Spring is a time for lovers of baseball, when hope fills our hearts and anything is possible. Our team’s streaky slugger hasn’t yet stumbled into his inevitable slump, that promising young rookie hasn’t yet disappointed his way back to Triple-A, and even the baby-faced Marlins are contenders.
As teams begin preparing for their six-month grind toward a three percent chance at winning it all, so too do players begin preparing for their pursuit of lofty individual goals. The greats who have graced the diamond for so long now find themselves climbing ladders of history, reaching ever higher in their quests to join those legends that came before them.
Many career milestones may be threatened or even reached in 2016. Here are five of them to watch while everyone else is paying attention to “more important ones.”
Alex Rodriguez has enjoyed a remarkable career, first breaking into the big leagues with the Mariners at age 18, winning three MVP awards, and enjoying a surprisingly productive season at age 39 (after missing most of the previous two seasons thanks to injuries and a suspension). He ranks among the top ten all time in multiple offensive categories: runs scored, home runs, RBI, and strikeouts.
While others may choose to follow Rodriguez’s pursuit of 700 homers (he only needs 13 more), I’m keeping my eye on strikeouts. Entering the 2016 campaign, Rodriguez is one of six men to have whiffed more than 2,000 times in his career (2,220, to be exact). And while the top two (Reggie Jackson, 2597; Jim Thome, 2548) are well out of reach for this year, the next two are not.
Rodriguez needs 86 more strikeouts to catch fourth-place Sammy Sosa and 159 to catch Adam Dunn. Catching Dunn is unlikely, as Rodriguez’s single-season high is 145, set last year. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but he’ll need to stay healthy and do a better job of failing to make contact.
Sosa, meanwhile, is well within reach. If Rodriguez continues striking out at the pace he did last year and doesn’t get hurt, he’ll slide into fourth place around game 90, which is a July 16 home contest against the Boston Red Sox. Wouldn’t that be something if he catches or passes Sosa in front of the Yankee faithful against their greatest rival?
If you make lots of hard contact and aren’t especially fast, you might be a great double-play candidate. Albert Pujols meets those criteria, and sure enough, he’s one of just nine men who have grounded into at least 300 double plays.
Pujols has made it to 312 with efficiency. He and Jim Rice (315) are the only guys to have reached that hallowed mark in fewer than 21 seasons. Both needed a mere 15 seasons to get there. Rice is now in the Hall of Fame, and it’s only a matter of time before Pujols joins him.
Currently tied with Julio Franco for eighth place, Pujols needs three more to catch Rice and Eddie Murray, seven to catch Dave Winfield, 11 to catch Carl Yastrzemski, 16 to catch Hank Aaron, 25 to catch Ivan Rodriguez, and 38 to catch all-time leader Cal Ripken.
Pujols’ career high is 29, and he’s never had fewer than 13 in a season. Health permitting (the Angels aren’t sure he’ll be ready for Opening Day after November foot surgery, but he believes he will), fourth place appears to be a virtual lock, with second place not out of the question. It would take a Herculean effort to catch Ripken this year (nobody has ever grounded into more than 36 double plays in a single season), but he’ll get there eventually, likely in 2017. Still only 36 years old, Pujols could become the first man in history to ground into 400 double plays. But for now he’ll have to settle for pushing himself into the top five.
Pujols moved past Aaron into second place last year. That’s as far as he will get, because even doubling his current total would leave him 96 short of Barry Bonds, who drew an extraordinary number of intentional walks. Bonds’ 2004 total alone would be tied for 83rd all time on the career leaderboard.
So forget about Pujols and move down to the man in the twelfth spot, Miguel Cabrera. He needs 11 to catch Manny Ramirez, 13 to catch Frank Robinson, 17 to catch Murray, 22 to catch Willie Stargell, and 24 to catch George Brett.
Cabrera drew 15 intentional walks last year, and has totaled between 10 and 19 in each of the last four campaigns. It’s very likely he’ll catch Ramirez and Robinson, with Murray’s total also in reach. Stargell and Brett are technically possible, but consider that Cabrera has drawn as many as 22 intentional walks just four times in 12 full seasons, the last coming in 2011. He has gotten to 24 twice, and not since 2010.
Beyond 2016, the interesting race to watch will be between Pujols and Cabrera. Right now Pujols has a 91-walk advantage, but Cabrera is three years younger. If anyone can catch Pujols as runner-up to Bonds, it’s him. After Cabrera, the next guys are David Ortiz and Ichiro Suzuki, who have no chance to crack the top ten. The best hope after them is Prince Fielder, but he’s 42 behind Cabrera and only one year younger.
Home Runs Allowed
Mark Buehrle is the active leader in career homers allowed, but at last check he is leaning toward retirement. This is unfortunate, because he is both a very good pitcher still and a real threat to break the top 20 this year if he chooses to continue.
On the bright side, 43-year-old Bartolo Colon refuses to slow down, and he’s only a few jacks behind Buehrle. With 25 allowed in 2015, Colon rose from 36th all time to 27th. If he duplicates that effort, he’ll tie Tom Seaver for 17th. Terrific!
Colon is a candidate for eventual inclusion into the exclusive 400-homer club, which currently has 12 members. (If only Gaylord Perry had hung around to allow one more… alas, he’ll have to settle for the Hall of Fame.)
If he reaches back for a little extra and duplicates his 2004 showing of 38 homers allowed, Colon will move past Jack Morris into 15th place. That would put him right behind Jim Kaat, and within spitting distance of Perry, so to speak.
It’s not quite like Bonds’ intentional walks record, but Tony Mullane’s career mark of 343 wild pitches will be tough to match. Mullane, who became baseball’s first switch pitcher back in 1882, leads second-place Nolan Ryan by 66, despite having pitched just half as many seasons as Ryan. The two played very different versions of the game, but that is still impressive.
The active leader is Felix Hernandez, who has uncorked 126 wild pitches before age 30. If he maintains his current pace of 13 wild pitches per season, he’ll catch Ryan in 2027. Hernandez will be 41 then, which is younger than Colon is now. He’s on pace to catch Mullane in 2032.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If Hernandez sticks to his average this year, he’ll rise from tied (with Seaver) for 57th to sole possession of 46th, ahead of Jack Lynch and behind Sam McDowell. If he matches his career high of 18, he’ll shoot past Roger Clemens and tie John Ward for 42nd, needing just one more to catch John Smoltz.
We remember baseball by its moments. Sure, A-Rod will probably hit his 700th homer this summer, and good for him. But he’s also a solid bet to catch Sosa on the all-time strikeout list. Where will you be when it happens?
Geoff Young is a writer chasing the record for most split infinitives. You should follow him on Twitter.