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Five who could hit 756
Posted: Monday April 05, 1999 01:34 PMAlso: Photo Essay | 20th Anniversary
Aaron's glorious ordeal
SI's Tom Verducci handicaps the current players who might have a shot at becoming the next Sultan of Swat.
When does a power hitter peak? The conventional wisdom among baseball people is that hitters gain power and lose points off their batting average as they age. So while players may be in their overall prime -- that includes baserunning, fielding and throwing -- in their late 20s and early 30s, power hitters have an actuarial table all their own. Mark McGwire , for example, turned 35 a few days after belting his 70th home run last season.
Similarly, Hank Aaron earned the title of Home Run King more on what he did late in his career than early in it. When was Aaron's most productive five-year period for hitting home runs? He hit more dingers after his 35th birthday and before his 40th than in any other five-year span (203 home runs).
Five players in the history of the game reached 350 home runs at a younger age than did Aaron, who hit his 350th 129 days after turning 30. Four of those guys didn't come close to extending their glory years like Aaron, who ripped 245 home runs after 35. They are Jimmie Foxx (one home run after 35, with time lost in military service), Eddie Mathews (19), Mickey Mantle (40) and Mel Ott (48).
And what about the fifth? Ken Griffey , the youngest ever to get halfway to 700, has another full season ahead before he turns 30. He has a remarkable head start on Aaron, having belted 52 more home runs than the Hammer did before his 29th birthday. That's a 17 percent lead.
1. Griffey (350, 29, +52). Already he has eclipsed Aaron's season-high of 44 home runs four times -- and the prime years are yet to come. As long as he plays until he's 40 -- and Griffey has given absolutely no signs he wants an early checkout from the game -- he'll break it. Bear it mind that hitting home runs will continue to be much easier in this era than it was in Hank's time because of expansion, small parks and a smaller strike zone.
2. Juan Gonzalez (301, 29, +3). He has a pure home run stroke, imparting natural lift to the ball while being able to leave the yard with any pitch near the strike zone -- and sometimes, not so near. As he gets more selective, his home run numbers will go up.
3. McGwire (457, 35, -53). Let's say McGwire has the exactly the same home run production Aaron did after his 35th birthday. Not an outrageous assumption, right? In that conservative scenario McGwire would finish his career with 702 homers. Of course, only one or two more seasons like last year would put his assault into hyperdrive. One caveat, though: McGwire's medical history is much worse than Aaron's was, suggesting he'll have a hard time staying healthy into his 40s.
4. Alex Rodriguez (106, 23, +40). Aaron had hit 66 home runs when he turned 23 before the 1957 season. Shortstops traditionally don't hold up well over the years, but Rodriguez broke the mold long ago. A free agent after the 2000 season, Rodriguez's choice of his home ballpark will have a big impact on his power numbers.
5. Vladimir Guerrero (50, 23, -16). He was born Feb. 9 (Aaron's birthday is Feb. 5) in 1976, the year Aaron hit No. 755 as a DH for the Milwaukee Brewers. If you were starting a team from scratch today and could pick any player, Rodriguez would be No. 1 and Guerrero would be a safe No. 2 pick.
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