Saturday, May 31, 2014

In the year of his 500th home run...

Earlier this season Albert Pujols became the 26th player in MLB history to hit his 500th career home run. Pujols' first two seasons with the Angels did not go especially well, as his offensive numbers were down in almost every category, and while a decline was to be expected, in 2013 that decline felt especially steep. I wondered if his time as a great player had come to an abrupt end. In 2014 though, Pujols' production has rebounded, not to the level of his incredible peak from 2003 to 2010, when he was one of the half dozen best players in baseball every season (those days are over), but to where he was in 2011 and 2012. His strong start had me wondering how each member of the 500-HR club did in the season in which they reached that level, so I set out to investigate.

Here are the dates of each player's 500th career home run, in chronological order:

Babe Ruth (August 11, 1929)
Jimmie Foxx (September 24, 1940)
Mel Ott (August 1, 1945)
Ted Williams (June 17, 1960)
Willie Mays (September 13, 1965)
Mickey Mantle (May 14, 1967)
Eddie Mathews (July 14, 1967)
Hank Aaron (July 14, 1968)
Ernie Banks (May 12, 1970)
Harmon Killebrew (August 10, 1971)
Frank Robinson (September 13, 1971)
Willie McCovey (June 30, 1978)
Reggie Jackson (September 17, 1984)
Mike Schmidt (April 18, 1987)
Eddie Murray (September 6, 1996)
Mark McGwire (August 5, 1999)
Barry Bonds (April 17, 2001)
Sammy Sosa (April 4, 2003)
Rafael Palmeiro (May 11, 2003)
Ken Griffey (June 20, 2004)
Frank Thomas (June 28, 2007)
Alex Rodriguez (August 4, 2007)
Jim Thome (September 16, 2007)
Manny Ramirez (May 31, 2008)
Gary Sheffield (April 17, 2009)
Albert Pujols (April 22, 2014)

As you can see, it was a while before Ruth had any company, and members joined the club very rarely for a few decades. Then, in the late 60s and early 70s, the club's size more than doubled. Things slowed down again until the late 90s, when players began to reach 500 regularly, an average of almost one a season. Pujols was the first new member in 5 years though, the longest gap since that between Schmidt and Murray more than two decades earlier.

Mantle and Mathews entered two months apart in 1967, Killebrew and Robinson joined only 34 days apart in 1971, a span just shorter than the 37 days between Sosa and Palmeiro in 2003. Thomas, Rodriguez, and Thome in 2007 are the only trio to join the club in the same season, and I doubt we'll see that happen again any time soon.

Here is each player again, with their player-age for the season in which they hit #500, along with the total number of home runs they hit that year, how many plate appearances they had, and their OPS+:

Player
Age
PA
HR
OPS+
Babe Ruth
34
587
46
193
Jimmie Foxx
32
618
36
150
Mel Ott
36
534
21
151
Ted Williams
41
390
29
190
Willie Mays
34
638
52
185
Mickey Mantle
35
553
22
149
Eddie Mathews
35
511
16
111
Hank Aaron
34
676
29
153
Ernie Banks
39
247
12
96
Harmon Killebrew
35
624
28
138
Frank Robinson
35
545
28
153
Willie McCovey
40
390
12
97
Reggie Jackson
38
584
25
95
Mike Schmidt
37
613
35
142
Eddie Murray
40
637
22
87
Mark McGwire
35
661
65
176
Barry Bonds
36
664
73
259
Sammy Sosa
34
589
40
133
Rafael Palmeiro
38
654
38
117
Ken Griffey
34
348
20
123
Frank Thomas
39
624
26
125
Alex Rodriguez
31
708
54
176
Jim Thome
36
536
35
150
Manny Ramirez
36
654
37
166
Gary Sheffield
40
312
10
119
Albert Pujols**
34
235
14
134

 *Pujols' numbers are through May 30


Half the 26 players were in their age-36 season or older at the time of their 500th home run, half were in their age-35 season or younger. That means Pujols is among the younger players to reach 500, with only Rodriguez (31) and Foxx (32) doing it in a younger season.

20 of the previous 25 guys to reach 500 had 500+ plate appearances that season, while only Ernie Banks had fewer than 300.

Top HR totals for 500th-HR season:

1) Barry Bonds - 73
2) Mark McGwire - 65
3) Alex Rodriguez - 54
4) Willie Mays - 52
5) Babe Ruth - 46

Pujols is on pace for 42, which would put him 6th on that list. The median number of home runs in the previous 25 seasons is 29. I'm sort of surprised at how strong these seasons were, given that most of them happened when the players were at an age that would be considered past their prime. I guess it's a reminder that guys who hit so many home runs are a different sort than the typical MLB player. Heck, while Pujols is on pace to reach one of the highest home run totals of these guys, his current 134 OPS+, good as it is, would place him in the bottom half among these 26.

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