Answering the 'what if' question for these 9 stars

May 19th, 2024

The “what if” question. It’s been pondered by sports fans for ages. What if this player or that player had been healthy for his entire career? What might’ve been?

In baseball, there’s an abundance of examples. What if Mickey Mantle hadn’t suffered so many injuries, especially to his knees? Would he have become the greatest all-around baseball player who ever lived? What if Ken Griffey Jr. hadn’t been stricken by so many ailments later in his career? Would he have set the all-time career home run record?

We could rattle off several other names of players throughout history who we wished were able to stay healthy. But those players aren’t in the game today. With the recent injuries to Mike Trout and Byron Buxton (who returned to action on Saturday), we ask: Which names represent the biggest “what ifs” among active players?

Injuries happen. Most players have had multiple stints on the injured list. But it's fascinating to consider what might have been if certain active players were healthy all along. Here’s a look at nine active stars we wish had never gotten hurt, as well as where they might be today if they hadn't.

Note: For hitters, we're basing home run projections on 550 at-bats per season in the years they missed significant time. For pitchers, we're basing strikeout projections on 750 batters faced per season in the years they missed significant time.

Likely future Hall of Famers who might have been even better

, CF, Angels
Here’s the big fish -- er, Trout -- in this category. The three-time American League MVP, considered for many years the best player in the game, hasn’t played in more than 140 games in a season since 2016. He’s missed significant time due to thumb, calf, back, hand, wrist and knee injuries, the most recent being a torn meniscus in his left knee.

What he’s accomplished: 2012 AL Rookie of the Year, 3-time AL MVP, 11-time All-Star, nine-time Silver Slugger Award winner, two-time All-Star Game MVP, 378 home runs, 212 steals, 86.3 bWAR

Where he might be without injuries: 4-time AL MVP, 467 home runs, 100 bWAR
This assumes Trout would have completed the 2017 season with significantly more WAR than AL MVP Jose Altuve (Altuve had 7.7 bWAR, Trout was on pace for over 9). The home run figure is based on how many Trout would have hit in 550 at-bats per season from 2017-19, and '21-'23 (pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign excluded), using the average rate at which he actually hit them -- a homer every 12.1 at-bats. The bWAR calculation includes an aggregate of the WAR he would've racked up in 150 games in each of those years at the rate he was going.

What may be ahead: He’s still Mike Trout and he’s still only 32, which means that, barring major injury, it’s safe to project that he’ll finish his career with between 500 and 600 home runs. And given that his current contract runs through 2030, he could finish with somewhere north of 120 bWAR. That would rank among the top 15 players all-time.

, 1B, Phillies
Harper played 12 Major League seasons leading up to the 2024 campaign, and in all but three of them, he appeared in fewer than 150 games. He’s had a myriad of injuries over the years, including wrist, hand, thumb, face, back, foot, shoulder, forearm and elbow ailments.

What he’s accomplished: 2012 NL Rookie of the Year, 2-time NL MVP, 7-time All-Star, 3-time Silver Slugger Award winner, 2022 NLCS MVP, 316 home runs

Where he might be without injuries: 3-time NL MVP, 9-time All-Star, 360 home runs
In many of the seasons in which Harper missed significant time, it’s hard to project that he would’ve won an MVP Award given the numbers of the player who won it. But Harper may have given Paul Goldschmidt a run for his money in 2022. As for the homers, we project 44 more than his actual total given his average at-bats-per-home run rate of 18.9 in the seasons he had fewer than 550 at-bats (excluding his rookie year and 2020).

What may be ahead: It’s easy to forget that Harper is only 31. His current contract runs through 2031, which would be his age-38 season. It’s impossible to predict future injuries, but assuming Harper plays in around 1,000 more games (125 games per season), we could see him finish with somewhere between 450 and 500 homers, and perhaps even another MVP Award along the way.

, LHP, Dodgers
Kershaw will go down as one of the two greatest starting pitchers in Dodgers history (along with Sandy Koufax) if not the greatest. He’s had a career that could make him a first-ballot selection to the Hall of Fame. But what might he have done if it hadn’t been for shoulder, elbow and back injuries, among others?

