Helton's hits in final home game mirrored career arc
Vet always had a clear swing, but learned how to pull a ball, hit for power
DENVER -- Todd Helton's two hits in the Rockies' final home game, a 15-5 loss to the Red Sox on Wednesday night, covered the arc of the veteran's swing -- from 1996, when he first showed up at Major League camp, to the final year of his 17-season career.
Helton's first hit was a home run, pulled over the right-field scoreboard. During his most powerful periods, many of his homers went to right-center. But his ability to pull a pitch was a learned skill.
Helton's other hit, an opposite-field double, represented the sound inside-out swing that he brought with him into professional baseball. He may have developed that swing in the womb, and manager Walt Weiss has said several times that Helton will be able to repeat it at age 52.
The kid who could hit for average, but wasn't strong or savvy enough to deliver power, grew into one of baseball's most feared hitters. Yet when years of back and hip issues robbed Helton of his home run stroke, he never lost the simple ability to hit.
"Sometimes, games pretty much sum up careers, sum up seasons, the ups and downs of a game," Helton said. "But I think earlier in my career, that would've been a homer to left, not a double. I hit that ball pretty good."
All that D-backs hitting coach Don Baylor can do is smile.
Baylor was the Rockies' manager when the team selected Helton out of the University of Tennessee in the first round in 1995. When Helton showed up in the spring of '96, the sight of him took Baylor back to his days as a Yankees player.
"I had played with a guy that was the exact same way -- Don Mattingly," Baylor said. "He was hitting balls to left all the time, didn't know how to pull the ball. They put him in a hitting group for batting practice with Ken Griffey Sr., Dave Winfield and myself in Spring Training.
"When I saw that, I said, 'Mattingly learned how to pull the ball.' He went to winter ball and learned how to get on the dish a little bit and use Yankee Stadium to hit homers down to the corner."
In meetings, Baylor emphatically insisted that no coaches, managers or front-office personnel harp on Helton about pulling pitches. Baylor's method was subtle.
"It came down to putting groups together, hitting-wise -- Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, and I might have eased Vinny Castilla in that group. Then I threw Helton in with that group, the Blake Street Bomber guys," Baylor recalled.
There was peer pressure.
"I knew he was going to be a great hitter, but sometimes I'd see him slap the ball, and I'd say, 'Come on, man. If you want to hang on the corner, you've got to be able to lean on the pole -- you've got to be able to go deep,'" said Castilla, now a special front-office assistant for the Rockies. "He'd say, 'Yeah, OK.' I'd say, 'You can drive it, man.' He'd say, 'I know.'
"He always had the power and he learned. I knew he was going to be a great hitter, because he always had a great eye, great discipline at the plate and always wanted to learn about hitting."
Bichette, who returned to the Rockies as hitting coach this season but is stepping down from that post for 2014, said he recognized Helton's ability to hit for average, which the first baseman used to win the National League batting title in 2002 with a .372 average and finish second in 2003 at .358.
"Power wasn't really his thing at the beginning," Bichette said. "He was just a nice hitter. We didn't know he was going to end up hitting 40 homers. I knew he was going to chase a batting title one day.
"But I think Todd got the fever when he got in those groups. He got in the weight room, and he turned out to be a very good power hitter."
Bichette is still amazed by Helton. His reaction to the first baseman's homer Wednesday off Boston's Jake Peavy summed it all up.
"I was like, 'You're kidding me,'" Bichette said. "It was just too good to be true."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.