By Mark Kolier
With the emphasis in today’s Major Leagues on advanced statistics, what will be the marquee stats that average fans will remember?
When Aaron Judge hit 62 home runs in the 2022 season, the memories of Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds were all intertwined. Babe Ruth hit 60 homers in 1927 which stood as the all-time single-season record for 34 years until Maris broke the record (using eight additional games) in 1961. Those eight additional games gave birth to the baseball asterisk. 34 years is a long time to hold any record and add to it that baseball was the preeminent sport in the U.S. for that entire time making the record even more iconic.
That’s why when McGwire and Sosa engaged in the great home race of 1998, McGwire’s 62nd was heralded even more than his 70th, which was his season-ending total. When Barry Bonds broke that record a mere three years later, the roar of the crowd was not quite as loud, and that was not because Bonds’ record was tainted -- at least not yet. It happened too soon after McGwire hit 70! Today 73 homers in a season is THE number, and it’s been held for more than 21 years. The longer it lasts, the more frustrated some fans will be.
Ruth retired in 1935 with 714 home runs. Henry Aaron finally broke Ruth’s record in 1974 when he hit his 715th. The Babe’s record had stood for nearly 39 years. Because of baseball’s place in American society, the average non-baseball person probably knew the number 714. It’s a principal reason that Ruth’s name remains indelibly imprinted in the minds of all baseball fans. Fewer people today are aware that Aaron finished with 755 homers or that Barry Bonds finished with 762. Love him or not, Bonds holds what might be the most recognized and most important all-time record in baseball. You can feel free to put an asterisk alongside it, but that number is THE number.
RBIs is also an easy statistic to follow and remember. Hack Wilson’s 191 RBIs in 1930 (a mere 93 years ago) still stands up, and dedicated American League and Yankees fans are no doubt aware of Lou Gehrig’s 185 RBIs the next year in 1931. Aaron fans also have the reason to crow about his career best 2,297 RBIs (the recently retired Albert Pujols is second all-time with 2,218).
We’ve heard for years that RBIs are a derivative stat ultimately contingent on the team’s general offensive abilities. The other players provide those RBI opportunities. Still, 2,297 is a number to remember. Active players like Miguel Cabrera who will finish his career this season with 1,850-plus, Nelson Cruz (1,318 as of May 2023), and Evan Longoria (1,139 as of this writing) won’t be breaking the all-time record. Freddie Freeman (with 1,069) and Paul Goldschmidt (1,065) are more than 1,200 RBIs away and will be 34 and 36 respectively this September. Aaron’s career RBI record seems to be safe. Even very safe.
Fans have never been interested in the player with the all-time-record for doubles (Tris Speaker who retired in 1928 with 792) or triples (Sam Crawford, who retired in 1917 with 309). Both of those records were achieved a very long time ago. Maybe that’s why the record for career stolen bases (1,406 by Rickey Henderson, who retired in 2003) is a little better remembered.
The career hits leader, Pete Rose (4,256), dedicated his playing career to passing Ty Cobb’s 4,189. Considering the fact that today there are few players who reach 200 base hits in a single season, Rose’s record seems very safe. Averaging more than 200 hits for 22 years would still have a player fall short of Rose. Not happening.
How about the all-time career leader for batting average? It has not changed since Cobb finished at .366 and, like Speaker, retired in 1928. Could a player exceed .366 for his entire career of 10 years or more? With today’s pitchers? I would not bet on it.
Breaking all-time career and season pitching records is even more difficult given the state of baseball today and the way pitchers are utilized. Cy Young’s record of 511 wins and 313 losses will never be broken. Nor will there ever be a 30-game winner again, the last being Denny McLain in 1968 with 31. Jack Chesbro had 41 wins in 1904 starting 51 times for the Yankees. Too few remember or care. That record will also never be broken.
Nolan Ryan’s career record of 5,714 strikeouts will surely also never be broken. Nor will his record of 2,795 walks. Both Ryan and Cy Young own tremendous records of achievement and ignominy.
One pitching record that might be broken is career ERA, but then again probably not. There are many dead-ball era pitchers on this list headed by Hall of Famer Ed Walsh, who finished with a 1.82 career ERA retiring in 1917. Mariano Rivera had a career 2.21 ERA. Clayton Kershaw has a career ERA of 2.50, the best among active pitchers. Neither are close to 1.82.
The criteria used today to evaluate player effectiveness go far beyond old-timey baseball stats and records. Not just Wins Above Replacement (WAR), but stats like OPS+ (on base average plus slugging average), Weighted Runs Created (WRC+) normalized for ballpark differences, as well as pitcher WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), ERA+ (earned run average normalized for ballparks), and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). All are better and deeper measures than pure aggregate number stats. Yet it’s hard to see baseball fans remembering who led the league in WHIP, WRC+, ERA+, or OPS+, or what is the all-time-record. Will fans ever evaluate players on the basis of their batted ball exit velocity? MLB ballclubs are already doing that!
Today’s fans are more knowledgeable and have more stats at their fingertips than ever before. Baseball has always been a numbers game. It’s still much more fun to watch a player like Judge try to hit 74 home runs than it is to have him break the all-time seasonal record for OPS+, which is held by Josh Gibson at 281. Gibson also has the second greatest OPS+ season at 273, with Bonds occupying the third and fourth slots with 268 and 263.
It will take time for fans to be as facile with advanced stats as they are with good old-fashioned homers, RBIs, batting average, strikeouts and ERA. If records are made to be broken, the way fans evaluate them can be broken too.
About the Author: Mark Kolier along with his son Gordon co-hosts a baseball podcast called ‘Almost Cooperstown’. He also has written baseball-related articles that can be accessed on Medium.com and now Substack.com.