True story. My wife and I were in a rowboat near Cape Porpoise, Maine. As I merrily dipped my oars, our hosts waved and yelled out to us: “Don’t get caught when the tide goes out!”
The tide went out.
Though I was at the peak of my physical condition, when we turned to go back home, I rowed like hell, and we stayed right where we were. Scary. The ocean breakwater loomed. I ended up rowing sideways toward the shoreline, jumping out of the boat, and lugging it and my wife through waist-deep water. I trudged by house after humiliating house before arriving back at our friends’ place. Where we had to drag the boat across a now-exposed mudflat. They said to us, “We were worried when we saw the tide going out, and you weren’t back yet.” Us too.
I thought of this while thinking about Cap Anson and what it took him to reach 3,000 hits. Lots of players start out with the tide, rowing easily, and establish themselves as a threat to 3,000. And all but 28 of them has failed to get there. Whether by injury, a decline in skills, a change in batting-order position, or any of a thousand reasons, the current turns on them, and they are washed out into the vast sea called “everyone else.” Even the guys in the 3,000 hit club had to grind along year after year to get there. As I remembered how tired my back got from all that impotent rowing, I asked myself: Which of those 28 guys had the toughest paddling to 3,000?
Here’s three things to consider: opportunity, context, and playing style.
Opportunity is kind of simple to answer: Cap Anson. For about half of Anson’s seasons, the league played fewer than 100 games a year. Only in his last several seasons did the NL regularly play 130-154 game seasons. And even then, Anson only limped over the 3,000 mark in his final year by the historical fluke that in 1887 walks were counted as hits. Among the 3,000-hit players:
- 1 got there in 15 years (Pete Rose)
- 5 got there in 17 years (Ty Cobb, Derek Jeter, Paul Waner, Stan Musial, and Hank Aaron)
- 5 got there in 18 years (Wade Boggs, Honus Wagner, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Tony Gwynn)
- 8 got there in 19 years (Lou Brock, Rod Carew, Tris Speaker, Paul Molitor, Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Collins, Robin Yount, and Eddie Murray)
- 6 got there in 20 years (Dave Winfield, Nap Lajoie, George Brett, Craig Biggio, Cal Ripken, and Rafael Palmeiro)
- 1 got there in 22 years (Al Kaline)
- 1 got there in 23 years (Rickey Henderson).
Anson needed 27 years.
Context is something that requires a little trickier answer. To keep it simple, I looked at bb-ref to see what the league batting average was for each of these players through the year they got their 3,000th hit. In fact, the generous Mr. Foreman goes one better and supplies the league average as a park-adjusted figure. Aaron, Carew, Rickey, and Yount each played in a league and park where the average hitter was at .260…. But the toughest lot was actually drawn by Dave Winfield who hit into a .259 environment. Winfield played 7 years in San Diego’s old Jack Murphy Stadium, which, like Petco Park today, was a hitter’s graveyard. On the free agent market, he caught a real break by moving to Yankee Stadium, where only half the park was a graveyard. Unfortunately it was the half he tended to hit toward as a righty hitter. After 8 years there, he went briefly to California and Toronto, which were neutral to slightly pitcher-friendly parks. He spent his final three seasons in Minnesota and Cleveland, where he finally encountered parks that helped him. For all of 266 of his 2973 games. Notice that all five of the guys I just mentioned played in some portion of the late-60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and/or early 90’s. This era saw plummeting offensive levels, the adoption of the DH because there wasn’t enough offense, a crazy spike in 300-game winners, and finally the mini deadball era of 1988–1992.
By the way, Paul Waner had the easiest context by far to work in. In the roaring 20’s and heavy-hitting 30’s, his combination of parks and league led to a .285 context, 9 points ahead of the .276 context that Tris Speaker faced.
Playing Style kind of meshes with opportunity at times. For example, Lou Brock is without question the least effective batter to reach 3,000 hits. But because he could run, he always led off. And because he walked about as often as Nomar Garciaparra, he created more opportunities per game to get his hits. And, finally, he hardly ever missed a game and kept his speed all the way to the end. Add it up, and that’s how a mediocre .293 career hitter gets to the summit in less than 20 years. Contrast this with Barry Bonds, who in 22 years and with a batting average five points better than Brock’s fell 65 hits short of 3,000 hits—opponents took away opportunities to put the ball in play and reach the milestone by walking him intentionally 688 times. Well, and a lot of Bonds’ 1870 remaining walks were surely of the unintentional-intentional variety. So Brock’s style allowed him to be the 11th fastest man to reach 3,000 hits despite having only the 20th best batting average in the group, and being its weakest hitter by far.
In a funny way, Brock leads us to our least-likely 3,000 Hit Club Member by style. Despite hitting leadoff, Rickey Henderson needed 23 years to reach 3,000. His highest single-season hit total was 179. He led the league in hits once…with 135 in strike-shortened 1981. Rickey walked more than twice as often as Brock in their careers. He finished in the top-ten in walks 17 times in his career, including four times leading his league, drew 100 walks seven times, and is second all-time in walks. He was plunked 98 times for good measure. (Brock exactly half that.) His game wasn’t built on batting average, and he hit only .279 for his career. To top it off, he simply missed a lot of games. In his 25 year career, he averaged 123 games per season. He played 150 games just twice in those 25 years. Rickey needed 23 of those 25 years to make it to 3,000 despite his playing style. Yet he got those 23 years because of it: he retained his two core skills (speed and batting eye) deep into his career, so that even as his bat speed slowed, he could still be an asset and find playing time.
While we’re here, there’s one other element of playing style worth mentioning. How much better were these guys at getting their hits than their leagues? I took the batting average of each player through the season of his 3000th hit and divided it by the league’s park-adjusted average. No surprise: Ty Cobb was the highest at 40% above his league. The lowest shouldn’t surprise either: Cal Ripken at a mere 5% above his league.
So back to my rowing analogy, which guy had to put his back into the oars the most? I could probably make up some heuristic to assess all this in a single number, but, really, this boils down to Rickey versus Adrian Constantine Anson. Rickey’s playing style and his offensive context were big barriers to reaching 3,000. For Anson, it was simply that he needed all 27 years because his leagues played so few games by modern standards. In the end, I’ll give Eric’s Golden Palm d’Oar to The Man of Steal. Put Anson in Rickey’s era, and he makes 3,000 with room to spare. But put Rickey in the baseball context of Anson’s time, and there’s no way he makes it because the schedule would simply run out on him.