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Wild Card: The 500 HR Club in perspective
Frank Thomas became the 21st man to hit 500 career home runs on Thursday when he smacked a three-run bomb off Carlos Silva in the first-inning of the Blue Jays-Twins game. On June 20 Sammy Sosa became just the fifth man to hit 600 home runs when he hit a fifth-inning solo shot off Jason Marquis. Barry Bonds is currently six homers short of Hank Aaron's all-time record. Alex Rodriguez is eight shy of 500, Ken Griffey Jr. is 16 shy of 600, and Jim Thome (18), Manny Ramirez (19), and Gary Sheffield (27) are all likely to join the 500-homer club no later than next year, which would expand the group's membership by 25 percent in the past two seasons. To many, this onslaught has robbed these milestones of some of their significance, but it is not unprecedented.
Babe Ruth became the first man to reach 500 home runs in 1929. Over the next 35 years, just three others joined him: Jimmy Foxx, Mel Ott, and Ted Williams. The next six years, however, saw seven men hit their 500th homer, nearly tripling the club's membership from 1965 to '71. What's more, while Ruth remained the only man to reach either 600 homers entering the 1969 season, both Willie Mays and Aaron reached that plateau by 1971 and Aaron reached 700 in 1973, breaking Ruth's career mark the year after that.
From 1971 to '98, however, just four more men hit their 500th home run (Willie McCovey, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, and Eddie Murray). Thus, in the first 60 seasons of its existence, 15 men joined the 500-home run club, but seven of them did so in a six-year span, while just eight others joined in the remaining 54 seasons. Should Rodriguez, Thome, Ramirez, and Sheffield all make it by next season, there will be 25 men in the club in its 70th season, with 10 of them having joined in the nine years since Mark McGwire hit No. 500 in 1999. That's a huge influx, but it's not unprecedented.
In fact, it could be that what we’re seeing now is something closer to a return to the norm. My theory is that it's not the '60s and the most recent decade that are the outliers, but the '70s and '80s, which really only produced three members (McCovey hit 313 of his 521 career homers prior to 1970).
Looking at the history of the 500-home run club, it's important to remember that the first four members began their careers while the major leagues were segregated, and that seven of the next 11 players to reach the milestone were African American. It's no stretch to assume that segregation is responsible for suppressing membership during the club's first three decades while hitters such as Josh Gibson were restricted to the Negro leagues. Indeed, of the 10 most recent members of the 500 club, four are African American and four more are Latino.
Looking forward, there are four players who have a good chance of hitting their 500th homer in the next five years or so, and a fifth who has an outside shot. Carlos Delgado has 418 homers roughly halfway through his age-35 season. By comparison, Sheffield had 415 homers at the end of his age-35 season, missed most of 2006 with a wrist injury, and is still on pace to reach 500 with ease. Chipper Jones has 370 homers at the same age. Bill James' Favorite Toy says that Jones has a 33 percent shot of reaching 500, though it doesn't completely account for his increasing injury issues. Still, he's in the discussion. Chipper's teammate Andruw Jones has 354 homers and is five years younger, giving him a fantastic shot, while Vlad Guerrero is just a year older than Andruw and just two homers behind him.
At their current pace, all four of those men could join the club by 2011, while Albert Pujols, who's currently at 266 dingers, could join the club by 2012 at the age of 32, putting him just six months behind A-Rod’s record pace. In addition to those five, Miguel Cabrera, with his 121 career dingers at age 24, looks like a solid candidate. At his current pace, Cabrera could hit his 500th sometime around 2018 when he'll be 35, though certainly a lot could go wrong between now and then.
Setting aside Cabrera, who will likely be the leader of another generation of 500-homer hitters (Prince Fielder could be next in line), and assuming that the four most likely players from the previous paragraph make it (sorry, Chipper), the 500 home run club will stand at 29 men by the end of the 2012 season. Three of those 29 played prior to integration, nine of them hit the majority of their homers in the '50s and '60s (Williams and McCovey fit that description along with the seven who joined from 1965 to '71), and 14 of those men will have hit the majority of their home runs in the '90s and '00s. That increase from nine to 14 is easily explained by the increased influence of Latino players since the 1960s as, while none of the first 17 men to hit 500 home runs were Latino (save for the half-Mexican Williams), as many as eight of the next 12 will be.
What's left is a dry spell from the '70s and '80s. Perhaps, rather than devaluing the home run output of the players who are reaching these milestones now, we should be developing a new appreciation for the achievements of Jackson, Schmidt, Murray, and that era’s near-misses such as Willie Stargell (296 of his 475 homers after 1969), Dave Winfield (357 of 465 prior to 1990), and Carl Yastrzemski (250 of 452 after 1969).
posted by SI.com | View comments |
League expansion and the decline of pitching that has resulted is also a cause for the increase in home runs.
