Could Willie Mays have been home run king if he played at Oracle Park?

Could Willie Mays have been home run king if he played at Oracle Park?

Five innings into the home opener in 2004, Barry Bonds got the pitch he was waiting for. He dropped his bat, arched his back and watched as the ball sailed over the cheering fans in the arcade and toward McCovey Cove, splashing down just in front of a man in a blue kayak.

"There it goes!" Jon Miller yelled into his microphone. "And that is number 660. He has tied Willie Mays."

As Bonds celebrated, his godfather met him in front of the dugout. Willie Mays was, appropriately, holding an Olympic torch he had used during a relay two years earlier. The two embraced as a sellout crowd roared.

It was a special moment, one of the best in franchise history, but should it actually have happened years later?

When he retired in 1973, Mays was third in Major League Baseball history with 660 homers, trailing only Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. He still ranks fifth, with Bonds leading the way at 762, seven ahead of Aaron. Bonds passed Aaron in 2007, but Wednesday, on Mays' 89th birthday, we're posing a fun hypothetical. 

What if Mays had played his career at Oracle Park instead of the spacious Polo Grounds and windy Candlestick Park? Would he have hit so many additional homers that Bonds would have been chasing Mays down, not Aaron? 

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In the new book "24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid," co-written with Mays, the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea talks to players, executives and broadcasters who were around Mays and believe he lost dozens of homers to the ballparks and elements. Orlando Cepeda told Shea that Mays could have hit 750 homers in more hitter-friendly conditions. Hall of Fame writer Bob Stevens said, "In any other ballpark, Willie would have hit 800 home runs." Hall of Fame broadcaster Lon Simmons said Mays would have broken Ruth's record (714) had he played somewhere other than Candlestick.

The numbers don't totally back all that up, though. Mays actually hit more home runs at home (335) than on the road (325). He averaged a homer every 15 at-bats at Candlestick and every 15.4 at-bats at the Polo Grounds. On the road, it was one every 17.4 at-bats. Mays played 178 games at the two friendlier parks -- Milwaukee County Stadium and Atlanta Stadium -- where Aaron hit most of his homers, averaging one every 15.7 at-bats. 

Mays was remarkably consistent no matter where he was taking his hacks, and in the new book, he tells Shea that he's not bitter about playing so many games at Candlestick.

"Maybe I could have hit another 50-80 home runs if we didn't play there," he said. "I don't know, but I didn't mind it. I didn't have problems with the wind. Like I said, it's not the ballpark you've got to worry about, it's the pitcher."

Like anyone playing in a big park, Mays did lose homers, but it's hard to argue that it impacted the all-time record too much. While center field at the Polo Grounds was comically deep, it was only 279 down the left field line. Plus, Bonds later had 1,744 at-bats of his own at Candlestick before moving to Oracle Park, which is notoriously tough on left-handed hitters.

Perhaps a career spent at Oracle Park wouldn't have made that much of a difference for Mays, but there was another factor that did significantly hurt his chances of being the home run king. 

Just 34 games into his second season, Mays began serving in the Army because of the Korean War. He missed most of the 1952 season and all of the 1953 season, totaling roughly 1,000 missed at-bats. 

As a rookie in 1951, Mays hit 20 homers. He had just four when he left in 1952, but returned two years later and hit 41. Over those first three seasons, Mays averaged one homer every 17.8 at-bats, so it's reasonable to say he lost out on 55 to 60 homers because of his service.

If you want to be more aggressive, you can point out that Mays returned and immediately won the MVP award, and the next year he hit 51 homers. Take his pace from his first year back and extrapolate it over those missed at-bats and you have about 72 lost homers. 

Since it is his birthday, and he did have to deal with those tough ballparks, let's go with the latter number. Mays, without those lost years, could have finished his career with 732 homers. That still puts him behind Bonds' record, but it does slide him past Alex Rodriguez (696) and Ruth, the longtime home run king. 

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In "24," Mays acknowledges that those two seasons possibly cost him a chance to briefly hold the record. 

"I think I would've gotten the Babe without the two years in the Army," he told Shea, "But a lot of us went in the service. You have to serve your country. I'm okay with 660. I'm proud of that accomplishment."

Giants roster breakdown: Six catchers in camp, two fighting for job

Giants roster breakdown: Six catchers in camp, two fighting for job

On March 11, the Giants left Scottsdale Stadium and headed west, driving about an hour for an exhibition with the Texas Rangers on the other side of the valley. They won 6-4. Before heading for a scheduled day off, manager Gabe Kapler announced that Johnny Cueto would be his Opening Day starter at Dodger Stadium.

Sixteen weeks and two days later, the Giants will get back together. Camp restarts Friday at Oracle Park, with players coming through in waves and practicing social distancing. 

It's been well over 100 days since the last official workout, but the Giants will try to pick up where they left off. This week we'll take a look at their position groups, giving a reminder of which players were in camp, which ones are joining, and which ones are fighting for jobs. Up first, the catchers:

Buster Posey

A full year-and-a-half removed from hip surgery, Posye looked strong this spring, and Giants people were excited about the possibility of some of his old production returning. It's hard to know what 60 games will mean for him, though. 

