Power sours for the Rockies Beltin’ Helton
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado
Imagine Eddie Van Halen gone acoustic. Dwight Yoakam without his hat. Or your cellphone on the 1G network. Welcome to Todd Helton’s season. He can still hit. He just has no power.
Through 28 games, the most accomplished player in team history has no home runs and six RBIs. Those numbers are even more sobering when considering that Helton has hit out of the third hole 20 times.
“I (stink),” said Helton, when asked to assess his season.
Helton is batting .284 with a .382 on-base percentage. Both of those numbers are acceptable, even if they aren’t up to the 36-year-old’s standards. The elephant in the room is his lack of run production, the lack of power.
Helton has gone 88 at-bats without a home run. His career-long drought to start a season is 98 in 1998. And it’s not just the long ball. It’s the bounces off the wall. Helton has only four extra-base hits. Rockies pitchers, by comparison, have six extra-base hits.
The last time Helton struggled to this extent was in 2008, when he was privately dealing with excruciating back pain that eventually led to offseason surgery. Is that the problem again?
“I have a lot of issues going on in my head, but that’s not one of them,” Helton said. “I’m OK. The back has nothing to do with it.”
So what has caused the outage? Helton said he’s dealing with a mechanical glitch. Without getting too technical, it comes down to this: He’s consistently stepping out with his front foot against right-handed pitchers, forcing him to hit the ball deeper in the strike zone than he wants, sapping his power. That has led to a wrist-flip swing.
Most guys would strike out with their timing that messed up, but Helton’s hand-eye coordination allows him to still put the ball in play.
“It’s off the charts,” hitting instructor Don Baylor said of Helton’s reflexes.
Helton has six hits in his past 18 at-bats, but he’s not impressed. Not until he can start driving the ball again.
“I am having trouble fixing some things. I know I can do it, I just haven’t found the right trigger so I have a good position,” Helton said. “There are times I see the swing in the cage. But not all the time. I have to put my body in better position to drive the ball.”
Baylor has been playing part coach, part psychiatrist, working on Helton’s mind as much as his swing. He reminds Helton that there’s no need for panic, that he needs to remain confident even while he’s not getting the desired results.
“(Legendary manager) Gene Mauch always told me that hitters will hit. And it’s true. Todd is not some ordinary guy. Look at the track record,” Baylor said. “He gets impatient because he hasn’t found his power swing yet. But he will. Then you will see some home runs come in bunches.”
The key Helton is searching for is getting his bat in a better loaded position to allow him to hit the ball out near the front of the plate. If he can find that timing, and get his hips in position as he turns, his power will return.
“He’s trying to grind and grind right now. And he’s muscling up. When you do that, you get slower and slower with the bat,” Baylor explained. “Facing left-handers recently has been good for him. He’s getting in a better position, staying closed with his front side.”
Manager Jim Tracy practically laughed when asked if he was concerned about Helton. He too pointed out that Helton is working through a glitch. But Helton’s lack of production has already forced Tracy’s hand; the manager dropped the slugger to fifth in the batting order for two games in the Giants series last weekend.
“I don’t worry about him at all,” said Tracy, who indicated he will keep Helton in the third spot and bat Brad Hawpe fifth when the outfielder returns from the disabled list Monday.
The support of Helton’s teammates is unanimous. He is so revered that most players have trouble wrapping their arms around the question of Helton scuffling.
“There are a lot of guys who would like to be hitting what he’s hitting. Even when he’s not going well, he gives you a quality at-bat,” shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. “The way he works counts and battles, he’s the most important guy in our lineup.”
Jason Giambi has grown close to Helton over the past nine months and has his ear. He’s told Helton not to press, not to agonize over every at-bat.
“We talk. I have been some through similar starts, and it’s not easy. Let’s be honest, it’s a young man’s game,” Giambi said.
“We’d all like to be putting up our old numbers. But you have to be realistic too. But he’s the anchor of this team, the anchor of the lineup. He’s going to hit because that’s what he does. Don’t worry about him.”
Troy E. Renck: 303-954-1301 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The best power-hitting first basemen in 2010, and those who are struggling (minimum 60 at-bats).
Player, Team HR RBI
Paul Konerko, White Sox 12 25
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers 7 30
Albert Pujols, Cardinals 7 25
Player, Team HR RBI
Todd Helton, Rockies 0 6
Garrett Atkins, Orioles 0 5
Matt LaPorta, Indians 0 1
Todd Helton is a traditional slow starter as a power hitter, but this season his run production also has lagged. A look at his statistics after 28 games over the past four seasons:
HR RBIs Avg. OBP XBH
2010 0 6 .284 .382 4
2009 3 17 .351 .400 8
2008 2 9 .278 .395 9
2007 1 17 .372 .504 8
XBH – extra-base hits