Even harder to come by, then, must be the man who also places among the league leaders, without actually pacing the loop himself, more frequently than the average Hall of Famer. That’s measured using grey ink,* and yes, it is rarer.
*The average Hall of Famer’s grey ink is 144.
Among non-pitchers eligible for the Hall of Fame, and excluding Negro leaguers, it has happened eight times, by the likes of Barry Bonds and George Burns.
Though Sherry Magee is an unfamiliar name in most baseball circles today, he also ranks among that number, with black and grey ink of 35 and 210, respectively. Mostly forgotten now and severely underrated even then, he played from 1904 to 1919 for the Phillies, Braves and Reds as one of the top outfielders in the National League.
Finishing with 2,169 hits, 166 triples, 441 stolen bases, 1,112 runs and 1, 176 RBI, he took home a ring with Cincinnati in the tainted 1919 World Series against Chicago and—fairly-and-squarely—won the batting title in 1910 with a .331 mark.
In fact, he batted .300 or better five times in an era when league averages in the .250s were the norm—his .291 career mark was 32 points higher than the aggregate .259 average the National League hit when he played.
Pacing the loop in offensive WAR, slugging percentage and total bases twice, extra base hits three times and RBI four times, Magee was an offensive powerhouse in a time when they were a rarity.
Consider that he played in the Dead Ball Era, when offenses were depressed and pitching reigned. Had he played in the modern game, he would have hit .312 with over 2,500 hits, 500 stolen bases, 1,350 runs scored and 1, 450 RBI, per the neutralized statistics from Baseball Reference.com.
For a player of his time, he was a slugger, despite seemingly weak home run totals. His 83 dingers don’t look like much, but he played during an era when 20 home runs in a season was unheard of and 5 or fewer was the norm; Ty Cobb had less than than 5 thirteen times.
In 2021, 119 players have clobbered 15 or more dingers, and we’re not even done with the season. Over the 16-year span of Magee’s career, that mark was reached 13 times total. And Magee managed two of those instances, in 1911 and 1914, and finished among the league leaders in homers seven times.
According to the now-defunct BaseballLibrary.com, “Magee was one of the great players of the dead-ball era, 1900-1919. He could hit, run, field, and throw with the best, and played intelligently and aggressively,” and according to the also-defunct TheBaseballPage.com, “he had no real weaknesses…” The Baseball Reference Bullpen says, “[he] was one of the top players of his time.”
So, what is a player who had “no real weaknesses,” who could, “hit, run, field, and throw with the best” and who was “one of the top players of his time” not doing in the Hall of Fame? Your guess is as good as mine. Even Hall of Fame voters didn’t give him much love, as he received support in eight regular elections but peaked at one percent of the vote. Granted, he was competing with men like Babe Ruth, Cy Young and Pete Alexander* for attention, so it is understandable how he was overlooked.
*It wasn’t even easy for Alexander to earn induction. He received less than 25% of the vote his first time around and didn’t get elected until his third try.
But inexcusable is that even during the years of Hall of Fame inflation, the 1960s and 1970s, Magee was still ignored. During that time, under the guidance of Hall of Fame infielder and Veterans Committee Chairman Frankie Frisch, such names as Rube Marquard, Jesse Haines and George Kelly were selected for Cooperstown.
Yet Magee remained on the outside looking in. Heck, the last time he was even considered was by the Veterans Committee in 2009, the year Joe Gordon was elected; he received 25% of the vote.
From 1904 to 1919—the span of his career—Magee appeared in more games, had more plate appearances, more at-bats, more runs, more doubles, more triples, more RBI, more total bases, more extra base hits and was on base more than anyone in the National League. Number two in each of those categories was Honus Wagner.
Wagner received 95.1% of the vote in his first try on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Recently, I covered the 300-300 club and the 50-20 club, each of which has at least one unusual member. The former, for example, featured Steve Finley and Reggie Sanders, who hit over 300 home runs and stole at least 300 bases each.
Piazza leads the pack with 427 homers and added 2,127 hits and 1,335 RBI for good measure. Rodriguez managed the most hits at 2,844, and had 311 home runs and 1,332 RBI to boot.
