Bo Jackson – What if?


The “Holy Grail” of baseball cards when I was about 12 years old…

A recent article Joe Posnaski wrote about baseball card collecting (and a Boog Powell card that kept him up at night) got me thinking back to the Bo Jackson frenzy of the late 1980’s/early 90’s. I remember hunting down his 1986 Topps Traded rookie card…which seemed to be elusive at the time, and was my “Boog Powell” that year.

I dug out my cards and took a trip down memory lane, thinking about some of the amazing things I’d seen Bo do in a Royals uniform, and I wondered what kind of baseball player he might’ve been had he not been injured. I looked at his stats with the Royals, trying to look for trends of improvement or regression, then decided to try and project what might’ve been had he just retired from football and avoided that career altering (basically career ending) injury. Could Bo have been a HOF baseball player?

Looking at 1987 through 1990 – his four full seasons with the Royals – it’s easy to see he was getting better. And he was just reaching his prime. Bo was 26 in 1989, which was his All-Star season…and he was even better at age 27, although he failed to make the All-Star team again in 1990.

Bo was a free swinger…and a BIG swinger, meaning he was always going to be a guy who struck out a lot. But his K% improved every year from 1987 through 1990, dropping from 36.4% down to 28.1%. His BB% also improved. It was at 6.9% in 1987, took a dip in 1988, and eventually landed at 9.6% in 1990.

His batting average, OBP, and SLG all got better along the way. In 1990, Bo had a .342 OBP and .523 SLG for an OPS of .866, which was up 61 points from his All-Star year. His OBP increased 15.5% from 1987 through 1990, and his batting average went up at the same clip (15.7%).

In addition to getting on base more, Bo saw his raw strength translate into more power at the plate. His HR per AB got better each season:

1987 – 1 HR every 18 AB
1988 – 1 HR every 17.56 AB
1989 – 1 HR every 16.09 AB
1990 – 1 HR every 14.46 AB

His biggest jumps in home runs came in 1989 and 1990. His total was lower in 1990, but he had 110 less AB. Had he reached 515 AB (his total in 1989), he would’ve been on pace to hit 36 homers that year, which is four more than he hit in ’89. It’s hard to say how much his power would have increased if he’d kept playing, but I’m guessing he would’ve had at least a couple of 40+ home run seasons.

Given the improvements he was making at the plate, and figuring in this scenario he’s only focusing on baseball starting with the 1991 season, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he might’ve improved a bit more (at least for another year or two),before leveling out.

I’m guessing he may have started a decline around the 1996 season, continuing through the end of his career…but who knows? Bo was a special case…we’d never seen anything like him before, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything like him since. But to be conservative, I’ll guess we would see father time catch up with him a bit around age 33, at which point his numbers would begin regressing. I’m also going to guess he may have retired around age 37, in the year 2000, tacking on another 10 years to his career.

Without laying out too much math…I’ll get down to some final numbers. If we take his entire career through 1990 (including his partial 1986) and get rid of his three post-injury seasons, we have 109 career home runs and 81 stolen bases. If we tack on the 1991 through 2000 seasons and make some assumptions, I project that Bo would’ve hit roughly 430-440 career HR. In addition to those power numbers, I figure he’d have stolen about 260 bases in his career.

So…440 HR/260 SB – probably not enough for the HOF (and I think it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have reached 3,000 hits). But, again, it’s hard to project what might have happened. I stayed conservative with my guesses. Bo might have slugged 50+ homers a time or two, we’ll never know. But with a couple of monster seasons, it’s not far fetched to project career totals of 500 HR/300 SB.

Had he not had the wear and tear of playing two professional sports, there’s no telling how dominant he might have become. We can assume he would have wound up putting up some damn impressive numbers though, and I’m betting the Steve Balboni HR record would belong to Bo Jackson. Regardless of his HOF potential…we can all agree that he was a world-class athlete. Too bad his career (in both sports) was cut so short.

Here is a great video featuring some memorable highlights – narrated by some of his baseball peers…