Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Who Will Break the All-Time Home Run Record?

No sporting action captures the American imagination quite like a home run. Even as the game changes, becomes brighter and faster and more awash with money than ever before, all eras, all players, and all fans are still unified by the awe-inspiring sight of baseball soaring majestically over wall. There is an entire language dedicated to the acts succinct description, with bombs, taters, and dingers, jacks, gopher balls, and moonshots! The more frequently a man crushes a ball out of the park, the greater his legend becomes. In time, some become ensconced in a race towards immortality, yearning to hit more home runs than history has ever known. The all-time individual home run record encourages children to dream, writers to wax lyrical, and fans to debate. It's the most hallowed mark in all of sports. In a world obsessed with athletic achievement, no other record is given greater significance. It's the pinnacle, the zenith, the summit of physical accomplishment.

The following list shows the ten men who've hit more home runs than anybody else.  

All-Time Home Run Leaders
1. Barry Bonds, 762
2. Henry Aaron, 755
3. Babe Ruth, 714
4. Willie Mays, 660
5. Alex Rodriguez, 652
6. Ken Griffey Jr, 630
7. Jim Thome, 612
8. Sammy Sosa, 609
9. Frank Robinson, 586
10. Mark McGwire, 583

When reading such a list, it's almost impossible not to think about steroids. Of the ten players mentioned, four have been linked very-closely with steroid abuse. McGwire and Rodriguez have admitted using performance-enhancing substances. Sosa has been widely discussed in similar circles, though the former Cubs slugger maintains his innocence. Barry Bonds? Well, you know all about him. It's the greatest shame of all; the games most illustrious record forever warped by years of unforgivable cheating. I'm a passionate advocate of expunging all professional records amassed by proven steroids abusers. However, since Bonds' 762 is still officially recognised as the all-time home run mark, we'll use it as our barometer for this study.

So, how does one go about projecting the future home run king? It's a delicate process. A lot of what follows is subjective, based on opinion, and somewhat hypothetical. However, this is all about having fun with one of the most-debated baseball puzzles. Accordingly, I've created a very sketchy calculation which will generate a projected career home run total for some of the leading contenders. Here it is:

(42 - Player Age) X Average Seasonal Home Run Total + Current Career Home Runs

You probably need an explanation. Well, firstly, I've chosen to project all potential candidates through the end of their age 42 season, because Bonds retired at the same age. Now, by subtracting a players age away from 42, we see how many seasons he has left, using Bonds as the yardstick. Then, by multiplying this number by the players average home run totals per season, and adding his amount of home runs to date, we generate a projected home run total.

Let's put a name, face, and some statistics to this example. We'll use Hanley Ramirez.

(42 - 29) X 26 + 176 = 514 Projected Career Home Runs

Now, before you freak out, I'm aware that this is by no means foolproof. In fact, it's a highly-inefficient model. However, this is all about having some fun with home runs and history. It's obviously clear that, as players approach the age of 40, their production will drop considerably; in many cases, such as Albert Pujols, players are barely recognisable once they begin to decline from star-studded primes. An overwhelming majority of players will not even play into their forties. The great thing about using season averages, however, is that they do provide a somewhat accurate indication of a players overall career performance: as players hit their prime years, they will, in most cases, exceed these seasonal average totals considerably, which redressed the balance of decline later in careers. It's a concept which naturally works more effectively with younger players, who still have a journey through the curve of prime and decline ahead of them. On the other hand, it can be difficult to assess the outcome when you put Pujols or Alex Rodriguez through the calculation. I'm no sabermetrician, let's just have some fun with these numbers.

So, I've singled out ten of the most potent active home run hitters, in order to see how their numbers project through age 42 seasons. The results:

  • Alex Rodriguez - 857 HR
  • Albert Pujols - 861 HR
  • Adam Dunn - 779 HR
  • Paul Konerko - 587 HR
  • David Ortiz - 602 HR
  • Alfonso Soriano - 579 HR
  • Adrian Beltre - 590 HR
  • Miguel Cabrera - 796 HR
  • Carlos Beltran - 525 HR
  • Mark Teixeira - 674 HR
Again, you'll probably be mad at this point, screaming and pounding the computer! I know that the vast majority of these numbers are entirely unrealistic. In all likelihood, A-Rod will probably never play again after this season and, even if he does, will never reach such a stratospheric number of homers. In all reality, Pujols, hobbled by injuries and suffering a sharp decline, is not getting anywhere near eight-hundred round-trippers. Teixeira will also be robbed by poor health; Ortiz will likely retire at the end of his current contract; and not many teams are going to endure Adam Dunn's horrific strikeout rate long enough to give him a shot at Bonds. However, I'm fascinated by the numbers for Miguel Cabrera. The Triple Crown winning Tiger is one of the greatest hitters the game has ever witnessed and, at just thirty years of age, he has enough time left to seriously challenge for the record.

