The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

    The 500 home run barrier has lost its luster




    Babe Ruth



    Mel Ott



    Jimmie Foxx



    Ted Williams



    Willie Mays



    Mickey Mantle



    Eddie Mathews



    Hank Aaron



    Ernie Banks



















    Mike Schmidt



    Eddie Murray



    Mark McGwire



    Barry Bonds



    Sammy Sosa







    Ken Griffey,




    Frank Thomas







    Jim Thome



    Manny Ramirez







    You may have heard that last week, Gary Sheffield became the 25th player to hit 500 home runs in his career. I extend to him my full congratulations for this extraordinary accomplishment. That said, I have to wonder if 500 home runs still means what it used to mean.
    As you can see from the chart below, 10 players joined the 500 Home Run Club during the last decade, the so-called “Steroid Era.” The 15 who reached 500 before that are some of the best sluggers to ever play the game, and all unquestionably belong in the Hall of Fame.
    Looking at the most recent 10, I see a different picture. Only three seem to fit that legendary profile: Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Alex Rodriguez. In addition to his power, Bonds has a career average of .298, eight Gold Gloves, 14 All-Star games and an incredible seven MVP’s. Griffey, a 13-time All-Star, has a .288 career average, 10 Gold Gloves and an MVP, while A-Rod has a .306 life average, three Gold Gloves, 12 All-Star selection and two MVP’s. These three are easily among the absolute best position players of all-time.
    The other seven just don’t reach the same legendary level. Sure, McGwire belongs in the Hall for saving baseball (see my Jan. 19 column). Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez and Sheffield have the solid career numbers in other statistics to get them there, and I guess I’ll give the nod to Frank Thomas as well, although he’s a marginal case at best and has hardly mattered in a decade. But what about the rest?
    As unfathomable as it seems to leave a guy with 500 out of the Hall of Fame, can we really say that Jim Thome is one of the all-time greats? His career achievements are coming in fourth in the NL MVP race in 2003 and leading the AL in OPS in 2002. He led his league in strikeouts more times (thrice) than he did in home runs (once), and he was named an All-Star only five times in 18 seasons. In fact, his 2201 strikeouts rank him third all-time. I don’t see any justification for him getting into the Hall of Fame despite breaking the 500 barrier.
    Sammy Sosa is definitely a very good player, but that’s not enough for the Hall of Fame. As far as the numbers go, all he has is power. His career average of .273 is good (671st all-time), but hardly awe-inspiring. He never won a Gold Glove, and he is second all-time in strikeouts. He obviously could hit home runs (he hit over 60 three times), and he did save baseball along with McGwire in 1998. He may even deserve to be in the Hall just for that, but his stats don’t get him there.
    So the home run explosion begs the question of what is causing it. It’s easy to blame steroids, and that’s probably a big factor. However, looking at what steroids did to Roger Clemens’ career, it’s only fair to point out that yesterday’s legends never faced juiced pitchers like today’s sluggers do.
    In fact, let’s consider the foremost document on steroids in baseball: the Mitchell Report. It is the most comprehensive published list of who used steroids, and the only players with more than 500 home runs who appear are Bonds and Sheffield (both of were only implicated for using a substance or cream for medicinal purposes that unknowingly included steroids). The other eight are not implicated in the report.
    Now, I’m not na’ve enough to think Bonds and McGwire never juiced, and we all know A-Rod and Palmeiro failed steroid tests at least once, but there’s no evidence that steroids are the sole factor behind the increase in home runs.
    Baseball parks are also getting smaller. In Babe Ruth’s day, fences were on average about 10 feet deeper than they are today. You may not think 10 feet is a huge difference, but think how often balls are hit to the warning track. A ball hit to the warning track 60 years ago is a home run today (or in the case of stadiums like the Polo Grounds, even a ball hit 480 feet to center is not a home run unless it’s an inside-the-park one). Even as late as 1970, fences were slightly deeper than they are today.
    Another factor is that home runs have just become “cool.” As Greg Maddux said in the famous commercial, “Chicks dig the long ball.” In a 2008 article for the Hardball Times, David Gassko showed a statistically significant correlation between home runs and attendance. Teams are now putting a greater emphasis on power, so of course we’re seeing an increase in home runs.
    Also, I can’t neglect the decrease in overall pitching quality. That could be due to thinning out of talent due to expansion, or to the fact that the nation’s best athletes are playing sports other than baseball. Whatever the reason, the top sluggers of the day face subpar pitching for a greater percentage of their at bats. Some have suggested that MLB get rid of some teams to counter this, but I think we should just let the game evolve.
    And that’s the point – baseball evolves. In the early 20th century, the best pitchers won 30 games a year. That hasn’t been achieved since 1968, and will probably never be again, and that’s OK. There was a time when the best hitters hit .400, and that will probably never happen again either. We should not be afraid to change our threshold of greatness for career home run numbers either.
    In this era of smaller parks, less talented pitchers, an emphasis on the home run and steroids, 500 home runs just doesn’t mean what it once did. There was a time when legends like Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial, and more recently Willie Stargell and Dave Winfield, didn’t get there. Nowadays, it’s players like Fred McGriff and Jose Canseco who barely miss 500.
    If you look on the horizon, a number of marginal-at-best Hall of Famers are approaching 500. Carlos Delgado is only 28 away, and with three or four more healthy seasons, Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero could get there. Even an overrated joker like Andruw Jones could get there if he could regain his earlier form.
    On the other hand, Albert Pujols will probably obliterate the home run record. He’s already at 323, and he’s not even 30 yet. It wouldn’t surprise me if in 2023 his 824th breaks the all-time record (held by A-Rod). Barring something bizarre derailing his career, he’ll certainly go down as one of the game’s legends.
    I think it’s time to accept a new threshold for slugging greatness: 700 home runs. This is not to say that hitters who don’t reach 700 aren’t deserving of the Hall of Fame, as other statistical categories play a role as well. But with the evolving game, the greatest sluggers are all going to get there. Bonds got there, and Griffey, A-Rod and Pujols probably will as well. This new threshold should be retroactively begun in 1999 so that only the legends will join the likes of Robinson, Williams, and Ruth.
    Harry Nelson is the opinion editor of The Reflector. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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    The 500 home run barrier has lost its luster