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OK, here’s some November baseball stuff feeding off the Bill James Handbook — 643 pages of baseball goodness* which just arrived in the mail!
*Well, it might only be 638 pages of baseball goodness as five of the pages are an essay I wrote about Aaron Judge’s season.
There’s so much fun stuff in the Handbook, but I want to focus on what the book calls “Career Targets,” or what Bill has always called “The Favorite Toy.” Many of you will be familiar with “The Favorite Toy,” it’s a formula Bill and company use to estimate the chances that players have of achieving various career marks.
For instance — what are the chances that Aaron Judge hits 500 home runs?
Bill’s formula uses four inputs.
Input 1: How many home runs does he need? That’s easy. Judge has hit 220 home runs in his career. He has to hit 280 more to get to 500.
Input 2: How many seasons does he have left? To determine this, Bill multiplies the player’s age by .6 and subtracts that from 24. So for Judge it’s 24 - (.6x30) = 6. I have no idea how he came up with this, but it estimates that Judge has six seasons left.
Input 3: What is his established level for the statistic? That is to say, how many home runs is Judge hitting per season? Bill wants to use his last three full seasons. He obviously hit 62 homers this year, but that’s just one year. Bill’s system uses the last three years. I’m not sure what he did with the COVID year but I’d say he had Judge’s established value at 48 or 49 home runs per year.
Input 4: What is his percentage chance of getting to 500 homers? Well, if he averages 48 homers per season for six seasons, Judge will hit 288 homers, which obviously would get him to 500. But what are the chances that he will do that? Bill’s formula here is a bit beyond my mathematical means, but it comes out to a 40% chance — Bill estimates there’s a:
40% chance Judge hits 500 home runs
21% chance Judge hits 600 home runs
6% chance Judge hits 700 home runs
Fun, right? So now that we’ve taken a cursory look at the math, let’s check out some percentages!
Does anyone have a real chance of breaking Barry Bonds’ home run record of 762?
It’s interesting that The Favorite Toy gives Judge a 6% chance of hitting 700 homers but does not give him any chance of breaking Bonds’ record. Instead, the only player who registers with a chance is … Vladimir Guerrero. Vlady Jr.! The chances are slim — less than one percent — but, yes, we’re saying there’s a chance. Vlady has hit 103 home runs and he will not turn 24 until March.
In all, 28 players have hit 100 home runs through their age 23 season. This does not include Bonds or Babe Ruth, but it does include Henry Aaron, who had 110 homers through age 23. The most homers through age 23, by the way, was 153, achieved by both Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews.
Will someone FINALLY break Tris Speaker’s nearly 100-year-old record of 792 doubles?
Maybe! Nobody has ever even come close to Speaker’s record — Pete Rose is second on the list with 746 doubles, 46 behind. Albert Pujols was a doubles machine — he and Ducky Medwick are the only two players with 500-plus doubles through age 32 — but he retired more than 100 away from Speaker’s record. It seems untouchable.
But maybe not! There is a guy hitting doubles at a historic pace— can you guess who it is? Well, there are actually three guys hitting many doubles, and Bill gives all of them at least a chance of breaking the record.
Jose Ramirez! The Toy gives him a 1% chance. Ramirez has led the league in doubles twice, including in 2022, when he hit 44.
Freddie Freeman! The Toy gives him a 4% chance. Freeman has led the league in doubles three times in the last five years, and he has 414 total as he enters his age-33 season.
Rafael Devers! Yes, if Devers can just stay healthy — and stay in Boston — he might be the guy to do it. The Toy gives him a 7% chance! His 187 doubles through age 25 puts him ahead of Speaker at the same age and right there with a young Carl Yastrzemski. It also puts him right there with a young Starlin Castro, which tells you that there’s a long way to go.
Who is next to 3,000 hits?
Three of the top four players on the active hit list probably played their last big league game in 2022. Albert Pujols (3,384 hits) retired. Robinson Canó (2,639 hits) faded out. Yadier Molina (2,168 hits) retired.
The only member of the top four to return this year will be Miguel Cabrera (3,088 hits) — he has said he wants to play one more season and the Tigers are said to be carving out some sort of Pujols-like role for him this year. He will be getting paid $32 million, so there’s that, too.
Anyway, Miggy aside, the active leader in hits will be our pal Joey Votto with 2,093. I’d love to believe Joey’s got 907 more hits left in that bat at age 39, but, alas, even we can’t tint our glasses that rosy.
So who will it be? Who is next to 3,000?
Well, it’s a potentially interesting race between Freddie Freeman and Jose Altuve. They both will be entering their age-33 seasons (Freeman is already 33, Altuve turns 33 in May) and look at their hit totals:
Altuve — 1,935
Freeman — 1,903
Whew. So do they get there? Well, The Toy gives Freeman a 38% chance and gives Altuve a 23% chance. That sounds about right to me. Altuve did hit .300 last year, but he has not played 150 games since 2017, and you can’t pile up hits if you aren’t in the lineup. Freeman, meanwhile, has been mostly indestructible — he has missed only 10 total games going back to 2018.
Freeman also just seems to be getting better; he has hit .317/.410/.527 this decade. I think he does it. And I predict he will do it sometime early in the 2029 season, which is actually two years after his current contract with the Dodgers ends.
Who is the most likely pitcher to throw a no-hitter before his career is up?
