Thursday, September 20, 2007

500 home run-club is still "Hall" worthy

Before 1965, there were only four members of the 500 HR-club. From 1965 to 1971, seven players—or 175%—of the previous total were added to “the club.” If there was ever a time to discuss the diminished value of hitting 500 career homers, 1971 would have been a perfect time to do it. That sentiment would have been seriously discredited by the next 25 years that saw only four new members of “the club.” Baseball—like weather patterns—has all sorts of cycles that cannot be predicted. It’s crucial to figure out whether the cycles are just part of random fluctuation or the result of an outside factor before declaring a certain milestone irrelevant. Unfortunately, I think too many people are jumping to the conclusion that the 500-HR milestone has lost its prestige and is no longer a Hall of Fame guarantee. Rob Neyer’s latest column on Jim Thome is a perfect example.

I’m willing to admit that it is possible that a player has reached 500 home runs who otherwise would not have if it weren’t for steroids. However, the suspected steroid-users who have reached that mark—Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro—have all finished well beyond 500 home runs. I’m not sure that steroids added 260+ HRs to what Bonds would have had without steroids, or 100+ HRs to Sosa’s career, 80+ HRs to McGwire’s, and 65+ HRs to Palmeiro’s. I think a very sound argument could be made that the 500-HR club has seen no increase in its membership because of steroid-use. I am pretty certain that the 600 and 700 HR-clubs have been compromised by steroids but I think the 500-HR club has 100% legitimate membership.

I am willing to listen to arguments that Sosa and Palmeiro would not have made it without steroids. Their respective OPS+ numbers aren’t that impressive. Sosa hit 193 HRs in his three best seasons (an average of 64 per year) and never hit more than 50 in any other season. That tough-to-explain increase could be attributed to Sosa’s prime or the help of performance-enhancing drugs. Still, I’m not too keen on believing that Sosa’s home run total was increased by 104 homers and counting because of steroids. That is a tough sell. The same can be said for Palmeiro. Before the steroid-era, Palmeiro was a 38 HR/year player. His HR totals went up a bit but not enough to make a convincing argument that he wouldn’t have finished with 500-career home runs without the help of steroids. Plus, Palmeiro retired earlier than he would have because of the steroid scandal. He would have undoubtedly hit more home runs making it more dicey that steroids are the cause of his membership to “the club.” Even the players that are on-tap to join the “club” are not suspected steroid-users. Jim Thome has never been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Manny Ramirez and Carlos Delgado haven’t either. Gary Sheffield admittedly—albeit unknowingly—used steroids but that was, in all likelihood, a short-term stint. Plus, Sheffield has only hit 40+ home runs once in his career. His home run total has come from being a pretty good power-hitter for a long time which is a far cry from how Sosa and McGwire attained their numbers.

I believe the talk of the reduced value of the 500-HR mark has been largely based on the belief that steroids have rendered the accomplishment “compromised.” There may be some who argue that it doesn’t matter whether the increase has been caused by steroid use or natural fluctuation, simply having increased membership at all devalues the accomplishment. I think it makes a tremendous difference as to which “cause” it is. If it’s just a natural fluctuation, then we can’t punish players who just happened to play in one of the most talent-rich eras in MLB history. It’s one thing if average players are reaching 500 home runs but that’s not happening. It was the case previous to the 90s that to reach 500 home runs, a player needed to hit a lot of home runs over a long career. That is still the case today.

The five weakest members of the 500-HR club in terms of OPS+* are Ernie Banks, Eddie Murray, Reggie Jackson, Harmen Killebrew, and Eddie Mathews. Their career OPS+ numbers are listed below:

Ernie Banks 122
Eddie Murray 129
Reggie Jackson 139
Harmen Killebrew 143
Eddie Mathews 143

Before Mark McGwire hit his 500th HR in 1999, the above five players represented 33% of the 500-HR club. Clearly by looking at the average OPS+ of the entire 500 HR-club (155) it is obvious that the vast majority of the members of “the club” have much better numbers than the above five players. If it were considerably easier to hit 500 HRs today, I would expect that a good portion of the players that have entered the club, or are about to, would have an OPS+ similar to the above five players or lower. If it’s easier to reach the mark, players with lower OPS+ numbers would be making it.

(* OPS+ is OPS (On-Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage) compared to the league average. I am using OPS+ because it is a pretty respectable measure of how “good” a player is. If a player has a high OPS+ and plays for a long time, it can be expected that the player will reach 500 home runs. OPS+ is also arguably the most important statistic in baseball.)

Here are the career OPS+ totals of the players who have recently reached 500 career home runs or are likely going to:

Barry Bonds 182
Albert Pujols 169
Mark McGwire 163
Frank Thomas 158
Manny Ramirez 156
Jim Thome 149
Vladimir Guerrero 148
Alex Rodriguez 147
Gary Sheffield 145
Chipper Jones 144
Ken Griffey Jr. 140
Carlos Delgado 139
Rafael Palmeiro 132
Sammy Sosa 128

We’re not looking at players who are barely beating the league average on their way to 500 HRs. These guys, on average, have OPS+ totals that are easily in line with the greatest players who have ever played the game. Most of these players put up big numbers before the steroid era as well.