Congratulations on a well-written, well-researched piece! I wish there were more articles like this on sports web sites, and similar insightful discussions on sports radio (which seems to be dominated by loud, unsubstantiated opinions from people who haven't done their homework on issues). I look forward to future articles on this blog.
Steroids from McGuire on. Race shouldn't matter. Many groups never have been represented. Russians, Asians, Cubans, modern Europeans, Scandinavians, the Middle East, etc.....
Nice article with some interesting theories. I think what many people don't consider is that players are playing longer, and are healthier than previous years (even without steroids!). Also, we should remember that as time goes on, membership of any "club" must grow e.g. think of the sub-10 second 100m club. Maybe a more interesting stat to look at would be the number of at-bats to reach 500/600/etc...If you do it in 8 seasons, you must be good; do it in 25 seasons, you have longevity on your side (think Emmitt Smith versus Payton).
This is one of the best analyzed articles I have seen regarding the recent surge in home runs. The simple fact of life is that several of the well known long ball hitters in recent memory have been tainted by their use of chemical enhancements. However, there are several power hitters playing the today that are free from such accusations (Griffey, Rodriguez, etc), and hopefully they will comprise the majority of the 500 and 600 home run club.
Another reason there was such a lack of power hitters in the 70's and 80's is that many of the players from that time were more focused on getting on base and moving runners over than on hitting home runs. That era saw some of the greatest pure hitters of recent memory. (i.e. Pete Rose) The mindset of the players today has changed and many of them are focusing on the personal glory of hitting home runs rather than playing small ball.
* Not to mention the great pitchers of the 70's and 80's (i.e. Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Orel Hershiser, Bret Saberhagen)
Fantastic research on this topic. This is the kind of article that makes Baseball so interesting! Please keep doing it! I look forward to the same type of research for the magical 2,000 RBI's. Only 3 (in)mortals have reached this milestone and Barry looks to be the next one. Would love to hear your comments and projections on the next ones (Junior, Manny, A-Rod, Pujols,etc.)
Expansion has played a big role for sure. There's a lot of pitchers today who couldn't have made it in the 70's and 80's. Also, there is the arguement that players using performance enhancing drugs has augmented their totals. Bonds, McGwire and Sosa all have a cloud over them, although no formal proof of their wrongdoing and Palmeiro has been caught.
Still even with those exceptions, leaves one to wander why the totals were so much lower in the 70's and 80's. Back then, a home run total in the 35-39 range gave a hitter a good shot at winning the home run title. Was it better pitching? Different balls? Bats not being quite as good? Has climate change impacted the amount of home runs (might be a stretch there). It would be interesting to hear some ideas on the home run deficit in the 70's and 80's.
Overall, interesting article, but maybe a follow up on the 70's and 80's power outage. It also might help to shed some light on today's numbers. Because, for better or worse the number of 500 home runs just doesn't have the same value as it did.
While I agree with the premise that 500 homers aren't as impressive as they used to be, we either have to discuss an new era as a combination of better conditioning, improved conditions, the increase in mediocre pitching due to league expansions and of course, the freakishly large-headed elephant in the room, steroids.
True, the 500 HR club is not as hard to enter as it used to be. And it's not just PEDs that help build up the home runs in today's era. The size of the ballparks are smaller. Give or take a few feet, the newer ballparks we know today have dimensions of about 325 feet down the lines, power alleys are about 375 feet, and straightaway center about 400 feet. Ballparks that were built from about the late 1940's to, say, the early 1980's had larger playing fields. Dimensions were roughly 350 feet down the lines, power alleys were close to 400 feet, and straightaway center was about 420 feet.
So it is easier to hit home runs today. They are exciting, but they are not what they used to be.
The differential in dimensions is enough to convince me that, unless Barry Bonds hits 850 homers, he will never be the great long ball hitter that Henry Aaron was. Aaron had to absolutely crush the ball if he wanted to go deep in the ballparks of the 1960s and '70s while Bonds can just poke one about 330-something feet for a home run today.
That's my 2¢.
It's refreshing to see an article about home run proliferation without the constant chant of "Steroids... steroids... steroids..." running through the article.
Perhaps one day we fans will stop being so paranoid about every accomplishment in baseball, and you writers will stop stoking those fears.
This is a great start toward that!
Well researched??? How about mentioning Ruth for five years hit homeruns down a 258 foot line. Then they moved it to a staggering 295 feet! Ruth as a figure in sports: Never in doubt. Ruth as a slugger with legit homeruns. Very much so.
