Max Scherzer became the 19th member of the 3,000-strikeout club on Sunday, and he did so in vintage Scherzer fashion.
Eric Hosmer, like so many Scherzer strikeout victims, looked like he had no chance when swinging at Scherzer’s 88 mph changeup. But the fact that the ever-intense future Hall of Famer seemed annoyed that he had to acknowledge the accomplishment in the moment because it meant he had to stop mowing down Padres hitters in a game that mattered in the standings?
That’s so Max.
We’ve had a run of significant round-number MLB milestones lately. Joey Votto recorded his 2,000th hit on Aug. 16, a line-drive single to center field. Miguel Cabrera hit his 500th home run, an opposite-field shot — what else? — on Aug. 22. Now, Scherzer at 3,000.
More than any other sport, these round numbers hold significance in baseball.
“Those are iconic numbers, the 100 RBIs, hitting .300, the 500 homers,” former Braves slugger Dale Murphy said. “I don’t know if there are iconic numbers like that in other sports that have transcended the history of the game.”
Should it matter if a guy like Murphy finishes at 398 home runs instead of 400? No, not really. It’s no different than Mike Piazza finishing at 425 instead of his actual total of 427. The difference is still just two homers.
But, yeah, it matters. Hall of Famer Frank Thomas finished with a .301 career batting average, to go with his 521 homers and 1,704 RBIs. I asked him recently whether it would have mattered to him if he had, let’s say, finished at .299 instead of .301.
“It would have mattered, yes,” he said, barely letting me finish my question. “That was a goal of mine. … That means a lot. To accomplish that, to get to 500 homers, as a guy who hits .300, that’s very special. Not a lot of guys have done that.”
There’s a reason Ted Williams is praised for playing on the final day of the 1941 season when his .3996 batting average technically would have counted as a .400 average. There’s a reason John Kruk immediately retired after his first-inning single on July 30, 1995, left his career batting average at exactly .300. He literally showered and left the game, never to play again, at 34 years old.
Maybe round numbers shouldn’t matter so much, but they do. And it’s not just the historic round numbers, like 500 homers or 3,000 strikeouts. Every round number has a bit of significance. Heck, Baseball-Reference has a milestone tracker for this exact reason.
“Yeah, I mean there’s a big difference between having an ERA or 2.95 or 3.05, or in the 3s instead of the 4s,” former No. 1 overall pick Andy Benes told SN. “As you get closer to the end of the career …
That “in retrospect” is a theme for players.
“I look back on it different now,” former Angels slugger Tim Salmon said. “As a player, I downplayed everything. Just play, help the team win and move on. Whatever. But in hindsight, you look at things and how different would have been if I’d paid more attention to things.”
Murphy, Salmon and Benes finished their careers forever tied to round numbers, good and bad. Let’s look at their stories.
Dale Murphy, 398 career home runs
Murphy finished two home runs shy of the 400 mark for his career, and he’s asked about it pretty much every time he chats with baseball fans. It’s in the question rotation along with “Why did you choose No. 3?” And “What’s your favorite moment of your career?”
He might be the nicest person ever to play baseball, so he answers everything with a smile. But, yeah, he has thoughts on the subject of round numbers and baseball.
“It really isn’t just a baseball thing. It’s human psychology,” he said. “It’s left-digit bias. There’s a real psychology to it. Look at the pricing in retail. Absolutely, no question. … Left-digit bias is you read from left to right, and when you see 299 as opposed to 300, you think it’s a lot less, because you see the two and compare it to the three.”
He’s not wrong. Left-digit bias is why a box of family-sized Triscuits are $3.99 and not $4.00. It’s why a blaster of 2021 Topps Baseball cards is $19.99 at Walmart and not $20. It’s why that used car has a giant $9,995 sticker and not a cleaner $10K tag. This is a real, documented thing.