Here is the entire list of the 15 members of the 500-HR club that existed before McGwire started the recent run in 1999 along with their OPS+ totals:

Babe Ruth 207
Ted Williams 190
Mickey Mantle 172
Jimmie Foxx 163
Willie Mays 156
Hank Aaron 155
Mel Ott 155
Frank Robinson 154
Willie McCovey 148
Mike Schmidt 147
Harmen Killebrew 143
Eddie Mathews 143
Reggie Jackson 139
Eddie Murray 129
Ernie Banks 122

Most of the latter group played in eras where the difference between the average players and the great players was substantial which can inflate OPS+ totals. That’s why you see the more recent players—Murray, Jackson, Schmidt—near the bottom and the older players—Ruth, Williams, Fox—near the top. That’s also why you won’t see numbers like “207” or “190” ever again. Bonds has dominated baseball about as much as a player can in today’s game and he’s only at 182. Anyhow, this list looks awfully similar to the list of the recent/soon-to-be members of the 500 HR club just above. My point is that while the steroid-era may have increased the number of top-end seasons and the average number of home-runs hit by the average player, I do not think it has increased the membership of the 500-HR club. The players who are reaching that total today are just as accomplished as the players who reached that total before. On average, they dominate their league in the same way their predecessors did. Just to put things in perspective, it takes 33 home runs per year over 15 years to get to 500 home runs. Does anyone do that even in today’s game who isn’t an elite player? I think the answer is clearly, no. If non-elite players start doing that, then I’m all for downgrading the significance of hitting 500 career home runs.

Seven years from now, Bonds, Sosa, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Gary Sheffield, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Delgado, and Chipper Jones will all likely be retired. If my contention that this group is just the result of a natural fluctuation in talent is not true, then I would expect their to be a bumper crop of hitters just behind them waiting to trample past the 500-HR mark as well. Outside of that group I just mentioned, there isn’t a player with more than 160 career home runs other than Pujols, Andruw Jones, Vlad Guerrero, and Adam Dunn who has a good chance of reaching 500 career home runs. The fact still remains that you must be a great power-hitter for 15-20 seasons . Nobody “backs into” or “accidentally hits" 500 home runs.

Let’s be honest, what does the new group of members do to the validity of the club that Eddie Murray didn’t do? Murray never hit more than 33 home runs in a single season! Murray proves a lot more about the manner in which someone can reach the mark than any of the hitters getting there today. Murray proved that you can get there without being a power-hitter. If the number was ever compromised, it was compromised by Murray (more power to Murray by the way). The players getting their today are ripping the cover off the ball on a yearly basis. I have no problem devaluing the high-end seasons that we’ve seen. It’s difficult to look at Sosa’s three 60-HR seasons and taking them for face value. The same goes for Bonds and McGwire.

The only way that reaching 500 career home runs is easier today is that a). players don’t have to worry about being drafted into military service, and b). players benefit from lengthier careers due to medical advancements. We don’t see as many players lose their careers due to injury. Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gherig, and Stan Musial may have reached 500 HRs playing under today’s conditions. So, don’t be too quick to pronounce the majesty of reaching 500 HRs “dead” just because another large cluster has come along. A lot of things have changed in baseball recently but I don’t think the status of the 500-HR mark as a guarantee for Cooperstown should be one of them.

It’s also important to recognize that a significant amount of the players who have hit 500 home runs—or are likely going to—are Latin players. The evolution of the Latin ballplayer has greatly impacted the number of elite players in MLB. Take Sammy Sosa, Vlad Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Delgado, Albert Pujols, Andrew Jones, and Rafael Palmeiro out of the mix and the talk of 500 home runs not being what it used to be goes away completely. Latin players have thrived in MLB for decades but they’ve never thrived in the manner in which they are thriving today. I’m sure there are a number of reasons why Latin players have taken a bigger role in super-stardom. Regardless of those reasons, their rise in MLB has definitely attributed to the rise in 500-HR seasons and will continue to.

Unfortunately, the anti-500 HR bandwagon has picked up enough momentum that facts and logic might not be enough to keep voters from making an example of an otherwise qualified player. I fear that Jim Thome could be that player. Neyer’s contention that Thome has a long way to go before he even sniffs the Hall of Fame is borderline ridiculous. I’m not sure if Neyer is simply making a prediction or if he actually thinks Thome should not be voted into the Hall of Fame, or both. I would hope his article is not a reflection of his personal views on Thome’s candidacy. Thome’s career OPS+ is a ridiculous 149 which is the 5th best of any active player in MLB ahead of Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Vladimir Guerrero, Ken Griffey Jr., and David Ortiz among many others. It is the 12th best of any player of the last fifty years.

Neyer uses Thome’s MVP finishes to cast suspicion over his resume. That is about as ludicrous as some of the MVP voting results in recent years. For instance, Thome finished 7th in the 2002 AL MVP voting. A closer look, however, reveals that Thome finished 7th despite hitting 52 home runs, 118 RBIs, a .304 batting average and a league-leading OPS of 1.122. He led the league in OPS, Runs Created, Slugging Percentage and Walks. He finished second in Home Runs and On-Base Percentage. He drove in 17% of his team's runs and hit 27% of his team's home runs. Both totals are phemonenal. How can a guy with those numbers finish seventh in the MVP voting? Better yet, how can an MVP voting process that yielded that injustice be used as evidence against Thome’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame? Statistics are concrete. MVP voting is not. No player with 500 home runs—who wasn’t suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs—has ever been kept out of the Hall of Fame. Willie McCovey--a slam-dunk Hall of Famer and a player with a nearly identical career to Thome--only finished in the top ten of the MVP voting three times in 22 seasons. Maybe Neyer should start campaigning to have McCovey removed from the “Hall.”

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