Todd Helton turned 38 yesterday, and celebrated with the 347th home run of his career.
Considering that Jim Thome just hit his 600th home run, 347 doesn't seem real impressive.
Of course, they're different sorts of players. Helton's never been a big power guy, but that doesn't mean he's never been a great hitter. But with Thome being a somewhat marginal Hall of Fame candidate at this point, if Helton's not close to Thome then it's hard to argue that Helton's close to Cooperstown.
Is Helton close to Thome?
According to FanGraphs, Thome ranks 14th among all-time first basemen with 71 Wins Above Replacement. Helton ranks 22nd with 62 WAR. The gap in WAR does not look huge; shoot, it's just half a win per season. But the difference between 14th and 22nd is significant in this context. The first basemen around Thome include Johnny Mize, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro; the first basemen around Helton include Norm Cash, Keith Hernandez, and John Olerud.
Now, that latter trio isn't exactly embarrassing company. But nobody's thought for a moment that any of those guys really belong in Cooperstown.*
Obviously, there are guys with 70 Wins Above Replacement who aren't in the Hall of Fame, and players with 60 who are. But Helton hasn't done anything in particular that might elevate him above Cash, Hernandez and Olerud.
Helton's most impressive career markers are his .323 batting average and his .422 on-base average ... but BA's been devalued and OBA remains undervalued. At least when it comes to middle-of-the-order guys. Helton doesn't have a great many home runs, and he's (somewhat oddly) got only five 100-RBI seasons to his credit. The last of them eight years ago. If Helton had just kept on driving in and scoring more than a hundred runs every season, he'd have a great Hall of Fame case right now.
But he didn't, so he's got more work to do. He's just got to keep piling up the counting stats -- the home runs, the runs batted in, and especially the hits -- and maybe the WAR will come along for the ride. Helton has played well this season, and he's under contract through 2013. Two more seasons roughly like this one, and it'll be a lot easier to vote for him.
A couple of other notes about Helton's candidacy ...
He did get kind of a late start on this thing, turning 25 in his first full season with the Rockies. Because the Rockies still had Andres Gallaraga when Helton was coming up, he spent a few extra months destroying Pacific Coast League pitchers.
The other thing ... FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement includes non-steals baserunning, but only for recent players. It really makes a difference only at the margins, but considering that first basemen generally get poor scores (because they're slow), most of the modern first basemen would move up a notch or three, and the old-timers down a notch or three, if we had all the data. Helton "loses" approximately two WAR for his baserunning, Thome around four. But Cash, Greenberg, Mize, Hernandez ... they don't lose anything at all, because we're not figuring the metric for them.
Helton was a truly great player for five or six years. He just needs to tack on another couple of good years, before we can really get excited about his Hall of Fame candidacy.