The RBI champ was Yogi Berra, who finished with 1,430—which makes sense. He played on Yankees teams that featured names like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Bauer. With all that star power getting on base around him, he had ample opportunity to drive guys in.
Carter had 324 home runs, 2,092 hits and 1,225 RBI. Fisk, 376, 2,356 and 1,330, respectively. Bench clobbered 389 homers with 2,048 knocks and 1,376 RBI.
They’re the only catchers who reached the hit and home run milestones and scored 1,000 runs, as well.
What if we eliminate one of those markers, say RBI. Is the club any less illustrious without ribbies?
No. No outliers to complicate things yet.
How about 2,000 hits and 1,000 RBI, minus the home runs? Still no.
Phew, this really is an elite club, no need to ask any further—
What about 300 home runs and 1,000 RBI, who cares about the hits?
Well, hold onto your seats: Outlier alert.
In fact, the 300 HR/1,000 RBI catcher cabal does have one unexpected member. See if you can guess who it is:
From 1977 to 1995, this backstop played 1,988 games, hitting .252 with 324 home runs and 1,070 RBI. He had just 1,782 hits, but made 8 All-Star teams, won 6 Silver Sluggers and 3 Gold Gloves, and owns a World Series ring. He spent most of his career with the Tigers.
And while all those other guys were elected to the Hall of Fame in their first few tries (Carter took the longest, appearing on the ballot six times before he made it), Parrish received a resounding 1.7 percent of the vote in 2001 and dropped off the ballot.
I’ve said in the past that being a member of elite clubs does not necessarily make a player elite, or a Hall of Famer.
But with Parrish right up there with the absolute greatest catchers of all-time, well …
Maybe we need to make an exception.
The 2000/300/1000 club contains only two second baseman, Robinson Cano and Jeff Kent, and, incredibly, there’s a strong possibility neither will be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Two shortstops reached those marks as well: Cal Ripken, Jr. and Miguel Tejada. Tejada is not a Hall of Famer and likely will never be one, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him get in.
Closers get all the love. They get all the glory. Coming in to finish out a tight game in the bottom of the ninth, all eyes on them, they’re the ones who make the headlines the next day.
But you gotta give credit to the hurlers who got them there to begin with.
That’s the relievers. The setup guys. The long men. In between the starting pitcher and the finisher is the man in the middle, for whom they bestow little recognition or accolade.
Some make All-Star Games. None have won a Cy Young Award.
And it is those pitchers that we’ll be discussing today—the best relievers in the game, not the best closers.
Technically, yes, closing pitchers are relief pitchers, but modern baseball has cast a clear delineation between the two. Nowadays calling a closer a reliever because they both pitch in relief is the same as calling a reliever a starter because they’re both pitchers.
They serve distinctly different roles.
*Even when a reliever serves as an opener, he is still largely acting in the role of a relief pitcher: Tossing one or two innings before surrendering the ball.
For the sake of this piece, to qualify as a reliever rather than a closer, no more than 10 percent of a pitcher’s appearances resulted in a save and 80 percent of his games, at least, had to be in relief. And a pitcher could not have been a team’s primary closer more than two or three seasons. To whittle it down further, I limited it to hurlers with over 500 appearances.
That leaves us with 42 guys.
Among the worst were John Grabow, Shawn Camp and Boone Logan. Grabow and Logan were lefties—ah, what a blessing it is to be sinistral in baseball. While more capable right-handed pitchers around you get cast off, you keep getting job after job after job …
Grabow made 506 appearances from 2003 to 2011, posting a 4.31 ERA and 99 ERA+, while averaging more than a hit allowed per inning and more than 4 walks per 9. Camp pitched from 2004 to 2014, appearing in 541 games and posting a 4.41 mark; he averaged only 6.1 K/9 IP and allowed nearly 100 more hits than innings pitched. Logan pitched in 635 games from 2006 to 2018, finishing with a 4.50 ERA. His saving grace was his strikeout ability—he averaged nearly 10 per 9 frames, and he did have some good seasons … but a bunch of clunkers, too. Respectively, their Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball Reference, were 1.9, 2.0 and 2.3.
