Todd Helton = Sandy Koufax. Discuss.
Based largely on the strength of his dominating peak performance from 1962-1966, Sandy Koufax is widely regarded as one of the *small handful* of the greatest pitchers of all time. Based largely on the strength of his dominating peak performance from 2000-2004, Todd Helton is regarded as…what, exactly?
Certainly Helton is not generally regarded as one of the handful of greatest hitters of all time. And yet, Todd Helton is basically the hitting version of Sandy Koufax. That is, both were excellent players who put up Nintendo type numbers because of the parks and eras in which they played: Koufax pitched in the greatest pitchers’ park during the greatest pitchers’ era of all time, while Helton played in the greatest hitters’ park during the greatest hitters’ era of all time. Consider, first, the seasonal averages for each player during their respective peaks (I consider only peak seasons here because that’s really the whole case for Koufax as a Hall of Famer, and quite frankly Helton’s non-peak years are much better than Koufax’s):
Both stat lines are quite impressive. You already know how great Koufax was, but to give you some idea about how good Helton’s numbers are consider this: were those Helton’s career rates, he would have the 4th highest batting average of all time, the 5th highest on base percentage of all time, and 2nd highest slugging percentage (trailing only Babe Ruth, and ahead of Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds et. al.; as it stands now, Helton is 35th in BA, 12th in OBP, and 15th in SLG, still pretty impressive).
It is of course hard to compare a hitter’s line to a pitcher’s, but I’m probably more impressed by Koufax’s raw stat line than Helton’s. An ERA beginning with “1” and a “20” in the complete games column will do that to someone whose fandom has developed in the post-1994 Chicks Dig the Longball Era. In Koufax’s era, however, pitchers routinely completed 20 games in a season and often, if not routinely, posted ERAs below 2.00. By contrast, only three hitters cracked .340 during Koufax’s 1962-1966 peak (Tommy Davis hit .346 in 1962, Frank Robinson hit .342 in 1962, and Matty Alou hit .342 in 1966), so to an observer from Koufax’s peak Helton’s numbers likely look more superficially impressive.
Of course, neither Koufax nor Helton are quite as good as their stat lines appear. If we “neutralize” their stats so as to correspond to an environment where the average team scores 4.42 runs/game (the default “neutralize” number on baseballreference.com), then Koufax’s ERA increases to 2.40 and Helton’s triple slash stats become .320/.419/.589, still very impressive numbers for both.
But, how can we compare the two? Notice the OPS+ column for Helton and ERA+ column for Koufax. During their respective primes, Helton’s OPS+ shows him as being 60% more productive than a league average hitter, while Koufax’s ERA+ has him at 67% better than a league average pitcher. That’s eerily close in terms of the percentage by which each player is better than league average. According to VORP (which does adjust for park and league effects), Helton was actually more valuable than Koufax during their respective peaks:
They’re pretty close; Helton edges Koufax by almost 20 VORP, which over five seasons isn’t very much at all. Yet even though VORP has Helton as the more valuable player over their respective five year peaks, Koufax won 3 Cy Young Awards and one MVP award while Helton never placed higher than fifth in the MVP voting (outside of his five peak seasons, Helton has gotten MVP votes in only one year, 2009, when he placed 13th).
Ironically, Helton’s MVP voting record is more reminiscent of Koufax’s contemporary and rival, Juan Marichal. Marichal famously won 25 games three separate times in the 1960’s while never winning a Cy Young award, largely because he had the misfortune to be the contemporary of Koufax and Bob Gibson. Todd Helton has hit .330+/.430+/.630+ in three separate seasons without winning an MVP award, largely because he had the misfortune to be the contemporary of Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols (but really mostly Bonds).
So why is Sandy Koufax regarded as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history while the perception of Helton seems to be that he’s merely a very good ballplayer who took particular advantage of his era and home ballpark? Well, there are likely a few explanations.
First, when Koufax was dominating the National League we were not nearly as cognizant of park and league effects as we are today during Helton’s time. As we came to understand park and league effects better as time went by, Koufax’s legacy nevertheless remained intact. Second, Koufax was a pitcher, and fans and writers have a tendency, I think, to romanticize pitchers more than hitters, particularly when it comes to “short but dominating career” type guys (consider that Ralph Kiner, similar to Koufax in that he had a brilliant peak but short career as a hitter, took 20 years after his retirement to make the Hall while Koufax sailed in after only his second year of eligibility).
Third is dominance compared to their contemporaries. Despite the fact that Helton’s peak is equal to that of Koufax’s, Koufax really was the best pitcher of his era. Helton was not the best hitter of his. That honor would have to go to Barry Bonds, and it’s far from clear that Helton was even the second best hitter of his era: in addition to Helton, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Delgado, Albert Pujols, and Alex Rodriguez can all lay a legitimate claim to “best non-Bonds hitter of the first half of this decade” title, not to mention Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., and Jeff Bagwell immediately prior, as well as David Ortiz and Travis Hafner immediately after.
None of which fully explains why Koufax is perceived as one of the greatest pitchers of all time while Helton is viewed as something less than one of the best hitters ever, to say the least. The facts do not lie: Helton and Koufax had great peaks of almost identical value, save for the fact that Helton’s was slightly stronger. Both put up otherworldly numbers because they were great players playing in parks and eras particularly suited for them. Yet Koufax is viewed as one of the greatest pitchers of all time while the perception of Helton is something less than that. Todd Helton is Sandy Koufax. Discuss.