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Where is Giancarlo Stanton headed?

May 27, 2012

Giancarlo Stanton, like a demigod or skilled despot, commands equal parts love, respect and fear. I lospear him so much that I devote a whole section to his exploits in each edition of my Off-Day Fun series.

Only he can look intimidating in front of that orange backdrop.

His home runs caress my soul so much that I don’t even mind when he hits them against the Giants. Just look at how far it went. The Marlins adorned their new ballpark with numbers marking ludicrous distances, presumably so Stanton could aim at them. They had good reason to do that; he led the National League in no-doubt home runs in 2011.

Perhaps the most amazing thing: He’s only 22. (He turns 23 on November 8, a.k.a. he and I have the same birthday.) For shits and giggles and shiggles, I used baseball-reference’s Play Index tool to find all the players since 1901 with at least 60 career home runs by the age of 22. The search returned 26 names.

I have sorted the table in descending order of OPS+, which presents a player’s OPS in terms of percentage points better or worse than the league average. E.g. Ted Williams, from 1939-41, had an OPS 82 percent better than the league-average hitter at that time. Since the statistic is presented relative to the league average, it automatically neutralizes the effect of inflated or deflated run-scoring environments, so guys like Andruw Jones, who played during an offensive explosion known as the Steroid Era, don’t receive an unfair advantage over the old-timers, whose only advantage was not playing against black people.

Plate appearances per home run (PA/HR) is simple enough to understand. Some players, especially the older ones, began their careers as teenagers. For this reason, PA/HR demonstrates the pure power of these players better than simple home runs. Stanton has the third-fewest (lower is better) PA/HR on this list, after Bob Horner and Eddie Mathews.

As for the other three categories to which I applied the gradient, I did so arbitrarily, and I will briefly go over the details here. For batting average, I set white (the middle of the gradient) to .270. For on-base percentage, white was .340. For slugging percentage, white was .450.

Some players are bolded: those are Hall of Famers. Names with an asterisk belong to active or recently retired players who are almost certain to be voted into the Hall of Fame once eligible. The obelisk basically says that I think Miguel Cabrera will wind up in the Hall of Fame, but his candidacy is less certain because he is still in the middle of his career. That leaves only 11 non-Hall of Fame players. Let’s take a closer look at them.

This table is sorted in descending order of home runs after the age of 22. The other column covers possible reasons that these players did not make the Hall of Fame.

Jose Canseco will never be elected into the Hall of Fame because baseball writers hate him for, 1) taking steroids and, 2) ratting out pretty much everyone else who took steroids in his book Juiced. The latter was especially damning; it made baseball writers look bad for not reporting on such a widespread issue. He’s currently a baseball pariah, playing for some obscure minor-league team and raving like a lunatic on twitter.

Juan Gonzalez was also connected to steroids, though he never wrote a book about it. Since baseball writers love to assume the high moral ground, they won’t vote him him in.

Andruw Jones is an interesting case. Though he’s never been connected to steroids, his gaudy numbers will come under scrutiny simply because he played in the Steroid Era. In the minds of voters, 400 home runs don’t carry the same weight they carried before the 1980s. Jones wasn’t all about offensive production, though: He won 10 straight Gold Gloves in center field. The only other outfielders to win at least ten are Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Al Kaline and Ichiro—all Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers. At this point in his career, Jones is little more than a solid option off the bench against left-handed pitching, but I think if he can put together a few more solid year in that role, he has a good chance of being inducted.

Despite a solid career, Boog Powell only earned 1.3 percent of the vote the only year he was on the Hall of Fame ballot. (A player is removed from the ballot if he receives fewer than 5 percent of all votes.) His career numbers—17 seasons, 339 home runs, 1187 RBI and one MVP—are impressive but just below the elite level needed to make the Hall. His career average of .266 does him no favors, and he was never the best first baseman of his era—that would probably be Willie McCovey.

Ruben Sierra probably ‘roided up. That’s enough for most voters.

Debilitating migraines compelled Hal Trosky to quit in the middle of his prime, at 28 years old. Between the ages of 21 and 24, he hit 30 home runs three times. After, he never hit more than 25 in a season. Blame the migraines for that too. Trosky was apparently a devout patriot, but his migraines precluded him from military service, so he spent his three years out of the game following World War II very closely through the newspapers. He returned to the game in 1944 and again in 1946 at ages 31 and 33, but never found his old stroke.

César Cedeño was dubbed “the next Willie Mays” when he came up, which of course doomed his career. Early promise gave way to chronic knee trouble. He never hit more than 20 home runs after the age of 24.

I am mystified by Bob Horner. In seven of his first nine seasons, he hit at least 20 home runs, winning NL Rookie of the Year in 1978 at the age of 20. After his ninth season, he couldn’t find a job in the big leagues. He played in Japan for a year before returning stateside for one more go-around. He hit three home runs that season, at age 30, and never played in the majors again.

The story of Tony Conigliaro is the most tragic on this list. He took Boston by storm as a 19-year-old in 1964, then led the league in home runs the following season with 32. But like all tragic heroes, Conigliaro had a fatal flaw, without which he probably wouldn’t have achieved such success in the first place: he stood too close to the plate. This pissed pitchers off; pitchers were more ornery back in the day, because they had all them teeth and toothbrush. Legend has it that in the spring of 1967, Ted Williams told an associate of Conigliaro, “Tony is crowding the plate. He’s much too close. Tell him to back off. It’s serious time now. The pitchers are going to get serious.” When Congiliaro heard this, he refused, on the grounds that if he did that pitchers wouldn’t respect him. Later that year a pitch hit him in the left eye and cheekbone. According to Conigliaro, he jerked his head out of the way right before the pitch hit, which only served to throw his helmet out of its position, putting his face directly in the line of the pitch without any protection. He did not play for the rest of the season or the season after, and when he finally returned he needed to adjust the way he looked at the pitch to succeed. Looking directly at the ball didn’t work anymore, so he looked slightly to the left and used his peripherals. With his method he was able to succeed for two more seasons, hitting 20 then 36 home runs. That was the last success he had in the big leagues. His next two seasons were his last, and in them he was only able to hit four home runs.

Tony Conigliaro: Like Macbeth or Icarus.

Justin Upton is only 24.

Almost all of the failures to make the Hall of Fame can be explained by either injuries or steroids, suggesting that if Stanton can avoid those two pitfalls, he will be enshrined someday. Or he could go the way of Boog Powell, whose failure to live up to his youthful promise can’t really be explained. I’m sitting here, on the toilet, looking at Powell’s stats, and I can’t find anything that would suggest he was lucky or something early in his career. Still, the odds are that Stanton is headed for the Hall of Fame, while Powell remains a footnote.

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