As mentioned earlier, and demonstrated by a set of comical numbers, this system doesn't work very well with veteran players. The real fun begins when we start assessing some of the games younger phenoms. I initially selected twenty candidates who I thought could potentially have a shot at the record, from a purely statistical standpoint. However, using a little common sense and scouting (for example: Ryan Howard's injury problems will not allow him to get anywhere near the 698 home runs spat out by my calculations, and I believe Ryan Braun will be out of baseball within three years, thus rendering his 679 obsolete), it became clear that, in all seriousness, only two players from the list have a legitimate opportunity to challenge the record: Prince Fielder and Giancarlo Stanton.

So, in effect, we're left with three candidates: Fielder, Stanton, and Miguel Cabrera. Here is how my raw statistical projections have the three challengers, followed by an assessment as to whether they can attain such numbers:

1. Stanton - 853 HR
2. Cabrera - 796 HR
3. Fielder - 738 HR

Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins 
Age: 23
Current Career Home Runs: 112

Stanton is an exceptional talent with impressive raw power. He was the eighth quickest player to reach 100 career home runs in Major League history. The short history of Marlins Park is highlighted by tape-measure blasts from the star right-fielder who, despite experiencing a down year in 2013, is one of the most exciting players in all of baseball. Stanton is no stranger to the Disabled List, however. In his four Major League seasons, he has already missed considerable playing time through injury, leading many to question his durability. Ultimately, I believe we've seen many players like Giancarlo Stanton before: electrifying talent, yet hampered by persistent injuries. He's a fine player to watch, but I doubt he'll play enough games to seriously challenge Bonds' record.

Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
Age: 30
Current Career Home Runs: 364
In the past decade, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody comparable to Cabrera. A mesmeric 2012 season saw the potent third baseman win baseball's first offensive Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski forty-five years prior. There is nothing Cabrera cannot do to a baseball. The incredible aspect of his statistical portfolio is that 'Miggy' is getting better ever year. He is well on pace to better his performance across the board this year, which is one of the greatest achievements in baseball history. I have no doubt that Cabrera will play enough games to provide the most realistic attack on Bonds. He will, in my opinion, break the home run record.

Prince Fielder, Detroit Tigers
Age: 29
Current Career Home Runs:
283
Fielder continues to defy the physical pre-conceptions of baseball people everywhere. When you look at the colossus 5' 11'', 275 lb Fielder, you cannot help but wonder about his durability. However, there has been very few player as consistent as the first baseman in the recent era. In the four seasons previous to 2013, Fielder missed just one game! He has become an almost guaranteed 30 homer, 110 RBI man, with the occasional ability to enter the 50 homer, 130 RBI echelon. When added to the undeniable consistency and durability, this penchant for truly historic home run seasons makes Fielder a compelling candidate to challenge the 700-home run plateau. Whilst I feel he will probable break that watermark, it's unlikely that he'll quite get to Aaron-Bonds-Cabrera territory.

So, there you have it! Miguel Cabrera will break Barry Bonds' all-time home run record. You heard it here first. Now, just for a little added fun, here is a wild assertion as to what the Top 10 will look like in twenty-five years time.

1. Miguel Cabrera - 796 HR
2. Barry Bonds - 762 HR*
3. Henry Aaron - 755 HR
4. Prince Fielder - 738 HR
5. Babe Ruth - 714
6. Jay Bruce - 675
7. Mike Trout - 667
8. Willie Mays - 660
9. Alex Rodriguez - 658*
10. Bryce Harper - 657

All of this was just for fun, remember. In truth, nobody can predict baseball tomorrow, never mind half a decade down the line. However, I'll be happy to see just one aspects of this prediction come to fruition: an asterisk beside the name of those who almost made this great debate redundant.