Henry Aaron & home runs

Henry (Hank) Aaron, who passed away yesterday at age 86, is best remembered for breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time MLB home run record, finally finishing with 755, to Ruth’s 714. Aaron broke Ruth’s mark in the face of ugly Jim Crow racism in 1974.

His death is somewhat ironic in its timing, as the MLB HoF balloting is to be announced on January 26, which is next Tuesday. On the ballot again is Barry Bonds, who hit 762 HRs, and was the greatest player ever. And there’s Roger Clemens, who went 354-184, to become the greatest pitcher ever, etc.

But old-timers like Hank Aaron have insisted they be kept out due to PEDs. Except that Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig was the “Steroid Commissioner,” and he’s in the HoF, elected by a committee of Hank Aaron’s peers.

Fans need to understand that there were two coffee pots in the clubhouse– regular, and the one spiked with greenies which was called “leaded.” There were bowls full of amphetamines that you could help yourself to, etc. That’s how the players did it in Hank Aaron’s era, so don’t have any illusions when making past allusions. Most sportswriters looked the other way, just like they (& fans) did when McGwire & Sosa were swatting all their bombs.

There’s no merit to these exclusionist objections, and in fact, they’re hypocritical. A bunch of PED users have already gotten in, and once that happens, you have to let them all in, to be fair. Relatively speaking, there’s much more steroid abuse in the NFL & NCAAF, and it’s gone on much longer. Too few sports fans want to be serious about this, which is why these issues persist.

Henry Aaron was the last Negro League player to go to MLB, before they all folded after integration, which began with Jackie Robinson in April 1947. Hank Aaron played for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, before being selected by the Milwaukee Braves. Like Jackie, Hank was a very hard man, due to his early-life circumstances. In the end, baseball fans celebrate his talent, determination & extraordinary courage more than anything. RIP Henry Aaron


Ruth & Bonds: Learning about Numbers

Is a LF who played 22 seasons with a career batting line of .298/.444/.607, the greatest baseball player ever?

Barry Bonds

What do AVG/OBP/SLG actually mean?

The most important batting statistic in baseball is (and has always been) on-base percentage (OBP).
OBP adds up all plate appearances, and measures how often a batter doesn’t make an out.
Making outs is bad for batters because after 27 outs, your team loses; unless there are extra innings. It is not helpful to make outs in extra innings either.
Over the course of a season, OBP is 2-3x more valuable (in terms of winning) than the second-most useful measure of hitting: SLG.

Slugging percentage (SLG) blends AVG with power– crediting extra weight for doubles, triples & HRs.
Extra-base hits directly correlate to increased run production.
Power creates runs, and teams need runs to win.
Therefore, SLG creates wins.

Batting average (AVG) is a subset of OBP & SLG.
It is the measure of how often a batter gets a hit when he puts the ball in play.

OBP is the better overall measure of batting value, but AVG tells you things OBP can’t.
In a situation against a good pitcher, who doesn’t walk many batters; AVG is a better measure of the hitter’s chance for success than OBP.

Example: The difference between a .240 and .320 AVG hitter (both with .360 OBPs), is that the .240 batter will strikeout or hit into an easy out substantially more often than the .320 guy, against good pitching.
The .240 hitter exercises more patience & strike-zone judgement by taking more walks when they are most available, against inferior pitching.
The .320 hitter will swing at more pitches outside the strike zone, but is better at hitting line drives.

Most hits are line drives.
Increased SLG means more line drives go over the fence.

Adam Dunn (RF/DH)  .237/.365/.492  14 seasons (still active)
Ichiro Suzuki (RF) .317/.360/.412  14 seasons (still active)


This is why Billy Beanes’ shit doesn’t work in the post-season.
Over the course of a long season, it’s OBP that determines who is best.
In the smaller sample-sized post-season, its a different model in favor of SLG.
The strongest teams line up their best pitching in a short series, and it’s much tougher to produce runs with only OBP and no SLG.

That doesn’t imply an endorsement of “small-ball” tactics.
High-percentage base stealing & the ability to take the extra base gives any team an added dimension, but the gains are negligible in relation to hitting & pitching power.

If a manager needs an extra base in a clutch situation, a pinch runner (w/ a high SB%) is a better option than sacrificing or calling for the hit-and-run.
Terry Francona demonstrated this famously in using Dave Roberts in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.
Since this era is built around power, letting hitters use their OBP & SLG skills (instead of excessive bunting & other small-ball tactics), is understood as better managing in today’s game.


It is power pitching & hitting, along with good defense, that historically wins in the post-season.
Power costs money, which is why it is usually high-payroll teams playing late into October.

