Active Players On Pace To Set Career Milestones
Achieving a career milestone is equal parts performance and persistence.
Another “p” word is part of the equation but is much more perilous.
That word is “pace,” which is a dangerous concept in baseball given the unpredictable ways in which players age and the sheer determination required to stay sharp for 20 seasons.
That’s the average career length for post-integration hitters who topped 3,000 hits or 500 home runs. Pitchers who topped 3,000 strikeouts or 250 wins in that same sample tended to play an additional year or two.
The table below highlights the pace that players established on their way to the aforementioned milestones, listing only the age at which they crossed various thresholds. Median values are used to help smooth the data, which encompasses players who debuted at various ages and peaked at different stages of their careers. The sample includes only players who starred after baseball integrated in 1947.
|Age||3,000 H||500 HR||3,000 SO||250 W|
Remember, the table shows median values for players' progress by age, meaning that half the sample had accumulated a higher total and half the sample a lower total. The sample includes only players who reached milestones, with the total number of players in each milestone club displayed at the bottom.
Note that batters and pitchers progress toward 3,000 hits and 3,000 strikeouts in a similar pattern, crossing 500 at age 23, 1,000 at age 26, 1,500 at age 29, 2,000 at age 32, 2,500 at age 35 and 3,000 at age 39.
Using precedent to guide us, we can project which active players might one day approach or amass 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 3,000 strikeouts or 250 wins. However, it's worth noting that the game has steadily been trending toward more strikeouts and home runs overall, with fewer hits and wins for starting pitchers.
If you’re wondering why I chose 250 wins rather than 300, it’s because 300 wins is sufficiently rare since integration so as to be nearly worthless as a measuring stick. Just 12 pitchers since 1947 have topped 300 wins, and stepping down a level to pitchers with 250-299 wins adds to the sample Hall of Famers Bert Blyleven, Robin Roberts, Fergie Jenkins, Mike Mussina, Jim Palmer, Jack Morris and Bob Gibson as well as potential future Hall of Famers Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia.
But the point of this post isn’t to celebrate the achievements of great players past. It’s to use historical precedent to look forward and project which active players might one day approach historical mile markers.
Bear in mind that this is not a forecast of which active players will achieve immortality. It’s a nod to players who have kept pace with some of the best to ever play the game. The numbers in parentheses indicate each player's pace as expressed as units above or below the median pace for his age.
For example, Justin Verlander is 37 and has 225 wins, with a (-5) listed beside his total. That means that through age 36, his baseball age in 2019, he was five wins behind the "pace" set by all the post-integration pitchers who won at least 250 games.
Of course, the games lost in 2020 will loom large as these players pursue all-time milestones. For perspective: the work stoppages of 1994 and 1995 cost players a total of 66 games. The coronavirus shutdown of 2020 will result in the loss of at least 80.
Home runs: 656
Pujols hit like a replacement player from 2017 to 2019 (88 OPS+), but he banked so much value in the early and middle of his Hall of Fame career that not only has he tallied 3,202 hits, but he ranks top 10 in history with 656 home runs, 661 doubles and 2,075 RBIs.
Wins: 225 (-5)
Verlander punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame in 2019 when he recorded his 3,000th career strikeout in his final start and then claimed his second career Cy Young Award after the season. With 225 career wins, Verlander’s pursuit of 250 should be only a matter of how much longer he wants to pitch beyond his current contract, which expires after 2021.
Home runs: 477 (-40)
Hits: 2,815 (+147)
Cabrera once appeared as if he would cruise well beyond 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, but his pace has slowed dramatically of late. From 2017 to 2019 he hit .270 with just 31 homers in three seasons. With four years remaining on his Tigers contract, Cabrera has plenty of time to record the necessary 185 hits and 23 homers to reach 3,000 and 500. When he does, he will join Eddie Murray, Albert Pujols and Rafael Palmeiro as the only first basemen to reach both milestones.
Strikeouts: 2,622 (-71)
Wins: 205 (-8)
Greinke has a fair amount of work to do to reach 3,000 strikeouts and 250 wins, but given his pitching savvy, sterling health track record and overall athleticism he seems like someone who can pitch as long as it takes. Greinke is signed through 2021.
Strikeouts: 2,558 (-135)
Wins: 163 (-50)
Strikeouts: 2,355 (-338)
Wins: 190 (-23)
These accomplished lefthanders were both 2002 draft picks who debuted in the big leagues in 2006 and have had distinguished careers with numerous October highlights. Neither Hamels nor Lester is particularly close to 250 wins or 3,000 strikeouts, but they could get there if they can maintain effectiveness and are determined to pitch past age 40. Lester has one year left on his Cubs contract, while Hamels signed a one-year contract with the Braves for 2020.