“I don’t want to downplay the fact that I wish I had 400, you know,” Murphy said with a laugh. “I’m like everyone else. I wanted to hit .300. I wanted 100 RBIs. I understand the psychology. I get it.”
That 398 home run total is a puzzle with two little pieces missing. It just looks incomplete. Murphy looks at another contemporary of his and sees the number 493 — Fred McGriff’s career home-run total. Just seven short of that iconic 500 number. Like Murphy, he’s on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame.
“In Fred’s case, the four looks a lot different than five,” Murphy said. “It’s just psychological. People have said, ‘He never won an MVP’ or whatever, but let’s say he got 500 home runs. What would keep him out?”
It’s hard not to look at baseball’s labor stoppages for both Murphy and McGriff. Murphy played in 104 of Atlanta’s 106 games in 1981 and hit 13 homers. Would he have hit two more if the Braves didn’t lose 56 games to the strike? Yeah, almost certainly.
And McGriff played 257 of Atlanta’s 258 games in 1994 and 1995, the seasons impacted by that labor stoppage. He had 34 homers in 113 games in ’94 and 27 in ’95. Would he have hit seven more home runs in the 67 games the Braves lost to the strike? Yeah, almost certainly.
Once upon a time, Murphy looked he would reach the 500-homer mark, and that 400 plateau would be a side note along the way. Murphy had his first 20-plus homer year in his Age 22 season, 1978. He won back-to-back NL MVP awards in 1982 and 1983, then led the NL in homers in 1984 and 1985. His totals those four seasons: 36, 36, 36, 37. He hit 29 in 1986 and then a career-high 44 in 1987, his Age 31 season. He was at 310 homers.
Murphy hit 86 over the next four years, split between Atlanta and Philadelphia. Knee issues that had zapped his power limited him to 18 games and two homers in 1992, and Murphy signed with the Rockies in April 1993, after the Phillies cut ties at the end of spring training. What better place than the thin air of Denver to get those last two homers?
It didn’t happen. Murphy was mostly a pinch-hitter. He played in 26 games with 11 starts and went 6-for-42 with one extra-base hit, a double. He retired on May 27, 1993.
“Why didn’t I stay on for 400? There’s a number of reasons why I didn’t,” Murphy said. “I wasn’t playing that well. Nobody called from the American League and said, ‘We’d love for you to DH.’ I wasn’t that healthy either, with the Rockies.
“At that point in my career I just couldn’t chase two more. Nancy was expecting our eighth child, so there were other issues, too.”
What about those two missing home runs? There are two Murphy thinks about. One was a home run he hit against Sid Fernandez, a game that was rained out (it doesn’t show up on Retrosheet’s list of rained-out homers, but that’s an admittedly incomplete list). And then, there was one an unlikely outfielder stole.
“Jack Clark didn’t rob a lot of home runs, but I specifically have a memory of him,” Murphy said. “We had a lower fence in the early 1980s in Atlanta, and I have a specific memory of it. I don’t remember the details, except the fact that it was Jack Clark who robbed me. I can picture him going back and getting it.”
But the rain and Clark meant Murphy ended his 18-year career with 398 homers.
“It looks like a hundred less than 400, right, rather than two less” he said with another laugh. “That’s just the way we are.”
Andy Benes, 2,000 career strikeouts
Andy Benes was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1988 MLB Draft and he threw the very first regular-season pitch in Arizona Diamondbacks history, in 1998. Remember the most famous game in Mariners history, when Ken Griffey Jr. dashed all the way around the bases to score the winning run and beat the Yankees in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS? Benes started that contest for the Mariners.
He led the NL in strikeouts in 1994 and finished top-six in the Cy Young voting twice; the first 13 years of his big league career were full of highlights, and some lowlights, too.
But even he couldn’t have predicted what that 14th year, the 2002 season, had in store for him. Heading into that season, his Age 34 year, Benes had lost about 13 mph off his peak triple-digit fastball, the result of knee issues that left him unable to drive off the mound. His lone 2000 playoff start for the Cardinals was a gem of confusion and misdirection; he pitched eight innings against the Mets and told Sporting News that not a single pitch registered above 83 mph.
