Dalton joined me for lunch a few weeks ago in the land of lobster and oversized novelty boots.  We got to talking about Barry Bonds, offensive environments, and asterisks.  Both of us are irked by fans willing to completely ignore individual accomplishments based on single factors like PEDs or Coors Field.

Rather than removing these numbers from history with asterisks, official or personal, the thinking fan, we agreed, has an obligation to adjust certain individual accomplishments for context.  Roger Maris had eight more games in which to hit his 61 homers than Babe Ruth got to hit his 60.  Mark McGwire took 3,500 CCs more androstenedione than Maris in hitting his 70.  Barry Bonds got to play six more games in Coors Field than McGwire when he hit his 70 (but also played 78 more in San Francisco).  While some of these factors are more difficult to control for, we should be able to determine who hit the most home runs relative to his peers.

I looked at every 30-homer season in baseball history and the average home runs per game that year.  Then I adjusted the player’s home run total to the 2013 rate of .0900 homers per player game.  In theory, this adjustment applies today’s offensive environment to each player’s season, estimating how many home runs he would hit in 2013.  You won’t be surprised to see who comes out on top.

Ruth, 1920, 204 adjHR

Ruth, 1927, 163 adjHR

Ruth, 1921, 152 adjHR

Two spots further down the list, we arrive at the first non-Ruth player, teammate Lou Gehrig, whose 128 adjHR in 1927 would have given the Yankees 291 homers from the #3 and 4 spots in the order.  That’s better than having two August 2013 Alfonso Sorianos in the lineup.

Ok, the ’20s were different.  The home run was far less a part of the game and very few players came up through school and the minors with an emphasis on hitting home runs.  Ruth and Gehrig deserve credit for hitting in bigger parks and, particularly in the early ’20s, their home runs were worth more relative to the scoring environment of the time.

The first season outside the twenties is Jimmie Foxx’s 1933, when he hit 112 “2013 home runs”.  Offense was at an all-time high at this point, but homers only ended 1.13% of plate appearances, vs. 2.55% today.

If we skip forward to the first post-1950 season, I think you’ll be surprised who hit the most adjHR.  In fact, I’ll let you guess.

Think about it.  Nope, it’s not him.

Guess again.  Get creative this time.

Ok, let’s get back to the post.  We’re all busy.

In 1968, Frank Howard hit 44 home runs.  The league home run rate was only 54 percent what it is today, so that translates to 81 of today’s dingers.  He didn’t approach Ruth’s record, but he took a run at the post-WWII mark, shared by Johnny Mize and Ralph Kiner in 1947 with 86.

2001, of course, was a ridiculously friendly environment for hitters.  Blame steroids, juiced balls, watered-down pitching, or chicks digging the long ball as you see fit, but almost three percent of plate appearances ended in a home run.  Barry’s 63 adjBombs are still the best figure since McGwire’s 66 in ’98, but they’re adjusted down because everyone was hitting bombs, regardless of whether his performance was enhanced or diminished by the cheaters.

The best figure since then was Jose Bautista’s 56 in 2010, when the home run rate was actually lower than it is now.

The least impressive 30-homer season was shared by five players- Moises Alou, Bobby Higginson, Richie Sexson, Miguel Tejada and Bernie Williams- who hit exactly 30 in 2000.  That translates to 25 in 2013.

If you’re wondering about Roger Maris’s 1961, he hit 73 adjHR, the 50th best total in history.

 

This adjustment leaves a lot to be desired if we’re trying to measure pure slugging prowess.  One factor further muddying the waters is the disparity in plate appearances.  The issue of more games having been played in recent seasons is eliminated by the homers per game adjustment, but it still gives a major edge to players who hit near the top of the order and are healthy for most of the season.  Gehrig was the only player in the top 75 adjHR seasons who got 715 plate appearances.  He did it three times.

By making a similar adjustment and scaling home runs to 640 plate appearances (the average number of PAs in the 1,211 30-homer seasons on record), I arrived at adjHR/640.  The leaderboard will look familiar:

Ruth, 1920, 215 HR

Ruth, 1927, 147 HR

Ruth, 1921, 142 HR

Cy Williams jumps to eighth by virtue of his 41 HR in 604 PA in 1923, which translate to 109 adjHR per 640 PA in 2013.

We’ve also got a new post-1950 leader.  Dave Kingman’s 37 HR in 510 PA in 1976 give him 78 adjHR/640.

The new least impressive 30-HR season of all time belongs to Luis Gonzalez, whose 31 dingers in 722 appearances in 2000 are reduced to 23.

 

Do I think a 25-year-old Babe Ruth would hit 215 home runs if he were given 640 plate appearances in 2013? Absolutely not.  I’m not convinced he would hit 30 against modern pitching.  But I do think there’s some meaning to that number.  In 1920, fans were about as prepared for the Bambino to hit 60 clouts as they would have been for Miguel Cabrera to launch 215 today.  At a time when teams were hitting fewer than 60 homers in a season, Babe Ruth knocked one out every 11 trips, often over the 483-foot center field fence at the Polo Grounds.