What he’s accomplished: 3-time NL Cy Young Award winner, 2014 NL MVP, 5 ERA titles, 10-time All-Star, 2020 World Series champion, 2,944 strikeouts (Dodgers record)

Where he might be without injuries: 5-time NL Cy Young Award winner, 7 ERA titles, 3,279 strikeouts
Kershaw hasn’t made more than 28 starts in a season since 2015. In ’16, he would have won the ERA title if he qualified, posting a 1.69 ERA in 21 starts. He would’ve competed for another in ’22, when he had a 2.28 ERA in 22 starts. Both years may well have earned him another Cy Young Award. And based on his average strikeout rate of 28.5% in the years he missed significant time, we added 335 strikeouts to his tally, assuming he would have faced 750 batters per season.

What may be ahead: Kershaw re-signed with the Dodgers this past offseason and is recovering from shoulder surgery. He is on track to make his season debut after the All-Star break. Now 36, the left-hander may not have all that much time before he decides to retire, but given that he’s been able to remain one of the game’s best despite his age and injuries, who knows? He certainly has a great chance to become the 20th pitcher in AL/NL history to eclipse 3,000 strikeouts.

Other stars who have been limited by injury

, RHP, Rangers
From 2018-20, deGrom had one of the greatest stretches by a starting pitcher in MLB history. Over that span, he posted a 2.10 ERA and 0.94 WHIP, struck out a third of the batters he faced and won a pair of Cy Young Awards. In the four years since, he’s made a total of 32 starts due to persistent shoulder and elbow problems.

What he’s accomplished: 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, 2-time NL Cy Young Award winner, ERA title, 4-time All-Star, 1,652 strikeouts

Where he might be without injuries: 4-time Cy Young Award winner, 3 ERA titles, 7-time All-Star, 1,907 strikeouts
deGrom was in such a zone when the injuries began piling up that it’s hard not to think he would have won another Cy Young Award or two by this point. The same goes for the ERA titles. That he would have been an All-Star in each of the last three seasons if healthy also seems to be a pretty safe assumption. And given his average strikeout rate of 34% over the seasons in which he was sidelined, he’d likely be closing in on 2,000 strikeouts.

What may be ahead: Hopefully, deGrom will return to the Rangers’ rotation after the All-Star break, as expected, and then have a relatively healthy few seasons ahead. If he does, he could certainly end up with somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 strikeouts and possibly even a third Cy Young Award.

, CF, Yankees
When Judge set a new AL single-season home run record with 62 in 2022, we were confident that he could take another run at 60-plus homers in the years ahead. He was on pace in ’23, but a toe injury cost him nearly two months of the season. It wasn’t the first time the fearsome slugger had been sidelined -- he also missed time with wrist, oblique, shoulder, calf, back and hip injuries earlier in his career.

What he’s accomplished: 2017 AL Rookie of the Year, 2022 AL MVP, AL single-season home run record (62 in 2022), 5-time All-Star, 3-time Silver Slugger Award winner, 269 home runs

Where he might be without injuries: 2-time AL MVP, 6-time All-Star, 317 home runs
Would Judge have edged and won a second consecutive MVP Award last year? It’s certainly possible given he was on pace to challenge the 60-homer mark again. With the frequency of Judge’s homers and with 550 at-bats in 2018, ’19 and ’23, he could have been closing in on 350 in ’24.

What may be ahead: Judge is in his age-32 campaign, but again, given the rate at which he homers -- it was once every 9.9 at-bats in 2023 -- we could see some prodigious numbers in that department in the coming years. The 500 home run club isn't out of the question for the most feared slugger in the game today, but he'll need to stay on the field enough to have a chance.

, DH, Yankees
With his chiseled physique and ferocious swing, Stanton has wowed us with his mammoth home runs for 15 seasons. But while he has amassed more than 400 of them, he’s only played in 150 or more games in a season three times. Hamstring, knee, Achilles, quad, calf and other injuries have seriously limited his availability.

What he’s accomplished: 2017 NL MVP, 5-time All-Star, 2-time Silver Slugger Award winner, 2022 All-Star Game MVP, 413 home runs

Where he might be without injuries: 2-time MVP, 8-time All-Star, 528 home runs
This case is particularly interesting because if Stanton had been healthy enough to play in 150 games a season while homering at the same rate as he actually did in the seasons he missed significant time, he’d have a great chance to become the 10th player in AL/NL history to eclipse the 600-homer milestone. You could certainly imagine another MVP Award along the way, especially if he threatened teammate Judge’s single-season AL home run record of 62.