They don’t belong here.
But Jared Hughes, he was pretty good. The quirky hurler with all the goofy headshots spent ten seasons in the majors, until 2020, posting a 2.96 ERA and 138 ERA+ in 542 games. Between 2014 and 2018, pitching for Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Cincinnati, he had a 2.41 mark in 345 games—and just 9 saves.
Yeah, that’s the kind of guy I’m talking about.
So is submarining Chad Bradford, who during the high-flying 1990s and 2000s, made 561 appearances and posted a 3.26 ERA and 138 ERA+. In his second-to-last campaign, his numbers were 2.12 and 211, respectively. Total saves: 11. Ooh yeah, Chad, you were better than people give you credit for. If they credit you at all.
But let’s kick it up a notch. He of the funky motion, Pat Neshek, defied the odds and made two All-Star Games in a career that spanned from 2006 to 2019. After a rocky start in which he missed all of 2009 and had an ERA of 4.40 from 2008 to 2011, he cranked it into high gear and had a 2.64 ERA the rest of the way. In 544 career games, his mark was 2.82; he had just 12 saves.
Starters get credit for the win. Closers seal the win. These are the guys who keep the games winnable.
For 10 seasons, Jesse Crain, who spent most of his career with the Twins, was among the best at doing just that. He began his career with a 2.00 mark in 22 games in 2004 and ended it with a 0.74 ERA and an All-Star selection in 38 games in 2013; he was only getting better, too, improving his ERA each year from 2010 onward; his mark from 2011 to 2013 was 2.10 with a 205 ERA+ in 156 games. A bum shoulder ruined him. He had 4 total saves.
But those 4 saves aren’t even the fewest of the qualifying relief pitchers here. Rather, Ray King, a solid hurler from 1999 to 2008, converted only 2 in 593 games. He wasn’t bad—his career ERA+ was 126—but his services were more valuable as a left-handed specialist rather than a stopper.
We’re not talking solid here, however. We’re talking the best.
Tony Watson, currently of the Giants after beginning 2021 with the Angels, has had a fairly rough go of it this year, to the tune of a 3.77 ERA. That’s almost a full point higher than his career mark of 2.87. From 2013 to 2020, he posted a 2.65 ERA and 149 ERA+ for three teams; his performance earned him an All-Star selection in 2014 and some save opportunities in 2016 and 2017. But because he had no more than 15 in a season—and he has just 32 for his career—Watson earns a mention here.
And it is hard to deny, for the roles they were called upon to fill, they were among the best.
Without Nelson, the Yankees might not have won four World Series. Without Nelson, they might not have gone deep into the playoffs, at all.
The hurler spent 15 years in the majors, five-and-a-half in New York. He made 331 appearances with the Yanks in the regular season, but it is in the postseason where he shined. In 55 October games, he had a 2.65 ERA, averaging more than a strikeout per inning. In 13 of the series he pitched for New York, he didn’t allow a single run; in the Fall Classic, his career mark was 1.69.
Smith, technically, is still going, but he missed all of 2020 and is having a poor 2021. No matter. From 2007 to 2019, the hurler appeared in 782 games. He was the consummate middle man, finishing only 161 of them and saving just 30. But he also had a 2.98 ERA and a 136 ERA+; he and Reed are the only two pitchers with 800 or more total appearances and ERA+s of greater than 130.
And Steve Reed, he tossed 833 games in his career—more than half with the Rockies!—with marks of 3.63 and 132, respectively. The former number seems a little elevated, but recall, he pitched in the thin Denver air during the 1990s and 2000s, when balls were flying all over the place. Reed owns the most WAR among anyone on this list at 17.8.
But he took more than 830 games to get there.
