On Tuesday night, Albert Pujols became the 26th player to reach the 500 Home Run Club. The Angels' slugger — yes, it still feels strange to type that — did it in singular fashion, becoming the first player to collect Nos. 499 and 500 in the same game. When he left the Cardinals for the Angels in December 2011, that particular milestone seemed like a foregone conclusion, a byproduct of his pursuit of even greater numbers, but due to injuries, Pujols has since turned in his two lowest home run seasons, with 30 in 2012 and just 17 last year. He appears to be back on track, though; with eight in Anaheim's first 20 games, he's nearly halfway to his 2013 total and leading the American League. But as impressive a feat as it is, 500 home runs isn't what it used to be.
When Reggie Jackson hit No. 500 on Sept. 17, 1984, he became the 13th player to reach the plateau, the 13th in 55 years since Babe Ruth began charting the territory and the 13th in 113 years since the founding of the National Association, which for the purposes of record-keeping marks the start of the major leagues (though some entities count the origin date as 1876, when the National League was founded). Thanks to expansion, improved conditioning by legal and illegal means, and some tinkering with the composition of the baseball itself, the historically unprecedented home run rates that began in 1994 (save for 1987, which previewed the coming era) have doubled the number of players to reach that plateau in the 30 years since Jackson's 500th — which, coincidentally, came when he, too, was wearing the relatively unfamiliar uniform of the Angels.
Here's a look at the 500 Club* by decade:
*The full list of 500 HR Club members, with the years they joined in parentheses: Babe Ruth (1929); Jimmie Foxx (1940); Mel Ott (1945); Ted Williams (1960); Willie Mays (1965); Mickey Mantle (1967); Eddie Matthews (1967); Hank Aaron (1968); Ernie Banks (1970); Harmon Killebrew (1971); Frank Robinson (1971); Willie McCovey (1978); Reggie Jackson (1984); Mike Schmidt (1987); Eddie Murray (1996); Mark McGwire (1999); Barry Bonds (2001); Sammy Sosa (2003); Rafael Palmeiro (2003); Ken Griffey Jr. (2004); Frank Thomas (2007); Alex Rodriguez (2007); Jim Thome (2007); Manny Ramirez (2008); Gary Sheffield (2009); Albert Pujols (2014).
Here it is by rounds of expansion, which were sometimes spread out over multiple years; recall that the AL added two teams in 1961 and the NL followed suit in 1962, and the most recent wave was split between 1993 and 1998:
As you can see, the growth of the club has been quite uneven, with the first major wave not happening until the start of the post-1960 expansion. The increase of the player pool didn't enlarge the club overnight, however, and one major factor in its growth was Jackie Robinson's smashing of the color line in 1947, which brought a new wave of talent into the fold. Of the next 10 players to join, six were African-American, including ex-Negro Leaguers Mays, Aaron and Banks. Eleven of the 26 are African-American, while five of the last 10 to join are Hispanic, reflecting yet another influx of talent.
With Pujols having reached the milestone, it looks as though the growth of the club could slow down considerably given the status of the players who are anywhere close. Here's the list of active players who have between 250 and 499 home runs:
Giambi, Ibanez and Abreu are all into their 40s, so we can cross them off the list. We can do the same with Konerko and Jeter, who have declared this to be their final season. If we do some rudimentary math and assume that the remaining players are capable of averaging 20 homers a year through age 41 (including 20 more apiece this year, no matter how many they've already hit) — an admittedly optimistic assumption, but one that should bring the odds better into focus — here's where things will land:
|Player||HR||2014 age||Proj. HR||Total|
This crude methodology suggests that Dunn, Cabrera and Fielder can reach the plateau, with Beltre and Ortiz close enough that we can assume they'd stick around in pursuit; it's worth noting that both play in hitters' havens that could accelerate their pace. Even then, it's hardly an automatic that Dunn gets there given his one-dimensionality and his slide to replacement level. After his legendarily awful 2011 (-2.9 WAR), he was worth just 1.1 WAR combined while hitting .211/.326/.455 with 75 homers in 2012 and '13. He's off to a better start this year (.250/.395/.483 with four homers and 0.3 WAR), but it's early yet, and with his four-year, $56 million contract in its final year, it's not a given that somebody will pay him much money to stick around next season. Beyond those five, everybody else on the list who is 35 or older would have to play well past 41 to reach the milestone, and the recent spate of injuries for the 34-year-old Teixeira and Howard makes 20 homers a year anything but automatic.
Turning to a more sophisticated methodology, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasting system generates 10-year projections which apply an aging curve based upon a player's recent performance and those of historically comparable players. A flaw with the system is that it assumes that even players in their late 30s will make like Julio Franco and stick around through their age-47 seasons regardless of performance. Still, if we apply some common sense and cut things off either after age 42 or following the player's first year below 0.0 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP, BP's version of WAR), here's where that same group of players would wind up, assuming they reach their 2014 projected totals as well:
|Player||HR||2014 age||Final age||Total|
Via PECOTA, Cabrera, Dunn and Beltre figure to make it with Ortiz falling short, though to be fair the system projects Big Papi right at replacement level with six homers in his age-43 season, which would take him to 501. Cabrera is right up against the limitations of the system, in that he still projects to have some value 10 years down the road, with 1.2 WARP in his age-40 season, good enough to bring him back for at least another year. PECOTA is less optimistic about Fielder, who projects to fall below replacement level in the final year of the 10-year range, and it doesn't see any of the others as having reasonable shots at reaching 500.
Looking beyond this group for a few others who might make a run, the most likely appears to be Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins' slugger has 123 homers less than a month into his age-24 season; via PECOTA, he projects to have 475 through age-33. The system is less helpful regarding Mike Trout, who's only in his age-22 season, with 67 homers thus far; he figures to have 301 through 31, which puts him in position to climb higher; that said, it's worth noting that 21 of the 26 members of the 500 club had at least 301 homers through their age-31 seasons, including Frank Thomas right at that number. Similarly, Bryce Harper, with 43 homers less than a month into his age-21 season, projects to be at 282 through 30; 18 of the 26 had more at that stage, with a very tight cluster around the number: Thomas at 286, Mike Schmidt at 283, Jim Thome at 282 and Jackson at 281.
Cherrypicking a few others who are in mid-career, 26-year-old Justin Upton projects to have 371 through 35, 27-year-old Jay Bruce projects to have 366 through 36, and 28-year-old Evan Longoria projects to have 360 through 37. All of those players are currently ahead of the actual pace of at least one member of the 500 club, but if they follow those trajectories, all except Upton will be behind by the time they reach the end of that 10-year range, and even he would beat only the military-service curbed total of Ted Williams (366).
All of which is to say that the pace of growth for the 500 Homer Club is likely to slow down to a trickle. The odds suggest that a few currently active sluggers will reach the milestone, with Cabrera, Dunn, Beltre, Fielder, Ortiz and Stanton the most likely candidates, but none of them assured of reaching it. As for Pujols, PECOTA projects him to have 673 homers through 2021, his age-41 season and the final year of his 10-year deal. He still projects to be above replacement level even 10 years from now, so if he were to keep going, the system suggests he'd reach 619 through 42 and 699 homers through 43. The likelihood of him surpassing Ruth's 714 appears very slim, to say nothing of Aaron's 755 or Bonds' 762. That's all the more reason to appreciate Pujols' reaching this milestone, however much of a foregone conclusion it once seemed.