Can He Do It?
Weighing in on A-Rod’s HR Chase
By Adam Hoff
If you read the blog, you know that I love projecting career stats. A full diagnosis of Albert Pujols (recently dubbed “Mr. Consistent” by this writer) reveals that he’s on his way to an unbelievable career. But just as I was getting people (okay, a person) excited about Pujols’ career track, A-Rod had to rudely steal the spotlight with his 400th home run on Wednesday night. In doing so, he became the youngest player to ever reach the milestone, which, of course, set off the inevitable “can he break Aaron’s record?” discussions on websites and talk shows everywhere.
Since I pride myself on being a big follower, I’m here to offer my own prediction. Actually, “prediction” isn’t quite accurate. It’s more of a hedge, really. You see, nobody that I’m in contact with has a crystal ball, so there is no way to anticipate how Rodriguez’s career will play out. You obviously have the two extremes fresh in our memories: on the one hand, we have Ken Griffey Jr.’s injury-marred collapse and on the other, there is Barry Bonds’ astounding ascension late in his career. In between, there are thousands of players that have had varying success in the second half of their careers.
As with Pujols, it seems that the best way to take a guess at how A-Rod’s career might play out is to find proxies. Instead of just saying that he needs 36 jacks a year for the next 10 years (what is that anchored to?), it seems the most accurate way to predict his real chances is to compare him to a series of real players. How did Aaron fare before and after 30? What if A-Rod pulls a Griffey? A Bonds? How does playing shortstop and third base impact his chances? Read on and find out.
The Griffey Proxy. Like A-Rod, Griffey made his debut at age 19. In fact, he was one of the rare players to actually get a head start on Rodriguez. While A-Rod’s first full season came at age 21, Junior was patrolling Seattle’s outfield for keeps after that initial debut. A-Rod finished last season at age 29 with 381 home runs, as you probably know. Griffey finished the 1999 season at age 29 with 398 home runs. The all-world center fielder then abandoned the Mariners, had one more good season, and took up residence on the DL as his body stopped cooperating. Obviously, if you use the Griffey Proxy, A-Rod should be looking at about 500 home runs in five years and struggling just to stay on the field. The chances of anyone being as snake-bit as Junior Griffey are pretty much impossible, but consider this the sobering reminder that projections are just projections and that we have no way of knowing what lies in store for any player. (Also, it is a sad reminder of what might have been for Griffey.)
The Bonds Proxy. Here we’ve got the other end of the spectrum. A-Rod is on pace for 51 home runs this season. Let’s play it safe and say he gets 45. That would put him at 426 total and he would end the year at age 30. Now let’s give him Bonds’ numbers after turning 30. Barry has hit an astounding 404 home runs over the past 10 years and was showing no signs of slowing down before the knee injury. Assume that A-Rod followed the same path and you are looking at a ridiculous 830 career homers. Even if you took out the crazy 2001 (when Bonds set the major league record with 73) and substituted with an “average” Barry-in-his-30’s season (40 HR), A-Rod would still be sitting at 797 slams at the beginning of 2015. Where, presumably, he would be on the DL fending off the media and wondering if he could continue playing on sheer bone. Obviously, this is just as crazy as the Griffey hypothetical. Just as A-Rod is probably not going to be assaulted by injuries, he’s probably not going to bulk up and hit more home runs in the next decade than he did in the last. Maybe, but it is doubtful. So we need to keep looking.
The Aaron Proxy.
Hank Aaron is such a tough act to follow because of his consistency and his longevity. Between 1955 and 1970, he never played less than 145 games. Just getting that many games under your belt is difficult. Throw in the fact that he bashed 40 home runs in his twentieth season and you get an idea of how long Hammerin’ Hank was an elite player. Think of it this way: his first full season was at age 20, a year earlier than A-Rod got in a full slate of games. So comparing their first nine seasons starting at the age of 21, we see that Rodriguez is out ahead of the pace by a significant margin. Rodriguez has averaged 42 home runs per season during those seasons for a total of 376. Aaron totaled 327. However, Aaron just kept on going. He only hit 43% of his career total in those nine seasons. If A-Rod’s 376 home run stretch accounts for only 43% of his total, we’re looking at 874 career homers. Not likely. To use the Aaron Proxy, we have to assume that A-Rod is going to hit well over half his home runs after this point in his career, that he will never miss significant time with an injury, and that he will still be mashing away into his late 30’s. And that is where things start getting dicey. As has been pointed out before, all 10 of the top career home run hitters were either outfielders or first basemen. Part of that is that those are traditional power positions, but an equally big part is that those positions lend themselves to longevity. Catchers, third basemen, and middle infielders typically have seen a bigger drop off in production and usually saw it happen earlier in their career. So it’s not logical to just line up A-Rod’s numbers next to Aaron’s and say, “hey, he’s ahead of the pace.” Not only was Hank a very unique player in regard to his durability and longevity, but the positional difference alone works against A-Rod. Which is why we need to move into some more relevant proxies.
The Ripken Proxy.