Making over 200 fewer appearances, current Yankees hurler Darren O’Day has just 0.4 less WAR at 17.4. Beginning his career in 2008, O’Day has been nothing but dominant. In his second campaign, he had a 1.84 ERA in 68 games between the Mets and Rangers, and from then until 2015, he posted a mark of 2.07 and a 206 ERA+, averaging more than a strikeout per inning and allowing just 286 hits in 400 1/3 frames. Home runs against him are a rarity, and so are walks, as he allows 0.9 and 2.5 per 9 innings, on average.
Since 2016, health issues have hampered him, but effectiveness issues have not—he’s averaged 11.3 K/9 IP over the past six years.
He is head and shoulders above anyone else on the list. Neshek had the second-best ERA and ERA+ at 2.82 and 146, respectively. O’Day’s are 2.53 and 171. In WHIP (1.023), K/BB ratio (3.77) and, heck, wild pitches (3), no pitcher bests him.
All that, and he has just 21 saves.
If ever relief pitchers—not closers, not relievers who spent a few years closing, but relievers who spent their whole careers in a non-closing role—begin to make the Hall of Fame, O’Day better be at the front of the line.
You think I’m joking? Dennis Eckersley became a reliever in 1987 and a closer in 1988; in 695 games between those two roles, he had 16.8 WAR. That’s 0.0242 WAR per appearance. Trevor Hoffman averaged 0.0271 WAR per game. Rollie Fingers, 0.0265.
O’Day has averaged 0.0283 WAR per appearance—that’s a rate more than 15 percent higher than Eckersley; it’s better than two other Hall of Fame closers.
Few truly great pure relief pitchers exist today, and they’ve been almost just as rare throughout baseball history. Chad Bradford was good and Jesse Crain, he was great.
But Darren O’Day, well, they don’t get better than him.
I love a high batting average; a mark of .300 is very sexy.
But even I have to admit, a weighty average doesn’t necessarily mean a great season. Two hundred hits aren’t that impressive when they are mostly singles—a guy who dinks and donks his way to first base isn’t likely to drive too many runs home or, unless he’s fast, score many runs himself.
Let’s take a look at some high-average seasons that really weren’t that great, after all. To put this piece together, I looked up players who hit .300 or better with an OPS+ of less than 100; to keep the list a bit more manageable, I included only those that qualified for the batting title.
One of the most incredible years was that of Pinky Whitney in 1930. That season, he batted .342 with 207 hits and 117 RBI in 149 games for the Phillies. On paper, those are incredible numbers.
But looks are deceiving. Whitney had just 54 extra base hits, including 8 home runs, in that high-flying campaign in which the National League batted .303 as a whole. Drawing only 40 walks, he didn’t do much to improve his on-base percentage and, by connection, his OPS+.
In a double whammy, his OPS+ also suffered because the stat takes league averages into account and—despite his gaudy numbers—he did not stack up well against his contemporaries. 100 is considered average; his OPS+ was 98.
Consider this: In the modern game, his 207 knocks would have led the National League in six of the past eight seasons; in the AL, they would’ve led in 22 of the past 30 campaigns. They were good for ninth in the NL in 1930. And his batting mark didn’t lead the league, not by a long shot—it didn’t even make the top ten; it was 14th.*
In fact, none of the high-average, low-OPS+ players led the league in batting average during their mediocre campaigns and only one led in hits—Boston’s Doc Cramer, who had 200 in 1940.
Cramer, despite finishing with over 2,700 career knocks, was a notoriously empty hitter. Possessing little power, he hit just 37 home runs in 20 seasons, and cursed with minimal speed, he had just 62 stolen bases. He slugged only .375 for his career and walked no more than 51 times in a season.
Despite his shortcomings, he made five All-Star teams and batted .300 or better eight times. Not surprisingly, five of those campaigns qualify here, with 1938 among the worst. Hitting .301 with 198 hits in 148 games, he managed a paltry OPS+ of 80 that year.
Cramer was a rare breed, as few other players had 200 or more hits in their inglorious seasons, and six of the 12 times it happened were in the 1990s or after. Juan Pierre did it twice, in 2001 (202 H, .327 BA, 89 OPS+) and 2003 (204 H, .305 BA, 94 OPS+) and, most recently, Ender Inciarte (201 H, .304 BA, 98 OPS+) and Dee Strange-Gordon (201 H, .308 BA, 97 OPS+) managed the feat in 2017. Mark Grudzielanek (201 H, .306 BA, 93 OPS+ in 1996) and Michael Young (.306 BA, 204 H, 97 OPS+ in 2003) did it, as well.
