Monday, May 23, 2022

2022 MLB season: Seven players chasing milestones who will be glad to have 162-game schedule

As recently as three weeks ago, it appeared we were headed for the second shortened MLB season in the last three years. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2020 season to be cut to 60 games, then this past offseason MLB’s owners locked out the MLB Players’ Association, and collective bargaining talks lingered into March. The two sides reached a deal on March 10, which was early enough to play a full 162-game, albeit with a delayed start.

“There were spots where I was concerned we were going to miss a lot of time,” commissioner Rob Manfred said soon after the new CBA was finalized. “Whenever you think you get going and it looks like you can make an agreement and then it doesn’t happen, that’s concerning … When you start to get momentum and you can’t close, that’s worrisome.”

Everyone is happy 162 games will be played this season. Fans, players, owners, everyone. Some players are happier they will play 162 games in 2022 than others. Some players are approaching milestones, either in the immediate future or a little down the road, and a shortened season would have hurt their chances of reaching that milestone. Here are seven players who are happy there are 162 games on the schedule this season, and the milestone they’re chasing.

1 & 2. Jacob deGrom and Joey Votto: Hall of Fame

For my money, Votto is a Hall of Famer. He’s been one of the game’s best hitters the last decade and a half, though I acknowledge his Hall of Fame case is more stathead-y than traditional. The BBWAA has not voted a first baseman with fewer than 400 career homers into the Hall of Famer since Tony Pérez in 2000, and Pérez spent nine years on the ballot before getting in.

Votto will play almost the entire 2022 season at age 38 and he has two more years remaining on his contract. He was so good last year (.266/.375/.563 with 36 homers) that it’s not completely crazy to think Votto will play beyond his current contract, though it’s not a guarantee. For all intents and purposes, Votto has two seasons to pad his Hall of Fame case. Anything more than that is a bonus.

With a .302/.416/.520 career batting line, Votto has the Hall of Fame rate stats. He just needs to compile a bit to strengthen his Hall of Fame case. He’s 69 homers away from 400 and 5.4 WAR away from 70.0. Those aren’t slam dunk Hall of Fame milestones, but they’re enough to get serious consideration. Votto also has a chance to get to 2,300 career hits.

Assuming he calls it quits after his current contract expires, Votto will hit the Hall of Fame ballot in 2029, and inevitably the BBWAA voting body will change between now and then. The voters have skewed younger and more sabermetric-friendly in recent years, and that will only be more true come 2029. Votto figures to get votes from the analytics crowd.   

Getting to 400 homers could put Votto over the top with more traditional voters, and 400 homers would have been all but impossible with a shortened 2022 season. Heck, it might not be possible with a 162-game 2022 season. Bottom line, Votto needs to do a little more compiling to boost his Hall of Fame case, and another shortened season this year would have hurt the cause.

As for deGrom, his Hall of Fame case is more Johan Santana than Sandy Koufax at the moment. Santana was a two-time Cy Young winner who should have won a third, and had a seven-year run as one of the most dominant pitchers in the sport. Johan had a Hall of Fame caliber peak, but not the longevity. He was done as an effective starter at age 31.

Koufax, meanwhile, had arguably the greatest five-year run in pitching history from 1962-66, one that saw him post a 1.95 ERA with more strikeouts than innings pitched at a time when strikeouts weren’t nearly as prevalent as they are today. Consider:

deGrom, 2017-21

33.1%

22.6%

146%

Koufax, 1962-66

26.8%

15.2%

175%

This isn’t intended to be a knock on deGrom. He’s outstanding. It’s just that his Hall of Fame case is still a little south of Koufax, who is the gold standard for “short career, high peak” pitchers. And, of course, short career is a relative term. Koufax threw more than 1,200 more innings in his career than deGrom, who turns 34 in June, has to date.

The pandemic robbed deGrom of 18-20 starts in 2020 and injuries limited him to 15 starts in 2021, or half a season. He’s already missed more than a full season’s worth of action the last two years. Another shortened season in 2022 would have meant more missed time — not just missed time, missed time when deGrom was at his peak — and another bite out of his Hall of Fame case.

DeGrom will have to take the Koufax path to the Hall of Fame. The Santana path won’t be good enough. Johan dropped off the Hall of Fame ballot in his first year of eligibility. DeGrom is unlikely to get to 200 wins or 3,000 strikeouts, so he’ll need a peak so great it’s undeniable. The more he can actually pitch while in his peak, the better his changes of being voted into Cooperstown. A full 162-game season in 2022 gives deGrom a fighting chance.

3. Justin Verlander: 300 wins

Three years ago Verlander said his goal was to pitch until he’s 45 years old, and now that he has a new elbow ligament, why not? Verlander made one start in 2020 before having Tommy John surgery, which sidelined him the entire 2021 season. The 39-year-old comes into this season with 226 career wins, and he’ll need at least four years to get the 74 he needs to reach 300. That’s 18.5 wins a year. It might be more like five years to get those 74 wins (14.8 per year), which would take Verlander through his age 43.

“Can I do that? Yeah,” Verlander told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times when asked whether 300 wins are attainable.

No pitcher has reached the 300 wins milestone since Hall of Famer Randy Johnson in 2009 and only nine pitchers ever have won 74 games after their age-38 season, which is what Verlander needs to do to join the 300-win club. Here are the nine:

  1. Phil Niekro: 140 wins after age 38 season
  2. Jaime Moyer: 118
  3. Jack Quinn: 109
  4. Warren Spahn: 96
  5. Cy Young: 88
  6. Bartolo Colón: 86
  7. Charlie Hough: 85
  8. Nolan Ryan: 83
  9. Randy Johnson: 79
  10. Roger Clemens: 74

David Wells won 73 games after his age-38 season. Wells plus Moyer, Colón, Johnson, and Clemens are Verlander’s contemporaries, and Verlander and Moyer could not be more different stylistically. Niekro and Hough were knuckleballers and Ryan was historically durable. The others on that list all pitched a long, long time ago.