That formula caught the Mets off-guard in October, but it was a disaster in 2001, when he finished with a 7.38 ERA in 107 1/3 innings. He went into spring training 2002 with a mid-80s fastball and, for the first time in his career, no guarantees of even a roster spot, much less a rotation spot. He earned a job as a starter, but it didn’t last long. His first three starts resulted in only 10 total innings, 17 hits, 12 walks, five strikeouts and a 10.80 ERA.
The Cardinals, basically, sent him home. He was 59 strikeouts away from 2,000, and it looked like he’d never get there.
After a couple of weeks, he reached out to Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty to let him know he’d been working on a few things and wanted to give it another shot. The Cardinals were good that year, but their rotation was a mess, in terms of health; eight different pitchers started games for the club in May. Still, the call Benes was waiting for didn’t come immediately.
Finally, a week or so later, Jocketty called back.
”Hey, how are you doing?” Jocketty said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m pitching,” Benes replied.
“Who are you pitching to?”
“My 6-year-old’s pee-wee team.”
“Well, good. I’m calling because we want you to start working out. I do have one question for you, though.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Are you getting them out?”
“Well, these guys are pretty tough. Some, yes, some I’m not.”
So the Cardinals had Benes ramp things back up, and part of that process included a stop in Memphis, home of the team’s Triple-A club. There, Benes was assigned No. 57, the same number as his friend Darryl Kile, who wore No. 57 for the big league Cardinals. Strange, right? But not a big deal. Benes was scheduled to start for Memphis on June 22, and he was sitting in his hotel room that afternoon.
He flipped on the Cardinals-Cubs game.
You know what happened that day. There was no game. Kile died in his hotel room, at 33 years old.
“I was buddies with DK,” Benes said. “We were teammates for years. I was just like, ‘OK, I know I’m going to finish the year for him.’ Mentally, I was ready to go. I was throwing the ball pretty well, and my perspective was totally different.”
Benes returned to the Cardinals for the second half of the season, with a new purpose and a new pitch. Willing to try anything at this point, he’d picked up a splitter for the first time in his career. The first time he used it in a big league game, it helped him escape a bases-loaded, no-outs situation.
“I was throwing my best stuff and they had the bases loaded, so I figured what the heck?” Benes said. “I was just letting it flying, trying to be unpredictable.”
Benes was brilliant. He made 14 starts and one relief appearance in the second half, racking up a 1.86 ERA. Benes got the start in the final game of the season, which mattered for potential playoff home-field in the NLDS, even though they’d long since wrapped up the NL Central title. Benes started the game at 1,998 career strikeouts.
Ryan Christianson, the leadoff batter, went down swinging, on a strike-to-ball slider that had resulted in lots of swings and misses over his career. One more left. Easy, right?
Benes was rolling through the Milwaukee lineup, but he didn’t register a strikeout in the second, third or fourth, despite getting to two-strike counts on five hitters. His back was starting to tighten up. With two outs in the fifth and game tied, 0-0, Christianson was up again, with Paul Bako on first. Benes jumped ahead with an 0-2 count, but three straight out of the zone left the count at 3-2.
The sixth pitch was over the plate, a called Strike Three. Mike Matheny, the catcher, threw out Bako trying to steal, a classic strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play. The scoreboard at Busch Stadium made sure everyone in the ballpark knew about the milestone Benes had just reached.
“It was emotional for me, because I was one of those fans for a long time, sitting in those seats up in the upper deck,” Benes said. “I grew up a huge Cardinals fan and would come over to St. Louis from southern Indiana during the ’80s when I was in high school and watch games. I just always loved the Cardinals, they were my team. So to have that at Busch Stadium, it was the last day, sold out with a standing ovation, that was really cool.”
