Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Essay: MLB Milestone Numbers Now Have New Meaning

Something every fan knows is that Major League Baseball is a sport like no other in terms of numbers and statistics. Avid fans don’t just know the meaning of a six-four-three double play, they also know the importance of certain career milestone numbers that have uniquely served to ensure baseball immortality over the years. Numbers such as 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 pitching wins, a .300 season or lifetime batting average, 20 pitching wins in a season, and even the dreaded Mendoza Line take on specialized meanings that all fans are aware of. Well, maybe most fans know of the Mendoza line, but not what it actually is – technically .215, the lifetime batting average of Mario Mendoza, a utility infielder during the 1970s.

Despite two decades of the dead ball era and a schedule change in 1961 which added eight games to the season, the meanings of these numbers have remained fairly consistent for an entire century. During this most recent era of further expansion, five-man pitching rotations, and bodybuilding sluggers, however, the meaning of such standard numbers seems to be changing drastically. The career milestone numbers that used to be a certainty for Hall of Fame induction – specifically 300 wins, 500 home runs, and 3,000 hits – are now in need of a closer look and a redefining altogether.

Reaching 500 home runs, for example, has always been a guaranteed pass into the Hall of Fame, but voters will soon be facing a deluge of otherwise ordinary players with 500 homers. Likewise, 300 career wins is the pitching counterpart to 500 homers, also meaning automatic Hall of Fame induction, but new members to this club will soon to be extinct and voters will be faced with the dilemma of whether to measure 250 wins as the modern-day equivalent. Just a few years ago, players were joining the 3,000-hit club left and right, but it looks like only two or three players have a legitimate chance for membership anytime soon, and it will be a long wait after that.

The possibility of Greg Maddux being the last ever member of the 300-win club is indeed a real one, particularly when one looks at the ages and win totals of the current prospects. Currently, only four active pitchers have 250 or more career wins: Roger Clemens (331), Greg Maddux (307), Tom Glavine (265), and Randy Johnson (250). Only three others, David Wells (214), Mike Mussina (215), and Kevin Brown (210), have over 200.

With Glavine struggling this year, coming off of consecutive losing seasons, and due for his 40th birthday in two years, it looks as though he might not reach the 300-win club after all. Johnson will be 42 before season's end, which means that his reaching 300 will depend on a willingness to play at least two or three more years and good health. Wells just turned 42, so his getting there is a virtual impossibility. Likewise for the 39-year-old Brown. Mussina, 35, might have the best chance to reach 300, but only if he can average 15 wins over the next five seasons. Pedro Martinez, 186 career wins at age 32, also stands a chance, but only if he can average 15 wins for eight more years.

Clemens and Maddux are the only 300-game winners who pitched primarily in a five-man rotation, proving that this change in strategy might be the major cause for ever-decreasing win totals. While it is clear that career win totals are decreasing, it should not have come as a shock to so many. The extraordinary wave of pitchers who finished their careers with 300 wins only twenty years ago might still be fresh in our minds, but we have forgotten that only two won their 300th from 1942-1981. Gaylord Perry (1982), Steve Carlton (1983), Tom Seaver (1985), Phil Niekro (1985), and Don Sutton (1986) all won number 300 within a five-year span, but only Warren Spahn (1961) and Early Wynn (1963) won number 300 during the previous 40 years.

While career pitching wins have been dwindling over the last two decades, home run numbers have seen an explosion not seen since the single-season record jumped from 29 to 54 in 1920. Regardless of the theories for this power explosion – from steroids, to ball manufacturing, to watered-down pitching, to smaller ballparks – the increase in home runs has been parallel to the decrease in starting wins.

Currently, four of the 20 members of the 500 home run club are active players, while six more have at least 400 career homers. The only other time as many as four active players had 500 career home runs was 1971, when five members of the then-11-member 500 club were still playing (Aaron, Mays, Robinson, Killebrew, and Banks). The amazing number here is that as many as five other players have a realistic chance of joining the 500 club within two years, meaning that as many as one-third of baseball’s greatest power hitters ever could be playing at the same time. Jeff Bagwell (449), Frank Thomas (436), Juan Gonzalez (434), Jim Thome (424), Gary Sheffield (421), and Manny Ramirez (401) are all, baring injury, on the path to reach 500, but how many of these are Hall of Famers?

The power explosion of the last decade was preceded by an era of skilled batsmen during the 1980s, culminating with eight players reaching the 3,000-hit club during an eight-year span of the 1990s. In fact, among the 25 members of the 3,000-hit club, nine became members between 1992 and 2001. No active players have 3,000 hits, but Rafael Palmeiro (2,957) should get there within weeks. Barry Bonds (2,730) and 38-year-old Craig Biggio (2,687) are in the neighborhood of 3,000, but both will need at least two more solid years. After that, prospective membership is this group of baseball elite looks grim, with only two players under the age of 35 having more than 2,000 career hits: Ivan Rodriguez (2,095) and Ken Griffey Jr. (2,196).

While there is little doubt that the 500 home run plateau has been cheapened or devalued in this new era of baseball, the 300-win and 3,000-hit plateaus are arguably even more valuable now. Personally, I don’t see how 250 wins collected entirely in a five-man pitching rotation and 2,500 hits collected in the era of home run and strikeout supremacy isn’t just as valuable as 300 and 3,000 from 30 years ago. It has never been a written rule that membership in any of these career milestone clubs was a guarantee for Hall of Fame induction, but no one with such a resume has yet to be declined. With the obvious test cases coming soon, we’ll just have to wait and see it Hall of Fame voters have amended their criteria.