This is a fun one. I’ll just give you the Bill James percentages for the top five:
Spencer Strider, Braves, 53%
Carlos Rodón, free agent, 39%*
Cristian Javier, Astros, 37%**
Shohei Ohtani, Angels, 35%
Dylan Cease, White Sox, 34%
*I’m not sure if this was a mistake or if they were saying that Rodón is 39% likely to throw ANOTHER no-hitter — because he has already thrown one. He no-hit Cleveland back in 2021.
**The Bill James Handbook was finished before the playoffs and World Series, so it was before Javier and three relief pitchers threw a combined no-hitter against Philadelphia.
I love this concept, but I have to say — I don’t think any of those percentages are quite that high if the game keeps going the way it’s going. Remember back in early 2021 when there was a wild run of no-hitters? Between April 9 and May 19, there were SIX no-nos — Joe Musgrove, Rodón, John Means, Wade Miley, Spencer Turnbull, and Corey Kluber.
But it has felt ever since then that the individual no-hitter is sort of passé. The only individual no-hitter of 2022 was Reid Detmers against Tampa Bay, and those were somewhat unusual circumstances — the Angels led 8-0 by the end of the third inning, Detmers had only thrown 94 pitches heading into the ninth, etc. Teams (and players, it seems) have just decided the excitement of a no-hitter is nowhere near worth a few extra pitches of strain on a pitcher’s arm. I suspect we’ll see very few pitchers going forward taking a no-hitter even into the seventh or eighth innings. It makes me sad.
Will there be another 300-game winner?
There are 24 MLB pitchers who have won 300 games. They are basically bunched in four pretty distinct eras.
19th Century Baseball (7): Pud Galvin, Kid Nichols, Tim Keefe, John Clarkson, Old Hoss Radbourn, Mickey Welch and Cy Young all won 300 games back when pitchers would often make 50 or 60 (or more) starts in a season. Cy Young is the only one of the group to pitch on well into the 20th century, which is why Cy Young won 511 games.
Deadball (4): Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Christy Mathewson and Eddie Plank all pitched the bulk of their careers during Deadball, or before 1920, when the spitball was outlawed and various other safety measures and improvements to the baseball changed the game.
The Expansion Era (6): Starting in the mid-1960s and continuing on until the mid-1980s and beyond — a rather remarkable group of seemingly indestructible starting pitchers emerged. During that span, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry and Tom Seaver ALL won 300 games. Four others — Tommy John, Bert Blyleven, Fergie Jenkins and Jim Kaat — came close.
The 1990s (4): While everyone seems to remember the Selig Era for all the home runs, it was actually a golden age for great starting pitchers. Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson all won 300 games.
So that’s 21 of the 24 pitchers. The other three are Warren Spahn, who was his own thing, plus Lefty Grove and Early Wynn, who each won EXACTLY 300 games.
Point is, the 300-game winners in years past have come in bunches. For different reasons, each of those eras had circumstances that opened up the possibilities for potential 300-game winners.
Times have changed. I’m not saying we’ll never see another 300-game winner again — as you will see, The Toy gives Justin Verlander a very real shot at 300 — but I’m saying that almost nobody in the game seems to care about pitcher wins anymore. And while there might be an extraordinary pitcher here and there who might win 250 games and even threaten 300, I think the very goal of 300 wins will soon seem ridiculous.
Here’s why I think that: Do you know how many pitchers in modern baseball history have won 100 games through their age 30 season? Answer: 249. It’s not too uncommon a thing, historically.
Do you know how many active pitchers who are 30-and-younger have 100 wins?
That would be zero.
None. Among pitchers 30 and younger, Aaron Nola has the most victories with 78.
The win is going away. Maybe you mourn it. Maybe you don’t care. But it’s going away.
The Toy gives five pitchers a percentage chance of getting to 300 wins. And while I appreciate the math, I’m simply not buying that Adam Wainwright, with 196 wins, or Clayton Kershaw, with 197, have any chance at all at winning 300. I don’t think either one of them has any intention of sticking around long enough for that to happen.
That leaves three. The Toy gives Gerrit Cole a 4% chance of winning 300. He has 130 wins and he turned 32 in September. If he averaged 15 wins per year, it would take him until age 44 to do it, so I suppose that’s not entirely out of the question. Yeah, a 4% chance seems reasonable.
Second on the list is Max Scherzer, who has 201 wins at age 38. The Toy gives him a 5% chance. He needs 99 wins, and again, if you had him average 15 victories per season, that would mean he’d also get there at age 44. But his circumstances are a lot different. Mad Max is still great, but only in small doses; his days of making 30 starts a year are surely over. His job with the Mets is to be a playoff factor, and that means he needs to be fresh for October. I don’t think he has a 5% chance of winning 300.
And finally — there’s Justin Verlander. He has 244 career wins, and he’s coming off a Cy Young season in which he led the league with 18 victories. The Toy gives him a 29% chance of getting to 300, and I’d say that percentage might even be a little bit light because Verlander has made it clear that he WANTS to win 300, which means he is likely to insist on circumstances that help him get there.
What would those circumstances be? Well, he will surely want to play for a really good team. He will want to pitch regularly, but also with enough rest to stay strong.
I mean, look, it’s still a bit of a longshot. Verlander needs 56 more victories. The only two 300-game winners who headed into their 40s needing so many victories are Randy Johnson (who had 230) and Phil Niekro (who had 197). Niekro is probably not relevant here, but Verlander can look to Randy Johnson’s example.
Big Unit led the league in starts, strikeouts and FIP at age 40 and then pitched so-so baseball for five more years with the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Giants*. He just kept on going. If Verlander can do that, he can get there.
*Do you remember Randy Johnson with the Giants? I don’t.