2001 was an historic year for home runs. First and foremost, Barry Bonds became the first, and so far, the only man to hit 73 home runs in a season. Bonds also surpassed 500 home runs earlier on in the season, joining Mark McGwire as the only active major-leaguers with 500 homers. When McGwire retired after the season, Bonds was the only one.
However, a lesser home run story was going on at the same time. There were a number of players approaching 500. Five were within 53 homers of the feat as a matter of fact: Jose Canseco 462, Ken Griffey 460, Sammy Sosa 450, Fred McGriff 448, and Rafael Palmeiro 447. Of those five Canseco was released less than a week before McGwire, his former teammate and fellow "Bash Brother", and appeared to be a longshot for 500, at best. Sosa and Griffey, both 31, were assumed to be young enough and talented enough to join the exclusive club.
That left two veteran first basemen with left-handed bats, Palmeiro and McGriff. And if that parallels weren't enough, they were within one home run of each other at the time. So, of course, a great debate started to brew, one that seemed to last until Palmeiro passed 500 last year.
Since then the only debate involving the two was either to help invalidate Palmeiro's eventual Hall of Fame plaque or to prove that McGriff deserves one as well. But the basic assumption is that Palmeiro will go in the Hall and McGriff, likely, will not.
Fred McGriff just got released by the Devil Rays, and even though he stands at 493 career home runs, it seems unlikely that he'll get another trial to help him reach 500. He recorded a .181 batting average, a.578 OPS, and two home runs (but none since June 17) in 72 at-bats with Tampa Bay. He missed most of the first two months of the season trying to latch onto a team and as he approaches 41, his career may be at an end.
I thought it would be interesting to look at McGriff and the other players who came close but never garnered that 500-HR cigar. There are six other players who registered between 450 and 499 home runs in their career. They are:
I thought it would be interesting to see why they never reached 500 even though they were so close and to figure out if they could have reached that milestone if some conditions (injuries, strikes, etc.) hadnít interfered. For each I projected any shortened season to their typical games-per-season average so long as they were still productive players (i.e., had a better than average adjusted OPS).
Were there any who simply retired early, foregoing the chance at 500 home runs? Not really. Stan Musial played until age 42 and then instantly became a Cardinal VP even though he was still a slightly better than average player. Stargell played until 42 but lost substantial time to arthritic knees. Winfield and Yaz played until age 43.
After his release following the 2001 season, Canseco couldn't latch onto another team. It wasn't for lack of trying. Canseco has an OPS 18% better than the adjusted park average in 2001.
Gehrig has the bad luck of contracting a disease that was named after him. Considered by many to be the greatest first baseman of all time, Gehrig has hit 29 home runs and had an OPS 32% better than average. He was just 36 when he retired.
Of all the players on the list, Gehrig was the closest to 500 and the best chance to reach the yet-undiscovered milestone, had he never contracted the illness. Without his injuries Jose Canseco projects to 564 home runs. Stargell would have had 521. Yaz projects to 462, Winfield 469, and Musial 500 on the nose (if you give him credit for the 1945 season he lost to military service--I averaged his total for the two adjacent seasons and arrived at 14 home runs). Fred McGriff projects to 507, after one adds back the games he lost to the 1994 strike and the time lost to injury last year.
My prediction is that McGriff's career is over and that he joins Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, and Dale Murphy in baseball's version of purgatory, the players who are perennially on the writers' Hall of Fame ballot but never make it in. It's a shame since he, like a good number of them, deserves enshrinement.