Bat Out of Helton
Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton made some headlines this winter during trade talks with Boston. Helton's production has certainly fallen off from a couple of years ago, but is it really that far fetched to think that he can still be a power bat during his mid-30s at Coors Field? I don't think so.
Helton has always been a studious hitter, going as far as personally logging each of his at-bats during the season. The infamous humidor and apparent sickness last year might be initial reasons for a power outage, but I took a look to see if there was anything else physically different in Helton's swing that might explain this downward trend.
Going back to Helton's last 1.000+ OPS season, here is a full look at 2004 Todd Helton (left side) versus the 2006 version (right side). While all pitches shown are fastballs, the swings on top are hit toward the left-center gap and the pitches shown on the bottom are pulled into right field:
At first glance, there is not much apparent difference. The overall rhythm and timing are almost identical, which is a good thing. Helton's maintenance of a high batting average may be indicative that he is still getting the barrel to the ball and the slip in power just means the ball is not going as far. Why? It's the humidor. Well, checking the splits from 2004 and 2006, Helton's numbers away from Coors suffered just as much, so maybe the humidor was not the main culprit.
Helton's health is a more logical reason from the standpoint that he could have been doing everything the same mechanically, but was just not physically able to produce the same amount of force. For example, Helton's percentage of home runs to fly balls has nearly been cut in half - from 13.8% in 2004 to 6.2% in 2006. Colorado has already indicated that they will rest Helton more throughout the 2007 season, which seems like a wise approach. On top of that, physical weakness could have effects on a player's mental approach as well. It's much easier to think strong and confidently when you actually feel strong.
With all that in mind, here is how these mental and physical factors show up in Helton's spray chart at Coors Field:
Not only is the number of home runs down, but the direction is dramatically different. Maybe those long drives to left field turned into doubles or fly outs, or perhaps Helton changed his approach to try to pull more. Either way, it is clear that Helton is at his best when he can use the entire field and that he has no problem dropping opposite field bombs when he is at full strength.
The main difference in Helton's actual swing mechanics can be seen in this excerpt of the above clip:
If you haven't already, focus on the hands. The 2004 Helton has a more pronounced "hitch," which in this case is not such a bad thing. Plenty of power hitters use this type of move to load the upper body in an effort to create more power (think Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and David Ortiz), and as long as the hitter gets to a good position at the right time, this can be quite beneficial. Of course, adding extra movement opens the door for more timing problems, but the tradeoff is creating more elastic energy that can be converted into increased bat speed through the rapid load/unload of the shoulder area (where the arms are connected to the torso). Add the fact that this move is not new to Helton - he has pulled it off VERY successfully in the past - and recommending a return to this technique becomes that much easier.
Revisit the isolation shot of Helton's hands and you will also notice his bat angle is more vertical in 2004. This makes sense in that the bat feels a bit lighter when it is more vertical, so the extra movement with the hands does not feel like that much more work. On each side of the comparison, Helton is getting the bat to the same position at footplant, so it appears the extra load is not costing anything in the quickness department.
An extra move or load with the hands and arms is something I would consider to be "icing on the cake" - something to be added if and when the player has the basics down. Like I mentioned earlier, Helton's timing looks good, body appears to be working in a very similar manner . . . so on that note, maybe it's time to add the icing back to this swing. I realize this loading move with the hands may seem small, but small adjustments are the name of the game at such a high level. When the rest of the major parts are working well, I'm all for focusing on the hands, and perhaps a healthy Helton can do just that. Then we will see if he can put the fear of Helton back in those opposing pitchers.
From the Rockies point of view, I understand why the team would consider trading him (as management attempted during the off-season). Age, injuries and over $90 million owed over the next 5 years seems like a steep mountain to climb. But let's not forget that Helton bounced back from bone spurs in his back for a monster year in 2004, and he is still only 33 years old. If Colorado could have reduced payroll while acquiring some good, young pitching, great, but retaining Helton does not mean the Rockies failed. CEO Charlie Monfort already indicated that they believe they can win the NL West as is, so now they have they chance to go out and prove it.