This is just to get a better understanding of what the wear and tear of playing on the left side of the infield does to a player. Rodriguez played his first 10 seasons at shortstop and now is manning the hot corner. Ripken is obviously quite famous for his longevity, but how did all those consecutive games and years impact his play? Ripken played 14 full seasons at shortstop and then moved over to play his final six seasons at third base. It appeared that the move boosted his stats for that first season in 1996, but otherwise, the downward trend that existed prior to the switch continued unabated. Ripken hit 431 career blasts, 225 of which came in the “first nine seasons” (our A-Rod test) before the grind of playing a demanding infield position started kicking in. Even more telling is the fact that he hit 72 in the next three seasons, taking him to a total of 297 at that point. 69% of his career bombs came in those first 12 full seasons. Put another way, he averaged nearly 25 HR over his first 12 seasons, and only 17 in his final eight seasons, a drop of 32%. Considering Ripken averaged 25 HR during his first nine seasons and 24 over the next three, we can assume that Rodriguez will post totals close to the 42 home runs he’s averaged over the past nine seasons. We’ll even give him a slight bump since he has already moved over to third base. If we give him 45 home runs per for the next three years (including this year), that puts him at 516 (381 going into 2005 + 135 through 2007). Then if we assume that, like Ripken, he plays eight more seasons at a 32% drop in production, we see that he loses almost 14 jacks a year. Nevertheless, 28 per year for eight years still results in 224 home runs. Is it enough? Nope. With the 516 already accumulated, Rodriguez would be riding off into the sunset with 740 blasts. Close, but no cigar.
The Mr. Cub Proxy.
Many have suggested that A-Rod could move over to first base later in his career, or even DH (when did “DH” become a verb, by the way?) to extend his productivity at the plate. While we have seen in Ripken’s career that it is possible for A-Rod to make a realistic run at the record even if he stays on the left side of the diamond, there seems to be no reputing the logic of playing a less taxing position. The greatest example of a shortstop-turned-first baseman, of course, is Ernie Banks. “Let’s play two!” Mr. Cub tacked on a few extra great seasons by moving across the diamond and it presents an intriguing idea for A-Rod. But would it help? If we run Banks’ career as a proxy, we can assume that Rodriguez has hit 61% of his career home runs in his first nine years in the same way that Banks did (312 total over those nine seasons). If that was the case, A-Rod would “only” finish at 621 (adding in his 5 home runs from the 94-95 seasons). However, we would need to add two “prime” seasons to Rodriguez’s numbers since he started playing full time ball two years before Banks did. Tacking on an extra 92 home runs would put him at 713. As you can see, the Ripken Proxy actually allows for a higher career total. Obviously, you can’t derive too much from looking at just these players, but it seems at least possible that moving over to first base wouldn’t help – that the wear and tear is already done and from that point, it just depends on the player.
The Schmidt Proxy.
The final example is perhaps the scariest in terms of what A-Rod might be able to accomplish. We’ve looked at the extremes in terms of horrible injuries and sudden spikes in production late in one’s career. We examined Ripken’s career to see if A-Rod can play on the left side and have enough juice left. And we looked at Banks to see if a move to first would help. Our final proxy is simply a third basemen that kept on raking after he passed the age of 30. Mike Schmidt played as hard as anybody and yet was still able to hit 42 home runs per season after turning 30, while staying at third base defensively. The best way to use Schmidt’s career as a proxy is to view each player’s “prime” from age 24 to 29 (for A-Rod, we’ll use the season that he started at age 24). Why forward to age 24 rather than using the usual baseline of 21? The reason is that Michael Jack Schmidt didn’t get rolling until a little bit later than the usual legend, which gives A-Rod an advantage, as we’ll see in a minute. As for Schmidt, he hit 216 home runs in those six seasons, an average of 36 per. A-Rod has him beat – as he does most everybody – with almost 46 per season, but the really good news for Rodriguez is that Schmidt hit only 39% of his career home runs in those six years. If A-Rod’s 275 home runs in his “prime” reflect only 39% of his career total, than he is projecting out to 708 taters. But wait. He must also get the benefit of starting his career earlier than Schmidt. We’re basing these projections on a player starting his career at age 24 and picking up steam in his 30’s. None of the calculations deal with anything before the age of 24. This means that A-Rod gets to tack on the 106 home runs he hit during his first five seasons, which takes him up to a grand total of 814. It’s a frightening total because it could actually happen. Forget watching Ripken’s trends or projecting his career out to Aaron or Bonds lengths. If he simply kicks it into an extra gear the way Schmidt did, he’ll man the top spot on the career home run list.
Recapping the totals.
By looking at six different careers, we’ve been able to get a decent idea of how to project A-Rod’s home run chase. If he gets hurt like Griffey, he’s obviously got no shot. If he somehow mashes more than ever in his late 30’s like Bonds, he’s golden. Same with somehow matching the longevity of Aaron. Moving to players at his position, Ripken’s career trends indicate that he’ll come close if he just rides it out status quo. Banks’ numbers tell us that moving to first base won’t help much. Finally, Schmidt’s career seems to indicate that A-Rod’s most prodigious power is forthcoming and that he could have this thing wrapped up in about seven or eight years.
Griffey Proxy – 500+
Bonds Proxy – 830
Bonds Proxy (Adjusted) – 797
Aaron Proxy – 874
Ripken Proxy – 740
Banks Proxy – 713
Schmidt Proxy – 814
I like what the Schmidt Proxy is telling me. I’m going to reduce his total by 35 home runs (five each year) considering that he already averaged 46 per to Schmidt’s 36. I’ve got him down for 779 Career Home Runs. Which means the only question left is whether Bonds comes back from his knee injury, passes Ruth and Aaron, and has even more than that.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning website WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting his Insider Blog.