Harmon Killebrew

Harmon Killebrew: pre-steroid slugger

by nkronos on May 18, 2011

Harmon Killebrew has died, and one item that strikes me in his obituary is how far he has slipped down baseball’s all-time homerun list: number 11.

I don’t remember Killebrew’s actual playing days, as they were before my time, but my friends and I used to have a “Hall of Fame” statistics-based league we ran on the computer. And I have also always been a consumer of old-time baseball, reading the various versions of Bill James’ historical abstract. From both I became familiar with Killebrew as a one-dimensional player much as he seems in his photograph, capable of smashing a ball when he connected with it, but otherwise not particularly gifted: a quintessential designated hitter before the position was invented.

In terms of hitting homeruns, he was the closest rival in all of major-league history to Babe Ruth…at that time. Henry Aaron had broken Ruth’s record, but only through essentially hitting 30 homers a year for 25 years. Killebrew, in contrast, had the same build as Ruth, swinging big and missing big, so that his homerun frequency was second only to Ruth’s–and his strikeout frequency was even greater. (Ruth’s strikeout frequency would give him a pretty good eye compared with contemporary players, but in his day the Bambino held the record for most career Ks.)

I remembered Killebrew, therefore, as much higher on the list: number 5 behind Aaron, Ruth, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson. What happened that caused him to drop five spots in a relatively short span of time? Steroids/performance enhancing drugs.

Here’s the current list of 14 all-time homerun leaders:

  1. Barry Bonds
  2. Hank Aaron
  3. Babe Ruth
  4. Willie Mays
  5. Ken Griffey Jr.
  6. Alex Rodriguez
  7. Sammy Sosa
  8. Jim Thome
  9. Frank Robinson
  10. Mark McGuire
  11. Harmon Killebrew
  12. Rafael Palmeiro
  13. Reggie Jackson
  14. Manny Ramirez

Italic indicates a player who did not play significantly from 1995 to 2005, which we can call the steroid decade. Bold indicates a player for whom the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) is assumed. Thus, eight of the 14 all-time homerun hitters played a substantial portion of their career during the steroid decade, and of those, only two are not assumed to have used PEDs: Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome.

Personally, I think there’s a good case that Thome, too, used PEDs. Here is his rookie baseball card, and here is Thome more recently. Note that like Bonds, Thome seems to have gained a couple of head sizes. Statistically, he averaged 32 homeruns a year early in his career, but in his early 30s he started hitting 47+ homeruns per year.

Such statistics are not conclusive because a surge in raw power later in one’s career is something that happens to some baseball players without steroids–though seldom so dramatically. For two Hall of Fame examples, see Stan Musial and Aaron. Musial’s power curve peaked, however, in his late 20s, before tapering off the rest of his career, and Aaron’s was the result of a change in ballpark (he moved from Milwaukee County Stadium to the hitter-friendlier confines of Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta). If I were a betting man, I would bet Thome has used PEDs at some point in his career.

Which leaves Ken Griffey Jr. Although the much-beloved Griffey has been held up as a great player of the era who did not engage in steroids, circumstantial evidence casts doubt even over “the Kid.” Mostly such evidence is guilt by association: a heckuva lot of Griffey’s teammates at Seattle used PEDs.

Leaving Griffey aside, then, at least seven of the eight recent top homerun hitters used PEDs–and thus devalued the historical standing of players like Killebrew. This is especially true when one considers that players like Bonds, A-Rod, and others were able to hit for power as well as be gifted at other facets of the game. Whereas Killebrew, Frank Howard, and Ralph Kiner could become stars in the 50s to the 70s from power hitting alone, such sluggers would be limited by their lack of general athleticism to DHing and pinch-hitting nowadays. The steroid-era players tarnish the star of even someone like Reggie Jackson, who had more showmanship and charisma than these other sluggers but not that much more value on the field.

Scanning further down the list of all-time homerun leaders, another fact stands out: almost no one playing today who did not play through most of the steroid decade has any chance of breaking very far into the all-time list. One exception is Albert Pujols, who is only 31 and came in on the decade’s second half. Pujols has always vehemently denied PED use.

Otherwise, the dropoff in homerun production in the last couple of years means we are as unlikely to see 600+ homerun hitters as 300+ game-winner pitchers in the decades ahead (unless rule changes allow a PED comeback). In terms of the record books, the player who may suffer the most from giving up steroids is A-Rod.

From 1998 to 2007, A-Rod averaged 45.4 homeruns per year. Since then, he has averaged only 31.7. Whereas he once seemed a sure bet to get the all-time homerun record of 762, that achievement is slipping farther and farther from his grasp. He still needs five more 30+ homerun seasons, which would carry him to age 40 and 11,500+ at bats–putting him in the top five for that category.  Bill James’ statistical toy projects him to finish with 743 career homers…close but not enough to beat even the non-asterisked Aaron.

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