I love reading and re-reading old baseball books. Among my favorites were the STATS Baseball Scoreboard annuals that were published through most of the ’90s and briefly into the 21st century.
These books typically contained dozens of short essays that asked fun questions, like, “Were Lansing and Grudzielanek ‘identical twins’?” and “How unlikely was Nomo’s no-no?” One question posed in the 1997 Baseball Scoreboard was, “Which hitters will finish with ‘immortal’ numbers?”
In his essay, Mat Olkin examined several players who at the time had a chance to reach 3,000 hits or 500 home runs. Olkin used a tool Bill James introduced in the 1981 Baseball Abstract called the “Favorite Toy” to project the likelihood that these milestones would be reached.
I thought it might be fun to look back at some of these and see how the projections stacked up against reality. We’ll skip over the hits and head straight for the homers.
Nine players were identified in the main article as having a 40 percent chance or better of reaching 500 home runs. In the appendix, 18 more players were named whom the system gave a 9 percent chance or better to reach that mark.
So, we have 27 players total. Let’s group them into three tiers for easier digestion:
- Tier 1 (40-89%)
- Tier 2 (19-38%)
- Tier 3 (9-15%)
We’ll cover them in reverse order, because I’m a backwards kind of guy.
Tier 3 (9-15%)
None of the nine Tier 3 players reached 500 homers, so I’ll just give you names, with career home runs in parentheses: Tim Salmon (299), Joe Carter (396), Jeff Bagwell (449), Dean Palmer (275), Greg Vaughn (355), Robin Ventura (294), Eric Karros (284), Ryan Klesko (278), and Andres Galarraga (399).
Bagwell had a 15 percent chance of reaching the milestone and came closest among these guys. Galarraga came closest to his projected total, knocking three more homers than the 396 predicted for him.
Tier 2 (19-38%)
Five of the nine Tier 2 hitters reached the coveted 500-home run mark, with another just missing. In the following tables, columns represent (from left to right) a player’s actual home runs through 1996, projected career home runs using stats through the ’96 season, percent chance of reaching 500 homers, actual home runs as of August 2009, and whether the player reached 500.
|Through 1996||Through 8/9/09|
|Act. HR||Proj. HR||Pct. Chance||Act. HR||500?|
Fred McGriff was one heckuva hitter who had the misfortune of spending most of his career in small media markets, during a time that preceded a huge offensive explosion. Nobody is impressed today by the 36 homers he hit in 1989 or the 35 he hit in 1992, but both totals led his league. Although McGriff remained productive into his late-30s, he retired in 2004 seven shy of the magical mark. The killing blow? In 1998, the year of the home run, McGriff hit just 19. He gets bonus points for almost nailing the Favorite Toy’s projected home run total.
Mo Vaughn got hurt and saw his career end prematurely. He still hit his share of homers, but his overall production plummeted in 1999 after he left Boston for Anaheim. He then missed all of 2001 with an arm injury before getting in a few last licks for the New York Mets in 2002 and 2003.
Rafael Palmeiro hit more home runs from age 36 to 40 (169) than he did in his 20s (155). The Favorite Toy does not account for the miracles of modern medicine.
I’ve always been a fan of Jay Buhner because he played in the first minor league game I ever attended (Columbus Clippers at Maine Guides, Opening Day 1987 if you must know). He pounded 40 home runs in ’97, which gave him 253 at age 32, but then missed the better parts of three seasons before calling it quits in 2001. In many respects, it’s amazing that Buhner finished with as many homers as he did. He didn’t land a full-time job until age 26 and spent just seven seasons as a regular. One wonders what Buhner might have accomplished had he gotten started a little sooner.
Gary Sheffield, like McGriff, was part of the infamous Padres 1993 Fire Sale. He hasn’t made it through a season healthy in a while (and that’s never been his strong suit anyway), but when Sheffield plays, he hits. He was coming off a then-career-high 42 homers in his age-27 season when this projection was made. Since then, he has knocked 350 home runs and is still going strong.
Matt Williams’ projection came on the heels of a four-year span in which he hit .296/.346/.575 with 126 homers (14.9 PA/HR). He had just completed his age-30 campaign but then was traded to the Indians. A year in Cleveland and six in Phoenix didn’t agree with Williams, who hit just .275/.323/.475 with 131 homers (23.6 PA/HR) during that stretch. Williams had trouble staying healthy, and even when he was in the lineup, he wasn’t that productive. Like Vaughn and Buhner, Williams didn’t age well at all.
Manny Ramirez has been in the headlines for different reasons in recent months, but this is a ridiculous talent. When the original projection was made, he owned a career line of .295/.385/.550. He remained at roughly that level for a couple more years before exploding in ’99. From then until now, Ramirez has hit .320/.422/.610 with 385 home runs. He hit 30 homers or more every year from 1998 to 2006.
Jim Thome was a teammate of Ramirez’s on that great ’94 Indians team that won all its extra-innings games. Thome hit 30 homers or more every year from 1996 to 2004. If he hadn’t missed most of the ’05 season, there’s a good chance he’d be looking to make it 14 straight years clearing that threshold.
It’s kind of fun (assuming you’re not a pitcher) to compare Ramirez’s 1998-2006 run with Thome’s 1996-2004 run:
- Ramirez: 5523 PA, .318/.418/.623, 15.3 PA/HR
- Thome: 5686 PA, .285/.416/.588, 15.5 PA/HR
Alex Rodriguez is playing a different game. He had just completed his age-20 season when the original projection was made. Who in their right mind would think that Rodriguez could improve on his .358/.414/.631 performance that year? He went on a rampage from 1998 to 2003 (only six years), in which he hit 40 or more homers every season…while playing shortstop. As of this writing, Rodriguez needs 16 to reach 600. He’s 33 years old. Frankly, it’s a little ridiculous. (ESPN has an interactive version of the Favorite Toy that tells us, among other things, Rodriguez has a 55 percent chance of breaking the career home run record.)
