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April 3, 2012

Painting the Black

2012 Milestones Watch

by R.J. Anderson

Something peculiar happened during the most recent National Football League season: four quarterbacks threw for more than 4,900 yards. An unprecedented event given that two quarterbacks had accomplished the feat in 30 years theretofore. The increased reliance on, and perfection of, the forward pass has led to an assault on the record books, akin to the earlier offensive explosion in baseball. There are no rumblings of wrongdoing in football—at least, around these new levels of performance—but then again, there weren’t during the early phases of baseball’s offensive breakout, either. Even heading forward, don’t expect a congressional hearing, or columnists pontificating about lost innocence while urging a nation to grieve and revolt. Because, as one intrepid—and sadly, unremembered—soul put it: nobody cares about football stats.

The inverse is true of baseball statistics. Anyone reading Prospectus is no stranger to numbers, or to the countless reasons why people are attracted to baseball’s numbers. At some point the large, round numbers became in-built measuring sticks. If a player hit 500 home runs over his career he must have been one of the best sluggers in history. A player with 3,000 hits or 300 wins demonstrated the perfect equilibrium between longevity and quality throughout his career. Exceptions existed before science entered the picture, but these rules were simple—and simple sells.

Over time, these rules became engraved milestones with enough appeal to piqué interest in casual and hardcore fans alike. The 2011 season featured three such moments: Derek Jeter notching his 3,000th hit on a home run; Jim Thome hitting his 600th home run; and Mariano Rivera becoming the league’s all-time saves leader. That cliché about sequels looks to be right—2012 just can’t compare to that trio of accomplishments—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of achievable milestones this season:

Home Run Counts

  • Alex Rodriguez enters the season ranked sixth all-time with 629 career home runs. The next player on Rodriguez’ way to the top is former teammate Ken Griffey, Jr., though Rodriguez needs only two home runs to pass Griffey, making the drama potentially short-lived. From there, Willie Mays’ 660 are in sight. Last season marked Rodriguez’ first sub-30 home run campaign since 1997, but if he can hit 32 this year he will move into fourth place all-time and position himself to overtake Babe Ruth in 2014.
  • The other active member of the 600-home-run club, Jim Thome, will pass Sammy Sosa for seventh all-time if he hits six home runs this season.
  • Suspension, injury, and forced retirement have lessened Manny Ramirez’ likelihood of joining Rodriguez and Thome with more than 600 home runs. Still, Ramirez can pass Reggie Jackson (with nine more home runs) and Rafael Palmeiro (15) for 12th all-time if he hits the ground running following his suspension.
  • Albert Pujols ended his Cardinals career with 445 regular season home runs, but his 500th is going to come with the Angels. A strong freshman showing could leave Pujols in line to reach the mark by mid-season 2013.
  • Two veteran Sox who could reach 400 home runs for their careers this season are Paul Konerko (four away) and David Ortiz (22 away).

Obligatory 3,000 Hits Update

  • Good news: there is a chance a batter reaches 3,000 career hits this season. Bad news: that chance is small because the players closest to the mark are Ivan Rodriguez (156 hits away) and Omar Vizquel (159). Rodriguez is unemployed and has 133 hits over his most recent 558 plate appearances. Depending on Vizquel to reach an offensive milestone is like depending on a bear to watch your picnic basket. Sure, it might turn out fine and dandy, but tears and a ruined afternoon are more likely.
  • Some more bad news: four of the five other players closest to 3,000 hits are also unlikely to reach the milestone. Johnny Damon (unemployed), Vladimir Guerrero (ditto), Chipper Jones (injured, perhaps retiring soon), and Manny Ramirez are the only players entering the season with more than 2,500 hits other than Vizquel, Ivan Rodriguez, and …
  • Alex Rodriguez, who is 225 hits away himself. He won’t get there this season—his single-season high is 215 hits, back in 1996—but if all goes well, the Yankees will be selling a lot of A-Rod-inspired milestone-marking memorabilia in 2013.

Obligatory 300 Wins Update

  • Jamie Moyer’s chances of reaching 300 took a hit when he missed all of 2011. He sits 33 wins shy entering his age-49 season.
  • Sadly, the next-closest active pitcher is now Andy Pettitte, who A) is almost twice as far away than Moyer is (60) and B) already retired once. It’s hard to see either reaching the plateau.
  • That leaves Roy Halladay (112 away, 35 years old in May), Tim Hudson (119 away, 37 in July) and CC Sabathia (124 away, 32 in July) as the next wave of candidates. Halladay and Sabathia are the favorites given their own quality as well as their teams’ strength. 

Obligatory Juan Pierre Update

  • Ain’t no party like a Juan-Pierre-reaching-an-arbitrary-milestone party.  With a 30-steal season, Pierre would move into 20th place all-time.

Games Played and Pitched

Wins Above Replacement Player Watch

  • Alex Rodriguez enters with 105.4 Wins Above Replacement Player, leaving him 15.6 wins shy of the top five.
  • A two-win season would move Albert Pujols into the top 12.
  • Jim Thome and Chipper Jones are unlikely WARP-leaderboard pals, essentially sharing the 39th and 40th spots. Will Thome’s lack of a position win out over Jones’s injuries?
  • Expect the Scott Rolen-to-Cooperstown drum to get beat repeatedly when Rolen passes Dick Allen and Jim Edmonds this season.
  • Speaking of controversial Hall of Fame arguments, how’s about Todd Helton? He already has more WARP than Ozzie Smith, is within a win of Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa, and Robert Alomar, and should clear Tony Gwynn, Lou Brock, and Andre Dawson this season.
  • Carlos Beltran will crack the top 100.  
  • The pitching leaderboards show a Yankees logjam around Andy Pettitte. David Cone is ahead of him, David Wells behind him. Realistically, Pettitte could wind up finishing the season behind Mike Mussina a few spots up.
  • And one for the road: Livan Hernandez ranks third in the pitcher batting component of Wins Above Replacement Player. The two fellows ahead of him? Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. The guy behind him? Mike Hampton. Note to the pitchers out there: knowing your way around the batter’s box is the key to winding up in Atlanta.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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