East Coast Bias: Mythical, Uninjured Ken Griffey Jr

As Barry Bonds continues his march toward 756, another batter is inching toward a career milestone. Ken Griffey Jr. was one of the more popular baseball players as I was growing up. Before Derek Jeter came on the scene, Junior was the face of baseball. He unseated Gary Carter as “The Kid”. He was the guy on the video games. He was the guy on the magazines. And now he’s the guy approaching 600 home runs.

Since Bonds has become the figurehead for the steroid era, and is famously a jerk, a decent number of people don’t want to see him break the record. Instead of a Big Mac march toward history, it’s become more of a dead-man-walking inevitability for the baseball world. As such, a lot of folks have started to play “what-if” with Junior’s career. For example, would it be him breaking the record this year instead of Bonds had he managed to eek out 155 games per season instead of the injury plagued career he’s had.

Funny thing about baseball: there’s a big enough sample-size that you can make some educated guesses about how things could have turned out. Instead of just asking “what if?” it turns out, with a little research and math, you can get pretty close to the answer.

Ground rules: I used a realistic 157 games per season, not 162 as guys get days off as the year progresses. I chose 157 because a “full season” usually works out to somewhere between 154 and 160 games. I took the middle of that and rounded up so I wasn’t working with .5 games. Since he wasn’t “brought up” mid-season his rookie year, and since his rookie year included an “only to Griffey” injury (though we didn’t know it yet) when he slipped in the shower and broke his hand. For 1994, the strike-shortened 114-game season, I used his full compliment of 111 games. I also included all 80 games he’s played this year.

Right… on with it. The basic idea here is to take Junior’s production as it is and use that to figure out what it would have been had he played a full number of games every season from 1989 through today. To start with, we have to figure out how many at-bats would have constituted a full season. Following that, we figure out how many home runs he hits per at bat. Finally, use those two numbers to figure out how many homers he should have hit had all those at-bats occurred.

So, first: at bats. I used at-bats over plate appearances because it removes walks and intentional walks from the equation. It gives a better idea since it tells us how many home runs Griffey had per hit instead of per hit and walk. Junior’s played in 2,314 games over 18.5 seasons with a total 8,579 at-bats. With these two numbers, we can figure out that he usually has 3.70 at bats per game. OK, easy enough.

Next we have to figure out how many games he should have played assuming he played a “full” 157 games per season and how many at bats he should have had if he’d played all those games. Easy enough, He’s played 18 full seasons plus the 80 games he’s played in this season. (157 * 17) + 111 + 80 = 2,860 games. This means that Junior has missed 546 games. Using the same 3.70 at-bats per game that we found above, we can multiply that by 546 games to figure out that Griffey’s missed about 2,020.2 at-bats.

Easy enough, now we just have to use those at-bats to figure out how many home runs he’s missed in his career. Griffey’s hit 586 home runs in his 8,579 at-bats. If we divide at-bats by home runs, we can figure out that he hits a home run approximately every 14.64 at-bats. With that number, we can then take the 2,020.2 at-bats he’s missed, divide it, and figure out he’s missing about 137.9918 home runs in those at bats. We’ll call it 138. This, of course, can’t take into consideration loss of bat speed and such but it’s reasonable to assume that Griffey’s career home run total could be at least 138 higher, a total of 724, had his body not turned on him over the years.

Visually, it’s just a proportion. Actual home runs divided by actual at bats = projected home runs divided by projected at bats.

586 / 8,579 = X / 10,599.2
(586 * 10,599.2) = (8,579 * X)
X = (586 * 10,599.2) / 8,579
X = 723.992

Now, as for whether or not he would have had more than Bonds. You have to assume the various injuries took a toll on his power numbers, but a lot of that is probably mitigated by the fact he’s played a lot of career games in the Great American Ballpark which, according to ESPN’s Park Factor Page, is the easiest park to hit a home run in.

So, is Junior a better home run hitter than Bonds? It would appear so, considering mythical, uninjured Griffey should is only 27 homers behind Bonds in three less seasons… which is great… until you consider that Bonds took all of 2005 off due to injury. This, since I have no life, made me wonder what mythical, uninjured Bonds would have hit through his career.

Using the same basic strategy as above, except for leaving Bonds’s rookie season alone since he wasn’t brought up until May 30th and using his 112 games in the 1994 season, he’s played in 2,936 games with a total of 9,709 at-bats and 751 HR. The total number of games he should have played in is (157 * 19) + 113 + 112 + 76 = 3,284 games. Bonds averages about 3.3 at-bats per games, 0.4 less at-bats per game than Griffey, which makes sense considering how often Bonds is walked, intentionally or otherwise.

Bonds missed 348 games over the course of his career. With the 3.3 at-bats per game, that means he’s missing 1,148.4 at-bats. He’s hit 751 home runs in 9,709 at-bats or a home run every 12.93 at-bats. With the missing 1,148.4 at-bats, it means he’s missing 88.82 home runs, bringing his current total to 839. If you assume his average number of home runs per season, about 40, mythical uninjured Bonds finished 2005 at 754 and Broke Aaron’s record about 8 games into last season.

So, what’s all this really mean? Not too much other than to put into numbers that random baseball fan’s wish that Junior not had an injury-plagued career actually does have merit. Even though he’d still be behind Bonds by about 30 home runs, we’d have to assume that Iron Man Griffey would still have a couple seasons in him after Bonds’s retirement. A couple of seasons he could have used to unseat the newly crowned home run king.

It also means I spend way too much time on baseball-reference.com and that my aborted physics major wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Read this and any other columns from Tom at his blog

Tags: