Players chasing milestones in 2011
Keep an eye on Derek Jeter (3,000 hits), Jim Thome (600 homers) and several others
A week into the season, we've already reached one unexpected baseball milestone -- and it's not the 10,000 references to the word "panic" to describe the mood of Boston Red Sox fans. Here it is April 7, and Matt Holliday and Adam Dunn have both undergone laparoscopic procedures to have their appendixes removed. What in the name of Dr. Sanjay Gupta is going on there?
We'll let ESPN's Stephania Bell address that one. In this 2011 season opener for Starting 9, we look ahead to some more conventional baseball milestones that will either make big news or slip under the radar in the next six months and assign each a "wow" factor on a 1-10 scale.
Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit
Jeter is about to do something Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle failed to achieve, while playing for the franchise with the most titles, highest payroll and largest tweeting contingent in the game. Yes, his 3,000th career hit will be a gigantic media event.
After a 3-for-18 start, Jeter is 71 knocks short of becoming the 3,000-hit club's 28th member. He'll join Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount as only the fourth shortstop to cross the barrier (although Yount played 1,218 games in the outfield and Ripken was at third base when he notched No. 3,000 against Minnesota's Hector Carrasco in 2000). New York's team captain has survived a lot of takeout slides to reach this point.
The 2010 Bill James Baseball Annual gave Jeter a 6 percent chance of reaching 4,000 hits, but cut his chances by half after the worst statistical season of his career. After hitting .270 with a .710 OPS, Jeter tinkered with a new swing in spring training before deciding to junk it for the tried-and-true model.
Now, at age 37, he's under plenty of scrutiny. Jeter couldn't have envisioned such a contentious contract negotiation this past winter, or having to listen to Hank Steinbrenner make cryptic references to player "mansions." If it's late May and he's muddling along at .240 or .250, it's bound to sap some of the joy from his pursuit of 3,000, ramp up questions about how much he has left in the tank and rekindle the discussion about his eventual move from shortstop. But to where, exactly?
In the meantime, Jeter has lots of non-3,000-related milestones on his agenda. He needs 100 more games played to pass Mantle's Yankees record of 2,401. Beyond that, he's 66 doubles short of Gehrig's franchise record of 534 doubles and 270 runs shy of Ruth's club record of 1,959.
Wow factor: 9
Jim Thome's 600th home run
Thome needs 11 more homers to join Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa in the 600 club. Wrap your mind around those names for a minute. But when 43 percent of a contingent has a steroid-related taint to it, love and affection tend to fall by the wayside.
Thome's 600th homer should be accompanied by a warm embrace, given that he's never been linked to steroid use. What's the over/under on newspaper and Internet columns and baseball testimonials lavishing him with praise for reaching 600 as a "clean" player? It's sure to be somewhere in the dozens.
And Thome is always going to earn extra-credit points for citizenship. As former Twins infielder Nick Punto observed this past fall, "He's the nicest guy you'll meet in baseball." Thome has been collecting the balls from his run at 600, and each lucky fan who retrieves one gets a visit to the Twins clubhouse, a meet-and-greet with the Big Guy, a photo opportunity and some signed memorabilia to take home. The lucky ticket holder who grabs No. 600 and considers keeping it might be too riddled with guilt to follow through.
Thome's home run journey comes with some ancillary milestones and collateral damage. He needs 20 walks to reach 1,700, and he has a good chance to pass Mel Ott and Mantle this year and move into seventh place on baseball's career list behind Carl Yastrzemski. He is also two whiffs short of joining Reggie Jackson as one of two players in history with 2,400 strikeouts.
Wow factor: 8
Ichiro Suzuki's annual 200-hit odyssey
Ichiro has a chance to surpass 200 hits for the 11th time this season, breaking Pete Rose's record of 10 seasons with 200 or more hits. Rose achieved the feat in a span of 15 seasons in the 1960s and '70s. Ichiro, amazingly, has done it for 10 straight seasons since joining the Mariners in 2001.
Lyle Spatz, chairman of the records committee for the Society of American Baseball Research, considers Ichiro's feat even more impressive than Thome's 600th homer. But it's likely to take place in a relative publicity vacuum. Ichiro has a rock star persona, but his reclusive personality rarely shines through beyond the confines of the clubhouse. And he's not going to get much attention from the national media while playing for a losing team in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, we're talking about the dreaded "East Coast bias" factor.
"If Ichiro played in New York or Boston or Philadelphia, it would be a bigger story as far as media hype," Spatz said. "If he does it in September, it's going to be on 'Baseball Tonight' and it might make the small type in the next day's newspaper, unfortunately. But it's not going to be like Jeter's run to 3,000, where there's going to be a countdown until he reaches it."