Pitching power is measured in staff ERA & Strikeouts (or K/9 IP).
Starting pitchers with 200+ IP, high K’s with good ERAs in relation to the league average, are the aces.

Closers must be over a strikeout per IP, with an ERA well under 3.00 (low walks) to be considered reliable.
Relief pitching is the most volatile commodity in MLB.
More money (as measured in $$/win) is wasted on relief pitching, than any other part of the modern MLB roster.


The arguments for greatest (non-pitcher) player ever are:

Ty Cobb (CF)         .366/.433/.512 24 seasons
Honus Wagner (SS)    .328/.391/.467 21 seasons
Rogers Hornsby (2B)  .358/.434/.577 23 seasons
Babe Ruth (RF/LHP)   .342/.474/.690 22 seasons
Lou Gehrig (1B)      .340/.447/.632 17 seasons
Ted Williams (LF)    .344/.482/.634 19 seasons (DNP his age 24-26 seasons and most of his age 33-34 seasons due to military service)
Willie Mays (CF)     .302/.384/.557 22 seasons
Mickey Mantle  (CF)  .298/.421/.557 18 seasons
Hank Aaron (RF)      .305/.374/.555 23 seasons
Barry Bonds (LF)     .298/.444/.607 22 seasons
Alex Rodriguez(SS/3B).299/.384/.558 20 seasons (suspended in 2014, but still active)
Albert Pujols (1B)   .318/.405/.592 14 seasons (still active)

The players with the highest OBP are Williams (.482), Ruth (.474), Gehrig (.447) then Bonds (.444)

The highest career SLG are Ruth (.690), Williams (.634), Gehrig (.632) then Bonds (.607)


Base running and defense:

*In 1916-17, Babe Ruth (age 21-22 seasons) was an ace LHP with the Boston Red Sox, the best pitcher in the AL.  Ruth helped BOS win the World Series in 1915, 1916 & 1918, before he was sold to the NYY.
Ruth’s incomplete career base running numbers are:  123 SB / 117 CS.
CS weren’t counted in the AL until 1920, so Ruth’s career SB% was likely under 50%.
He infamously ran into the last out of the 1926 WS; getting thrown out trying to steal second base with the NYY down by multiple runs.

Barry Bonds was a 8-time Gold Glove LF and an outstanding base runner/base stealer: 514 SB/141 CS; translating into a nifty 77.3% career success rate.

Lou Gehrig played 1B well by most accounts; 102 SB / 100 CS in his career. First basemen have all their value in their bat.

Ted Williams was slow on the bases (24 SB / 17 CS career), and considered a poor defensive LF.
He would often be observed taking practice swings in the outfield.


“Character” issues:

Ruth drank, smoked and whored around excessively.
The media of that era ignored it; today that would be inconceivable.

Gehrig was (and still is) under-appreciated, playing beside the Bambino.
His farewell speech at Yankee Stadium still stands as one of the most moving moments in sports history.  If he had lived he may have become the greatest, and that is the heroic tragedy of Lou Gehrig.  He was diagnosed with ALS in his age 36 season.

*Both Ruth & Gehrig played entirely in the pre-integration era of MLB.
Surely their dominance would have been curtailed by the likes of RHPs Smoky Joe Williams, Satchel Paige, etc… and their numbers rivalled by (C) Josh Gibson , (1B) Buck Leonard, etc… if blacks had been allowed to play MLB.

Williams & Bonds were sensitive to criticism and castigated by the sporting press of their eras.
Ted Williams lost 5 prime seasons due to military service, and would have added 150+ HRs and 900+ hits to his career totals.
He was still the greatest hitter ever (.344/.482/.634).

By the early 2000’s, Bonds joined baseball’s PED scandal; becoming a permanent scapegoat for the MLB policy of tolerance/encouragement, which began a decade earlier.
In 2007 at age 42, Bonds hit .276/.480/.565 with the SFG; breaking Henry Aaron’s career home run record and establishing the new mark at 762.
That year, Pac Bell Park was sold out all season, for a SFG team that finished last in the NL West at 71-91.

Bonds was not offered a contract by any team in MLB for 2008, when he surely could have been a productive LF/DH for at least 2 more seasons.

*As a fan of the newly-renamed TB Rays, I believe they squandered their best shot ever at winning a World Series, by not signing Bonds in 2008.


If you go on his feats & the numbers (and include his pitching– which you must), then Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player ever.
Realistically however, too much of what the Babe did (and was allowed to get away with) would be impossible now.
The best player must be able to dominate in any era.

Bonds won 7 MVP’s and probably should have won several more.
He was clearly the best player in baseball from 1990-2004– a 15-season span.
Barry Bonds was the greatest baseball player of his or any era.