On Nov. 21, 2000, his 31st birthday, Ken Griffey Jr. was enjoying his 12th off-season as a major league centerfielder. In his first dozen seasons, he had smashed 438 home runs among his 1,883 hits, won 10 Gold Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers, finished in the top five in the MVP voting five times (winning once), led the American League in home runs four times and made the All-Star team 11 years in a row, starting in centerfield eight times. Elected to the All-Century team over Barry Bonds (among others), Griffey had already punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame at that point. The only question was just how deeply he would penetrate the inner circle of all-time greats.
Griffey had just completed his first season with the Reds when he turned 31. That year, he hit 40 homers and drove in 118 runs, and that winter, the Baseball Prospectus annual speculated that he could win two more MVP awards in his new league. Over the next six seasons, however, Griffey would average just 92 games and 324 at-bats per season due to a litany of leg injuries which undermined what was left of his prime. After turning 31, Griffey made the All-Star team just twice in his remaining 10 seasons. He never again won a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger, and he never again led any league in any notable hitting category. His only appearance on an MVP ballot was a 24th-place finish in 2005, the year in which he won the Comeback Player of the Year award. The next year, he played in just 109 games due to injury.
Despite all of that time on the shelf, Griffey, who retired on Wednesday, still played 22 seasons and hit 630 home runs, the latter total eclipsing all but four players in the history of the game. What if his legs had held up? Where would he rank on the all-time lists? What was lost when Griffey's hamstrings gave out?
When trying to answer that question, it helps to realize that Griffey's leg injuries limited his playing time but for the most part didn't hurt his production. Save for his age-32 season, when he slugged a mere .426 (by far his lowest mark between his .420 performance as a 19-year-old rookie in 1989 and .424 mark as a fading 38-year-old veteran in 2008), Griffey always hit when healthy until the effects of age brought about a typical decline in his late thirties. Even with that weak 2002 season included, Griffey hit .272/.353/.523 during his six injury-prone seasons in Cincinnati (2001–06), and if you factor '02 out, he slugged 10 points higher in the other five seasons combined. Yes, that pales next to his .296/.380/.568 career line through 2000, but we're talking about Griffey's age-31 to age-36 seasons. The gap between Griffey's production in his 20s and his production in his early 30s is not outside the range of a reasonable decline for a healthy player.
To figure out how many hits and home runs Griffey lost to injury while with the Reds, let's first come up with replacement rates for his outlying 2002 season. We can then take his production in the other five seasons on its face, establish how many plate appearances we would have expected him to have had if healthy, then calculate the number of hits and home runs he lost to injury by applying his rate of production from each of the six seasons (using our replacement rates for 2002) to the number of plate appearances he lost in that season.
First, let's correct 2002. Griffey hit .286/.365/.533 in 2001 at age 31 and .247/.370/.566 in 2003 at age 33. The batting average in the latter season, one in which he played just 53 games due to injury, was a career low prior to his return to Seattle, but the other rates were at or above his career level, so I don't see the need to correct it. Rather, we can tip the balance away from it by combining his production in the two seasons rather than averaging it to get weighted rates. The result is a replacement 2002 season that looks like this: .274/.366/.543.
Next we have to decide how many plate appearances Griffey would have had each year if he had stayed healthy. Griffey never played 162 games in a season, and in the five years prior to suffering his first leg injury, he averaged 153 games, 680 plate appearances and 582 at-bats. Of course, that included his proper prime (from the ages of 26 to 30), so we should probably round it down a little bit; even without the kind of chronic and catastrophic leg injuries he suffered, he was likely to see his playing time decrease slightly due to the aches and pains and minor injuries that come with age, particularly having moved to the league without the designated hitter. In his first year with the Reds, Griffey played in 145 games and made 631 plate appearances. The latter figure sounds fair, so let's go with that.
The following charts show how many extra hits and home runs Griffey would have had if he were healthy enough to make 631 plate appearances every year from 2001 to '06 (the plate-appearances-per-hit and plate-appearances-per-home-run columns for '02 are based on the combined '01 and '03 line created above):
Adding the Lost columns, we find that, from 2001 to '06, Griffey lost 1,561 plate appearances to injury, costing him 353 hits and 92 home runs. By those calculations, if Griffey had stayed healthy, he would have hit 31 or more home runs in each of those six seasons (the "Adjusted HR" column), twice reaching 40 homers.
As I mentioned above, Griffey's actual final home run tally is 630, the fifth-best total ever (though likely to fall to sixth next year as his former teammate Alex Rodriguez continues his climb). Had Griffey hit 92 more, he would have become the fourth man to reach 700 and the third man to pass Babe Ruth, finishing with 722. That adjusted total is still 33 shy of Hank Aaron's former record of 755 and a full 40 shy of Bonds's tainted career mark of 762.
Had he stayed healthy, Griffey also would have joined the coveted 3,000 hit club. He retires with 2,781 hits, currently good for 46th all-time, just ahead of new Hall of Famer Andre Dawson. Those 353 "lost" hits would have given him 3,134, good for 19th all-time and just seven short of Tony Gwynn's career total. It's worth noting that neither Ruth nor Bonds reached 3,000 career hits. It's also worth noting that Aaron would still have had Griffey safely outdistanced in both categories with his 755 homers and 3,771 hits.
Looking at those numbers, one might lament Griffey's missed opportunity to join Aaron as just the second man in baseball history with 700 home runs and 3,000 hits, but that sort of made up milestone would have been mere icing on a career that still had plenty of cake. Griffey's leg injuries didn't cost him his shot at the home run record. Heck, Bonds missed most of the 2005 season due to a leg injury of his own, and both lost roughly two months to the strike in 1994 and another three weeks in '95. Even crediting Griffey for the half season he lost to a broken wrist in 1995 doesn't get him past Aaron on the home run list (it adds roughly 17 more homers to get him to 739).
Maybe if we arm ourselves with that knowledge, we can look back on Griffey's career and see the captivating, all-around superstar who owned the American League in the 1990s rather than the hobbled legend who disappointed the National League in the 2000s. Yes, Griffey lost the equivalent of nearly 2 1/2 seasons due to injury during his time with the Reds. He got older and heavier and couldn't handle the rigors of centerfield (he finally stayed healthy when the Reds moved him to right in 2007), and his body gave out on him. But he still played until he was 40, still hit 630 home runs and still sits comfortably in the inner circle of the game's all-time greats—which is good, because if they made him stand, he'd probably pull a hamstring.