For A-Rod, breaking Bonds's record is no sure thing
Did you hear Alex Rodriguez hit his 600th career home run on Wednesday? It's true. He hit it off Toronto's Shaun Marcum. It sailed into the Monument Park section of the new Yankee Stadium. It came three years to the day after his 500th career homer. So, now you know.
Obviously, hitting 600 homers ain't what it used to be. For the first 120-plus years of baseball history, only three men did it, and their names were legendary: Ruth, Aaron, Mays. But in the last decade, membership in the 600 Home Run Club has more than doubled, to seven, with the additions of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and now A-Rod.
It isn't just the stain of steroids (as worn by Bonds, Sosa and Rodriguez) that has removed the glory from 600. It's the general cheapening of home run totals that occurred during the so-called Steroids Era. When everybody's hitting them, home runs just aren't as big a deal. At one time, it felt as if 500 was the new 400, when it came to exclusive home run clubs. Now, 600 might be the new 400.
Which means 800 may be the new 600. Folks are treating it as a given now that Rodriguez, at 35 the youngest ever to reach 600, will break Bonds's all-time record of 762, and perhaps even break the 800-homer barrier. But I'm not so sure.
First the simple math: Rodriguez needs 163 more homers to break Bonds's record. If he averages 30 homers a season -- well below his career average of about 41 (from 1996-2009) -- he would become the all-time champ about halfway through the 2016 season, just before his 41st birthday.
The question is whether Rodriguez can keep up such a pace.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were conditioned to accept the fact that hitters in their late 30s could maintain -- or, in the cases of Mark McGwire and Bonds, even exceed -- their career norms. But we now know there was a (chemical) reason for that. These days, with stiff testing for steroids and amphetamines, the game has essentially returned to its pre-1990s state, where players in their late 30s routinely suffer steep declines in production.
If we're looking for a comparable player to provide some context to Rodriguez's career, it shouldn't be Bonds. It should be someone like Willie Mays, who was on an A-Rod-like pace through age 35 (Mays probably would have been on the doorstep of 700, except that he lost almost two full seasons to military service), but who hit only 22, 23, 13, 28, 18 and 8 home runs in the six years following his 35th birthday. Hank Aaron, who kept hitting 30-40 homers a year right up to his 40th birthday, was an extreme exception, an outlier.
If you look closely at Rodriguez's statistics this year, you come away with the feeling his decline has already begun. His .264 batting average, .334 on-base percentage and .473 slugging percentage are all career lows since he became a full-time player in 1996. To assume a 30-homer-a-year pace for the rest of Rodriguez's career may be giving him a little too much credit. I'd argue that 20 homers per year is more realistic -- in which case it would take him about eight more seasons to reach Bonds's record. He would be 42, on the cusp of 43, at that point. Other than Aaron, the outlier, and Bonds, the juicer, there really isn't a model for that.
Rodriguez's contract with the Yankees runs through 2017, but that doesn't guarantee he will make it to the end of it. Who could have known, when Cal Ripken sat out a game at the end of the 1998 season to snap his consecutive-games-played streak, that the Iron Man would never again play a full, healthy season?
Rodriguez had major hip surgery just last year, costing him about a quarter of that season. One more serious injury could spell the end of any talk of 763 or 800. If 763 homers for Rodriguez is the over/under, I'm taking the under.
August 5, 2010; 8:34 AM ET
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