The things that don’t matter at all can sometimes matter so much.
Our hunger for knowing each player’s contribution to team success has driven us to great heights, but with a cost. We’ve come a long way from measuring them by batting average and pitcher wins. Stats run the game now (I mean that in a good way), but sometimes we become distanced from why we need to measure players in the first place.
Knowledge is good, and the more we know, the better. But knowledge takes a divergent path when it comes to statistical milestones. It shouldn’t matter that Albert Pujols has 99.8 bWAR in his career. When he was a rookie in 2001, bWAR was unheard of. It’s arguably the greatest achievement of the sabermetric revolution, in spite of its flaws: a single number that combines all of a player’s total value. 99.8 is an exceptionally high figure; it’s the second-most ever by a first baseman and the hallmark of a phenomenal career. However, because we love numbers so much, it’s also somewhat grotesque. If only he could get that last 0.2 he would be up to 100!
What makes this worse is that Pujols actually did surpass 100 wins. When the dust settled after the 2016 season, he sat at 101.2. Unfortunately for “The Machine,” WAR is unique among stats. It’s a hybrid of a counting stat, which is cumulative like home runs and strikeouts, and a rate stat, which fluctuates up and down like batting average and ERA. It’s really the only baseball stat that can be negative or punitive. This is why his awful 2017 season, in which he was worth -1.8 bWAR, dragged him back below the century mark. This year, he added on a slightly positive contribution (0.3), but it was only enough to get tantalizingly close to 100. Now he’s out with knee and elbow surgeries, and no one knows what what he’ll look like when/if he returns.
Sadly, it’s possible Pujols never crosses the 100 bWAR threshold again. There’s three years and $87 million remaining on his contract, but sometimes the body just breaks down. He’s already a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he’s just one of many players in milestone purgatory. Here are a few others who either stuck around too long or couldn’t last long enough to reach a milestone.
Disclaimer: Beyond the Box Score’s tag line is “A Saber-Slanted Community.” The following stats aren’t particularly “Saber-Slanted,” but they matter a lot to the fans and, in many cases, the players themselves. For some of them, it could even keep them out of the Hall of Fame, rightly or wrongly. If you’re bothered by this, feel free to chew me out in the comments section.
There are 27 players with 500 or more home runs. Hitting 500 doesn’t mean as much as it used to. This is partially because of the artificially swelled ranks of 500 home run club members due to steroids. Regardless, not too long ago it was thought that 500 homers meant automatic entry into the Hall of Fame. Two sluggers finished their careers just seven dingers shy of the mark: Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff.
Gehrig’s tragic demise is well-documented: he contracted ALS, which became known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and it claimed his life two years later. Obviously, the disease put an abrupt end to his remarkable playing career; his 112.4 bWAR makes him the only first baseman with more wins than Pujols.
McGriff’s story isn’t nearly as tragic — he’s alive and well — but missing those seven home runs was detrimental all the same. This January will be his tenth and final Hall of Fame ballot. He never received more than 23.2 percent of the vote, which isn’t nearly close enough to the necessary 75 percent required to gain entry into the Hall of Fame. At 40-years-old, 2004 was his final season. He hit just two home runs in 81 plate appearances with a 45 wRC+ for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. If he somehow could’ve hit just a little better, maybe he’d have 500. After all, their primary designated hitter that year was Robert Fick, who’s 54 wRC+ wasn’t much better. Perhaps then he would have garnered more HoF consideration.
Few players in baseball history aged more gracefully than Mariano Rivera. by any measure, his final season was as good as any other. At age-43 in 2013, Rivera had earned the right to dictate how he wanted to go out. He announced that the Yankees’ home finale on September 26 would be his final game, and that he wouldn’t pitch in the Yankees final road series in Houston.
Leading into that game, Rivera had allowed 1284 hits + walks in 1282 1⁄3 innings. With five outs and no baseunners, he would retire with a perfect 1.000 WHIP. Unfortunately, manager Joe Girardi either didn’t know or didn’t care. He brought Rivera into the game with two outs in the eighth inning. Mo set down all four batters he faced, then never pitched again. He retired with 1284 walks + hits in 1283 2⁄3 innings — an aesthetically displeasing 1.0002 WHIP.
Mickey Mantle finished his career with a .297 batting average, which he called his greatest baseball regret. He batted .237 in 1968, which lowered his career average from .302. However, he’s not the only great outfielder of his time who played a little too long to stay over .300.
Al Kaline essentially sacrificed one statistical milestone for another. Whether or not he was aware of it, Kaline entered his final season of 1974 sitting on a .299 batting average, 386 home runs, and 2,861 hits. His attempt to achieve a .300 batting average and 400 home runs fell just short; he finished at .297 with 399 homers. However, he just scraped past 3,000 hits, finishing with 3,007.
Believe it or not, Pujols isn’t the closest player in history to 100 bWAR without getting there.
Obviously he didn’t know it at the time, but Warren Spahn finished his 21-year-career with 99.9 bWAR. He was good until the end: 0.6 bWAR in 1965. But at 44-years-old, it’s hard to blame him for retiring, especially since this was decades before WAR was even a concept.
Spahn was ‘only’ worth 92.6 bWAR as a pitcher, which is the 14th most all-time. It’s actually his bat that gets him so close to the 100 mark. He had a career 42 wRC+ with 35 home runs, which is fantastic for a pitcher. The extra 7.3 bWAR he earned for his hitting skill puts him at 99.9 for his career.
Another magic milestone for Hall of Fame consideration used to be 3,000 strikeouts for pitchers. Maybe it still is; the only pitchers with more than 3,000 who aren’t in the Hall are Roger Clemens (steroid allegations) and Curt Schilling (generally awful human being). It’s much harder to explain why it took voters fourteen years to induct Bert Blyleven, in spite of his 3,701 strikeouts, but at least he made it in eventually.
That being said, a player’s HoF case is much stronger with 3,000 strikeouts than without it. The closest player to that number is current Yankee CC Sabathia, who has 2,974. It’s possible, yet unlikely, that he could reach 3,000 this year. He probably has three starts remaining, so he needs to average just under nine per start. That’s probably too much to ask; he’s only topped nine in two starts this season, and had just four in each of his last two outings.
If Sabathia returns for the 2019 season, he’ll pass 3,000 in April. That’s not a certainty though because he’s given conflicting reports on whether or not he’ll retire. If this is the end of his career, let’s hope those last few strikeouts don’t keep him out of the Hall of Fame. While we’re at it, let’s also wish for a return to form for Albert Pujols, at least for 0.2 more bWAR.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983