Ichiro's durability is every bit as impressive as his hit-generating acumen. He appeared in 1,588 of a possible 1,620 games in his first decade in the big leagues, and about half those missed games came in 2009, when he went on the disabled list with a bleeding ulcer. He remains in such incredible shape at 37, don't bet against him accumulating the 750 hits he needs to reach 3,000.
But Ichiro spends so much time standing around on the bases, you wonder when he might ferment. Last year, he became one of 10 players in history to collect 200 or more hits and cross home plate fewer than 80 times. Buy a ticket to a Mariners game, and it's a treat to see Ichiro hit, field, run and throw. Just don't expect to watch him score.
Wow factor: 8
Mariano Rivera's 600th save
Rivera needs to appear in 18 games to become the 15th pitcher to break 1,000 for his career. With 40 more saves, he'll pass Trevor Hoffman for first place on the career list with 602.
For good reason, save totals don't exactly send fans or Hall of Fame voters to heights of rapture. That helps explain why Lee Smith has yet to sniff the Hall of Fame despite 478 saves and John Franco dropped off the ballot after one season with 424. Rivera, obviously, dwells in a different realm. He's more acclaimed for his sustained excellence and amazing postseason résumé than his staggering save totals.
According to FanGraphs, Rivera's trademark cutter has dipped about 3 mph in the past three years, but he continues to dominate opposing lineups at age 41. He has logged a sub-2.00 ERA every year but one since 2002.
"His measurable gun speed is down a little, but the movement on the cutter is still the same," one NL scout said. "I think he's throwing more four-seam fastballs than in the past. But hitters think, 'I've got to get ready for the cutter,' so righties look away, lefties try to shorten up, and then when he throws the four-seamer, they don't have enough bat to hit it."
Another All-Star closer, Cincinnati's Francisco Cordero, needs only nine more saves to join the 300 club. That should happen relatively soon -- unless he's so shaky that manager Dusty Baker has to yield to temptation and/or fan outrage and replace him with Aroldis Chapman.
Wow factor: 6
The Albert Pujols grab bag
Pujols, who turned 31 in January, needs 41 homers and 96 hits to become the 32nd player in history to reach 450 and 2,000 for his career. A-Rod was six days short of his 31st birthday when he surpassed both barriers with a single swing five years ago.
The problem in getting too worked up over Pujols' short-term milestones is that they're just pit stops on the way to more glorious achievements. Bill James gives him a 51 percent chance to collect 3,000 hits, so it's tough to get too amped over Pujols joining Lee May, Jack Glasscock, Mark Grudzielanek and 257 others in the 2,000-hit club.
"You'll be writing an article about Pujols once a year for a few years to come, with everything he does," Spatz said.
Pujols' 2011 season will be accompanied by a sense of wistfulness because of the pending sense of anticipation (or dread) surrounding his upcoming free-agent status. For years, it was assumed that Pujols would break Stan Musial's record of 475 home runs as a Cardinal. Now, St. Louis fans might have to come to grips with the notion that he'll pass 500, 600 and 700 homers as a Ranger, an Oriole or, heaven forbid, a Cub.
The answer isn't likely to come until November, when Pujols resumes his pursuit of a nosebleed-caliber contract. The most enduring milestone Pujols attains this year ultimately might be measured in millions instead of hundreds.
Wow factor: 5
The South Side tag team
If the 500-homer barrier has lost some luster in recent years, 400 home runs should barely elicit a mention. But when two players on the same team have a chance to crack 400, it warrants some attention.
White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, who looked rejuvenated last season on his way to 39 home runs, needs 35 to reach 400. His new wingman, Adam Dunn, needs 46 to make it. That would match the single-season high Dunn established with Cincinnati in 2004.
There's a precedent for this kind of buddy routine at U.S. Cellular Field. In April 2009, Konerko and Jermaine Dye went deep in consecutive at-bats against Detroit's Zach Miner for their 300th career homers. No teammates have ever reached 400 in the same season, but home run historian David Vincent lists 14 pairs who have notched different "century" home run combinations in the same year.
In 1934, Ruth banged out No. 700 for the Yankees and Lou Gehrig hit career homer No. 300. Among the other notable milestone duos: Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, Willie McCovey and Mays, and Ron Santo and Billy Williams.
