Written by: Korey Keplinger (@Buca_di_Keppo)
Edited by: Curt Ashcraft (@cashcraft740) & Tommy Parrill (@DearTommy)
If you’ve followed ‘Our Sports Report’ intently, you have already come to two obvious conclusions. The first would be that I really love baseball and the second is that I can, at times, make audacious claims and like to flirt with hypothetical “what if” type situations. This article epitomizes both of those claims.
Ask anyone between the age of 20 and 30 who the Top 10 baseball players of their youth were and I am willing to bet you my Billy Wagner bobble head that an overwhelming number of these lists would include Ken Griffey Jr., for good reason. Not only did Junior play for my beloved Cincinnati Reds, he totaled 613 Home Runs (6th), 1,836 RBI (15th), 13 All Star selections, 10 Gold Gloves, and earned MVP honors in 1997. To be blunt, Griffey amassed a final stat line worthy of a plaque in Cooperstown. Short of a World Series title, what more could one have asked for over a career?
For the sake of this article, what about a spot atop the All-Time Home Run list? Which happens to be the most revered perch in all of baseball. Regardless of your loyalty to the game or your stance on what new or old ways we evaluate baseball players, the home run is exciting. A home run is a chance to watch a batter send a ball 400 plus feet into the masses. It is four seconds of action that could abruptly end a three and a half hour game. It’s fireworks. It is, in short, the most memorable (though far from rarest) thing in baseball. Whether it was Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off to sink the Yankees in 1960 or Carlton Fisk urging a ball to stay fair in the 12th inning of game six in the 1975 World Series, the home run is easily the first thing that comes to our minds (as a whole) when we think baseball.
Ken Griffey Jr. finished his major league career 125 home runs short of then leader Hank Aaron, so how is it plausible that he could have one day been baseball’s Home Run King? For Griffey, injuries plagued his career and it left one of baseball’s most prolific home run hitters (Go ahead, You Tube that stroke again for old time’s sake) without anymore time or power and lead to an embarrassing exit from the game.
Griffey missed significant parts of several crucial seasons, playing less than 100 games in 1995, 2002, 2003, 2004, and less crucially 2010. Additionally, he flirted with only playing 100 games in 2001 and 2006. Not counting his retirement in the middle of 2010, I suspect Griffey missed approximately 400-475 games, provided he wouldn’t have played all 162 scheduled games. With the injuries, Griffey lost playing time, bat speed, and fielding range (he did not win a Gold Glove after his 30th birthday). For the sake of simplifying this argument, Griffey averaged 38 home runs per 162 games over his 22-year career, so we will use this number to account for the games he missed. This number is fitting because the potential to hit 55 bombs had come and gone, but the potential for 30-40 home runs a season was still completely viable.
Had Griffey stayed healthy, been able to play the significant parts of the season’s he lost and his power had not been sapped due to his bevy of injuries, Griffey could have hit an additional 93-112 home runs. For the lazy, that’s between 723-742 home runs. Right on Aaron’s and Bonds’ heels! Despite the mitigated power at the twilight of his career, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Griffey to hit another 20-30 dingers, especially in AL parks where he could continue to DH. Griffey could have fulfilled the Mariners’ DH role into his early 40’s, granted he hadn’t been caught napping in the dugout during a game and subsequently retired.
In all, this rudimentary analysis and oversimplification of statistics show that it was at least plausible for Griffey to have emerged as the best home run hitter of all time. Perhaps it is only wishful thinking and Griffey’s ability to go yard was only kept afloat by his playing at the Great American Ball Park, which boasts a hitter friendly Park Factor of 121. Perhaps the hometown boy who grew up around the game (and arguably the best team to ever play) while avoiding any/all links to PED or steroid use would have just made for too perfect of an ending. Maybe, in the steroid flooded days of Griffey, we forgot how rapid the aging process for older ball players could be. Unfortunately, we are only left to wonder “what if”. All threats to Bonds’ record are either out of the game, have tarnished records themselves, or are too young to be deemed serious contenders just quite yet (with the exception of Albert Pujols). With baseball’s steroid era in the proverbial rear view mirror and the MLB seeming serious about suspending players with ties to PED usage (A-Rod and Ryan Braun), it is going to take a long, healthy, and fortunate career to see anyone else come close.