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Todd Helton collects his 2,500th hit but Hall of Fame case remains up in the air

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Todd Helton could be in his final days in a Rockies uniform. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Todd Helton, Rockies

On Sunday afternoon, Todd Helton collected his 2,500th career hit, reaching what's likely to be the last major milestone of his 17-year career and giving Rockies fans a chance to shower him with adulation. The 40-year-old first baseman hasn't officially announced that he's retiring at the end of this season, but given his age and his expiring contract, it is a distinct possibility.

That didn't detract from the moment. Facing Reds reliever Curtis Partch in the seventh inning at Coors Field, Helton worked Parch for six pitches before slicing a drive down the leftfield line on the seventh and legging out a double. The crowd of 30,594 rose to honor the player who holds virtually every major franchise record for offensive production: games (2,226), plate appearances (9,366), runs (1,389), RBIs (1,393) doubles (584), homers (365), total bases (4,53), walks (1,329) and Wins Above Replacement (61.4). Here's the hit, from MLB.com:

[mlbvideo id="30241031" width="600" height="360" /]

And here's a career highlight reel that MLB.com put together for the occasion:

[mlbvideo id="30195687" width="600" height="360" /]

Indeed, Helton has accomplished plenty during his time with Colorado, which began on Aug. 2, 1997. He earned All-Star honors five straight times from 2000 to '04, and won three Gold Gloves and a batting title. He also won the slash-stat Triple Crown in '00 when he hit .372/.463/.698 and accumulated more WAR than any first baseman of the post-1992 expansion era besides Albert Pujols (92.8) and Jeff Bagwell (70.1).  Helton also helped the Rockies to the postseason in '07 and '09, and hit .333/.412/.467 in his lone World Series appearance (in '07).

While Helton has put up an extremely impressive batting line ( .317/.415/.540) during his career, playing half his games in the most favorable offensive environment in modern history has been a huge part of his story. At Coors Field, he has posted video game-level numbers (.346/.442/.607) for the sixth-best OPS at home since 1916 and the second-best of the post-World War II era (4,000 plate appearance minimum):

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Rk 

Player 

Years

PA 

HR 

AVG

OBP 

SLG 

Home OPS

Road OPS

Dif

1

Babe Ruth

1916-1935

5096

346

.347

.484

.701

1184

1150

34

2

Ted Williams

1939-1960

4954

248

.361

.496

.652

1148

1082

66

3

Jimmie Foxx

1925-1945

4678

299

.345

.453

.663

1116

966

150

4

Barry Bonds

1986-2007

6124

379

.301

.449

.618

1067

1037

30

5

Lou Gehrig

1923-1939

4660

251

.329

.436

.620

1056

1102

-46

6

Todd Helton

1997-2013

4793

224

.346

.442

.607

1049

857

192

7

Rogers Hornsby

1916-1937

4627

164

.361

.439

.593

1032

996

36

8

Frank Thomas

1990-2008

5011

312

.305

.424

.599

1024

925

99

9

Albert Pujols

2001-2013

4197

226

.325

.417

.597

1014

1003

11

10

Stan Musial

1941-1963

6331

252

.336

.427

.582

1009

944

65

Elsewhere, Helton has hit very respectably (.288/.387/.470), but hardly at a historic pace. As you can see by the last two columns of the above table, his homefield advantage was far greater than any of the other nine hitters in that group.