There were multiple repeat offenders, spanning all of baseball history. Turn of the century Irish outfielder Patsy Donovan hit .300 or better, just to have a middling, sub-100 OPS+, three times. So did dead ball first baseman Stuffy McInnis, 1930s outfielder Ethan Allen, and second baseman Luis Castillo, who played as recently as 2010. Even a Hall of Famer, first baseman George Sisler, did it thrice, while Buddy Myer— a second baseman who has his Cooperstown supporters—did it too.
But which was the most futile of these ostensibly impressive .300 campaigns? You have to go back to 1894 for that. Playing for the Cleveland Spiders, first baseman Patsy Tebeau batted .302 with 158 hits in 125 games.
Hey, that’s not too bad! Well, actually …
That year, the National League was even more offensive than 1930, with a league batting average of .309, so Tebeau actually hit seven points lower than league average. If you neutralize his statistics to 2021, his average drops to .234.
His OPS+ was 75. To put that in context, Gorman Thomas, hit .215 in 1985 and had an OPS+ of 112.
Wonky, high BA/low OPS+ seasons are mostly vestiges of days long past. There were 142 instances from before 1950; since, just 47. Though in recent years, they’ve begun to make a comeback.
Just last year, in that shortened 60-game sprint, Rockies outfielder Raimel Tapia hit .321 with a 99 OPS+—and I bet he wishes he could have that season back, as his marks have dropped 33 and 11 points, respectively, this year.
But there has to be balance between showy stats and actual production.
Unfortunately, however, these seasons were a lot like those fake Rolex’s you buy on the streets of New York. At first glance they look like the real deal, super flashy, pretty great … but then, you look a little closer and, well, it seems you got ripped off.
In baseball, a player can get by with just one standout offensive skill. Dave Kingman hit lots of home runs … and didn’t do much else. Juan Pierre stole a lot of bases … and that was about it.
So when a man combines multiple talents into one package, well, that’s just icing on the cake.
Power-speed guys aren’t necessarily hard to come by. There have been 431 instances of a player hitting at least 20 home runs and stealing at least 20 bases in a season, and quite a few men have racked up substantial career totals in both categories. Though later known primarily as a slugger, Barry Bonds was the best at doing it, stealing 514 bags to complement his 762 home runs.
In fact, many players remembered as home run hitters were multi-skilled athletes, with the likes of Hank Aaron stealing 240 bases, Willie Mays swiping 338 and Sammy Sosa pilfering 234.
But to manage a truly substantial total of each statistic, that’s difficult. Only eight players have reached 300 home runs and 300 steals, for example. Try to name them.
Let’s start with the easy ones: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez (696 HR, 329 SB) and Willie Mays (660 HR, 338 SB) did it. But then it gets a little more challenging. Hall of Famer Andre Dawson (438 HR, 314 SB) got there, and so did future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltran (435 HR, 312 SB).
Bobby Bonds, Barry’s dad, had 332 home runs and 461 steals, and is one of just two members with more swipes than dingers. Okay, so it’s getting tougher.
Now for the last two. If anyone illustrates why being a member of an illustrious group is not a surefire indicator of Hall of Fame worthiness, it is them.
Steve Finley was a speedster early in his career, swiping 136 bases before ever hitting 10 home runs in a season. From 1996 to the end of his career, he found his power stroke and pulled off six 25 home run campaigns to just one 20-steal season.
Three hundred home runs was never a given, even after he became a slugger, and he only got there by dragging his career into his 40s and smacking 7 homers over his final two campaigns. He finished with 304 home runs and 320 steals.
*An argument for Cooperstown could reasonably be made for Steve Finley, and his being a member of the 300-300 club would be a major part of it. For most it would be tenuous at best, though those with a “big Hall” mentality might be swayed.