To get to 300 wins, Verlander is not only going to have to stay healthy and effective, he’s going to need his teammates to help him out too. He needs run support and bullpen support. The Astros look to be very good again in 2022, but what about the 2024 and 2025 Astros? We’re talking about a milestone that is still a good 4-5 years away, and that’s an eternity in baseball years.

Losing 2020 and 2021 to the pandemic and Tommy John surgery took what, 25 wins away from Verlander? Maybe a few more? It really hurt his chances at 300 wins, but that’s the way it goes. Losing a chunk of 2022 to a work stoppage probably would have been the death knell for Verlander’s pursuit of 300 wins. Now it’s merely unlikely rather than impossible.

4. Max Scherzer: 4,000 strikeouts

Similar to Verlander and 300 wins, this is a milestone that is still several years away. Scherzer is entering his age-37 season and he needs another 980 strikeouts to join Ryan (5,714), Johnson (4,875), Clemens (4,672), and Steve Carlton (4,136) in the 4,000-strikeout club. Averaging 200 strikeouts per season would get Scherzer there at age 41 in 2026. Averaging 150 strikeouts per year would get him there are age 43 in 2028.

Nine pitchers in history have struck out at least 980 batters after their age-36 season, which is what Scherzer will need to do to reach 4,000 strikeouts. The nine:

  1. Nolan Ryan: 2,037 strikeouts after age 36 season
  2. Randy Johnson: 1,835
  3. Phil Niekro: 1,831
  4. Roger Clemens: 1,356
  5. Jamie Moyer: 1,277
  6. Charlie Hough: 1,266
  7. Cy Young: 1,069
  8. Gaylord Perry: 1,007
  9. Steve Carlton: 988

I think Scherzer has a better shot at 4,000 strikeouts than Verlander has at 300 wins. I say that because Scherzer doesn’t need help from his teammates (other than the catcher catching the ball, I suppose) to get strikeouts the way Verlander needs help from his teammates to get wins, and he pitches in the highest strikeout era in baseball history. This era was made to break strikeout records.

The Mets gave Scherzer a record three-year, $130 million contract this offseason. Finish out that contract, sign one or two one-year deal after that, and 4,000 strikeouts will be within reach for Scherzer, even accounting for age-related decline (of which he has shown none to date). Scherzer still would have had a shot at 4,000 strikeouts even with a shortened 2022 season, but a full 162 games will make his pursuit a little easier.

5 & 6. Nelson Cruz and Giancarlo Stanton: 500 home runs

Cruz, Stanton, and Mike Trout have the best shot at 500 career home runs among active players. Trout’s 310 homers are the 14th most all-time through age 29, and 10 of the 13 ahead of him eventually reached 500 homers (Adam Dunn, Juan González, and Andruw Jones are the three who didn’t). Trout’s got as good a chance at 500 homers as any player ever through age 29.

Cruz and Stanton have a more uphill battle. Here is the career home run leaderboard among active players:

  1. Albert Pujols: 679
  2. Miguel Cabrera: 502
  3. Nelson Cruz: 449
  4. Giancarlo Stanton: 347
  5. Robinson Canó: 334

Cruz is entering his age-41 season and he needs 51 homers to reach 500. That’s a big ask even though he’s shown few signs of slowing down. Cruz will almost certainly have to play in 2023 to reach the milestone, and even then he’ll need to continue to defy the usual aging curve. A shortened 2022 season might have forced Cruz to play into 2024, his age-43 season, to get to 500 home runs. Now he has a chance to get there in 2023.

As for Stanton, he’s entering his age-32 season and is 153 homers away from 500. The fact he still has a chance at 500 home runs is pretty remarkable seeing how injuries and the pandemic limited Stanton to seven homers (and 41 games) from 2019-20. He lost a lot of playing time in his prime, and a shortened season in 2022 would have meant even more lost time in his peak.

Stanton has six years remaining on his contract and he’ll need to average 25.5 homers those six years to reach 500. This is a guy who has averaged 42 homers per 162 games in his career, though staying healthy has been an issue. Staying healthy and producing will be enough of a challenge. Another season shortened due to outside circumstances would have made the chase for 500 homers that much more difficult for Stanton.

7. Yadier Molina: Second on games caught list

Early last season Molina became the first player ever to catch 2,000 career games with one franchise. He is planning to retire after 2022, and a full 162-game season gives Molina a chance to climb to second place on the career games caught list. Here are the only six players in baseball history to catch 2,000 career games:

  1. Iván Rodríguez: 2,427
  2. Carlton Fisk: 2,226 
  3. Bob Boone: 2,225
  4. Yadier Molina: 2,107 (and counting)
  5. Gary Carter: 2,056
  6. Jason Kendall: 2,025

Molina needs to catch 119 games to tie Fisk and 120 to jump over him and into sole possession of second place on the games caught list. It’s doable. Molina is not the 135-plus games a year workhorse he was earlier in his career, but he did catch 118 games just last season, and he caught 42 games during the shortened 60-game season in 2020 (a 113-game pace).

As long as he stays healthy and enters September with the milestone within reach, I could see Molina pushing the Cardinals to let him catch the games he needs to move into second place. Retirement’s on the horizon, right? Why hold back. There is no chance Molina would pass Fisk during a shortened season. The 162-game schedule makes is possible. Catching more games than all but one other player in history would be a neat little feather in Molina’s soon-to-be Hall of Fame cap.

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