Potential Inner Circle Hall Of Famers
Home runs: 285 (+99)
Hits: 1,324 (+124)
Trout is the most painfully obvious entry here, but it might surprise you to learn that he has hit more home runs through age 27 than all but three post-integration members of the 500 club. That trio consists of Alex Rodriguez (345), Eddie Mathews (299) and Ken Griffey Jr. (294). While there isn’t anything nearly so historic about Trout’s hit total through age 27, he is well ahead of the established pace required to top 3,000.
Strikeouts: 2,464 (+419)
Wins: 169 (+17)
Given his age and level of accomplishment, Kershaw is in great shape to make a run at the 3,000-strikeout and 250-win milestones. Just two pitchers in history have recorded more strikeouts through age 31: Nolan Ryan and Walter Johnson—though Don Drysdale and Pedro Martinez were close behind. Kershaw’s Dodgers contract runs through 2021.
Home runs: 219 (+64)
Hits: 1,071 (+69)
As a general rule of thumb, hitters need to cross the 1,000-hit threshold in their age-26 seasons and top 200 homers at age 26 or 27. Having started his career with a bang at age 19, Harper has met those requirements and has set an early pace to reach 500 home runs and 3,000 hits.
Home runs: 207 (+52)
Hits: 1,200 (+198)
As with Bryce Harper, Machado debuted as a 19-year-old in 2012 and has performed at a high level, making four all-star teams and twice finishing top five in MVP balloting. As such, Machado is on track to make a run at 500 homers and 3,000 hits.
Strikeouts: 1,794 (+144)
Wins: 119 (-4)
It may seem jarring to think of Bumgarner in Hall of Fame terms, let alone on the same footing as the others listed in this category. But Bumgarner, who kicked off his big league career at age 19, has something the others lack: three World Series rings and myriad October heroics. He has gone 8-3 and recorded a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 postseason innings, including a transcendent MVP turn in the 2014 World Series. Bumgarner is also well situated to make a run at 3,000 strikeouts and approach 250 wins, especially after logging a healthy 2019 season after two injury-marred ones. When play resumes he will begin a new stage of his career after signing a five-year deal with the D-backs.
On Pace For Immortality
Strikeouts: 2,692 (+243)
Wins: 170 (-27)
Scherzer could be closing in on 3,000 strikeouts by the time his contract with the Nationals expires after 2021. Pair that projected milestone with three Cy Young Awards and he will be an automatic Hall of Fame selection when he becomes eligible.
Home runs: 308 (+44)
Hits: 1,141 (-387)
The typical 500-home run slugger crosses the 300 threshold at age 30. Stanton missed nearly the entirety of his age-29 season last year but still finished well ahead of pace to hit 500 homers. He has more home runs through age 29 than did Hall of Fame corner mashers Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray, Frank Thomas and Jim Thome, to name those of the integration era.
Home runs: 128 (-136)
Hits: 1,568 (+40)
Altuve didn’t have much room to spare relative to the pace set by past 3,000-hit men as he closed out his 20s in 2019. The lost games in 2020, not to mention the grind of playing second base that wears down most of the greats, puts his chase for 3,000 in serious jeopardy.
Home runs: 227 (+3)
Hits: 1,160 (-195)
Arenado is just a hair ahead of the median pace set by past 500-home run hitters and is one of the players most jeopardized by the games lost in 2020, particularly with age 30 looming. Being signed with the Rockies through 2026 could help him get back on track.
Strikeouts: 2,007 (+187)
Wins: 109 (-31)
Sale won’t be impacted by the games lost in 2020 because he was going to miss the season anyway after having Tommy John surgery this spring. He had as many 200-strikeout seasons through age 30 as Clayton Kershaw, Roger Clemens and Walter Johnson—and only one fewer than Tom Seaver. That is to say that Sale could be able to get back on pace for 3,000 strikeouts if he makes a full recovery.
So Far, So Good
Home runs: 130 (+8)
Hits: 835 (+18)
Lindor isn’t necessarily viewed as an elite hitter—but he should be. He has three 30-homer seasons, which is more than any shortstop in history save for Alex Rodriguez (seven), Ernie Banks (five) and Miguel Tejada (four). Lindor’s production relative to age has him positioned to be remembered as an all-time great.
Home runs: 111 (+52)
Hits: 443 (-86)
It’s obviously dangerous to talk about pace with a hitter as young as Bellinger, but then again he has hit 111 homers prior to his age-24 season. That puts him well ahead of the pace established by the typical 500-home run slugger.
