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Forgotten Greatness?

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Many accomplishments of major league players from the late 1990s have been tarnished and relegated to the archives of baseball history due the specter that steroids had cast over the game. When Brady Anderson smacks 50 HR's in a season, people should rightfully take a step back and take inventory of what is going on. Performances that we would have been deemed extraordinary seemed pedestrian in those days- a 30 HR season was something just about anyone could accomplish, seemingly. As sports fans, we are always searching for greatness- whether it be a team, a player, a play, a call by a coach or a personnel decision by a General Manager. As frequently as greatness is discussed, in terms of on-field performance in the major leagues, the 2000 seasons of Nomar Garciaparra and Todd Helton are rarely  mentioned.

The year 2000 was perhaps the zenith of the steroids era. In that season, Mark McGwire would collect 72 hits- 32 of which were homeruns. Baseball had been saved by McGwire, however, and along with Sammy Sosa, power was all the rage. It sold merchandise, built stadiums (with shorter fences), and saw contracts spiral upward in dollar amounts. It is easy to see, with the business of baseball booming along with homerun rates, how Helton and Garciaparra's achievements that year could be overlooked.

After being called up from the minors after only two seasons, Nomar Garciaparra quickly asserted himself as one of the game's best shortstops. With excellent range and arm strength, he was perhaps an even better defensive player than his more heralded contemporary in New York, Derek Jeter. Garciaparra's pinacle offensively, came in 2000, when he put up these numbers:

BA R HR RBI OBP SLG% OPS+
Nomar Garciaparra .372 104 21 96 .434 .599 155

The batting average immediately jumps off the screen, or at least it does for me. Batting average may not be the best metric to measure a hitter's value, but .372 is .372. Impressive no matter what. He wasn't just hitting singles that year either, as evidenced by his slugging percentage of nearly .600. Garciaparra only played in 140 games that year but managed to hit 51 doubles! His OPS+ was 55 percent better than the average AL player that season- in other words he supplied the offense of more than one and a half players in 2000.

Todd Helton was drafted by Colorado after playing both baseball and football at the University of Tennessee. He was a QB, whose eventual replacement was a youngster from New Orleans who was never to be heard from again. Helton though, made a name for himself as a major leaguer. Taking to the thin air of Coors Field like, well, Peyton Manning to a commericial set, Helton's 2000-2004 seasons are among the best five year period of any player of our generation. His 2000 season, in particular, is the one the drew my interest.

BA R HR RBI OBP SLG% OPS+
Todd Helton .372 138 42 147 .463 .698 163

Those stats are indescribable in a way. Helton not only equalled Garciaparra in batting average, but (albeit in more games played) far surpassed him in all other categories. (I don't mean for this article to be a comparison of the two, but since their batting averages were the same, I thought it silly to not briefly compare their periphery stats beyond BA.) Of course, one thing that is a little startling is Helton's OPS+.  His 1.161 OPS is without equal for that season, but given Nomar's 2000 mark of 155, you'd think that Helton's maybe should be higher than 163. That's the nice part of OPS+, however. Not only does it allow for easy comparisons to other players in the league, but it is ballpark neutral. The positive offensive effects that the thin air and spacious outfield of Coors Field had on Helton's stat line were nullified in arriving at his OPS+. To that point, here is Helton's home/away split for 2000:

G R HR RBI OBP SLG%
Home 81 92 27 88 .484 .758
Away 79 46 15 59 .441 .633

The Coors Field effect was clearly in full force in 2000, and Helton took advantage of it. It should come as no surprise that Coors' Park Factor in 2000 was 131, the highest ever at that stadium. (Source: Baseball Prospectus).  Seeing that 100 is neutral as far as park factor is concerned, Helton clearly had a historically good atmosphere to play more than half of his games in. Something to take note of when not only looking back a player's probable best season, but also when evaluating free agents. (Please see Wilson, Preston for an example of how playing in Denver inflates ones' statistics.) Denver or no Denver, Helton's numbers are something to behold. And, along with Nomar's season that same year, the summer of 2000 saw two of the best performances that are rarely mentioned, but hopefully not  forgotten.