Turns out, that 3-2 strike to Christianson was the last regular-season pitch Benes ever threw. He made two postseason starts that year, then retired soon after the season.
After the struggles of the previous few seasons, going out with a good taste in his mouth was important.
“Just to get to that number was really, really special,” Benes said. “It put me in the top 75 all time at the time, or somewhere like that. It’s just better than one short of that. I mean, I had a lot of guys with two strikes and they put the ball in play. At the end of the day, I felt very blessed to get to that number.
“It’s unique. There are not too many who end right on the number.”
Tim Salmon, 299 career home runs
Until injuries took their toll, Tim Salmon was one of the most reliable hitters in baseball. From 1993 to 2000, Salmon reached the 30-home run mark five times and averaged 28 homers and 94 RBIs, with a .294/.396/.532 slash line, a 138 OPS+ and a 4.0 bWAR.
But injuries did take their toll, affecting his ability to stay productive and on the field. Finally, in late August 2004 — right around his 36th birthday — Salmon shut it down. He had two major surgeries, on the rotator cuff of his left shoulder and microfracture surgery on his left knee. The rehab process would be long and difficult, and he knew that might be the end of his playing career. He had 290 home runs.
“The 290 never resonated because it was just 290,” he told SN. “If it had been 490, it would have been a completely different story. Maybe even 390. It just wasn’t on my radar.”
Salmon threw himself into the rehab process for 17 months. Well, into rehab and Little League, where he was “elbow deep” working with his kids. He reported to spring training in 2006 mostly as a way to wrap up the rehab process.
“I was fully anticipating that would be my farewell. I’d retire,” Salmon said. “But I came back and didn’t feel pain doing the things I’d become accustomed to. That was exciting, not to feel pain. I was playing decent, swinging the bat decently and we had a bunch of guys that got hurt. Any other year I wouldn’t have gotten the reps in the games to know what I’d be able to do. It was because of those circumstances that I was getting reps in the games. I was really proving it to myself.”
Salmon homered in his second plate appearance of the regular season, and again in his fourth. He didn’t play every day, basically sharing DH duties with outfielders Garrett Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero (Sr.). He was rolling along with a .866 OPS and six homers in 164 PAs through the end of June.
On Sept. 28, having proven everything he wanted to prove after his rehab and return to the big leagues, he officially announced that he was retiring after the season. He was at 299 home runs, having hit that one the night before, off Rangers starter Adam Eaton.
“I mean, it enters my mind from the standpoint of, ‘I’m going to play tomorrow, it would be nice to hit it.’ But nothing from the standpoint of, ‘I’m coming back to get it.’ At that point of the year, you’re tired,” he said. “My knee, I have an arthritic knee and I knew what it took to maintain it. It’s just not worth it. I want to have an active retirement. It just didn’t seem that important, to get that one more home run.”
Salmon started each of the Angels’ four final games, but didn’t get one out of the ballpark. If you know anything about Tim Salmon, the person, you know he’s turned this into a positive.
“I will say this, and I’ve always said it, to me, 299 is great! If I’d gotten to 301, nobody would ever blink an eye,” he said. “But 299, everybody asks me about it. I get a lot more mileage out of it, and it’s fun to talk about. I always say that if I was at 499, heck yeah, roll me out in a wheelchair. I’m playing until I get it. Even if you’re above 450, heck yeah, you play as many years as you can to get to it, because 500 is the magical number. But around 300, I was so far away from it, it just wasn’t going to happen.”
On one hand, it’s kinda crazy to think that, in an outstanding career that spanned 14 seasons, 1,672 games and 7,039 plate appearances, maybe one more ball could have slipped over the wall. Salmon knows where a couple of potentials ended, though.
“By the way, Kenny Lofton stole two or three from me,” Salmon said with a laugh. “I gotta thank Kenny Lofton for keeping me at the 299 mark.”
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