- Greg Wille
COMMENTARY: Uncovering baseball's interesting tidbits and statistical oddities during a winter storm
By GREG WILLE
Perhaps it was the contradiction of major league baseball's spring training camps opening in warm, sunny Arizona and Florida while an extreme, prolonged winter storm froze normal life here in Texas.
That led this writer to conduct some baseball research, which produced several interesting revelations and/or statistical oddities – involving Hall of Famer players such as Hank Aaron, Craig Biggio and Jim Palmer as well as rising superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. – that are being shared in the hope that you will have the time and/or inclination to read them.
–– When baseball icon Hank Aaron died in January at the age of 86, tributes poured in to celebrate the illustrious 23-season career of one of the sport's greatest players and sluggers as well as one of its most admirable figures. He's the major leagues' all-time leader in runs batted in (2,297) and total bases (6,856), and one statistic that continues to amaze is that even if his 755 home runs were taken away, Hammerin' Hank – the epitome of consistent excellence – still would have more than 3,000 hits.
Of course, Aaron was baseball's career home run king from 1974, when he broke Babe Ruth's long-standing record of 714, until 2007, when Barry Bonds surpassed Aaron by hitting his 756th homer en route to finishing with 762 before retiring that year.
Although Aaron's 755 homers remains a staggering figure, what is especially fascinating about his legendary Hall of Fame career is that he didn't record any of the top 80 individual home run seasons in baseball history.
A player has hit 50 or more homers in a season 46 times, and 48 unique players have clubbed at least 48 homers in a season. However, you won't find Aaron on either one of those lists. That's because the most homers he hit in a season was 47, in 1971.
The 50-homer club does include a Hank, but it's Hank Greenberg; a Hack (Wilson); two Fielders (Cecil Fielder and his son, Prince Fielder); and two current New York Yankees teammates (Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton). New York Mets rookie Pete Alonso hit 53 round-trippers in 2019.
Several less-than-legendary players caught lightning in a bottle to produce a 50-homer season, including Brady Anderson, Jose Bautista, Albert Belle, Chris Davis, George Foster, Luis Gonzalez, Andruw Jones and Greg Vaughn.
Ruth famously blasted 54-plus homers four times, and Aaron's contemporaries Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays exceeded 50 two times each. Also reaching 50 dingers two times apiece were Jimmie Foxx, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ralph Kiner.
And then there are the many players whose eye-popping home run totals are suspected to have been heavily influenced by the use of performance-enhancing drugs, likely costing them spots in the Hall of Fame.
Bonds hit a mind-numbing 73 homers in 2001, though his next-highest number was the 49 he tallied a year earlier. Mark McGwire put up years with 70, 65, 58, 52 and 49 long balls; Sammy Sosa had seasons with 66, 64, 63, 50 and 49 homers; and the star-crossed career of Alex Rodriguez included seasons with 57, 54, 52 and 48 homers.
And all of these guys have hit more homers (at least 48) in a season than Aaron ever did: Khris Davis, Andre Dawson, Shawn Green, Todd Helton, Frank Howard, Ryan Howard, Dave Kingman, Ted Kluszewski, Jorge Soler, Eugenio Suarez and Larry Walker.
What ended up separating Aaron from other power hitters was the consistency and longevity of his elite performance. He never exceeded 47 homers, yet he produced eight seasons with at least 40 and six of those included 44-plus. He clubbed 30 or more homers in seven other seasons and 20-plus in five other years.
Averaging almost 33 homers per season for 23 years was how Aaron became baseball's all-time home run leader and retained that crown for more than three decades. And considering the unnatural methods Bonds is widely thought to have utilized to surpass Aaron's 755 homers, it's clear why many fans and observers still choose to view the late, great Hammerin' Hank as the national pastime's true home run king.
–– During his 20-year Hall of Fame career with the Houston Astros, Craig Biggio grounded into a double play 150 times. There were nine seasons in which he grounded into at least 10 double plays, including two seasons with 15 DPs.
However, Biggio incredibly did not ground into a double play in the entire 1997 season despite playing in all 162 games and leading the major leagues with 744 plate appearances. Making that feat even more uncanny is the fact that he grounded into 10 double plays in 1996 and another 10 twin killings in 1998.
Although Biggio was a speedy base runner who compiled 414 career stolen bases, he was 31 years old and in his 10th big league season in 1997. And as a right-handed batter, Biggio never had the luxury of swinging from the left side and thus already being a couple steps closer to beating out a potential double-play grounder at first base.
–– Jim Palmer allowed plenty of home runs during his Hall of Fame career as a Baltimore Orioles pitcher – 303, to be exact. Beginning in 1965 and ending in 1984, the three-time American League Cy Young Award winner pitched 3,948 innings in 558 games (521 starts). His career log includes allowing 193 solo homers, 83 two-run shots and 27 three-run blasts.
However, there's one thing that Palmer never permitted while facing 16,114 batters: a grand slam.
It can be debated whether Palmer hada special ability to prevent homers with the bases loaded, or if his zero in the “grand slams allowed” column was some kind of aberration or fluke.
But consider that all of these fellow Hall of Fame pitchers surrendered at least three career grand slams: Bert Blyleven (8), Don Sutton (7), Sandy Koufax (6), Roy Halladay (6), Steve Carlton (5), Jack Morris (5), Randy Johnson (5), Mike Mussina (4), John Smoltz (4), Bob Gibson (3), Tom Seaver (3) and Greg Maddux (3). And what about 354-game winner Roger Clemens? The Rocket gave up six grand salamis.
As an aside, Palmer's Orioles teammate for eight seasons was Hall of Fame slugger Eddie Murray, who was as skilled at hitting grand slams as Palmer was at not allowing them. Murray connected for 19 grand slams, the fourth-highest total in MLB history.
–– Fernando Tatis Jr. is one of baseball's most talented and exciting young players, as evidenced by his fourth-place finish in voting for last season's National League's Most Valuable Player award. This week the 22-year shortstop agreed to an epic contract extension with his San Diego Padres: 14 years and $340 million.
Tatis already has hit 39 home runs in only 143 career games combining the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but he's also already has struck out 171 times. That projects to a 162-game average of 194 strikeouts.
By comparison, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn – the best player in Padres history and a .338 career hitter – struck out only 434 times in 2,440 games and 9,288 at-bats during a 20-season career from 1982-2001. Continuing at his current pace, Tatis would match Mr. Padre's 434 strikeouts in only his 363rd game, likely in 2022 – at the tender age of 23.