To set a record, whether as a team or as an individual, always requires a great confluence of events. The 2007 New England Patriots, the only NFL team to ever go 16-0, needed an innovative offense, legendary players, and a host of narrow-victories to survive the regular season unscathed. Barry Bonds needed a host of new, small ballparks, expansion teams flooding the league with replacement level pitchers, otherworldly talent, and likely chemical enhancement to smash 73 home runs in 2001. The Golden State Warriors needed supreme commitment from its incredible host of players, as well as a clean bill of health, to set the NBA record for wins in a season with 73 in 2016.
It takes skill, it takes health, and it takes luck. Unfortunately for those of us following baseball, we haven’t quite seen that confluence of factors in recent historic chases. Injuries in recent years have potentially robbed of us of seeing all-time greats do all-time great things.
Let’s start with the greatest player of this generation, Mike Trout. Prior to this season, Trout essentially had a perfect career. He owned the most WAR through each age-season that he ever played through. His brief, uneven call-up as a 19-year-old in 2011 was the only blemish on his record. Otherwise, his Baseball Reference page included exclusively excellent, full, MVP-caliber seasons.
Trout could still win the MVP this year, despite missing a large chunk of the season to a hand injury. Trout’s contention for the league’s most prestigious award speaks to the remarkable job the Angels have done staying afloat in the playoff race, but it mostly speaks to the unbelievable play of Trout. That he could feasibly lead the AL in wins above replacement, in a year that does feature strong other contenders like Jose Altuve, Chris Sale, and Aaron Judge, even after having missed a substantial part of the season, is patently insane.
Trout is listed as leading the league in OPS at 1.138, even though he doesn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify. That’s because he could strikeout in every at bat he needs to qualify and still lead the league in OPS. He has 5.6 fWAR in 80 games, an 11.4-win pace over a full season.
That level of production hasn’t been seen since Bonds, and would’ve marked a signature season for baseball’s signature player. If Trout played at this level all year, his season would go down as one of the great seasons in history. Perhaps it would’ve pushed Trout more into the eye of the casual, mainstream sports fan. Even with the injury, Trout will still contend for individual awards, but we have been robbed of seeing what the ceiling could truly be for one of the greatest players ever.
Similarly, the greatest pitcher of this generation has lost a pair of chances at putting together a signature season because of injury. Back issues derailed Clayton Kershaw last summer, and again this summer, putting the kibosh on Kershaw’s consistent dominance.
Since last season, Kershaw has struck out 340 batters and walked a minuscule 30. His ERA is a stunning 1.86. Given a full season, Kershaw could have pushed for records in the strikeout department, in the strikeout to walk department, maybe the ERA department. Instead, he’s had abbreviated, stellar seasons to write home about.
Not only that, but the Dodgers chances at a record-setting season took a hit when Kershaw went down. The Dodgers are still on pace to win 116 games, but basically have no margin for error if they want to set the MLB record for wins. If they are to actually set the mark, they probably need some margin for error, since the team would likely ease off the gas in the season’s final days to rest for the postseason, possibly putting the team off pace at season’s end.
Kershaw’s injury nullified the Dodgers chances to get ahead of schedule in the record hunt, and they now need another several weeks of flawless play to reach 116 or 117 wins. Such a record probably wouldn’t have the same aura as the Patriots’ 16-win season for the Warriors 73-win campaign, especially if, like those teams, it wasn’t followed by a championship. But Kershaw’s ailments hurt the odds we even get to see a chase.
Even Carlos Correa’s injury robbed of us potential history. Correa is not a star on Trout or Kershaw’s level. Maybe he will ascend to that level, maybe he won’t. But whether he will break out and establish himself in the tier just below Trout/Kershaw as an all-around superstar has been a discussion in recent years. Correa didn’t achieve that breakout last year, but appeared to be doing so in 2017.
Through 84 games, Correa posted a .320/.400/.566 line. He was on pace to post over 9 WAR per Baseball Reference. Correa was a 22-year-old shortstop putting in a performance reminiscent of a similarly-aged Alex Rodriguez from two decades ago.
Correa’s injury robbed us of a breakout from one of baseball’s emerging superstars. It also held back the Astros’ chase for an all-time great offense. The Astros, currently, hold a stellar 124 wRC+, 15 points higher than the next closest club. That figure places them 3rd in history, behind the 1927 and 1930 Yankees.
Prior to Correa’s injury however, the Astros held a 128 wRC+, the best ever. Since Correa’s injury, the Astros have posted a still great but non-historic 113 wRC+. The drop-off cannot simply be attributed to the loss of Correa’s superb play; the Astros were likely to regress from that 128 wRC+ mark anyway. But again, setting a record requires tight margins, and losing one of baseball’s best hitters at a premium defensive position was a significant hit.
In the end, we will still get to see plenty of Trout, plenty of Kershaw, and plenty of the Astros, and we may even get to see this generation’s best hitter and pitcher both play in the same postseason. We just won’t get to see the absolute ceiling, the way we might’ve had health provided. This serves as another reminder of how much chance is involved when it comes to any slice of history. It’s just tough to swallow when it seemed we were seeing prime chances from all-time greats in their prime, only to have injury cut players like Trout and Kershaw and Correa down.