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Will the Juiced Ball Close the 500 HR Club?

Pic: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

The 500 home run benchmark has long been considered an automatic induction into the MLB Hall of Fame--if you get there, you get in. There are notable omissions, of course, for known and suspected PED abusers, but otherwise it's always been considered a lock much like a pitcher with a 300-win career or a hitter who gets to 3,000 hits. However, in this era of baseball where so much has been made about the "juiced ball," and how much easier it is for everyone from Christian Yelich to Tommy LaStella to hit home runs, will the 500 Home Run Club close its doors to today's group of players?

For example, Joey Gallo is on pace to hit 500+ home runs in his career. His first three HR years could easily be compared to those of MLB Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, who played a total of 17 years in the majors and hit 25, 47 and 40 homers in his first three seasons, respectively, ending his career with 512 total. One might even expect Gallo to easily surpass that number if he remains healthy, considering he hit 40+ homers in both of his healthy seasons with the Rangers, is only 26 years old and only dipped below that number in 2019 because a broken hamate bone ended his season after only 70 games. He was also the fastest player in the American League ever to reach 100 home runs until Gary Sanchez did it in even fewer later in the year. Joey hits dingers.

That said, hitting dingers and taking walks is about all Joey does. Oh, and he strikes out. A lot. A lot a lot. As of right now, Joey Gallo has a career 38.0% strikeout rate (Mathews' was 14.7%) and among players with at least 250 PA, he was second to worst in K% in 2019 only to Chris Davis of the Orioles. And while his walks and batting average jumped in his short 2019 season, time will tell if these adjustments were permanent or if he regresses to his 2017-2018 numbers. He still has an above average, yet unspectacular, career 115 wRC+ and .212 batting average and has only accumulated 8.7 fWAR in his first three seasons.

I do like you, Joey! I promise!

Now, I have nothing against Joey Gallo. He seems like a sweet guy, is nice to fans, and that I know of hasn't done anything offensive or dumb or violated any rules to make me categorize him with the Houston Brauns. (Please stay nice, Joey!) But if his stat line stays essentially the same, and he makes that 500 home run benchmark, is this a guy we consider for the MLB Hall of Fame? What about the aforementioned Gary Sanchez, who not only has a similar career wRC+ to Gallo and similar pace for fWAR accumulation, but is also, by most measures, an objectively terrible defensive catcher? Is there a scenario where we can picture ourselves saying, "Boy, that Joc Pederson couldn't hit lefties worth a crap, but he still made it to 500 HR! Hall of Fame, baby!"

Yeah, I laughed too.

Ultimately, unless Commissioner "I Don't Actually Like Baseball" Manfred normalizes the baseballs again, I think we're going to look at today's era much differently in hindsight, especially when the current group's careers are over and we're comparing them to players from the past. We'll see obvious Hall of Famers like Mike Trout emerge, but our current benchmarks might have to be shelved in favor of some deeper dives into the totality of each player's career--it won't be as easy as 500=enshrinement anymore.


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