The 20-year rule

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So, I made it to Las Vegas for the winter meetings, and I've already seen Tommy Lasorda, Bobby Valentine and a cocktail waitress who looks almost exactly like Elizabeth Hurley. I did not see them together, alas, but the winter meetings have only begun. There's plenty of time for Vegas and baseball to collide.

The first thing they give you when you arrive at the winter meetings is a very large credential that you wear around your neck like it's an Olympic gold medal. This has always interested me because the winter meetings are not like other events ... you don't actually get to GO anywhere. Sure, if you're going to, say, the Olympics, of course you have to wear a credential around your neck; that's what will get you into the venue to see what you're trying to see.

But there's nothing to see at the winter meetings. Basically the job is all about standing in the hotel lobby and seeing baseball people you recognize and saying to them, "So, you hear anything?" I'm really not sure why you would need a special pass to do that. I think mostly we wear these passes so people can see us coming.

Anyway, in addition to giving us badges, they also give us this very official-looking three-ringed binder with the label: 2008 Winter Meetings, December 8-11, Las Vegas, NV. The binder LOOKS like it would have all sorts of great, official information in there -- trade rumors, photographs of baseball people we should keep our eyes on, etc. It really doesn't. It has a welcome letter, Rule 5 draft worksheets, all the 40-man rosters ... I mean, good stuff, but not quite what you would expect considering the James Bond look of the binder.

One great thing it has in there is the "All-Time Leaders." I realize that this is easily found on Baseball Reference, but, I don't know, it's just kind of a cool thing to look at while having a panini at a restaurant in the Bellagio. They have the Top 50 or 100 in games, walks, at-bats, stolen bases, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, wins, strikeouts, saves and so on. It's a good reminder that there have not been THAT many great players in baseball history. For instance, Vinny Castilla, Ron Gant and Chili Davis are all in the Top 100 in home runs. They were good players, but I don't know, I'm just not sure I would have known that.

While looking over the Top 100 I was trying to determine which player had the most impressive career record in baseball, and I brought out what I like to call the "20-Year Rule." The rule goes like so: Anytime you want to demonstrate how impressive a career record is, you always divide that record by 20 years. For instance, Barry Bonds has 762 home runs. The way to give the reader a real sense of this is to write it like so:

Bonds has hit 762 home runs -- that's like hitting 38 home runs every year for TWENTY CONSECUTIVE YEARS.

See how it works? So, in trying to determine the most amazing records, I pulled out the 20 Year Rule. And here's what I came up with:

Walks: Barry Bonds, 2,558That's like: Walking 128 times every year for 20 consecutive years.Impressiveness quotient: Very high. The last person to walk 128 times in a season, not including Bonds, was Jason Giambi in 2003. In fact, only 31 players in baseball history have walked 128 in a season EVEN ONCE. So yeah, that's an astonishing record. It might stand for a long, long time.

Stolen bases:Rickey Henderson, 1,406That's like: Stealing 71 bases every year for 20 consecutive years.Impressiveness quotient: Off the charts. Only Jose Reyes has stolen that many bases in a season this decade -- and only three players (Reyes, Tony Womack and Kenny Lofton) have stolen 71 bases since the strike. The speed game has fundamentally changed since Henderson's time, of course, and it might come back around again someday. But I doubt it. I suspect Rickey will have that record for the rest of his life.

Runs: Rickey Henderson, 2,295That's like: Scoring 115 runs every year for 20 consecutive years.Impressiveness quotient: Eh. Obviously, it's impressive, but comparatively, 115 runs is not a mind-boggling total. Last season four guys matched that, and a few others were around there. Albert Pujols has averaged 118 runs per year for his eight seasons; Carlos Beltran is averaging 113 runs per 162 games. But I don't think it will be Rickey's record when either of them get there anyway ... A-Rod has 1,605 runs scored already, so he's about six years away from breaking it should he stay motivated and healthy.

Hits: Pete Rose, 4,256That's like: Banging out 213 hits every year for 20 consecutive years.Impressiveness quotient: Pretty high. I like what Pete says: The first 3,000 are easy.

Doubles:Tris Speaker, 793That's like: cracking 40 doubles every year for 20 consecutive years.Impressiveness quotient: High. Think about how long Rose played, how many doubles he stretched out, and he STILL finished 47 doubles short of Speaker. But here's another record that Pujols might think about down the road. He has averaged 43 doubles per season his first eight years.

Triples:Sam Crawford, 312That's like: Hitting 16 triples every year for 20 consecutive yearsImpressiveness quotient: Off the charts. The thing is, the game has changed.

