I haven’t yet read the Henry Aaron biography I have sitting on my shelves, so I can only go by hearsay when I write that apparently Hank Aaron never wanted to be called “Hank”, and that nobody close to him ever called him “Hank”, and he was always “Henry” in his own mind and to his friends. Since I’m not one of his friends, I didn’t want to label this post “Focus On: Henry Aaron”. But I did want to mention it here, because it feels odd talking about a man using a name he didn’t use himself.
Anyway, this isn’t a biographical sketch, but rather a quick look at just how amazing Aaron was. I mean, everybody with any knowledge of baseball knows the name, and most know that he was the all-time home run king for almost 30 years; some people claim that he still is the king (ignoring Barry Bonds’ steroid-fueled 762). However you want to look at it, he was one of the greatest home run hitters of all time.
Interestingly, Hank Aaron never hit 50 or more homers in any single season. He was more of a 40+ homer guy (which he did 8 times) interspersed with seven 30+ years. So while he didn’t awe people with 60 homers like Babe Ruth or 73 like Bonds, he certainly awed a generation of fans by hitting anywhere between 30 and 47 homers fifteen times.
Longevity is sometimes less spectacular than a short, brilliant career (Sandy Koufax, Ralph Kiner), but in Aaron’s case, it definitely was not about playing merely “good” baseball for 23 years. He was actually great in most of those years. Many fans have no clue that he was an excellent baserunner and one of the better fielding outfielders of his time. He stole 240 bases (at a 77% success rate) and was a 30-30 player in 1963. He collected three consecutive Gold Gloves in Right Field (1958-60) and is 8th all-time in Assists from a Right Fielder (178), leading the league twice. UZR and Inside Edge fielding stats are too new to include Aaron, but using the slightly older sabermetric Total Zone Rating, Hank Aaron ranks as the 5th best Right Fielder to play since 1920.
When he wasn’t hitting homers, he was still hitting the ball hard: he lead the NL in doubles four times and had 10 or more triples three times. He lead the NL in Total Bases eight times. He hit over .300 fourteen times, with a career best .355 in 1959.
Something that goes overlooked in Aaron’s career is his playoff appearances. While with the Braves, he faced off against Mickey Mantle’s Yankees in the World Series twice, winning it all in 1957. He also played in the 1969 NLCS against the Mets, in which he hit 3 homers in a losing effort. Overall, in 74 playoff Plate Appearances, he hit .362 with 6 homers, including 3 in the WS victory over the Yankees.
Perhaps we can get the best picture of his greatness by looking at him in terms of some advanced metrics (namely, wRC+ and fWAR). Let’s compare him first of all to another, recent Braves’ Right Fielder: Justin Upton. Not many people believe Upton has ever lived up to expectations, and he doesn’t appear to be on his way to the Hall of Fame. But in 2011, Upton had his best year to date: he hit .289 with 31 homers and a career best 7.9 UZR rating in the field. He had a 141 wRC+ and 6.1 fWAR. He finished 4th in the NL MVP voting.
To put Hank Aaron in perspective: from 1955-1973 (19 consecutive seasons), he never had a wRC+ of lower than 142. That means he hit better than Justin Upton’s best year… 19 years in a row. Think about that number: 19 consecutive seasons. Looking at the bigger picture, Aaron had a higher fWAR than Upton’s best 6.1 in every year from 1956-69 (14 years in a row), and then again in 1971.
But let’s look past the non-Hall of Fame guys and compare Aaron to a flashier Hall of Famer (Willie Mays) and a current, possible future Hall of Famer (Giancarlo Stanton).
At the plate, Aaron and Mays were eerily similar. Both players had 9 seasons with a wRC+ of 160 or higher, and while Mays had 6 seasons of 170 or higher, Aaron had 5. Their career wRC+? 154 (Mays) and 153 (Aaron). For all intents and purposes, they were equally great at the plate. And while Mays was considered to be the speed-demon of the two, and he did steal more bases, nonetheless Mays’ 338 wasn’t that many more than Aaron’s 240. Perhaps more importantly, Aaron’s success rate at stealing was exactly equal to Mays (both were slightly below 77%). Their career Fangraphs Baserunning totals landed them at 32.9 (Mays) and 24.9 (Aaron). Again, Mays had a slight advantage, but it is almost negligible. Offensively, at the plate and on the bases, they were basically equals.
Giancarlo Stanton is generally considered to be either the best or second-best hitting Right Fielder in the game today (some would still take Jose Bautista in that argument). Either way, in his four and half seasons in the majors, he has hit 154 homers and a 143 wRC+. Last year, when he finished second in the NL MVP voting, he had a 159 wRC+, second highest in the NL. Looking back a couple paragraphs, you’ll recall that Aaron hit at a relatively higher rate (160 or higher) than Stanton’s near-MVP season nine different times.
Let’s look at fWAR. Mike Trout was the AL MVP this year, with a 7.8 fWAR. Aaron beat that four times. Andrew McCutchen, considered by some to be the second best player in the game today, had a 6.8 fWAR last year. Hank Aaron had an fWAR of 6.8 or higher fourteen times. It’s one thing to beat Justin Upton’s best season that many times, but to beat one of Andrew McCutchen’s prime seasons that many times brings it to a whole other level.
When you add it all up, there is no doubt that Hank Aaron is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. According to fWAR, Aaron is the 6th best position-player to ever play the game, and the third best to play post-WWII (behind just Mays and Bonds). Baseball Reference’s rWAR has him at 5th best ever. He is first all time in Total Bases, third in Hits, and is still second in Home Runs.
Many people have commented that Aaron’s stoic demeanor and the absence of flashy play on the field have dimmed his greatness in baseball’s collective memory. That sounds about right to me: we tend to remember the vocal, wild players, whether they are good guys or jerks. And if you look at his numbers, there can be no other explanation for him not to be at the forefront of every discussion of the “greatest”.