Baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of numbers. Historical numbers. It just cannot be denied or avoided. So, despite some push-back on a stat-laden posting a few weeks ago, I am going to dig deep into statistics today – numbers that we may all just take for granted.
Many of you probably know the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, but do you have any idea how many points Kareem Abdul-Jabbar actually scored. Answer: 38,387. Bonus Question: Who is second on the all-time list? Answer below.
Some of you may know who has thrown the most touchdowns in NFL history, but was it a national holiday when Peyton Manning threw number 509? Bonus question: Whose record did he beat? Double bonus question: Before these two guys, who previously held the record?
The point is, while those numbers are impressive and important – in theory – they are not well-known statistics. But, if I throw out any of the following numbers: 714, 755, 4,192, 511, .406, 31, 7, or 1.12, you know precisely to what I am referring. The 31 and the 7 may be a bit obscure, but if you think about it, I am sure you will get both. Like it or not, these numbers are a huge part of the game we love.
A few weeks back, MLB had its annual upstate New York celebration, and inducted four worthy players into the Hall of Fame. All four inductees have amazing career stats, and that got me thinking just how special and impossible those stats really are.
For starters, when it was announced that Craig Biggio would become a Hall of Famer, there were some rumblings. Some people complained that Biggio just hung around long enough to get 3,000 hits. Think about that for a minute. Just hung around long enough.
Very few of us (this writer included) have any idea what it takes to prepare for and play an MLB season, wherein you compete in 162 games in 180 days, through the hottest period of the year, half of which is spent away from home. Sure, they get paid millions of dollars, and get world-class travel, and have all of their needs/wants/desires taken care of, but if I offered that to you, and said you would have a total of 18 days off over the next 6 months, I am not sure that you would always be at the top of your game. And that is the key to the equation: being on top of their game.
Do the math. To attain 3,000 hits, Craig Biggio would have to have 15 big league seasons of 200 hits; or 20 mediocre (?) seasons of 150 hits. In short, he would have to be at the top of his game for at least a decade and a half, possibly two decades. Call it what you will, but that ain’t just hanging around.
I am a runner; have been for about 11 years. But, in that time, I have missed huge swaths of time because of injury or weather or travel or laziness or some other excuse (er, reason). Simply put, I have maybe been at the top of my game for six months or more, in 6 or 7 of those years. These guys need to be on top of their game for six months, against nothing but other world-class athletes, for 15-20 years.
How about Randy Johnson’s 303 wins? He hung around for 22 seasons, meaning he averaged just under 14 wins a season. Seems easy enough . . . to you and me. Well, let’s put that into perspective:
As of this writing, the hands-down, without dispute, best pitcher in baseball is one Clayton Kershaw. This is his eighth season (granted, his first season only accounted for 21 starts), and in that time he has accumulated 108 wins. Assuming he gets four more this season (no lock as he only has about eight more starts), Kershaw will have had at least 14 wins in five of those eight seasons. Assuming he got those four additional wins, he will end the year with 112. Well, if Kershaw wins 14 games a season for the next 14 seasons (not in 10 or 11, but all 14 of those seasons), he would pass the 300 win threshold some time in 2029 (after his 41st birthday). Achievable, yes. But not likely. And he is the best in the game.
What about Greg Maddux winning 353? Well, to achieve that, Kershaw would need to win 14 games a season for the next 17 years. I guess he could make it easy on himself and just win 20 a year for next dozen years (and still be one short, natch).
Can we take a second and talk about strikeouts? Randy Johnson hung around long enough to win 303 games and strike out 4,875 batters. He is viewed by many as the greatest strike out pitcher of his generation. He pitched until he was 46 years old.
Well, he would have had to pitch another 4 seasons (i.e., until he was 50), maintaining his career average for each of those four seasons in his late forties, to catch Nolan Ryan’s 5,714. Some more perspective, as of today, Kershaw has 1,667 strikeouts. To catch Ryan, Kershaw would need 16 more seasons of 250 Ks/year. King Felix (currently at 2,102) would need 14 seasons of 250 Ks to catch Ryan (and please note, in his 11-year career, the King has never had a single season of 250 strikeouts).
We can’t even talk about the odds of Justin Verlander catching his hero. Verlander is 32, and is nearly 4,000 strikeouts behind. Put differently, Justin would need 2 more careers as good as his current career to be in the conversation.
Let’s go back to hitting, as I find those stats incredible. If you love baseball as much as I do, you already know that Henry Aaron (to some, still the homerun champ), hit 714 HRs, but never hit even 45 in a season. Try being that good – at anything – for that long.
We all know about the, ahem, puffed up success of Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, but let’s think about what they did – drugs be damned. Bonds averaged nearly 35 HRs/year for 22 years. Sure, his BALCO habits caused a lot of balls that would have been flyouts to turn into homers, but that is still a lot of well-struck flyouts over a very a long period of time. Alex Rodriguez – love him or hate him, believe he is a cheat or not – has 680 homeruns. If you take out his first two season (they account for less than 200 ABs and only 5 HRs), ARod has averaged more than 35 dingers – every year – starting before anyone had ever heard the name Monica Lewinsky, and continuing as we face the prospect of a President Trump. Take drugs, be a narcissist, be a douche-bag, it doesn’t matter. That level of sustained success in any endeavor is pretty incredible astounding.
Okay, we can debate the merit of the homerun records (save for The Hammer), but let’s look at something slightly more pedestrian: hits. As many lame hats and paid-for signatures can attest, the much-maligned Pete Rose collected 4,256 of these in his 24-year career. That is a mere 193 hits per year for nearly a quarter of a century. Derek Jeter just completed his illustrious 20-year career with 3,465 hits. So, to catch Rose, Jetes would have had to hang around for another 4.5 seasons attempting to play at his career average. It just couldn’t have happened.
Let’s put this into present perspective: Mike Trout is the best player on the planet, and he started his career very young. As of today, he has 706 hits and 131 homers. He is averaging about 176 hits and 32 dingers a year. He’s only 3,500 hits shy of Rose, which would only be 20 more seasons playing at this level. He is only 631 homeruns behind Bonds, which is just over 19 years of playing at this level. To put it more succinctly, if Trout continues as the best player on the planet for the next two decades, my son will be able to bring his young son to Arte Moreno Field of Los Angeles in Anaheim in 2034 to watch Trout break these records. Possible, yes. Likely, not so much.
But let’s just see what more achievable numbers look like. If Trout hangs around long enough, it will only take him another 11+ years to reach 500 homers and just 13 more seasons to reach 3,000 hits. Both are achievable. Both will require that he performs at these levels for more than a decade and a half. Both will put him in the Hall of Fame alongside Biggio, but both will leave him far from being the best ever.
We are so lucky. Greatness is on display for us every day – on ESPN, at the ballpark, on our phones. What these men have accomplished and continue to do is mind-blowing – and we take it for granted. So much so that when some of these guys get baseball’s highest honor, we poo-poo their triumphs and refer to it as a Lifetime Achievement Award. You know what, considering how well they played, and how long they played well, that may very well be what it is. I guess, in the pantheon of Major League players, not everyone can just hang on long enough.
Trivia Answer: Karl Malone (36,928 points)
Bonus Answer: Brett Favre
Double Bonus Answer: Dan Marino