Diluted pitching, smaller ball parks (how many 450 doubles did Mantle hit), and much better strength, conditioning (How often did Ruth see the inside of a gym?), and supplaments (legal and illegal) have all contributed to a higher home run output in recent years. All that being said, hitting a small, round ball with a round stick when it is traveling often time s in excess of 90 mph is an impressive feat. One name, again quite young and early in his career, that seemed to have been left off of the list, though, is Ryan Howard (No, I'm not a Phillies fan, just a baseball fan). As he just became the fastest ever, in terms of games played, to 100 home runs, he should at least be in the discussion. It's too bad Ken Griffey Jr. had all those injuries, or maybe we'd be watching a race to the record instead of the most hated man in baseball chasing it by himself. It would be nice to be able to cheer for the person chasing that record, but I'll be saving my cheers for when A-Rod is getting there.
I'd first like to agree with what Matt from Vermont said - this is a very nice article.
This article highlights a side that I hope more baseball analysts and historians take when considering this recently-dubbed steroids era in baseball, that the spike in home runs during these times were not merely because of the use of steroids - it was clearly a much more complicated set of circumstances that led to the dramatic upturn in home run totals.
Expansion has definitely watered down Major League pitching. Advances in the equipment players use and training programs have also had an influence, as have -sadly - performance-enhancing drugs. Regardless of all, with the exception of enhanced stats due to drug use, you still have to play very consistently over a lot of years to reach plateaus such as 500 'taters, 3,000 hits or 300 wins. Anyone that is that successful for an extended period of time is definitely Hall of Fame caliber. It is a shame that McGwire has been blacklisted by the BBWAA writers and it will be ineteresting to see what happens when Palmeiro is on the ballot for the first time (one of only four players in history with 500/3000). To finish... if neither one of those guys ever gets into the Hall then I sincerely hope the BBWAA shuns Bonds for the same reason, independent of displacing Aaron in the record books!
league expansion causes there to be a need for pitchers who are AAA/AA at best in the majors, which allows great hitters to hit more against bad pitching, which is going to lead to a lot of walks and homeruns. but more importantly more players nowadays take care of themselves year round and there are more teams willing to risk it on a seemingly too old veteran, ex jim thome. with steroids, not only were they stronger, they felt better in july, august, september and there was less fading...people would chase the babe and maris, but fade, ex mike schmidt, the mick, kgj
Babe Ruth is the only white guy in history with 600 home-runs, and that was pre-47 so the numbers aren't real. That was when baseball was cheating. Look at the numbers now. No white guy playing will reach 600. So that's where we have to start. The all-time home-run hitters didn't play the game until after 47. Can anybody say i'm wrong.
I agree with the comments made earlier. This was an outstanding article. It was so good to read I couldn't believe it was over. I am already a firm believer that players such as Jackson, Murray and Schmidt (Pete Rose included) do not get enough recogition.
Great Article. It looks as if in the new era of baseball 600 plus Home Runs will be the measuring stick of greatness. There is a great appreciation and respect for 500 plus Home Run hitters and always will be, but, as we measure true greatness it needs a separator from the above average. The 600 plus Club is the new 500 Club for the new generation of baseball and will soon have new members too. The greatest Home Run hitters of all time will remain the top 10 for each era.
Great article, very well researched. To me the 500 HR Club is still a big feat. As of right now only 21 players have done it. I know that A-Rod, Sheffield and Thome will reach it but just look at the list. Out of the thousands and thousands of players that have played in MLB over the 120 plus years and only 21 have done it. You have to have 2 main things in your favor to accomplish this and they are good health and longevity. Too many of us are making it sound like hitting 500 home runs is easy. The majority of the players who did it played close to 20 years and over. If the list grows to 35 and 40 then you might have something but not now. 500 home runs is still 500 home runs and if it was a routine number then more than 21 would have done it by now.
It's a business thing: lots of runs AND home runs attract fans. And fans dislike 1-0 or 2-1 games. They want firepower. Period.
To achiever this, MLB stripped pitchers of the only real weapon they had: the inside pitch. Pitchers became as vulnerable as possibly could, resulting in teams switching from the speed and defensive game to the power game.
For all his athletic abilities, what advantage do you think Barry Bonds gets from wearing elbow protection?
We better get used to it!
