MLB

Will MLB Ever See Another 700-Home Run Career in PED-Testing Era?

Leon Halip/Getty Images
Jason CataniaMLB Lead WriterApril 8, 2014

This season brings the 40-year anniversary of the legendary Hank Aaron breaking fellow Hall of Famer Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. In fact, April 8, 1974—40 years ago today—is the exact date on which Aaron hit No. 715 to pass The Babe.

Since that fateful day, only one other player has reached that lofty plateau: Barry Bonds, whose 762 career homers are the new mark, seven ahead of Aaron's final tally. In other words, in the 100-plus years of Major League Baseball history, exactly three players have achieved a home run total that is three digits and begins with a "7."

That got us wondering: Will there ever be another 700-home run career, especially now that performance-enhancing drug testing exists in baseball and the penalties continue to get harsher?

While commissioner Bud Selig gets his share of the blame for MLB's PED problem, he helped enact the sport's drug-testing policy in 2004.
While commissioner Bud Selig gets his share of the blame for MLB's PED problem, he helped enact the sport's drug-testing policy in 2004.Mike Groll

PED testing with penalties for positive results began in 2004. Incidentally, that's the same year Bonds—who later was convicted in federal court on one count of obstruction of justice in a trial that focused on his alleged steroid use—hit the 700th long ball of his career, becoming that third (and perhaps final) player to get there.

Before we examine the role power has played in the sport over that period of time, let's put this fantastical possibility into context with some actual names and their current home run totals (entering Tuesday games).

Here are the active home run leaders, along with the number of homers per season each would need to average in order to get to No. 700 by age 40.

Active Home Run Leaders' Paths to 700 By Age 40
PLAYERCAREER HRAGE*HR/SEASON TO REACH 700 AT AGE 40
Alex Rodriguez6543846
Albert Pujols4923429.7
Adam Dunn4423436.9
Jason Giambi43843Already 43!
Paul Konerko4343888.7
David Ortiz4323889.3
Alfonso Soriano4063898.0
Adrian Beltre3763554
Miguel Cabrera3663133.4
Carlos Beltran3583785.5
*Season-age as of July 1, 2014
Baseball Reference

First of all, it should be pointed out that Alex Rodriguez, the active leader and No. 5 all time with 654, stood a fighting chance of getting to 700 before the big 4-0. Within striking distance of the 500 club at age 30, Rodriguez already had Bonds' vote of confidence, via Bob Nightengale of USA Today: "He'll be there. And there'll be others. It ain't like I'll be the last one."

Of course, that was long before A-Rod was suspended for the entire 2014 season as a result of the Biogenesis investigation.

Secondly, it should be pretty obvious that the only two current players from this batch who might have any sort of teeny-tiny shot at pulling this off are Albert Pujols (492), who needs to average just under 30 homers per season, and Miguel Cabrera (366), who is the youngest in the top 10 but still needs to manage—get this—more than 33 a year for the next 10 years to reach 700.

Yes, even the dominant, uber-consistent Cabrera is only barely halfway there!

Great as he's been, Miguel Cabrera—31 this month—would need to double his current homer total (366) to reach 700.
Great as he's been, Miguel Cabrera—31 this month—would need to double his current homer total (366) to reach 700.Paul Sancya

Now that we've laid out how all-but-impossible this feat is for the best sluggers of today, specifically, let's widen the scope and take a look at how much power has been in decline in recent seasons in the entire sport, due in no small part to the policing of PEDs.

In trying to fathom what it might look like for an individual player to even approach the possibility of a 700-homer career, figure that it would require an average of 40 home runs a season for 17 seasons—and even that would leave the slugger short by 20, since 40 x 17 = 680.

Using that 40-homer campaign as a somewhat realistic standard, then, here's how many of those have occurred per season since 2003, the year before testing began:

Data from Baseball Reference

Notice the downward trend, right? And if you want to put the numbers into perspective, consider this: The past seven seasons' worth of 40-homer campaigns (23 from 2007-13) are a little more than half of the total from the four seasons prior (39 from 2003-06).

