So close: These 11 just missed milestones

January 8th, 2023

Humans love their round numbers, and baseball players are no exception.

Five hundred home runs and 3,000 hits remain sacred for hitters, as do 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts for pitchers. More advanced forms of analysis have decreased the emphasis on traditional counting stats, but these hallowed milestones still have plenty of cache within the game.

As players move into the late stages of their careers, these round numbers provide a target -- something to shoot for before the time comes to hang ’em up. Of course, that doesn’t mean every player in such a situation is able to get there in time.

Here are 11 stars who came up just short of reaching a major milestone.

: 493 home runs, 1,994 RBIs
This is a story as tragic as it is well known. Had The Iron Horse’s body not so cruelly betrayed him, there is no doubt he would have blown well past 500 homers and 2,000 RBIs, and quite possibly 3,000 hits as well. (He finished with 2,721). But Gehrig began feeling weak and listless, his production dropped, and eventually he was diagnosed with ALS, the debilitating disease with which he would come to be so closely associated. He would never play another game and died just shy of his 38th birthday in 1941, though not before giving his famous speech at Yankee Stadium in which he proclaimed himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Despite the premature end to his career, Gehrig still ranks fifth all-time in RBIs, per the official accounting of the Elias Sports Bureau.

: 399 home runs, 498 doubles
Kaline might be one of the Hall of Fame’s most underrated players, and coming up just short of a couple of milestones certainly could be part of that. Mr. Tiger did manage to squeeze across the 3,000-hit barrier late in his final season in 1974, finishing with 3,007. But while his longevity certainly bolstered his career totals, Kaline’s power numbers also suffered from spending his prime in a pitcher-friendly environment. He also battled various injuries that limited him to an average of 125 games over his last 13 seasons, not that they stopped him from becoming a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 1980.

: 493 home runs
Only Gehrig got as close as McGriff to the 500 mark without reaching it. It seemed as if the Crime Dog would get there when he went deep 30 times at age 38 for the 2002 Cubs. But after a decade and a half of enviable durability, he fought injuries and added just 13 to his total in 86 games for the ’03 Dodgers. McGriff got one more chance the next year with Tampa Bay, but he struggled mightily and was released in July. However, it's worth noting that the 1994 strike may well have been the difference, as McGriff had 34 homers when that season ended in August. After falling short of the Hall of Fame via the writers' ballot, McGriff was elected by the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee in December 2022.

: 399 home runs
The Big Cat was better than you remember, a talented hitter whose career was a bit of a roller-coaster ride. Galarraga had all of 116 homers through age 31, before things took off upon a move to Colorado. Galarraga then remained an effective hitter until he was 43, despite missing all of 1999 and much of 2004 while twice overcoming cancer. Galarraga hit his 399th homer on Oct. 1, 2004, and signed with the Mets that December, but with his roster spot in doubt amidst a tough Spring Training in ’05, he stepped away. “I just wasn’t playing up to the expectations that I have set for myself throughout my entire career, and I wanted to walk away on my own terms,” Galarraga said.

: 398 home runs
Few have been as good in their primes as Murphy, a two-time National League MVP Award winner whose 310 homers through age 31 in 1987 put him right in line with Hall of Fame sluggers such as Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray and Frank Thomas. But Murphy wasn’t able to maintain that pace. He added 86 homers in the next four seasons despite playing nearly every day, then two more in 1992, while a knee injury limited him to 18 games. Murphy latched on with the expansion ’93 Rockies to give it one more go, but he went homerless in 26 games, preempting his likely release by retiring.

Luis Gonzalez: 596 doubles
Only 18 players have hit 600 doubles, and nobody has gotten closer to that mark without reaching it than Gonzalez. Known more for his 57-homer eruption in 2001 or his World Series-winning bloop single that same year, Gonzalez is one of 13 players to hit 45 two-baggers in four different seasons, including a career-high 52 in 2006. Even at age 40 with the 2008 Marlins, he notched 26 doubles in 387 plate appearances, but that wasn’t quite enough to get to 600. Gonzalez wanted to keep playing in ’09, but he never found a deal and retired to join the D-backs’ front office, where he remains.

: 1,999 hits
Dead Ball Era third baseman Jimmy Collins also finished with 1,999 hits, and he’s in the Hall of Fame, so perhaps that’s a good sign for the underrated Kinsler. The four-time All-Star second baseman looked like a good bet to reach 2,000 hits when he signed a two-year deal with the Padres prior to the 2019 season, needing only 57 more knocks. But Kinsler batted .217, and a back injury took him out of action for the last several weeks of ’19, then helped push him to retire and join San Diego’s front office after the season. “My pride wouldn’t let me go halfway at something that I’ve been doing at 100 percent for my whole baseball life,” he told The Athletic.

Tommy John: 288 wins
With the exception of Roger Clemens -- for reasons having nothing to do with his pitching record -- each of the 24 pitchers with 300 victories is in the Hall of Fame. And no pitcher since the turn of the 20th century has gotten closer to that mark without reaching it than John. It was hardly for lack of effort. The left-hander toiled in the big leagues for 26 seasons, the final 14 of which came after Dr. Frank Jobe reconstructed his ulnar collateral ligament in a procedure that would come to bear John’s name. But he had a 5.80 ERA in 10 starts for the Yankees in 1989 before getting released at the end of May, soon after his 46th birthday. He hoped to hook on with another team, but not because of the milestone. “I play because I love the game and I love to pitch,” John told The New York Times. But he never got another chance.

: 287 wins
After 14 years on the Hall of Fame ballot, and with the staunch support and spirited campaigning of baseball’s burgeoning sabermetric community, Blyleven finally made it to Cooperstown in 2011, having worked his way up from a low of 14.1% of the vote. But the fight might not have been quite so tough had Blyleven squeezed out just 13 more victories over his 22 MLB seasons -- only a few of which were spent with playoff teams. Unfortunately for Blyleven, after a resurgent 1989 season at age 38, shoulder problems plagued him the next year and kept him out for all of ’91. Blyleven made one more comeback in ’92 that yielded his final eight wins and signed with the Twins heading into ’93. But spring struggles derailed his bid for a roster spot. “Sure, I wanted 300 wins, but it’s not really that big of a deal,” Blyleven told the Los Angeles Times. “The thing that’s important is that I gave everything I had to try to achieve that goal.”

Billy Pierce: 1,999 strikeouts
A 5-foot-10, 160-pound lefty, Pierce didn’t necessarily have the look of a strikeout pitcher, but he threw hard and led the American League in K’s for the 1953 White Sox. That was one of Pierce’s seven All-Star seasons, the last coming in ’61, when hip and shoulder injuries really began to eat into his innings and his strikeout ability. Pierce worked mostly as a reliever for his final two seasons, and his two K’s in three innings on Oct. 3, 1964, left him just one shy of 2,000. The 37-year-old was very well aware of that status but nonetheless announced his retirement at the end of the season, saying he no longer wanted to be away from his family.

Johan Santana: 1,988 strikeouts
Santana’s strikeout total is a sign of two things: his incredible talent, and the injuries that wiped out most of his 30s. The lefty had more strikeouts through age 31 (1,877) than Justin Verlander, who went on to become the 18th member of the 3,000-K club in 2019. And no pitcher to finish his career with less than 2,300 innings racked up more K’s than Santana. Unfortunately, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner dealt with multiple shoulder surgeries and a torn Achilles tendon and pitched just 21 games after that age-31 season. Comeback attempts with the Orioles and Blue Jays faltered, and despite his elite peak, Santana fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after getting only 2.4% of the vote in his first year.