Here are the Top 5 triples guys of all time:

1. Sam Crawford, 3122. Ty Cobb, 2973. Honus Wagner, 2524. Jake Beckley, 2445. Roger Connor, 233

OK? Here are the Top 5 triples guys since 1940:

1. Stan Musial, 1772. Roberto Clemente, 1663. Willie Wilson, 1474. Lou Brock, 1415. Willie Mays, 140

OK? And here are the Top 5 triples guys the last 25 years:

1. Brett Butler, 1282. Steve Finley, 1243. Lance Johnson, 1174. Kenny Lofton, 1065. Juan Samuel, 102

The triple may be, as so many claim, the most exciting play in baseball. But it has been slowly dying for 100 years.

RBIs: Hank Aaron, 2297That's like: Driving in 115 RBIs every year for 20 consecutive years.Impressiveness quotient: Sure, it's impressive, but I just cannot get excited about RBIs anymore. The stat has done more harm than good.

Wins: Cy Young, 511That's like: Winning 25 or 26 games every year for 20 consecutive years.Impressiveness quotient: Unimaginable. Of course, Cy Young was simply playing a different game than baseball now. Look:

He won 72 games before the pitcher's mound was moved back to 60 feet, 6 inches.

He won 267 games when home plate was still a square.

He won 351 games before foul balls were considered strikes.

And, of course, he won all 511 games before the spitball was abolished, and most of those games when scuffing the ball was pretty common practice.

Frankly, it's pretty ridiculous, considering all the changes, that Young's record is considered the official one. It would probably be more realistic to consider Walter Johnson's 417 wins (21 wins every year for 20 years) as the official record, and that record, while it would be very, very hard to break now, would at least be POSSIBLE to break. Greg Maddux announces his retirement today with 355 victories -- 62 short.

Strikeouts: Nolan Ryan, 5,714That's like: Striking out 286 batters every year for 20 consecutive years.Impressiveness quotient: Hugely impressive, of course -- only 16 pitchers in baseball history have struck out 286 batters in a season. Randy Johnson actually did it NINE times, which is the most in baseball history, three more than Ryan.

I must admit that I'm not entirely sure why everyone is so quick to name Clemens or Maddux or Pedro as the greatest pitcher of all time and yet seem fairly unexcited by Unit's career. He won five Cy Young Awards and could have won two more at least. He's the greatest strikeout-per-nine-inning pitcher in baseball history. His career 137 ERA+ is one of the best of all time, and even though it's not quite as good as Clemens' (144) and not nearly as good as Pedro's (154), the truth is that Unit did not figure things out until he was 29 years old.

After he turned 29:

His ERA+ is 149, almost as good as Pedro's, up there with Lefty Grove.

He led the league in adjusted ERA+ six times.

He struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings, and nobody comes close to that.

He won 246 games, which is more than Cy Young.

His 10-year peak -- from 1995 through 2004 -- is almost identical to Pedro's, and I think Pedro over those 10 years is the greatest pitcher in baseball history. Look:


Pedro Martinez: 161-65, 2.67 ERA, 2,384 Ks, 512 walks, 15 shutouts, 173 ERA+

Unit: 165-66, 2.70 ERA, 2,831 Ks, 612 walks, 25 shutouts, 172 ERA+

Everyone knows Unit was a great, great pitcher. But I still think he's probably underrated -- he has his claim as the best ever.

Shutouts: Walter Johnson, 110That's like: Throwing 5.5 shutouts every year for 20 consecutive years.Impressiveness quotient: Well, it's darned hard to to throw half a shutout -- but I didn't want to round up. No pitcher has thrown more than five shutouts in a season since 1989, and here's a trivia question: Name the pitcher who led the National League with eight shutouts in 1989. Don't go peeking at Baseball Reference either ... I gave you the year AND the league, you should be able to get it.

Saves:Trevor Hoffman, 554That's like: Saving 28 games every year for 20 consecutive years.Impressiveness quotient: That does not seem especially impressive, to be honest. Obviously, the thing is that closers do not last very long. Goose Gossage is the only closer in baseball history to have even one save in 20 different years. If you move that up to 10 saves, you get John Franco and Rollie Fingers, who did it 15 times.

And then you go up to 28 saves, and obviously Hoffman has done it most often (13 times), followed by Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith (12 times).

Point is, it's hard to be even a DECENT closer for more than a decade or so. Maybe that's because, like a cornerback, you are being tested time after time, and there are only so many years your body can come through. Maybe it's because the closer is still so relatively new that there just hasn't been enough time for them to evolve. Whatever the reason, I suspect that Hoffman's record will last for a while (assuming Mariano, who's at 482, doesn't break it in the next couple years), but it would not surprise me if a few years down the road we have two or three pitchers challenging for it.*

*The AFLAC trivia answer: Tim Belcher had eight shutouts in 1989.