Tier 1 (40-89%)
|Through 1996||Through 8/9/09|
|Act. HR||Proj. HR||Pct. Chance||Act. HR||500?|
Barry Bonds went nuts. He hit 503 home runs from age 30 until the end of his career. If you took away his 20s, Bonds would rank 26th all time in home runs. The only things that kept him from hitting more were the fact that teams stopped pitching to him and that he missed almost all of 2005. I’ve looked at Bonds’ career projections from the STATS 1997 Baseball Scoreboard (the projections in the previous article use Brock6 rather than the Favorite Toy method, which explains the discrepancy in predicted home runs), and all I can say is the same thing I say whenever I look at his career record: Damn.
I find it amusing that Bonds ended up with exactly twice as many homers as Albert Belle. I also find it frustrating that Belle’s career ended at age 33 due to a degenerative hip condition. He was such a beast. From the 1997 Scoreboard:
One thing is clear: the hitter who makes a real run at [Hank] Aaron will need to crank out 40-homer seasons year after year. There are only two hitters in the game who have even a 10 percent chance of maintaining that pace long enough to break Aaron’s record: Albert Belle, at 15 percent, and Ken Griffey Jr., at 12 percent. Belle’s career total is 100 homers behind Aaron’s at the same age, but the formula recognizes that Belle may be the one hitter in today’s game with the ability to produce enough 50-homer seasons to actually make up ground on Aaron.
It didn’t work out that way, but Belle was one prolific power hitter while he lasted.
Mark McGwire had just hit a career-high 52 homers when the projection was made. He was 32 years old and not far removed from missing most of two seasons due to injury. He then hit 58, 70, and 65 home runs. Health and other issues forced McGwire from the game at age 37. He is the only member of the 500-homer club to have fewer than 2000 hits to his credit.
Ken Griffey Jr. got traded to Cincinnati, got hurt, and years later finds himself clinging to the tail end of a brilliant career. He hasn’t strung together two great, healthy seasons in a decade, but when you’ve accomplished as much as Griffey did at such an early age, it’s hard not to reach certain milestones.
Personal anecdote #1: Griffey is the first player I can remember reaching the big leagues who was younger than I was. Personal anecdote #2: In a game against the Padres at Qualcomm Stadium circa 1997, my wife and I were sitting above the home dugout up the first base line. During one of Griffey’s plate appearances, the bat slipped from his hands and flew into the stands, hitting someone. Griffey ended up drawing a walk. The first thing he did when he reached first base was locate the fan his bat had hit and yell, “Are you okay?” He was on top of the world then; he didn’t need to do that, but he did.
Frank Thomas missed almost all of 2001, and huge chunks of 2004 and 2005, but managed to stay productive well into his late 30s. If not for injuries and work stoppages, he probably would have hit 600 home runs. As it is, like Galarraga and McGriff, he is the man in his tier who came closest to the Favorite Toy’s projected total.
Juan Gonzalez hit 43 homers at age 22, and 46 at age 23. After a couple of off years, he knocked 40 or more in three consecutive seasons before falling all the way to 39 in 1999. Then Gonzalez turned 30 and the home runs stopped coming in bunches. The man who had 121 homers to his credit by age 23 (as many as Mickey Mantle; more than Jimmie Foxx, Albert Pujols, Hank Aaron…) hit just 94 in his 30s.
Jose Canseco couldn’t stay healthy. He routinely missed 40 or more games a season and once famously blew out his elbow while pitching for the Rangers under Kevin Kennedy. (Amusingly, another chapter in the 1997 Scoreboard is titled “Did Kennedy Abuse His Pitchers’ Arms?”) Although Canseco managed to hit 134 homers for five teams after the projection was made, he retired from affiliated baseball in 2001 at age 36. Since then, he has gone on to play in Independent leagues, write books, appear on TV shows, and generally endear himself to the world.
McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased Roger Maris‘ single-season home run record in ’98. While McGwire ended up setting the new mark, Sosa finished with 66. He hit 63 the next year and 64 two years after that. Sosa was a career .259/.310/.466 hitter at the time of the original projection. From that point forward, he hit .282/.364/.576. Sosa knocked more home runs in his 30s (336) than Hank Greenberg did in his entire career (331).
In 1990, after spending the previous year playing in Japan, Lucky Gravy‘s dad became the first man in 13 years to hit 50 homers in a season. He followed that performance with a 44-homer season but saw his overall production slip over the next several years. When the projection was made, Fielder was coming off a season in which he hit 39 home runs at age 32. He would hit 30 more in his career before retiring in 1998. Random factoid: On May 2, 1988, while playing for the Blue Jays, Fielder and Kelly Gruber switched between second and third base throughout the game depending on the batter. Fielder recorded a putout at each position, with Gruber notching five assists to go with his two putouts.
In the 1997 Baseball Scoreboard, 27 players were identified using Bill James’ Favorite Toy as having a 9 percent chance or better of reaching 500 home runs. Of those, 10 actually did. Five came from the Tier 1 group (40-89 percent chance), five from the Tier 2 group (19-38 percent), and none from Tier 3 (9-15 percent).
That is a lot of homers.
References & Resources
Baseball Reference and the 1997 Baseball Scoreboard.