And then there’s Reggie Sanders. Never a star and a name largely forgotten today, he had less than 1,700 hits, made just one All-Star team, and received nary a vote in his one try on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Granted, he rattled off nearly 15 seasons of impressive consistency.
Though he hit 30-plus home runs and stole 30 or more bases just twice each, he crawled his way into the 300-300 club by hitting no less than 11 home runs and swiping no fewer than 14 bags per season from 1992 to 2005. He had four 20-20 seasons but, interestingly, never led the league in power-speed number.
More so than career HR-SB clubs, those of the single season variety get a bit more attention. The 40-40 club is known for its rarity, having been established by Jose Canseco in 1988 and since joined by Barry Bonds (1996, 42 HR, 40 SB), Alex Rodriguez (1998, 42, 46) and Alfonso Soriano (2006, 46, 41).
The 30-30 club has 41 members; it is to power and speed what 50 dingers is to home runs. It’s the hallmark of an excellent season. (40-40, then, could be considered analogous to a 60 home run campaign).
Then there’s the 50-20 club. It’s as rare as its 40-40 counterpart but receives no press.
It has four members:
In 1955, Willie Mays smashed 51 home runs and totaled 382 bases to lead the league in both categories. He added 24 stolen bases—one of his lowest totals at that point in his career—and finished fourth in Most Valuable Player voting.
From 1997 to 1999, Ken Griffey Jr. was the yearly home run champion. In 1997, he socked 56 and in 1998, he walloped the same amount—and swiped exactly 20 bases. Welcome aboard, Ken. Like Mays, he was fourth in MVP balloting, one year after winning the award. He nearly joined the 50-20 club again in 1999, falling just two home runs short.
And in 2007—how can anyone forget this historic campaign?—Alex Rodriguez launched 54 dingers and stole 24 bases, pacing the loop in home runs, runs scored (143), RBI (156), slugging (.645), OPS (1.067), OPS+ (176) and total bases (376) to bring the MVP home. In one of the most sparkling careers in big league history, it was perhaps Rodriguez’s greatest showing.
And that should be all of ‘em—hold on, 1-2-3- … we’re missing one here.
Oh, wait a minute, who let this guy in?
In 1996, Brady Anderson joined the fraternity when he hit 50 home runs and stole 21 bases in one of the most unexpected seasons ever. Give credit where it is due, Anderson had a great year. A career year. About a quarter of the home runs he hit in his 15 seasons were mashed in ’96 alone.
But it wasn’t a season for the ages. Mays, Griffey, Rodriguez—their campaigns were for the record books. Anderson’s, well, hey, he joined the 50 home run club and stole a bunch of bases. That’s cool.
While the other members led the league in at least one major category, Anderson paced the loop in … hit by pitches.
While the other guys scored and drove in at least 120 runs, Anderson’s totals were 117 and 110, respectively, a bit more pedestrian.
Rodriguez and Griffey each won a Silver Slugger. Mays and Griffey each finished fourth in MVP voting; Rodriguez won the dang thing.
Anderson finished ninth.
For three of the four men, the feat was a cherry on top of a Hall of Fame-quality career. For Anderson, it was an interesting historical footnote.
But that’s the way it goes. Unless a club is itself a marker of greatness—500 home runs, 3,000 hits, 300 wins—it often, if not usually, has at least one member that’s a head scratcher, one that does not quite belong. Even the 40-40 club has Soriano, who, though excellent, was no Bonds, or Rodriguez, or even Canseco.
Baseball, ain’t it grand. It allows a man to rank among a pantheon of greats—even when he, himself, is but a mere mortal.
Miguel Cabrera might be the last man to join the 500 home run club for a while.
Nelson Cruz is, as of this writing, just 57 away, so two Cruzian seasons should, on paper, get him there. However, he’s also 41 with no real skills outside of hitting at this point, so if he struggles, then that will be all she wrote for his chances.
It’s unlikely teams would keep signing him just so he could try to claw his way to the magic number. Should he stumble at, say, 497, someone might give him the opportunity, but outside of that—once he’s done, he’s done.