What may be ahead: Stanton could certainly still join the 500-homer club, but he’ll have to be relatively healthy for a few more seasons. At age 34, he’s guaranteed three more years on his contract, meaning he’ll need to average about 25 homers per season to get there. That’s very doable for Stanton, who averaged 30 homers over the last three injury-plagued campaigns.

, LHP, Braves
It’s hard to believe that Sale hasn’t won a Cy Young Award over his 14-year MLB career. The left-hander has, at times, been among the most dominant starting pitchers in the game. A major reason he isn’t more decorated is injuries, particularly since 2019. Since then, he’s dealt with left elbow inflammation, Tommy John surgery, a right rib stress fracture, a broken wrist and a stress reaction in his left shoulder.

What he’s accomplished: 7-time All-Star, 2018 World Series champion with Red Sox, 2,250 strikeouts

Where he might be without injuries: 2-time AL Cy Young Award winner, 9-time All-Star, 2,982 strikeouts
In 2014, Sale led the AL with a 173 ERA+ and finished third in Cy Young Award voting despite only making 26 starts. In a full season, he may have won his first career Cy Young honor that year. He missed about six weeks in ’18, but still finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting with a 2.11 ERA and a 38.4% strikeout rate. Had Sale been healthy, he would’ve had a good shot that year, too. His average strikeout rate was 33.2% in his injury-shortened seasons -- if he had faced 750 batters in those years, you could add 732 K’s to his total. That would put him within 18 of 3,000 for his career.

What may be ahead: So far in 2024, Sale has been healthy with his new club, the Braves, and he’s been as good as ever. He's got an outside chance at reaching 3,000 strikeouts, and he might even win that elusive Cy Young Award if he continues pitching the way he has over his first eight starts this year.

, CF, Twins
Buxton truly showed us what he could do in 2021, when over his first 27 games, he hit .369/.409/.767 with 10 homers and five steals. But then he got hurt. He returned and had a strong, though not nearly as outstanding, finish to the season. Over the years, thumb, knee, hamstring, back, toe, wrist and shoulder problems, among others, have limited him -- he’s only played in more than 100 games in a season once.

What he’s accomplished: 2017 Gold Glove Award winner, 2017 Platinum Glove Award winner, 2022 AL All-Star, 116 home runs, 87 steals

Where he might be without injuries: 3-time All-Star, 4-time Gold Glove Award winner, 245 home runs, 168 steals
Buxton is a walking 30-30 -- or perhaps even 40-40 -- season year-in and year-out if he’s healthy. With 550 at-bats and 150 games a season, he’d be nearing the 250-homer/200-steal milestones in 2024. Given his elite defense in center field, Buxton would probably be racking up the Gold Glove Awards, as well.

What may be ahead: Buxton is in his age-30 season, so if he can stay on the field enough, there’s no reason he can’t reach the aforementioned milestones and beyond.

, RHP, Guardians
Shoulder and elbow injuries have limited Bieber during his career, the most recent being a damaged ulnar collateral ligament that necessitated Tommy John surgery. The 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner was off to a tremendous start this season, striking out 20 over his first two starts before the injury.

What he’s accomplished: 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner, 2-time All-Star, 2019 All-Star Game MVP, ERA title, 2022 Gold Glove Award winner, 958 strikeouts

Where he might be in 2025 without injuries: 2-time AL Cy Young Award winner, 4-time All-Star, 2 ERA titles, 1,400 strikeouts
Since Bieber won't pitch again this season, and assuming his strikeout rate would have been back to 33%, which it was before a two-year decline in velocity, we've projected where he might have been going into 2025. There's no reason to think Bieber wouldn't have competed for another Cy Young Award this year and he likely would have been an All-Star. Given his strikeout rate during the seasons in which he missed time before this year, as well as a 33% figure for '24, he'd be around 1,400 strikeouts.

What may be ahead: Tommy John surgery will cost Bieber the rest of this season, but he’s still only 29, meaning he’s got a lot left in the tank if all goes well in his recovery. If his velocity remains what it was to start this year, his strikeout rate may jump back up. Another Cy Young Award or two before it's all said and done? Between 2,000 and 2,500 career strikeouts? Not a stretch to imagine those happening.