As I noted in the context of former teammate Larry Walker's Hall of Fame case, the combination of Helton's home park with league scoring trends is the most favorable in history among players with at least 6,000 PAs, according to a Baseball-Reference.com stat called AIR. Using an all-time average of a .335 on-base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage, AIR indexes the park and league conditions under which each hitter has played into one number in the manner of OPS+, with 100 as league average, over 100 as favorable for hitters and under 100 as favorable for pitchers. Here's the top 10 using the 4,000 PA cutoff from the Walker piece. As you'll see, it includes quite a few former Rockies:

Rank

Player

PA

AIR

1T

Todd Helton

9366

122

Neifi Perez

5365

122

3

Vinny Castilla

7305

120

4

Dante Bichette

6777

117

5T

Larry Walker

7958

116

Earl Averill

7160

116

Ski Melillo

5402

116

Rip Radcliff

4398

116

9T

Jeff Cirillo

6026

115

Joe Vosmik

6007

115

Odell Hale

4057

115

Has Helton done enough to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame? Last month, I took a look at the active players who had the best cases using my JAWS system, which measures the career and peak values of each player against the average enshrined player at their position. (Alas, I missed Helton in my initial roundup, then corrected the error in my follow-up.) Helton has accumulated 61.3 career WAR, which falls short of the average Hall of Fame first baseman (68.2). He's substantially above the standard on seven-year peak score, 46.5 to 43.2, but even so, his 53.9 JAWS is still a couple points short of the standard (55.7).

Overall, he ranks 14th in JAWS among first basemen, below eight Hall of Fame first basemen but above 12 others. Note that in this reckoning, Stan Musial is included as a first baseman, while in last winter's iteration, he was classified as a right fielder for having accumulated more value there. More recent changes in replacement level -- such as the one that calibrates B-Ref's version of WAR to the same scale as that of FanGraphs -- tend to bump Musial from one spot to the other. In any event, here's the current top 20 at the position (the entire leaderboard is here):

Rk 

Player

Career

Peak

JAWS

1

Stan Musial*

128.1

64.2

96.1

2

Lou Gehrig*

112.5

67.8

90.1

3

Jimmie Foxx*

96.5

59.5

78.0

4

Albert Pujols

92.9

61.5

77.2

5

Cap Anson*

94.0

41.8

67.9

6

Roger Connor*

84.2

47.0

65.6

7

Jeff Bagwell

79.5

48.2

63.8

8

Dan Brouthers*

79.4

47.2

63.3

9

Johnny Mize*

70.9

48.8

59.8

10

Frank Thomas

73.6

45.3

59.5

11

Jim Thome

72.8

41.6

57.2

Avg HOF 1B

68.2

43.2

55.7

12

Rafael Palmeiro

71.8

38.8

55.3

13

Willie McCovey*

64.4

44.8

54.6

14

Todd Helton

61.3

46.5

53.9

15

Eddie Murray*

68.2

38.9

53.6

16

Hank Greenberg*

57.6

47.7

52.6

17

Mark McGwire

62.0

41.9

52.0

18

George Sisler*

54.2

47.0

50.6

19

Keith Hernandez

60.1

41.0

50.6

20

Harmon Killebrew*

60.4

38.1

49.2

(* = Hall of Famer)

If Musial is classified as a right fielder, the averages across the board are 64.7, 42.1 and 53.4, which would put Helton right above the line. Even so, it's worth noting that contemporaries Pujols, Bagwell (who's been on the ballot for two years), Thomas (who becomes eligible this winter) and Thome (who won't be eligible until 2018) have better scores and stronger cases than Helton. The latter trio may well raise the JAWS standard by the time Helton is eligible, which assuming he does pack it in after this season wouldn't be until 2019.

Beyond the appropriate adjustment for environment that lets the air out of his park-inflated numbers, the big problem with Helton's case is his rapid decline after 2007, the season he turned 33. To that point, he had hit .332/.430/.583, with 303 homers and accumulated 54.5 WAR while averaging 154 games a year since 1998, his first full season. Due to surgeries for back, hip and knee ailments, he has averaged just 108 games, 10 homers and 1.1 WAR a year since the beginning of '08, hitting a cumulative .280/.376/.428. Only twice in that span has he been worth more than 1.0 WAR, while three times he's been worth 0.3 or less; this year, he's in the red at −0.3 on .252/.321/.407, with 11 homers in 355 PA. Replace those three years (net 0.0 WAR) with one-win seasons and he'd be a hair's breadth from the current JAWS standard for first basemen.