What he did: Killebrew won six American League home run titles in an eleven-year stretch, on his way to smacking 573 lifetime bombs. He’s been supplanted on the career leader board in recent years by a variety of suspected and admitted steroid users, though Killebrew still at least rates as perhaps the greatest American League slugger of his generation, a perennial home run and RBI champ. With an ability to also hit for average, Killebrew might have been a Triple Crown winner.
Killbrew’s .256 lifetime batting average may be part of what relegates him to second-tier status in discussing all-time great hitters. It’s why Ted Williams kept Killebrew out of his list of the top 20 hitters all-time. Thing is, there are generations where Killbrew’s career batting average could have been much higher.
Era he might have thrived in: 1930s, Cleveland Indians
Why: One of my regular readers suggested teaming Killebrew on these Indians with Earl Averill and Hal Trosky, so I went to the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.
First, here are Killebrew’s actual numbers that he put up in his career with the Senators, Twins, and Royals from 1954-1975:
And here are how Killebrew’s numbers would look if he played every year of his career on a team like the 1936 Cleveland Indians:
Translation: In his own era, Killebrew was a great slugger and not much else. In the 1930s, he’d have been Cleveland’s version of Hank Greenberg. The only stat Killebrew’s numbers don’t see a dramatic jump with is triples (can’t win ’em all) and he’d rank third all-time for runs batted in, fourth in home runs and seventh in OPS. Killebrew would hit at least 50 home runs seven times and peak at 59 home runs, 182 RBI, and a .327 clip for his converted 1969 season. If his career begins early enough, say 1926, he might not even lose playing time to World War II.
It’s hard to explain why Killebrew’s numbers could vary so much between different eras, though some factors can be ruled out. Killebrew didn’t always lack for support, as he played five years with a young Rod Carew and a healthy Tony Oliva, two great hitting champs. We also can’t blame his ballpark. Killebrew’s park in Minnesota may have favored hitters more than his would-be homes in Cleveland in 1936, League Park and Cleveland Stadium. But I’m guessing the major factor here is that Killebrew played in an age for pitchers, and the 1930s was essentially opposite.
In fact, many ’60s players might have thrived in the 1930s golden era for hitters. Playing his entire career on a team like the ’36 Indians, Frank Howard would have 469 home runs, a .325 career batting average, and a 1.003 OPS. Jimmie Wynn would hit .315, a full 65 points higher than his actual lifetime batting average since he played so often in the Astrodome, which is only just smaller than Delaware. Even Ray Oyler gets in on it, the .175 career hitter (.175!) jumping to a semi-not-terrible .215. Really, it’s almost a wonder these Cleveland clubs didn’t send more players to the Hall of Fame.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.