Wow factor: 5
Tim Wakefield's 200th win
Wakefield needs seven victories to join Phil and Joe Niekro, Charlie Hough and Ed Cicotte as the fifth knuckleballer in the 200 club. Now that Andy Pettitte has retired and Jamie Moyer is sitting in an ESPN studio waiting for his elbow to heal, Wakefield has a chance to become the only active starter with 200 wins. Wakefield went 4-10 last year and will begin this season in the Boston bullpen, but he's only a Daisuke Matsuzaka DL visit away from a more prominent role.
Wakefield isn't a Hall of Famer, but he has carved out a nice résumé through perseverance. After setting a Florida Institute of Technology home run record as a first baseman, he picked up the knuckler as a Pirates minor leaguer and parlayed it into a 22-year professional career. He has detailed his adventures in a new book titled, "Knuckler: My Life with Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch." Can former Tennessee English lit major R.A. Dickey be far behind?
"I just think people like him. He's a lunch-pail kind of guy, and he's suffered some pretty devastating defeats and been gracious after them, which is sort of refreshing," SABR's Spatz said. Wakefield has allowed 395 regular-season homers and could become the 12th pitcher to surrender 400 gopher balls. Of course, that doesn't include one memorably dispiriting gopher ball to Aaron Boone to close out the 2003 ALCS.
Wow factor: 5
The Juan Pierre double feature
Yes, we know Pierre doesn't walk enough for a leadoff hitter, has the worst throwing arm this side of Johnny Damon and has a tendency to pout when his name isn't on the lineup card. But he's a shining example of what a player can accomplish when he takes one superior tool and runs with it.
With 158 hits and 73 stolen bases this season, Pierre can become the 12th member of the 2,000-hit, 600-steal club. The list includes such baseball luminaries as Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Lou Brock and Ty Cobb, not to mention Bert Campaneris and Willie Wilson.
It's quite a feat, given Pierre's unassuming stature and humble beginnings. Few people would have envisioned this when Seattle chose him in the 30th round of the draft in 1995. It was Mariners scout Dan Jennings who first noticed Pierre at a high school tournament in Mansfield, La., and helped steer him toward the University of South Alabama. Jennings, now an assistant general manager with the Florida Marlins, remains an unabashed Pierre fan.
"There may be people that work as hard, but there is nobody that works harder than Juan Pierre. Period," Jennings said. "His work ethic is like nothing I've ever seen in 23 years of baseball.
"He's a likable guy; he has great leadership; and he plays the game with passion and respect. He's not a chirper. He's not a talker. He's a doer."
Wow factor: 4
Vladimir Guerrero, 2,007 games without a sacrifice bunt
In his 15-year major league career, Guerrero has earned a reputation for hitting balls off his shoe tops, gunning out opposing baserunners from the warning track (at least in his Montreal days) and looking as if he's one step away from a trip to the disabled list.
The only thing missing from his résumé: As statistician and master baseball observer Bill Chuck points out, Guerrero needs only 28 more sacrifice bunt-free games to pass Carlos Delgado and move into third place behind Harmon Killebrew (2,435 games) and Frank Thomas (2,322) on the all-time list.
Don't count on a sac bunt this year in Baltimore, either, even though Guerrero is eminently capable.
"I will tell you this: He might have been our best bunter in camp this spring," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "The thing everybody loves about Vladi is, he wants to do all the outfield drills and all the baseball drills. When we had the bunting station in spring training, he was the first guy in line.
"If I said to Vladi, 'We need you to bunt in a game,' he would probably have fun with it and get it down. But his teammates would look at me like I'm nuts."
Wow factor: 2. Fun factor: 7
Others of note
• Johnny Damon can join Rose, Aaron and Brooks Robinson as the fourth player to appear in 140 or more games in 16 straight seasons. "He might be an idiot, but he likes to play," one scout said. As Chuck duly notes, Damon also can join Ty Cobb, Paul Molitor and Tris Speaker as one of four players with 500 doubles, 100 triples, 400 stolen bases and 1,600 runs scored.
• Chipper Jones needs two hits and six RBIs to join Eddie Murray as the second switch-hitter with 2,500 hits and 1,500 RBIs. Is there really any debate whether this guy belongs in the Hall of Fame?
• Bobby Abreu needs 23 homers and 26 stolen bases to join Barry and Bobby Bonds as one of three players with 300 homers and 400 steals. As one Philadelphia writer observed recently, Abreu's aversion to crashing into walls hasn't served him too badly over the long term.
• If Pudge Rodriguez grounds into 19 double plays this season, he will break Cal Ripken Jr.'s record of 350 career GIDPs. Pudge bounced into 25 a year ago, so if he can stay healthy, he has enough worm-burners in that bat to give it a run.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick