Commentary

If Ken Griffey Jr. had stayed healthy …

How many home runs might he have hit ... 700 ... 750 ... more than Barry Bonds?

Updated: June 4, 2010, 9:56 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

There is no tougher question to answer in life than this:

What if?

So why do we find ourselves asking it today -- asking it about one of the greatest players we've ever laid eyes on, George Kenneth Griffey Jr.?

We should be looking back at this man and celebrating what was, right? Because what was, by any measure, was beautiful and magical and historic.

Those 630 home runs -- that's what was. Only four other players in history hit more than that, and let's just say you wouldn't have any trouble recognizing those four players if they sat down next to you at lunch.

Those 10 Gold Gloves -- that's what was, too. The only outfielders who ever lived who won more were Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente. And we'd pay just to watch those three guys shag fly balls in batting practice, wouldn't we?

That 600-homer, 10-Gold Glove package -- that's what was. Only Mays and Griffey belong to that esteemed club.

[+] EnlargeKen Griffey Jr
AP Photo/Tom GannamKen Griffey Jr. slugged his 500th career home run on June 24, 2004 -- Father's Day.

Those 13 All-Star Games Ken Griffey Jr. was elected to start -- put that in the old "what was" column, too. How many outfielders in history ever won that many All-Star elections? Not a one. Amazing.

So that tells us what Ken Griffey Jr. was, all right: beloved, charismatic, mesmerizing, special. We'll never forget him for that.

But what makes this man's legacy so unique and complicated is that other question:

What if?

What if all That Stuff hadn't kept happening to him? The fractured wrist. The torn labrum. The dislocated patella. The torn hamstring. The hand he broke at home one winter.

What if he'd stayed as healthy as, say, Alex Rodriguez? Or Hank Aaron? Or Willie Mays?

What if he'd been ripping off 150-game seasons every year instead of all those 111-game seasons and 53-game seasons and 70-game seasons?

What kind of legacy would we be talking about then?

We'll never know, of course. We can't know. It's impossible to know.

We learned this week that it's possible to go back in time and sell tickets to a game that has already been played (i.e., Roy Halladay's perfect game). But we also learned it wasn't possible to give out free rides in the handy-dandy time machine with every ticket. And it still isn't.

So let's accept that reality before we go forward here, OK? We'll never know. We can't know. It's impossible to know what Ken Griffey Jr.'s final numbers might have looked like.

But just for fun, we can do a little math. Why not?

We'll keep this as simple as possible. We're just going to look at home runs and home runs alone. No point in calculating projected OPS or theoretical VORP here. We think we're safe in assuming you wouldn't care even if we could.

But how many home runs would Ken Griffey Jr. have hit if he had only stayed reasonably healthy? Now THAT'S a fun exercise. And a meaningful one. So on with the calculation show.

First, we broke his career down into three segments:

The first five years (1989-93)

• Games played: 734
• Times on disabled list: 2
• Games missed: 66

The Seattle years, Part 2 (1994-99)

• Games played: 801
• Times on the disabled list: 2
• Strike-shortened seasons: 2
• Games missed due to injury: 95
• Games missed due to strike: 68

The 21st century (2000-10)

• Games played: 1,136
• Times on the disabled list: 8
• Games missed: 392

So how did we calculate games missed? We looked at every season, and any time Griffey missed a game here or a game there, we chalked it up to a regular old day of rest. But any time he missed two games in a row or more, we threw those into the "games missed" column.

The only exception was this year, when he was clearly sitting for other reasons. We ignored those games completely.

So now that we have that part figured out, we can move along to the fun part -- translating "games missed" into "home runs lost."

Here's how we did that:

In those first five years, from 1989-93, Griffey averaged a home run in 4.2 percent of his plate appearances.

In the next six years, from 1994-99 -- the biggest power seasons of his career -- he averaged a home run in 7.4 percent of his plate appearances.

In what we'd call his Cincinnati period, from 2000-08 (which includes his two months with the White Sox), he averaged a home run in 5.3 percent of his plate appearances.

And in 2009, his Seattle homecoming, he averaged a home run in 4.2 percent of his plate appearances.

So that leaves us with just one job, figuring out What Might Have Been if this guy had been playing, not hanging out with the trainer. Ready? Here it comes:

1989-93: Plate appearances lost: 280; home runs lost: 12

1994-99: Plate appearances lost: 682; home runs lost: 50

2000-08: Plate appearances lost: 1,570; home runs lost: 83

2009: Plate appearances lost: 39; home runs lost: 2

2010: A season of irrelevance

So get your calculators out now. If we've calculated this correctly, a fully healthy Ken Griffey Jr. would have hit another 147 home runs in his career. Add those 147 homers to 630 and what do you get? You get 777 -- or 15 more than Barry Bonds.

Now, just about nobody stays healthy for 22 straight seasons, obviously. So our friend, home run historian David Vincent (aka the Sultan of Swat Stats), thinks Griffey's realistic total of home runs lost would fall somewhere between 100 and 125.

But even if we use his total, we'd be talking about a man with 730 and 755 career home runs. And we're willing to bet that if Griffey were just a handful of homers away from breaking Bonds' all-time record, he'd still be in uniform -- somebody's uniform.

You can argue that theory if you'd like. But first, you'd better factor in how hard America would be rooting for One of the Clean Players to expunge Bonds from the record book.

That, however, is a discussion for another time. The discussion for this time, though, is astonishing when you think about it.

Here we have one of four players in history to hit 600 homers, one of three outfielders in history to win three Gold Gloves, the only outfielder in history to be elected to start 13 All-Star Games -- and we're still wondering WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN?

Digest that thought for a moment.

A couple of years ago, we had a chance to ask Griffey himself if he ever thinks about that question -- What Might Have Been?

"Never," he said.

"Why not?" we asked.

"Because it doesn't matter," he replied.

And he's right, naturally. But the fact that we're asking anyway still tells us something about what this man represented in our time.

He was still one of the two or three greatest players any of us ever saw play, from beginning to end. But …

He easily could have been in the argument for Greatest Player Ever. Easily.

All if we'd never had to ask one the most difficult questions in life:

What if?

So today, we're just sorry we have to ask it all about the great George Kenneth Griffey Jr.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com