The demise and departure of another great designated hitter happened within the past year, in fact. Edwin Encarnacion was chugging toward 500 when his bat died last season to the tune of a .157 average. No team signed him and he is stuck at 424 dingers.
He’s still just 38, which for an effective hitter is about 34 in DH years, so a comeback isn’t out of the question. But for a player with a skillset that includes one severely eroded primary skill—hitting—the market is thin.
Had Encarnacion maintained his pace, he would’ve reached 500 homers in late 2022 or early 2023, meaning he could have gotten there before he was even 40.
So who reaches 500 home runs next if it’s not Cruz? Who knows. No one else has over 340 and no members of the active 300 homer club are under 30 years old.
Giancarlo Stanton, despite his weak past few seasons, has the ability to get there. It’s a matter of whether his body holds up. With 332 home runs to this point, he could reasonably trudge his way to 500, since he did so much when he was young. He helped beat time by getting the bulk of the work out of the way before time could beat him.
Though he’s known as a slugger because of his 59-home run 2017 campaign, the honest reality about Stanton is that his power is very inconsistent. For every year he’s led the league in slugging, he’s posted a mark below .500. Since 2018, he’s slugged .492 and his number has been at or below .500 four of the past six seasons.
If he is in the midst of a slow-but-accelerating power decline, and in a cycle of injuries that he, because of age, will likely never fully recover from (save for a rebound season here and there), then 500 dingers might just be a dream.
But if he can find balance and average 20 per season through his early 40s, then he can get there. A move to DH will probably be necessary to facilitate his run to 500. At the earliest, Stanton would join the club in 2026 or 2027.
Robinson Cano is the next-closest batter after Cruz, but he’s 38, has just 334 homers, is out the rest of this year due to a steroid suspension and—if his past six or so seasons are any indication—is in the midst of a steady decline. He’s not reaching the mark.
Neither is Justin Upton, who, though he’s only 33, can’t hit anymore, can’t field and can’t stay healthy. Even if he maintained his pace from his earlier years, 500 home runs would still have been a challenge because, though he had good pop, he was never really a slugger.
Joey Votto, who has never hit 40 dingers in a season, is 37 and more than 170 away. He’s declining, he’s had injury issues. He’s a no.
Then there’s Mike Trout. I’ll be the pessimist and say he’s going to have a hard time getting to 500. If anyone has a chance, it’s him, but after averaging 158 games per year from 2013 to 2016, he hasn’t appeared in more than 140 in a season since. He averaged just 110 per year from 2017 to 2020 and is on the 60-day injured list at we speak.
He started falling apart when he was 25 and still hasn’t fully put himself back together—tick tock, tick tock, Mike, you’re 30 years old now, the end of your peak is approaching fast.
From this point forward, he could go in one of two directions. The Frank Robinson route is more optimistic. Robinson was traded from the Reds to the Orioles in December 1965 because he was considered past his prime. Reds general manager Bill DeWitt called him an “old 30.”
He went on to hit 262 home runs the rest of the way and finish with 586 dingers.
Or, he could go the Ken Griffey Jr. route. Over the final ten seasons of his career, in his 30s, Griffey averaged just 19 home runs and 57 RBI per year. Albert Pujols also fell off dramatically in his 30s. So did Frank Thomas.
But they all reached 500 home runs, didn’t they? Yes. Griffey and Pujols reached 600, in fact. Pujols, with a little luck, could get to 700.
But neither Griffey nor Pujols nor Thomas had any major issues until they were in their 30s. From age 20 to age 30, Griffey averaged 141 games per year; he averaged 99 after that. From age 23 to age 32, Thomas averaged 147 games per year; he, too, averaged 99 after that. From age 21 to age 32, Pujols averaged 155 games per year; he averaged 121 after that.
Trout, just a couple weeks past his 30th birthday, is already in the after that phase of his career. Though his production hasn’t suffered when he’s been on the field—he still owns a superhuman OPS+ of 185 since the beginning of 2017—the ravages of time will soon, inevitably, take advantage of his injuries.
