Considering that one year ago he had never hit more than 21 homers in a season, Chris Davis seemed like an unlikely candidate to be chasing history in 2013.
But with 32 home runs entering Friday, the Baltimore Orioles first baseman suddenly finds himself on a quest for milestones.
That’s what happens when you are the first player in the history of game to have at least 25 doubles and at least 30 homers before July. Or when you’re slugging .722 by the first weekend in July. Or when you’re taking aim on the legitimate single-season home run record.
What’s that? Is Davis going to hit 73 home runs like Barry Bonds did in 2001?
He won’t even get to 70 like Mark McGwire did in 1998. But he might, just might, break the legitimate home run record of 58.
You see, home runs, like everything else in baseball, are subject to the conditions of the time. And if you look down the list of the most homers hit in a season, you can see how those conditions influence the statistics.
The top nine single-season home-run hitters in history all benefited from outside factors — either steroids, expansion, or segregation. Let’s take a look:
1, Barry Bonds, 73, 2001, steroids; 2, Mark McGwire, 70, 1998, steroids and expansion; 3, Sammy Sosa, 66, 1998, steroids and expansion; 4, Mark McGwire, 65, 1999, steroids; 5, Sammy Sosa, 64, 2001, steroids; 6, Sammy Sosa, 63, 1999, steroids; 7, Roger Maris, 61, 1961, expansion year; 8, Babe Ruth, 60, 1927, segregation; 9, Babe Ruth, 59, 1921, segregation.
That brings us down to 58 homers in a season, a mark achieved four times: Jimmie Foxx in 1932, Hank Greenberg in 1938, Mark McGwire in 1997, and Ryan Howard in 2006.
Foxx and Greenberg played in a segregated major leagues, and McGwire used steroids. That leaves Ryan Howard with the legitimate home-run record of 58.
The case for excluding steroid users requires no explanation. The case for excluding players in an expansion year comes from the fact that expansion temporarily dilutes the talent in the major leagues and always results in increased offensive output. The case for excluding players from the era of segregation is that, well, they weren’t competing against all of the best players in the country.
That doesn’t mean that Ruth wasn’t a great player; he still ranks as the best the game has ever seen. But it does mean that the conditions of the time helped him amass his remarkable statistical record.
Which brings us back to Davis. Last season, the first time in three years he received regular playing time, Davis hit a career-high 33 homers. This year, he has had a historic first half.
His .327 average entering this weekend was 45 points higher than he has ever hit for a season, and his .722 slugging percentage would stand as the 24th highest in history, ranking between Rogers Hornsby and Lou Gehrig.
And whether or not you buy the argument about home-run totals being influenced by steroids, expansion, or segregation, Davis is within range of the American League record.
Despite the inflated totals from the Steroids Era of the 1990s and 2000s, Roger Maris still holds the AL record with 61 homers in 1961. Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa have the six highest totals in history — all in the National League.
We don’t know whether Davis will get to 60 homers or 50 homers or even 40 homers. But it’s a pretty safe bet that a year ago we wouldn’t even have considered the possibility.
Question or comment for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at .email@example.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne