What might have been: Projecting 10 MLB interrupted careers

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 10: Players observe a moment of silence for deceased pitcher Yordano Ventura #30 prior to the Royals 2017 home opener against the Oakland Athletics at Kauffman Stadium on April 10, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 10: Players observe a moment of silence for deceased pitcher Yordano Ventura #30 prior to the Royals 2017 home opener against the Oakland Athletics at Kauffman Stadium on April 10, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /
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Lou Gehrig, with a fan, in 1937. (Photo by Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
Lou Gehrig, with a fan, in 1937. (Photo by Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images) /

Lou Gehrig

Gehrig’s 1939 sidelining and death two years later from the eponymously named disease is perhaps baseball’s best-known tragedy. At the time of his last game, he was not yet 36, but had amassed 493 home runs and 1,995 RBIs.

Those numbers raise two intriguing questions. Had Gehrig lived out his natural playing span, could he have joined his long-time teammate, Babe Ruth, in surpassing 600 home runs, and might he have set the all-time MLB record for runs batted in?

Projecting the answers to those questions obviously requires some serious speculation. Here goes.

In 1934, his age 31 season, Gehrig led the league with 49 home runs. His total rose and fell with predictable regularity, but by 1938 – his last plausibly healthy season – sat at 29. That’s a 40 percent decline over four seasons, or about 10 percent per season.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that 10 percent decline rate, and let’s further assume that Gehrig continued to play until age 40. That’s plausible; World War II was by then infusing MLB with players either too young or – as in Gehrig’s case too old—to be drafted.

At that rate, Gehrig would have produced 26 home runs in 1939, 23 in 1940, 21 in 1941, 19 in 1942, and 17 in 1943. That’s 106 home runs atop the 493 he actually retired with, leaving him one measly home run short of the 600 mark.

Projecting Gehrig’s RBI total is more satisfying to his fans. Between 1934 and 1938, his RBI totals declined from 166 to 114, a 32 percent drop or 8 percent per season. Projecting in the same fashion, that rate of decline gives Gehrig105 in 1939, 96 in 1940, 89 in 1941, 82 in 1942 and 75 in 1943.

Projecting in that manner adds 447 RBIs to Gehrig’s actual total of 1,995.

Gehrig presently stands seventh all-time in MLB history in RBI, behind six pretty familiar names. The six ahead of him are Hank Aaron (the champ with 2,297), Babe Ruth, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Cap Anson, and Barry Bonds.

By projecting Gehrig to get those extra 447 RBIs, his total rises to 2,442, easily eclipsing everybody ahead of him and building a margin of 145 over Aaron.