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February 23, 2009
Lies, Damned Lies
We're less than two full years removed from Barry Bonds' somber, strange, and soulless quest to break Henry Aaron's lifetime home-run record. It was a spectacle that most sports fans-even the few like me who were relatively sympathetic towards Bonds' plight-would go to great lengths to avoid having to experience again.
Unfortunately, it appears that history may be preparing to repeat itself. Alex Rodriguez has already hit 553 home runs, by far the most ever for a player having just completed his age-32 season. He needs only 203 more to surpass Aaron, and 210 to best Bonds. Rodriguez has hit an average of 42 home runs per season since joining the New York Yankees in 2003, and if he maintains that pace, he'll overtake Bonds' mark on the last day of the 2013 season. Being under contract with the Yankees through 2017, he seems to have plenty of time to spare.
But player-haters can rejoice: Rodriguez breaking the career home-run record is nowhere near a foregone conclusion. It boils down to that fine print that you ignored when you invested your daughter's college fund in Citibank stock a few years ago: past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Rodriguez has certainly been among the best players in baseball over the past couple of years. And chemically enhanced or not, there are a number of indicators that would ordinarily be favorable toward his continuing to perform well. Among them:
On the other hand, another set of indicators imply uncertainty in Rodriguez' future:
The favorable and unfavorable indicators are each reflected to some degree in Rodriguez' series of PECOTA comparables. His list includes many Hall of Famers, such as Dave Winfield, George Brett, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Tony Perez, and Hank Aaron himself, who were all elite athletes late into their 30s or early 40s.
However, it also includes some other players whose careers did not end all that gracefully. First are the guys who succumbed to injury, like Jeff Bagwell and Albert Belle. Next are a few players who, like Rodriguez, were known or suspected to have used performance-enhancing drugs: Sammy Sosa is A-Rod's top comparable, for instance, and Ken Caminiti is his fourth. Finally, there are players like Ryne Sandberg, whose skills simply atrophied sooner or more suddenly than expected.
I took Rodriguez' top 20 PECOTA comparable players and averaged their performances over each remaining season of their careers. Actually, the process is a little more complicated than that (each comparable's performance was adjusted for his park and league context, as well as his previous track record, and we had to make an accommodation for guys like Manny Ramirez, who made A-Rod's comparables list but have yet to conclude their own careers). The basic idea though, is simple: comparables like Frank Robinson, who aged well, have a favorable impact on Rodriguez' forecast, and players like Caminiti have the opposite effect.
Alex Rodriguez' PECOTA-Projected Home Run Totals:
Year HR 2009 33 2010 30 2011 27 2012 25 2013 18 2014 16 2015 12 2016 8 2017 4 2018 3 2019 1 Total 177 Career 730
PECOTA's best guess is that Rodriguez will run out of steam after the next three or four seasons and finish with 730 lifetime home runs, leaving him just shy of the marks established by Aaron and Bonds. Of course, there is a great deal of uncertainty in this estimate: if Rodriguez follows the path charted by Aaron or Frank Robinson, he could finish with well in excess of 800 home runs (and possibly as many as 900). On the other hand, if he draws Albert Belle's ping-pong ball, he might not even top 600. Overall, the system puts Rodriguez' chances of surpassing Aaron at only about 40 percent, and of passing Bonds closer to 30 percent.
One needs to remember that the way that Aaron and Bonds finished out their careers was far from typical. At least as common are folks like Jimmie Foxx (before Rodriguez, the fastest player to 500 home runs), who hit just 34 home runs after turning 33. Only about a dozen players have hit 200 or more home runs from their age-33 seasons onward; Bonds and Aaron are the only two to have hit at least 300.
In other words, Rodriguez still has his work cut out for him if he intends to catch them. Say what you will about his past performance, but for him to make it across this finish line would still represent a remarkable accomplishment.