Record Breakers at the Bat

It's a big month for various baseball statistics. Allen Schwarz, senior writer for Baseball America magazine, joins us to talk about what, and who, to keep an eye on.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

More than any other game, baseball rewards statistical analysis. Some numbers are subtle and some are so majestic they leap off the page. This past week we've been able to revel in some especially magical figures--3,587 and 30. Joining us now to decode those numbers is our baseball pal Alan Schwarz, the author of "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics," and a senior writer at Baseball America. He's with us from his office in New York.

Good to talk with you, Alan.

Mr. ALAN SCHWARZ (Senior Writer, Baseball America): Oh, it's good to be here, Neal; thank you.

CONAN: And we begin with Greg Maddux, of the Chicago Cubs, who recorded his 3,000th strikeout this week. Help us put that in perspective.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, there obviously have not been that many people who have recorded 3,000 strikeouts. Maddux is one of 13. And one of the things about baseball, of course, is the number of people who reach these levels never goes down. You know? It always gets a little more crowded, and people wonder `Gee, is it as majestic as it used to be?' But, you know, strikeouts is something--strikeouts is a category where a lot of guys are striking out over the past 10 or 20 years. It is considerably easier to rack up high strikeout totals, but...

CONAN: A lot of people swinging from the heels trying to hit home runs.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, that's why the top, you know, ex-number--I mean, the top 10 guys in that category--Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven, Tom Seaver--these are all people we've all watched. You know, you have to go down to number nine, Walter Johnson, to get to 3,509.

CONAN: Yet Greg Maddux, a control artist. He's never been an overpowering pitcher like Roger Clemens.

Mr. SCHWARZ: No, he hasn't been overpowering, but that doesn't mean he doesn't strike people out. He has extraordinary control and a lot of at-bats he gets over with early because he is able to put the ball in the perfect spot so that batters can get themselves out. But he has struck out a lot of men, and he was always in the top 15 in the league. He struck out close to 200 batters numerous times. And so while he wasn't overpowering, he was very good, and that's what you need to be to be a strikeout pitcher.

CONAN: And very good over a very long period of time.

We're talking with Alan Schwarz about baseball milestones. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this week former Chicago Cub, current Baltimore Oriole Sammy Sosa, hit is 587th home run to catch and pass the great Frank Robinson and take fifth place on the all-time home run list. Fifth!

Mr. SCHWARZ: I know. It's great. Well, again, modern baseball is a very strikeout, home run and walk-oriented game and, you know, Sammy Sosa is probably going to retire with maybe as many home runs as Willie Mays did, 660. You have a ton of players who are going to be threatening 600 and 700 home runs over the next 10 or 20 years. Alex Rodriguez might very well break Hank Aaron's record, except for the fact that Aaron might not own the record when A-Rod approaches it. Barry Bonds, of course, might come back. You know, Rafael Palmeiro isn't going to be getting up quite that high. But there are a lot of players who are going to come up to levels we once thought were close to unapproachable.

CONAN: And Sammy Sosa--Is his record--Are we going to look at his statistics with a little bit of a question mark? He was, of course, one of the athletes asked to testify on the steroids issue before Congress earlier this year.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, I want to make clear that Sosa was not asked to participate in those hearings because he was suspected of steroids, specifically. I think it's very important that we acknowledge that, publicly. Now certainly he is part of a generation of players about whom there will always be skepticism and certainly there had been skepticism regarding Sammy, specifically, but, of course, there had been for more than 100 players as well. So I think it's unfair to single him out.

CONAN: And you mentioned Alex Rodriguez a moment ago. The former Seattle Mariner-Texas Ranger and now New York Yankee celebrated his 30th birthday yesterday. The numbers he's put up at that age, the milestones, this is simply astonishing.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Oh, I mean, it is. Of course, one of the reasons that he is so far ahead of a lot of people's paces is that he came up to the major leagues at 18 years old. I mean, he was the first regular major leaguer at 18 there had been in 20 years, since Robin Yount, who was a future Hall of Famer. So, I mean, he got started on his career extraordinarily early and has put up to this point the most astonishing statistics of any player faster than anyone in the history of the game. I mean, it--he has 409 home runs--He just turned 30--a .306 batting average, 1,176 runs batted in, he's more than halfway to the record owned by Hank Aaron, and he is extraordinarily durable. So if he were to--if Alex Rodriguez were to play until he were 40 or 41, it's very possible that he would own most of the career records that baseball keeps.

CONAN: And he's ahead of the pace that Pete Rose set for hits at age 30 equivalence, and ahead of the number of runs scored by Ricky Henderson, and again ahead of Hank Aaron, as you pointed out, in both runs batted in, and home runs. It just...

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, sure, but the thing is, of course, like I said, he started at age 18. He got a head start over a lot of people, and has been extraordinary so we have to see when he retires to really know.

CONAN: And then earlier this month, not this week, but earlier this month, Rafael Palmeiro, now again with the Baltimore Orioles, got his 3,000th hit, another incredible milestone, and he's well over 500 home runs, as well. And yet look at that 3,000 hits. It may be a long time before we see another player reach 3,000 hits.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Yeah, I mean, the hits leaders at this point are, you know, not quite as advanced as the other players. I mean, you have home runs, like we talked about, pitcher-strikeouts are very prevalent, but the number of hits that a player gets per season really is not something that has changed much over time and--I mean, Ichiro Suzuki could, interestingly, approach 4,256 hits, which is the record that Rose owns, except, of course, it would be split between the Japanese league and the major leagues, but it will be very interesting to see how Ichiro is considered.

Of course, he won't own the major-league record but there will be quite a lot of hoopla if he were to reach, say, 4,300 hits and, you know, he might make the Hall of Fame because half of his career in Japan, where he won, I think it was, eight straight batting titles. And now comes to the United States and has done extraordinarily well here, too. So the hit record--you know, the hits are still pretty tough to come by and, I mean, Barry Bonds could--you know, if he ever sees a strike when he comes back, could definitely get 3,000. Craig Biggio isn't going to last long enough, and Julio Franco is 46 years old, but still has about 500 hits to go so I don't see that happening.

CONAN: Alan Schwarz, thanks very much. We appreciate it, as always.

Mr. SCHWARZ: My pleasure.

CONAN: Alan Schwarz, senior writer for Baseball America. He writes a column called Keeping Score in The Sunday New York Times. He joined us from his office in New York City.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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