has not done so in the past, and for another—and much more critically—it is an arbitrary and discriminatory practice, whether it is done implicitly or explicitly. Unlike the issue of performance-enhancing drugs, which involves a conscious, deliberate decision on the part of a player to use them to acquire an edge, a player cannot control the performance of his home ballpark. Moreover, a player is not going "scale back" his performance in a hitter-friendly ballpark if such behavior is even possible—it's hard enough to perform well at the Major League level under any condition, and to not compete to the utmost runs counter to the nature of any competitor.

Even with its baseball humidor, Coors Field will remain a very hitter-friendly venue as long as the Rockies remain an MLB franchise in Colorado. That is the reality. It is also reality that Rockies players are thus quite likely to roll up home-field statistics that are rather gaudy, whether they played only part of their careers in Colorado (Larry Walker) or their entire career there (Todd Helton). And it is not without precedent that a hitter playing in a very hitter-friendly ballpark has been elected to the Hall of Fame.

For the first six years of his career, with the Philadelphia Phillies, Chuck Klein was a holy terror at the plate. He became a full-time player in his second season in 1929, his age-24 year, and promptly led the National League in home runs, the first of four times he led the league in that category. He led the NL in total bases four times, in runs scored three times and in slugging percentage three times each, and in hits, doubles, and runs batted in twice each.

In 1933, he won the batting Triple Crown (batting average, home runs, runs batted in), one of only five NL hitters in history to do so (Rogers Hornsby did it twice), and one of only three NL hitters to do so since the modern era had begun in 1901. (The 1933 season saw Klein's American League counterpart in Philadelphia, the Athletics' Jimmie Foxx, also win the Triple Crown, the only time there has been a winner in each league in the same season.) The previous season, which saw him win the NL Most Valuable Player Award, Klein led the NL in both home runs and stolen bases, the last time a hitter in either league has led both categories in the same season.

During those years, Klein's home park was the Baker Bowl, a notoriously hitter-friendly park that epitomized the terms "bandbox" and "cigar box" used subsequently to describe a small baseball field conducive to high offense. And when Klein was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1934, his offensive production fell off a cliff, at least compared to the stratospheric production he enjoyed in Philadelphia, even while playing in the "friendly confines" of Wrigley Field. Even Klein's return to the Phillies after just over two years away couldn't elevate his output to those halcyon years although in 1936 he did hit four home runs in one game against the Pirates—ironically, it was in Pittsburgh's pitcher-friendly Forbes Field—the first NL player to do so in the 20th century, and still only one of 18 hitters to do so all-time.

Chuck Klein appeared on 12 BBWAA ballots and received his largest share of the vote, 27.9 percent, on his final appearance in 1964. He was voted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1980, a posthumous induction as Klein had died in 1958 at age 53. Klein ranks 33rd all-time in Jay Jaffe's JAWS rankings for right fielders. Larry Walker ranks 10th, with every one of nine right fielders above him voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA as he ranks above Hall of Famers Paul Waner, Sam Crawford, Tony Gwynn, and Dave Winfield.

As for Todd Helton, he ranks 14th among first basemen in JAWS, just a tick ahead of first-ballot Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, followed by Hall honorees Hank Greenberg, George Sisler, Harmon Killebrew, and Bill Terry, and well ahead of more dubious choices Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda. Of the 13 first basemen ahead of Helton on the JAWS list, two are still active (Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera) while Jim Thome debuts on the 2018 BBWAA ballot and Rafael Palmeiro, tarred and feathered by the brush of performance-enhancing drugs, fell off the BBWAA ballot following the 2014 vote.

Ironically, what may stymie Helton more than the Coors Effect is that not only was Helton not the best first baseman in baseball during his career, he wasn't even the best first baseman in the National League. As Helton began his career, the Houston Astros' Jeff Bagwell, ranked sixth in JAWS, was the NL's best first baseman (the Astros moved to the American League in 2013, eight years after Bagwell's final season), and as Helton hit his peak and began his decline phase, Pujols, ranked second in JAWS, assumed the mantle held by Bagwell as the star of the St. Louis Cardinals until his move to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2012.

Bagwell was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2017, his seventh year on the ballot although he should have been voted in sooner than that. Pujols, when he becomes eligible, is practically a lock to be voted into the Hall in his first year even if his years in Anaheim hardly compare to his otherworldly performance in St. Louis.

So, where does that leave Todd Helton? Unlike Larry Walker, Helton spent his entire career with the Colorado Rockies, playing in Coors Field before and after the introduction of the baseball humidor to normalize performance, yet as the statistical comparisons above illustrate, Helton certainly enjoyed a marked home-field advantage throughout his career. But despite that, Helton still cannot lay claim to being the best first baseman even in his own league.

Is Todd Helton a Hall of Famer? The numbers say so, but as any baseball fan who has peered at a matrix of player statistics for any length of time begins to realize, numbers have contingent contexts. Helton's is a test case for players who spent an appreciable amount of time with the Rockies, a circumstance that engenders great short-term yields but has so far suggested a long-term liability, if Larry Walker's situation is any indication.

Yet unlike the issue of performance-enhancing drugs (PED), in which a player makes a conscious individual choice to gain advantage in a highly competitive environment through proscribed means, playing baseball for the Colorado Rockies with its unusually hitter-friendly home ballpark is neither furtive nor illegal; nor is it necessarily a player's choice in the case of a trade. But do we then punish a player for his conscious individual choice to play baseball for the Rockies just because Coors Field does not "play fair" in relation to other ballparks?

The last two BBWAA ballot results suggest that attitudes toward PED are changing: Mike Piazza, elected in 2016, and Ivan Rodriguez, elected in 2017, both had PED associations yet overcame previous condemnation over them—and in Rodriguez's case it was on his first ballot—while Bagwell, whose PED associations were, and remain, only baseless allegations, was elected in 2017. The Coors Field issue is hardly comparable except that it underscores the normative numbers "taint" associated with PED usage—hitters whose home park is Coors Field "should" not hit better than players in other home parks. But the bottom line is this: You evaluate the baseball you have, not the baseball you wish you had.

Todd Helton may not have been the best first baseman in his league, but he was one of the best, and he was one of the best all-time. That assessment, and any residual ballot logjam, will keep him from getting elected in his first few tries, but if the Coors Field issue experiences the same shift in thinking among voters as has the PED issue, he will be elected before his stint on the BBWAA ballot has ended. And that is as it should be.

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 November 2017 19:16

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