Monday, July 09, 2007

Forty Is The New Thirty

Last season, Justin Morneau accomplished two things that guaranteed his place in baseball history: one, he became the first Canadian to take home the American League’s Most Valuable Player award, and two, he became the first Minnesota Twin to hit more than thirty homeruns in a season since 1987.

Thanks to Morneau, the longest current streak without a thirty-homerun hitter now belongs to the San Diego Padres, who are going on six years since Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin each passed that mark in 2001. Unfortunately, six-year streaks in just about anything aren’t all that exciting (Roger Federer’s ongoing run at Wimbledon notwithstanding), so until Petco Park kills homerun production for another thirty years, we need to find something new to latch onto.

Since forty homers has, over the past fifteen years, become the new thirty, maybe that’s the way to go. A look through the year-by-year team statistics at Baseball-Reference.com confirms that the nineteen seasons the Twins went without a thirty-homerun hitter was nothing; in fact, the team has not had a player hit forty homeruns since Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew did it for the eighth and final time in 1970.

Carlton Fisk, the Hall of Fame catcher who played 24 seasons and once held the career record for homeruns at the position, had two major league games on his resume in 1970. Ken Griffey Jr., the sixth leading homerun hitter of all-time, wasn’t even a year old. Justin Morneau’s parents were quite possibly not yet married. It was a very long time ago.

At least the Twins have had a player hit forty homeruns at some point in history (with Morneau on pace to do it this season). That’s more than the Kansas City Royals have to hang their hats on. Since entering the league as an expansion franchise in 1969, no Royal has ever managed to hit that many in a season (the closest was Steve Balboni’s 36 in 1985), despite a ballpark that often plays very favorably to hitters.

Much of this can be attributed to the twin demons of bad luck and bad timing. The Royals enjoyed their best success over a ten year period between 1976 and 1985, a point in history where speed was considered much more favorable than power, especially for a team that played on the artificial turf of Royals Stadium. By the time the nineties rolled around and sluggers once again assumed their place as the game’s primary focus, salaries were skyrocketing and the small market Royals were placed in a difficult spot in terms of competition.

The bad luck’s name is Bo Jackson. Make no mistake about it: if Jackson had not injured his hip in a football accident while playing for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990 and the Royals had spent the money to keep him in free agency, there is a good chance we would not be having this discussion right now. Though his high-water homerun mark in four full seasons prior to the injury was just 32, it’s not a reach to suggest that Bo’s power numbers would have increased along with the rest of baseball’s in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Kansas City’s homerun difficulties actually back further than the Royals. In the thirteen years the Athletics called the city home (1955-67), no player hit more than 38 homeruns in a season, which makes it likely that the only forty homerun seasons Kansas City has ever seen came courtesy of Willard Brown, a 2006 Hall of Fame inductee who played for the Negro Leagues’ Monarchs for several seasons before World War II and later spent time with the St. Louis Browns.

The only other current team that has never had a forty-homerun hitter is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which came into existence in 1998 and has thus far neither developed a homegrown slugger nor had the financial resources to pay one for his services. The closest they came to either were Aubrey Huff and Jose Canseco, respectively, who are tied atop the team’s single-season homerun list with 34.

In all, seven teams have not had a forty homerun since the start of the 21st century. As currently constituted, at least three of those clubs – the Twins, Pirates and Tigers – have players capable of passing that total: Morneau has 23 homeruns for Minnesota this season and could reach forty if he is not effected long-term by his recent lung injury; fellow Canadian Jason Bay is working on back-to-back seasons of 32 and 35 in Pittsburgh (only 12 at the break this year, however); and Detroit’s Gary Sheffield has recovered from a dismal April to go deep eighteen times since May 1.

The other four – the Royals, Marlins, D-Rays, and Orioles – are situated differently in that none has a clear-cut power hitter on the team and is not likely to spend money on one in free agency (with the possible exception of Baltimore). The Royals are probably in the best shape, with recent first-round picks Alex Gordon and Billy Butler seeing playing time this season, but neither rookie has distinguished himself thus far offensively (here’s a fun fact: in his first three seasons combined, George Brett had more stolen bases (26) than homeruns (20)). In fact, the organization’s homerun leader is Craig Brazell, a 27-year-old first baseman who is not listed by Baseball America as one of the Royals’ top ten prospects but has thirty round trippers between Double A and Triple A in 2007.

The great thing about baseball is that the players are human, which means that no streak can last forever. Joe DiMaggio went 0-for-3. Cal Ripken took a day off. The Atlanta Braves finished third. The Boston Red Sox won a World Series. And one day, players on all seven of those teams are going to have a forty-homer season.

Of course, by that point, fifty will probably be the new forty.

5 Comments:

With Malice said...

Man... being born in 1967, I saw your title & I got really excited...
Oh well... nice article anyway! ;)

Larry Brown said...

I dunno, I think home runs are going the other direction. I think the power explosion is gone.

Anonymous said...

Miguel Cabrera may want a word with you : 33,33,26,18 at the half...he could go for forty this year.

Stamos said...

Miggy Cabrera will definitely hit 40 at some point, and the Rays, if they can somehow keep any of this young talent, have a few guys who could pull- especially Evan Longoria and Delmon Young- though likely not for a few years.

One More Dying Quail said...

anonymous and stamos, you guys are absolutely right - Cabrera has a great chance of reaching forty at some point. The question is, will he do it with the Marlins or some other team after he ends up leaving for a big free agent contract?