Eventually the aches and pains will start to affect his play. A peak only lasts so long. The body always wears down, and injuries push that along.
With sluggers, reaching age 30, rampant health issues and a swift decline in performance often correlate. Trout has two of those three already locked in. It’s just a matter of time before they catalyze the other.
Do I think he won’t reach 500 home runs? Well, I didn’t say that. I just don’t think it will be easy. Don’t be surprised if he takes a long, discouraging, Cabrera-esque path to that number. At the earliest, I think he’ll get there in 2030 or 2031.
Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are on pace for Hall of Fame careers, but they’re both likely to fall short of 500. They’re good home run hitters, but like Upton, not your prototypical sluggers. Save for Eddie Murray, each member of the 500 home run club slugged at least 40 in a season. Neither Freeman nor Goldschmidt have accomplished the feat.
Anthony Rizzo could be clumped in with those two, but it’s still too soon to say whether he’ll have a Hall of Fame career. But 400 to 450 dingers for him isn’t out of the question.
Harper has the best shot at getting there. He already has a 40-home run season under his belt, has yet to have serious injury issues, isn’t yet 30 and, with 255 dingers to his name, is already halfway to the milestone. Assuming an average decline, he’ll probably make it.
Same with Arenado. He already has three 40-homer seasons, 260 dingers for his career and is just a few months past his 30th birthday—without any major injury issues yet. Even with a somewhat alarming decline in power these past couple seasons, he’s still trending toward 500, but if his power continues to decrease, he might settle somewhere in the 450 range.
Machado’s not yet had a 40-home run season, but his recent health history is top notch and his power consistency is among the best. Not even 30, he could reasonably compile his way to 500 dingers without ever having a truly standout campaign, like Eddie Murray.
More than likely, however, he’ll mirror Fred McGriff, who hit 493 home runs, and finish within sniffing distance of the mark. In fact, per Baseball Reference, one of Machado’s most similar players through age 28 is Adrian Beltre, who fell just 23 home runs shy of 500.
After nine players joined the 500 home run club in the 2000s, including three in 2007 alone, many fans lamented the elite group was no longer so elite, that it was quickly becoming watered down.
Since 2010, however, things have stabilized and just three men—Cabrera, Pujols and David Ortiz—have powered their way into the ranks. Two more players joined in the 1960s than in the 2010s and 2020s, combined.
And a strong potential exists that no new members will join for another decade, at least.
If everything goes right for him, Nelson Cruz should get there in a couple seasons. But he’s 41—one misstep, and he’s done. If his power of old returns and his health doesn’t collapse, Giancarlo Stanton could get there in less than a decade, but his present career swoon puts that into question. If he recovers from his health woes, Mike Trout could get there in five years or he could slog his way there in a decade, or he could completely fall apart. His injury history at so young an age is concerning.
The only player I can comfortably say will reach 500 home runs is Bryce Harper. He has age and health on his side, he’s a true slugger, and he’s yet to show any major decline.
But even that will is tentative. More or less, it’s shorthand for will, barring … As in, he will reach 500 home runs, barring injury (or decline, et cetera).
A few years ago, I would’ve said Stanton will get there; I would’ve said, without considering any X factors, that Mike Trout will, invariably, reach 500 homers. Because, at the time, there were no X factors to consider.
But eventually, that will became well.
Well, he’ll get there if he regains his health, if he recovers his power stroke, if he plays to 40, if he ups his batting average.
If, if, if.
Harper doesn’t have any X factors yet. Once they start cropping up, the projection becomes a little muddier. But, at its core, that’s really all this is right now. Pure projection.
He’s still 245 homers away; between now and 500, anything could happen. One freak injury might end it all. Albert Belle looked like a sure thing for 500 home runs. By 2000, he’d averaged 37 per season for a decade, and he was just 33 that year. But his hip became debilitatingly arthritic and he was forced to retire—with just 381 dingers—after that season.
With milestones, nothing is a given. With 500 home runs, that’s especially so.
So welcome to the club, Miguel Cabrera, enjoy your stay. Looks like you might be the new guy for a while.