Many people that look at the landscape of Major League Baseball in 2019 have noticed that young players are better than ever. Not only have breakout stars like Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., and Juan Soto been unbelievable, but they’ve been unbelievable at an almost unprecedented age. Reaching the big leagues at such a young age has benefits. One such benefit, assuming good health, is the potential to enjoy a lengthy career. On a related note, players who debut in the Major leagues relatively early have a leg up on accruing career counting stats including WAR, hits, runs, RBIs, and home runs. In short, it is much easier to count to 3000 if you have 60 minutes than it is if you’ve only got 60 seconds.
These young phenoms have an additional advantage when it comes to accumulating career home runs. The home run rate has been escalating the past few seasons, and 2019 has been the most extreme season of all. The ball has changed, and this change has dealt an advantage to hitters looking to get home runs on the stat sheet. This got me thinking: could a player in MLB right now have a realistic shot at breaking the all-time home run record of 762 home runs set by Barry Bonds? Accordingly, I applied a fairly simple approach to determine who I think has the best chance at breaking the home run record. Here is my strategy, which I will break down in detail below.
**Note: When I get down to the final candidates, I will be excluding players near the end of their careers, like Albert Pujols, who aren’t really within the scope of this article. If you want those numbers, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org**
Requirement 1: Hit your first major league home run before your 23rd birthday.
Since only one player has hit 762 home runs, and one person, particularly one person with a career arc as strange as Barry Bonds, doesn’t make a very good historical precedent to follow. I wanted to increase my sample size to draw conclusions from my historical precedent. To do this, I examined every player that his hit more than 500 home runs over the course of their career. 27 players in MLB history have joined the 500 home run club. This sample seemed more suitable for analysis. Once I had a list of historical examples, I examined the age each player in the 500+ club hit their first home run. Every single player on the list had a home run before or during their age 22 season. This isn’t surprising since we know that players that end up with 500 or more home runs are good hitters, but this also reinforces the philosophy that starting a career at an early age is important to end up on top in the counting stats.
With age of the first home run as my qualifier, I examined all MLB players that debuted after the year 2000, and hit a home run in their age 22 season or younger. This list yielded me 281 candidates. Still way too many to examine on an individual basis, so I moved to my second requirement.
Requirement 2: Have a 25+ home run season
This qualification is self-explanatory. If you have a 20-year career, and you hit 25 home runs per season for those 20 years, you hit exactly 500 home runs. So, if you don’t have an individual season with 25 home runs, I don’t consider you a serious contender for a home run title. Please note that this requirement will eliminate young stars that have yet to complete a full season like Yordan Alvarez, Vlad Guerrero Jr, or Fernando Tatis Jr. For the purpose of this article, I think it is alright that they are eliminated at this point in the analysis as we should have a slightly longer track record to confidently project an entire career (we should probably argue you can never project a career).
After this step, our list of 281 players is whittled down to 75 players. It’s better, but we’re still not down to our top candidates.
Requirement 3: Have 20+ HR this season (2019)
“You can’t get there if you aren’t going there”
--- Drew W.
Our previous requirements sliced off portions of the major league population that started too late (Step 1) to have a shot, or haven’t hit enough home runs to clear the 500 home run threshold (Step 2), much less break the all-time home run record. Requirement 3 is what I call the “present-day clause”. For the most part, you have to still be hitting home runs in 2019 if you want a shot at breaking the home run record in 2025, 2030, or even later. Furthermore, if we’re talking about those who have the best shot, we need to make our criteria more exclusive so we can get this narrowed down to a manageable group.
After I institute Requirement 3, 32 players remain on the list.
Requirement 4: Match the benchmark set by previous 500+ home run hitters for your age.
To examine requirement 4, I took the average number of home runs for a 500+ HR Hitters at each age, and verified which of the 32 remaining players were still keeping pace with the median mark. Since regression toward the mean (much less than 500 career home runs) should be expected, I did not accept any players that were below the median line, even if they were really close. I have plotted the 32 candidates against this average line, and the plot is shown below. I have put the names of the 8 candidates over the benchmark on the graph.
8 players make a list I can work with.
Since all I’ve done so far is determine that these players could get to 500, and seem to be keeping pace with a 500 home run pace. I haven’t examined how likely they are to get to 500.
To examine the likelihood each of these 8 players has at making it to 500 home runs, I once again turned to historical precedent. I looked at the number of past players that had been in each player’s position or better. For example, Ronald Acuna Jr has 61 home runs through his age 21 season. I looked at how many players have had 61 or more home runs through their age 21 season, and then looked to see what percentage of those players went on to hit 500+ home runs. Here is a table of those results sorted by likelihood of reaching 500 HR based on past players.
Every player on here should probably get their own article, but only one player has a perfect 100% on this leaderboard. That player is Mike Trout. When I started looking into this, I hadn’t even considered Trout as a candidate, but as I’ve looked into it more, I’m more and more convinced that Trout has a legitimate shot at the all-time home run record. As a thought experiment, lets look to see where Mike Trout stands against Bonds, and what sort of numbers he would have to put up in order to make a push for this record.
When I first made this graph I gasped. I made an actual sound out loud from my mouth.
These lines aren’t that different, and it surprised to me. I had never thought of Mike Trout as a home run hitter. I guess in the shuffle of all of his other skills, home runs just became an expectation, rather than the thing I noticed most about him.
Trout has a hefty advantage on Bonds at this point in his career, and Trout is going to need that lead as late career Bonds is likely to remain unmatched. In the graph I have also projected out a 30, 35, and 40 HR/year career for Mike Trout all the way out until his age 42 season (same age as Bonds when he retired). Obviously, the real graph in 10 years won’t be a nice straight line, but it might look something like one of those lines. Consider this, through 8 full seasons, Mike Trout has hit 30+ Home Runs in 6 of those 8. The other two seasons he has 27, and 29 respectively. As the ball has changed these past few seasons, Trout has hit more, with 39 in 2018, and 42 this season (a pace of 55 HR/162 Games). If Trout continues his pace through his prime, he could realistically hit 50 HR the next two seasons, with a likely tail off after that. His home run totals would look something like this. (For the sake of argument, I’ve added 5 additional home runs to account for the remainder of Trout’s season in 2019 for a total of 287).
In this world, Mike Trout reaches 762 home runs by the conclusion of his age 40 season. Obviously, health plays a role into this projection, and nothing is for certain. But laying it out by year, this feels very doable for the most consistent player in baseball. Trout won’t be the same player at age 40 as he is today, but even Albert Pujols, who has had foot problems in the past few seasons, still put up HR totals of 40, 31, 23, 19, 19, in his past five seasons (age 35-39, respectively). The numbers I’ve put on the chart for late stage Trout aren’t absolutely unbelievable.
I’m not going to say that it is likely that Mike Trout breaks the record for most career home runs, but I want to say that it is a non-zero chance that he breaks the record, and maybe even a decent chance. Health will always be a consideration for long-term projections like this, but overall his prospects look good, and I’ve never been one to doubt Mike Trout.