This is intended for Cliff Corcoran as it may help him refine his research and theories. Anyone else is welcome to read it for what it’s worth. Your article intrigued me. I was wondering why a lot of the home run hitters from the 70s and 80s ended up in the 400 range, while so many of the current home run hitters look like their going to make 500. So I went back and broke down all the hitter who hit 400 home runs. I was looking for annual averages. For what it’s worth, here’s what I found:
There are 42 hitters with 400 home runs or more. I divided them into 4 eras – guys who played their whole careers before 1950; guys who primarily played in the 50s, and 60s, when home run totals boomed, possibly because of the first wave of expansion; guys who primarily played in the 70s and 80s, who you were analyzing; and guys whose careers started in the 90s.
The first group has only 4 – Ruth, Foxx, Ott and Gehrig. They averaged 19 years, the lowest average home runs a year was 23 (Ott), the highest 42 (Ruth, which makes him a statistical anomaly – the next highest average in any era is 36, but I didn’t count his pitching years and started him from 1919), the overall average was 30. If you take Ruth out, the average years are 20, lowest annual average 23, highest 29 (Gehrig) and the overall average is 27.
There are 10 who primarily played in the 50s and 60s - Aaron, Mays, Robinson, Killebrew, Mantle, Williams, Banks, Mathews, Musial and Snider, with some overlap – Arron, Mays, Robinson and Killebrew played into the 70s, Williams, Musial and Snider started in the 40s. They averaged 20 year careers, the lowest annual home run average was 22 (Musial), the highest 32 (Aaron), and the overall average was 28, one more home run a year that the first group (without Ruth).
Then come the 70s and 80s, with 12 400 or more home run hitters - Jackson, Schmitt, McCovey, Murray, Stargell, Winfield, Yastremski, Kingman, Dawson, Ripkin, Williams and Darrell Evans (again there’s spill – Jackson, McCovey, Stargell Yastremski and Williams in the 60s; Murray, Winfield, Dawson and Ripkin in the 90s). These guys also averaged 20 years careers, with an annual low of 20 (Yaz), a high of 30 (Schmitt) but an overall of only 24, a drop off of 3 from the first group and 4 from the second, a big drop. Also of interest, of the 12, only 4 reached the 500 level – Jackson, Schmitt, McCovey and Murray; 8 fell short.
Finally, the group who started in the 90s, and there are 16 of them! Bonds, Sosa, Griffey, McGwire, Palmeiro, Thomas, McGriff, Rodriguez, Thome, Ramirez, Sheffield, Canseco, Bagwell, Gonzales, Piazza and Delgado. Overall, they’ve averaged only 17 year careers, with an annual low of 24 (Sheffield, 4 more a year than the lowest guy from the 70s and 80s), but a high of 36! (ARod, 6 more than the last era; Bonds averages 35), and an overall of 30, a jump of 6 from the 70s/80s, 2 from the 50s/60s, and 3 from the first group. Although Griffey and Thomas are the only ones to reach 500, 4 more are within striking distance - Rodriguez, Thome, Ramirez and Sheffield.
Steroids, you say? Okay, I broke the last group down. I separated the 6 of the 16 who have had even a whiff of steroid suspicion - Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, Canseco and Gonzales and ran their numbers. All of them averaged more than 26 home runs a year individually, with McGwire at 36, Bonds at 35 and Sosa at 34, but as a group they only averaged 1 home run a year more than the other “clean” 10. And ARod, to whom there’s never been a hint of steroid accusation, also averages 36 home runs a year. Maybe the steroid effect is overrated.
So what have we got? Before around 1980, 11 players had hit 500 home runs. They averaged, excluding Ruth, 28 home runs annually. 3 more had hit at least 400. By 2000, 4 more had hit 500, but 8 more had stalled between 400 and 500, showing how hard 500 was to reach. These 12 had averaged only 24 annually, a 4 home run a year drop off. Suddenly comes the 90s. Today, 2 more have reached 500, 4 have a legitimate shot, 2 stalled out in the 400s (but McGriff ended only 7 short), and 2 more (Piazza and Delgado) have made it to 400, if not to 500. But this group of 16 averages 6 more home runs a year than the previous group and 2 to 3 more home runs than the first 2. Even separating the steroid tainted players, the jump in averages remains the same – 6, 2 and 3. Why? The further dilution of pitching, because of the expansion of the 90s and the move from a 10 man staff (common in the 70s) to a 12 man staff (mandatory today)? The return to bandbox ball parks, sparked by Camden Yards in 1992 (in the 70s and 80s, there were a lot of cavernous multi purpose stadiums like Shea, Three Rivers, Busch and Riverfront)? Better training regimens? The desire to go for the big bucks out there for home run hitters? A juiced ball? A combination of all these? I‘d be interested in seeing what you make of it. (I have a chart of this, but couldn’t figure out how to attach it.)
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