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Heirs to the throne?

Handicapping the contenders to surpass Bonds

Posted: Saturday August 4, 2007 10:39PM; Updated: Saturday August 4, 2007 10:39PM
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Vladimir Guerrero
As great a player as Vladimir Guerrero is, odds are he won't come close to the all-time home run record.
Kirby Lee/WireImage.com

By Nate Silver, BaseballProspectus.com

Barry Bonds haters are comforting themselves with the notion that Bonds' hold on the home-run record could be short-lived. Alex Rodriguez is more than 100 home runs ahead of Bonds' pace at the same age, and if he doesn't break the record, there are a number of other candidates such as Albert Pujols waiting in line for their shot at the piņata.

For that matter, is it too soon to count out Ken Griffey Jr.? How about Sammy Sosa? For an answer, we turn to a modified version of Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system.

PECOTA uses comparable players to forecast a player's future. In other words, each potential comparable represents a positive or negative precedent. If Hank Aaron appears on a player's comp list -- someone who was productive well into his early 40s -- that will increase the model's estimate of that player's likelihood of challenging the record. If he gets someone like Eddie Mathews instead, a great player early in his career but who hit just three home runs after age 35, that will harm his projection.

For the purposes of this exercise, we estimated Bonds' final career total to be 782 home runs (see note below for more on the methodology). So here are our 13 contestants, all with significant home run credentials, ranked in inverse order of PECOTA's estimate of their likelihood of challenging Aaron and Bonds.

Thanks for Playing, but No Record for You

13. Vladimir Guerrero
Projected Career Total: 495
Chances of Hitting 500 HR: 41.6%
... 600 HR: 9.6%
... 700 HR: none

Top Comparables: Juan Gonzalez, George Scott, Joe Torre, Dave Winfield, George Hendrick.

Vlad is a hard player to characterize -- his combination of raw power and a low strikeout rate is rather unusual in today's game -- and I'm not entirely certain that the PECOTA comparables do him justice. Nevertheless, he's topped 40 home runs in a season just twice, and his propensity to the occasional injury doesn't help him. At 31, there's just too much ground to make up for the Home Run Derby champ.

12. Frank Thomas
Projected Career Total: 573
Chances of Hitting 600 HR: 22.2%
... 700 HR: none

Top Comparables: Darrell Evans, Rafael Palmeiro, Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey, Fred McGriff.

At 39, Thomas is the oldest player on this list and therefore the easiest to project; the fewer years a player has left, the narrower his range of potential outcomes, and vice versa. It's fairly impressive that PECOTA thinks Big Hurt might have another 100 home runs left in his bat, but 700 and all numbers north are out of the question.

11. Jim Thome
Projected Career Total: 586
Chances of Hitting 500 HR: 100%
... 600 HR: 38.2%
... 700 HR: 6.8%
... 755 HR: none

Top Comparables: Thomas, McCovey, Evans, Willie Stargell, Ellis Burks.

Thome's career slugging percentage of .564 is a hair better than that of Aaron (.555) or Mickey Mantle (.557), but he's simply missed too much time due to injury, something which isn't likely to abate as he ages (he turns 37 in August). A healthy 2005 and he'd have had a fighting chance at Aaron, though probably not Bonds.

10. Sammy Sosa
Projected Career Total: 647
Chances of Hitting 700 HR: 8.8%
... 755 HR: none

Top Comparables: Tony Perez, Ruben Sierra, Gary Gaetti, Ernie Banks, Gil Hodges.

PECOTA was not impressed with the Rangers' signing of Sosa before the season and it hasn't really changed its tune -- Sosa's comparables are players that hung on too long. Sosa retains above-average power but is costing his club in every other department; he might not run out of time so much as he runs out of people willing to employ him.

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