Home runs: 107 (-48)
Hits: 1,022 (+20)
Debut age is such a critical component to establishing a milestone pace. Bogaerts first appeared with the Red Sox at age 20 and has built steadily toward his mid-20s peak. He closed the 2010s with his two best seasons. In 2018 and 2019 combined he hit .300 with a .373 on-base percentage and 220 RBIs, all of which were tops among shortstops.
Strikeouts: 433 (+58)
Wins: 19 (-19)
Flaherty is one of the rare first-round high school righthanders who has both navigated the rigors of the minor leagues with no injury or performance setbacks and smoothly integrated into a big league rotation in his early 20s. This is more rare in today’s game than it sounds. To be specific, Flaherty recorded the 10th most strikeouts in the majors in 2018 and 2019 despite pitching just the 31st most innings. His strikeout rate of 10.6 per nine innings is a big reason why—caveat: it’s way early—he is ahead of the pace established by pitchers who have reached 3,000 strikeouts.
Strikeouts: 567 (+36)
Wins: 38 (even)
Seeing Nolan Arenado’s name on a milestone tracker is no great surprise, given his level of accomplishment in his 20s and the fact he calls Coors Field home. The same expectations do not exist for Rockies pitchers. And yet Marquez’s name appears here because of his young debut age (21), durability and high strikeout rate. He has even maintained a high .613 winning percentage despite pitching in the most extreme hitter’s park in major league history and despite the Rockies’ inconsistent bullpen support of late.
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Strikeouts: 1,507 (-313)
Wins: 149 (+9)
Porcello’s debut age of 20 and remarkable durability—he has never made fewer than 27 starts in his 11 seasons—have helped him compile a high win total for his age. Porcello won 22 games and the Cy Young Award in 2016 and has other seasonal win totals of 17 and 15—not to mention 10 seasons with double-digit wins.
Strikeouts: 2,524 (+180)
Wins: 169 (-12)
Hernandez’s past greatness is no secret, but the fact that he has an outside shot at 3,000 strikeouts is surprising in light of his recent history. He ran up a 5.82 ERA (71 ERA+) in 227.1 innings in his last two seasons in Seattle, but if he can reclaim some semblance of his past form, Hernandez could start moving in the direction of 3,000 strikeouts. A change of scenery and shift to the National League—he signed a minor league deal with Atlanta—could help.
Home runs: 133 (-131)
Hits: 1,617 (+89)
Castro debuted with the Cubs at age 20 and recorded a 200-hit season at 21. He climbed more than halfway to 3,000 hits in his 20s, but the issue for Castro will be productivity. Among all hitters ever to amass at least 1,500 hits in their 20s, Castro has the fifth-lowest adjusted OPS+ (98) of the group. The four with a lower OPS+ are Bill Mazeroski, Elvis Andrus, Edgar Renteria and Dick Bartell, who retired in 1937. Nellie Fox is in a virtual tie with Castro.
Home runs: 73 (-222)
Hits: 1,723 (+44)
Andrus shares some similarities with Starlin Castro, with the key distinguishing feature being Andrus’ steady glove at shortstop. Merely topping 1,700 hits through age 30 puts Andrus on pace for 3,000 hits. It also puts him on a list that includes many Hall of Famers. Granted, most of the Hall of Famers are Veteran’s Committee selections such as Nellie Fox, Lloyd Waner, Freddie Lindstrom, Richie Ashburn and Billy Herman who all played in a much less power-centric eras. Andrus is signed with the Rangers through the 2022 season.
Home runs: 136 (+14)
Hits: 726 (-92)
The only black ink on Odor’s résumé are for strikeouts (2019), caught stealing (2018) and games played (2017). But he hits a ton of home runs, especially for a second baseman. Odor blasted 30 homers in 2019 despite hitting .205 with a .283 on-base percentage and 79 OPS+. And yet he finished 2019 with a strong September and was seeing the ball well in spring training before play was stopped. Odor’s inconsistencies frustrate the Rangers, but it’s too early to completely give up on the powerful second baseman.
Who We’ll Be Talking About In Five Years
This list is easy to draw up based on the phenomenal young talent that has matriculated to the major leagues in recent seasons.
The most well-rounded hitters to watch are Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. and Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers. All three debuted young and produced immediately, establishing strong paces for both hits and home runs.
Also in the conversation are Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres, who already has a 38-homer season on his ledger, and Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who with better health would be firmly entrenched with Francisco Lindor above.
Given the youthful face of baseball today, and the myriad top prospects on their way to big league stardom, there will be no shortage of candidates to talk about in the future.