Any good argument supporting Ted Williams as the greatest hitter ever must mention the milestones he didn’t reach, in addition to all of his accomplishments.
Williams missed nearly five full seasons, including prime years from ages 24-26, while serving in the military. He easily would have reached 600 home runs and 3,000 hits. The lost seasons of Williams are tantalizing, their excellence surely would have rivaled the years of his two triple crowns, six batting titles and .406 batting average in 1941.
Now, we’re faced with the real possibility of a canceled 2020 season, which has been suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus. If that happens, every player will be a year older when baseball returns—one year closer to the end of their careers.
That includes Mike Trout, the best player on the planet. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote, the Lost Season of Trout “will forever leave a bittersweet ‘what if?’ aftertaste to his career.”
But it also includes former All-Stars and MVPs whose playing days were already nearing an end, and aces who, like all pitchers, are always one pitch away from a career-ending injury. Let's take a look at the milestones we may not see in a shortened (or non-existent) 2020 season.
Albert Pujols has two years left on his contract, and if this season is canceled we'll have just one more year to watch one of the greatest players in baseball history. Sure, the player we'd see in 2021 will hardly resemble the best first baseman not named Lou Gehrig. But he’s still Albert Pujols.
Watching Pujols play these last few years has been more painful than joyous. Despite longing for his MVP days, we could always anticipate Pujols's next major milestone. He launched a grand slam off Ervin Santana for his 600th home run in June 2017, and he flipped a single for his 3,000th hit the following May. Every so often we’d get a reminder of the man who was once Machine.
Pujols is 44 home runs shy of becoming the fourth member of the 700-home run club. He had an outside shot at getting there with two years left, but there's no way he'd get there without the ‘20 season.
Over the last three seasons, Pujols is averaging 132 games, 126 hits, 22 home runs, 86 RBIs and 210 total bases. If he were to average those same numbers in ‘20 and '21 (not unrealistic considering he's been fairly consistent in those three years), he would finish his career with 3,454 hits (seventh all-time); 700 HR (fourth); 2,247 RBIs (second); 6,283 total bases (second).
With no baseball in ‘20, his place on the all-time lists will look something like this: 3,328 hits (10th); 678 HR (fifth); 2,161 RBIs (third); 6,073 total bases (third).
His greatness is not in question. His legacy as the No. 2 first baseman behind Gehrig is secure. But a Lost Year of Albert robs us of a few more celebrations for the player who once was the best in the game.
Like Pujols, Miguel Cabrera is one of the best hitters of the past two decades. He’s the most recent triple crown winner, a four-time batting champion and a two-time MVP.
Cabrera’s last three years, though, have been filled with injuries and disappointment. That’s why I was so encouraged to see how he’d do this season. The 37-year-old had a strong spring training and actually looked healthy. A bounce-back season seemed possible.
He's 185 hits from 3,000 and 23 home runs shy of 500. Even if he doesn’t reach those milestones in ‘20, he’s still on pace to get there sometime during ‘21.
If there is no baseball until then, Cabrera will be 38 when he returns to the lineup next year. So long as his legs hold up (perhaps a big ask), he should still get to both milestones. He’s signed through at least ‘23, but considering he could be one major injury from hanging up the cleats for good, reaching those milestones are much less certain without the ‘20 season.
The once-durable Robinson Canó has begun to show his age.
He was limited to just 80 games and 94 hits in 2018 because of a fractured right hand and then a performance-enhancing drug suspension. Last season he played in 107 games due to quadriceps and hamstring injuries, and he tallied 100 hits. This comes after he averaged 159 games and 187 hits from ’07-’17.
The smooth second baseman has 2,570 hits. It’s certainly possible for him to join the 3,000-hit club, but he turns 38 in October and is signed through ‘23.
If this season is canceled, Canó would have to average 144 hits over the final three years of his contract to get to 3,000, his age 38-40 seasons. Don'cha know? It’s probably not going to happen for Robbie Canó.
Remember when the most important thing New York baseball fans could argue about was whether the Yankees or Mets had the better pitcher, Gerrit Cole or Jacob deGrom? Good times.
deGrom has won back-to-back Cy Young Awards and is going for three straight in 2020. Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson are the only two pitchers ever to win the award in three consecutive seasons. Interestingly, deGrom is the reason why Max Scherzer (more on him below) didn’t win his third straight Cy Young; Scherzer finished second to deGrom in ’18.
Say deGrom does win the next NL Cy Young, either in an abbreviated ‘20 season or in ‘21 after a full year without baseball. Should we view the feat through the same lens that we do those of Maddux and Johnson? I guess we’ll find out.
Max Scherzer is 308 strikeouts from joining his former teammate Justin Verlander as the only active pitchers with 3,000 career strikeouts.
Already, Scherzer’s chances were slim to become the 19th member of the 3,000 strikeout club in an uninterrupted ‘20 season. Scherzer’s single-season high for strikeouts is 300. Under normal circumstances, early ‘21 would be a reasonable time to expect him to get there.
As Sam Seaborn says in one scene from The West Wing, “It’s just there are certain things you’re sure of, like longitude and latitude.” It’s not a matter of if a pitcher like Scherzer will get to No. 3,000, but when.
Except, naturally, we find out earlier in the same episode that over hundreds of years cartographers from conquering nations have skewed the geography on world maps, and not even longitude and latitude are safe bets. Scherzer turns 36 in late July, and we don’t know if baseball will be back by then. We assume he will continue his dominance for another few years, but we don’t know for sure.
He is a free agent after the ‘21 season, and it’s unfathomable to think he won’t have a contract then. Whichever team signs him has the added bonus of him reaching milestones in their uniform. Because it’s not a matter of if he’ll get there, but when, right?
Probably. But remember, pitchers are always one pitch away from their next serious injury. And for pitchers in their late 30s, poor performance is definitely a possible road block for pitchers nearing milestones.
If Verlander is the best-case comparison for Scherzer getting to 3,000, then David Cone, who ranks just below Scherzer on the all-time list, is a fair one for how quickly things can turn for a pitcher on the wrong side of 30.
At age 36, Cone threw his perfect game. He finished that season (1999) with 2,420 strikeouts. Other than the strike-shortened ‘94 season, Cone pitched at least 200 innings every year from ‘88-‘95. Joe Torre told me there is no pitcher he’d rather have on the mound than Cone. I’m sure Davey Martinez would say the same thing about Scherzer.
Cone’s serious injury came with his aneurysm in ’96, but he had three more strong years before his decline, which came in his final three seasons. From age 37-40, he totaled just 248 strikeouts. Scherzer, who has not had a significant injury, will be a free agent at 37.
If Scherzer’s next few years follow Verlander’s trajectory instead of Cone’s, he’ll reach 3,000 even without a 2020 season. That much is certain.
After all, Scherzer racking up Ks is as much a sure thing as Opening Day.