This data would be more valuable with park effects factored in, but that seems like a colossal undertaking.  If anyone wants to give it a go, I’m happy to turn over my work.  It would also be useful to have some sort of pitching talent index, but that’s never going to happen.

For the moment, I’m happy to conclude that George Ruth was the most dominant home run hitter of all time, that Mark McGwire’s 70 homers in 1998 were slightly more impressive than Bonds’s 73 in 2001, and that Frank Howard’s 44 in 1968 were an ever bigger deal.

__________________________________________________________

In the comments, bstar asked for the top 10 in adjHR by decade from 1950 on.  Here they are from 1920 on, not scaled to 640 PA:

1920s

1. Ruth, 1920, 204

2. Ruth, 1927, 163

3. Ruth, 1921, 152

4. Ruth, 1926, 138

5. Gehrig, 1927, 128

.   Ruth, 1924, 128

7. Ruth, 1928, 124

8. Cy Williams, 1923, 103

.   Ruth, 1923, 103

10. Hornsby, 1922, 98

 

1930s

1. Foxx, 1933, 112

2. Ruth, 1931, 108

.   Gehrig, 1931, 108

4. Foxx, 1932, 107

5. Greenberg, 1938, 96

6. Gehrig, 1934, 91

7. Wilson, 1930, 90

.   Gehrig, 1936, 90

9. Foxx, 1938, 83

10. Foxx, 1934, 81

 

1940s

1. Greenberg, 1946, 96

2. Rudy York, 1943, 94

3. Mize, 1947, 86

.   Kiner, 1947, 86

5. Charlie Keller, 1943, 85

6. Kiner, 1949, 84

7. Williams, 1942, 83

.   Williams, 1946, 83

9. Bill Nicholson, 1944, 81

10. Williams, 1941, 71

 

1950s

1. Ted Kluszewski, 1954, 69

2. Mantle, 1956, 64

.   Mays, 1955, 64

4. Mathews, 1953, 62

5. Kiner, 1951, 60

.   Banks, 1958, 60

.   Kiner, 1950, 60

8. Gil Hodges, 1954, 59

.   Kluszewski, 1955, 59

10. Mathews, 1959, 58

 

1960s

1. Frank Howard, 1968, 81

2. Mays, 1965, 73

.    Maris, 1961, 73

4. Yastrzemski, 1967, 72

.   Killebrew, 1967, 72

6. Killebrew, 1969, 71

7. Frank Howard, 1969, 69

8. Jackson, 1969, 68

9. Frank Robinson, 1966, 67

10. Willie Horton, 1968, 66

 

1970s

1. Stargell, 1971, 74

2. Aaron, 1971, 72

3. Bench, 1972, 66

4. Schmidt, 1976, 64

5. Rice, 1978, 63

6. Nate Colbert, 1972, 63

.   Dave Kingman, 1976, 63

8. Dick Allen, 1972, 61

9. Billy Williams, 1972, 61

10. Lee May, 1971, 60

 

1980s

1. Schmidt, 1980, 64

2. Kevin Mitchell, 1989, 63

3. Tony Armas, 1984, 55

.   Jackson, 1980, 55

.   Ben Oglivie, 1980, 55

6. Canseco, 1988, 54

7. Gorman Thomas, 1980, 51

8. Schmidt, 1983, 50

.   Darryl Strawberry, 1988, 50

10. Rice, 1983, 49

 

1990s

1. Mark McGwire, 1998, 66

2. Cecil Fielder, 1990, 64

3. Sammy Sosa, 1998, 62

4. Juan Gonzalez, 1992, 58

.   Mark McGwire, 1992, 58

6. Mark McGwire, 1999, 56

7. Mark McGwire, 1997, 55

8. Jose Canseco, 1991, 54

.   Cecil Fielder, 1991, 54

.   Sammy Sosa, 1999, 54

 

2000s

1. Barry Bonds, 2001, 63

2. Sammy Sosa, 2001, 55

3. Alex Rodriguez, 2002, 54

4. Alex Rodriguez, 2007, 53

5. Ryan Howard, 2006, 52

6. Jim Thome, 2002, 50

7. Luis Gonzalez, 2001, 49

.   Prince Fielder, 2007, 49

.   Andruw Jones, 2005, 49

10 David Ortiz, 2006, 48

 

2010s to-date

1. Jose Bautista, 2010, 56

2. Chris Davis, 2013, 50 and counting

3. Jose Bautista, 2011, 45

4. Albert Pujols, 2010, 43

.   Miguel Cabrera, 2013, 43 and counting

Subscribe to: RSS feed