By The Numbers: The Forgotten Slugger – Harmon Killebrew
By Father Gabe Costa
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Guest blogger Ms. Rachael Gomez is from Idaho. She is also taking a course on sabermetrics. What better way to combine these two things than to write about the greatest ballplayer from the Gem State, Harmon Killebrew?
Rachael Gomez: What gets baseball fans on their feet and rowdy? Home runs do! Think back to your first real life major league baseball game and try to remember what it felt like when entered the stadium. Did the immense size of the park – gasp! – catch you off guard? Did you wonder how it was possible for a ball to be hit hard enough to escape the walls? And if a home run was hit, did you consider how far the ball would travel?
Recent players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols are known for their home run prowess and are expected to knock balls out of the park on a regular basis. The same was expected of past immortals like Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. In fact it was Ruth himself, who sparked the home run phenomenon; furthermore, according to Home Run Guru Bill Jenkinson, he consistently hit the ball further than anyone else in history (please see a previous blog reviewing Bill Jenkinson’s 2010 encyclopedic study, Baseball’s Ultimate Power).
But let’s not forget another great slugger from the past – who coincidentally wore number 3, the same number as The Bambino – Harmon Clayton Killebrew.
Born and raised in Payette, Idaho, “Killer” was originally picked-up by the Washington Senators. Modest and quiet are two words which can be used to describe this not so well known baseball legend, but his actions on the field were loud and proud. The nickname “Killer” was ironic when comparing it to his personality, but it was very fitting when describing the way in which he hit baseballs. And could he hit them far!
With regard to long distance home runs, Killebrew was ranked as the ninth most powerful hitter ever by Bill Jenkinson (see above). The Killer had four home runs which traveled at least 500 feet, his longest measuring 522 feet, which was slugged in Minnesota on June 3, 1967.
When he retired, his At-Bat-to-Home-Run ratio was 14.22, trailing only Ralph Kiner (14.11) and Babe Ruth (11.76). In other words, he was hitting home runs at the third fastest clip ever, a shade behind the second best figure.
While power was the dominating strength of his game, he did fine in the other aspects of hitting. For example, his Batting Linear Weights Runs (BLWR, a measure proposed by John Thorn and Pete Palmer in their classic book, The Hidden Game of Baseball) for 1969, the year he won the MVP award, was calculated to be 73.92. This number is computed by using the following formula:
The strength of this metric is that it indicates how many more “runs” Killebrew contributed over the “average” 1969 player. This was the third highest BLWR of the American League MVP awardees of the 1960’s.
All in all, Killebrew played in the major leagues for twenty-two seasons, and starred for three different teams: the Senators, the Twins and the Royals. He was selected to the American League All-Star team thirteen times. His 573 career home runs represented, at the time of his retirement, more circuit clouts than any right-handed hitter in league history. He won or shared the American League Home Run Crown home runs six times. In 1984, he was enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Aside from his statistics, Killebrew was a gentleman both on and off the field. In a sense, his demeanor was fairly typical of the major league baseball players of his era. He was conservative and could be classified as a homebody, rather than a party animal. A famous Killebrew response to the question about what he liked to do for fun was “…well, I like to wash dishes, I guess.” This giant of a man was harmless…unless he was swinging a bat!
As a fellow Idahoan, I am proud to say that there is something more to Idaho than potatoes… notably the roots of incredible athletes like Harmon Clayton “Killer” Killebrew.