That's a clunky way of saying that fewer 40-home run seasons are happening every year.

But what about going even more macro? The graph below shows the number of home runs in all of MLB per season over the same time frame (since 2003):

Data from Baseball Reference

Again, the decline is plain as day. Whereas a year with at least 5,200 total homers was once the norm (see: 2003, 2004, 2006), that total hasn't been touched since 2006, and even 5,000 home runs has happened only once in the past seven years—and that was back in 2009.

Conclusion? Fewer and fewer home runs are being hit overall.

Beyond the home run figures, there's the fact that players are showing much more typical aging and performance curves over the past decade, which to some immeasurable but certainly noticeable extent can be attributed to the ban on PEDs.

In other words, not only are players able to play less while getting older, they're also simultaneously playing at a decreased rate of performance. None of this should be surprising, but seeing the numbers proves as much.

Here's a table that breaks down the number of players ages 35 and older who reached the 300-plate appearance threshold—about half a full season—as well as a look at their isolated power (ISO) since 2003:

Players Age 35+ W/ 300+ PA in a Season and Their ISO (2003-13)
SEASONAGE 35+ PLAYERSAGE 35+ ISOMLB ISO
200330.167.158
200435.170.162
200532.148.154
200628.155.163
200738.152.155
200826.153.152
200928.148.155
201023.126.145
201127.138.144
201217.138.151
201319.135.143
Baseball Reference and FanGraphs

As you can see, back in 2007—only seven years ago—38 players managed to compile at least 300 plate appearances in their age-35 (or older) season. In the past two seasons, 36 players have done so—combined. What's more, that total (36) is the lowest in back-to-back years since 1995-1996 (also 36), which is almost 20 years ago.

As for the ISO column, which essentially measures a hitter's raw power, the story is similar. For players at least 35 years old, the metric peaked during this period of time at .170 in 2004 and remained north of .150 through 2008, keeping it right in line with—if not above—the league-wide average. From 2009 on, though, the 35-and-up ISO has settled in the .135-.140 range, which is slightly below the MLB average in recent years.

The point here? To even fathom coming close to 700 career home runs, a player must be able to play and hit for power into his late 30s and early 40s—Bonds, Aaron and Ruth all got to 7-0-0 in their age-39 seasons—and that's just not happening as much in the past handful of seasons as it was in the previous decade now that PED testing has become a part of the game.

The 700 Club is an elite—and small—one.
The 700 Club is an elite—and small—one.STF

Above all else, there remains one simple, undeniable fact: Hitting 700 home runs is freaking difficult, darn near impossible even. In case you forgot while looking through all the graphs and tables above, only three—T-H-R-E-E!—players in 100-plus years of MLB have done so. You know them as Barry, Hank and The Babe.

Will someone get to 700 homers ever again? Never say never, because it's not out of the question that one of Rodriguez, Pujols or Cabrera could get there given what they've accomplished to this point in their careers.

There's also no way of knowing how or when things will change in baseball in the years and decades ahead, including advancements in medicine, technology and training (legal or otherwise). Heck, in the early 1900s, few would have expected a player to hit even 40 home runs in any season, and then Ruth smashed that "barrier" with 54 in 1920 on his way to totaling 714 for his career.

But factor in the aging and production curves, which we're already seeing take a toll on Pujols, and it's looking like baseball's best—and perhaps last—chance to see 700 home runs again in the immediate future might be Rodriguez. 

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 14: Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees celebrates his eighth inning two run home run against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on September 14, 2012 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Ima
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

We already know that would be tainted in more ways than one if it were to happen at all once—or is that if?—he returns from his season-long suspension in 2015. If not, well, 700 still could be reached again by someone at some point—for only the fourth time ever—but it'll be a good, long while. After all, Ruth hit No. 700 in 1934, Aaron did so in 1973 and Bonds got there in 2004.

By that math, this comes along about every 30 to 40 years or so. If that holds true, then the next 700-home run hitter has already been born.

 

Statistics come from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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