Kapler can give Posey plenty of DH days to try and keep him fresh, but with the Giants viewing themselves as being in contention, they're going to want Posey behind the plate as much as possible, guiding a pitching staff that won't have a true rotation. 

Posey turned 33 during the hiatus, but perhaps he'll be energized by a 60-game sprint. Years ago he got used to catching every pitch of the postseason, knowing he could rest in November. He should be able to push himself this year without having to worry about catching 110-115 games. 

If the Giants truly are going to stay in the race, they really could use a bounceback. Last year Posey had an OPS of just .688 and he has just 12 homers the past two seasons. 

Rob Brantly

Brantly played just one game last year for Kapler's Phillies. He followed Kapler to San Francisco and will compete with the next player on this list to be Posey's backup. Brantly has experience in that role, having played 126 MLB games since 2012. 

His best season was his first, when he hit .290 with three homers and eight doubles in 100 at-bats. A left-handed hitter, Brantly had a .404 OPB last season in Triple-A for the Phillies. 

The Giants plan to carry two catchers on their initial 30-man roster, with the possibility that a third could travel as part of a three-player taxi squad (one of the three players has to be a catcher). It seems likely that Brantly and Tyler Heineman will take those two spots in some order. 

Tyler Heineman

Like Brantly, Heineman is a non-roster invitee who could provide balance behind the plate. The 29-year-old is a switch-hitter and made his debut last season, going 3-for-11 for the Miami Marlins. 

Heineman spent most of last year at Triple-A for the Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks, and he put up strong numbers. In 73 games he hit .336 with a .400 OBP and 13 homers, which tied his career-high. 

Like Brantly, Heineman didn't get very many at-bats (16) before spring training shut down. This is one of those where you figure Farhan Zaidi, Scott Harris and Kapler have a pretty good idea of who the front-runner is to back up Posey, but Heineman and Brantly will have another three weeks to state their case. 

Joey Bart

The most dangerous catcher at the plate this spring was the 23-year-old who was taken second overall in 2018. Bart had seven hits in 16 Cactus League at-bats, including two homers and a double. He was sent to minor league camp just before the coronavirus shut things down, and the plan was for him to spend the start of the year in Triple-A. 

Bart was a near-lock to debut at some point this season, and while the Giants don't have him in their Opening Day plans, he still could find his way onto the roster in a couple of ways. There are going to be injuries and -- unfortunately -- players who test positive for COVID-19, and Bart should be the next man up after Posey, Brantly and Heineman. If the Giants get off to a rough start, it's also possible they decide to give Bart a cameo in September in preparation for 2021. 

In the meantime, here's a video of what Bart in the big leagues might look like: 

Chadwick Tromp

A non-roster invitee this spring, Tromp was not on the initial player pool list the Giants released, but nobody leaves Aruba just for fun: 

Tromp is 25 and it's rare that catchers reach minor league free agency that young, so the Giants were happy to add him as organizational depth in the offseason. He dealt with some injuries as a Cincinnati Reds prospect but had a .286/.389/.610 slash line in 26 Triple-A games last season. 

Tromp was going to provide depth in the upper levels of the minors this season. Now he figures to spend most of the next three months in Sacramento, where the Giants will play intrasquad games and three young catchers will be counted on to help keep veteran pitchers sharp. 

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Patrick Bailey

The Giants announced Wednesday afternoon that they have signed their first-round pick out of North Carolina State. Earlier in the day, reported that Bailey would be part of the player pool.

There's been no official word from the Giants, but it makes a ton of sense for Bailey, now one of the organization's top five prospects, to work out all summer with big leaguers. In an odd way, Bailey might be in a better spot than normal top draftees. 

Bart got 181 at-bats for Salem-Keizer in 2018 and Hunter Bishop got 85 last year. Bailey will miss out on those reps, but he'll also get to spend some time at Oracle Park with the big league club and then two months in Sacramento, where he can potentially get intrasquad at-bats against established big league pitchers instead of 19-year-olds. The Giants also can immediately begin work on his swing and his receiving. 

This should set Bailey up to begin next year with High-A San Jose and try to follow Bart's path of reaching Double-A in his first full season. 

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Giants sign first-round pick Patrick Bailey, who's expected in camp

Giants sign first-round pick Patrick Bailey, who's expected in camp

It looks like one of the most exciting parts of this season for Giants fans will be the intrasquad games at the alternate training site in Sacramento. 

First-round pick Patrick Bailey has signed his contract with the Giants, the team announced Wednesday.'s Jim Callis reported that it's an under-slot deal, and that Bailey will be added to the 60-man player pool. He'll join fellow catching prospect Joey Bart and other top minor leaguers who otherwise have no way of getting reps in Sacramento.  

With Bailey and Chad Tromp joining the pool, the Giants have six catchers set to be in summer camp. Either Tyler Heineman or Rob Brantly will win the job to back up Buster Posey and the other one seems a good bet to travel on the taxi squad, so Bart, Tromp and Bailey could be the ones spending two months catching bullpens and working on their skills in Sacramento. Intrasquad games are allowed up there, meaning Bart and Bailey could find themselves on opposite sides quite often as the Giants work to get competitive reps in.

The Giants ultimately hope they're in the big leagues together, stabilizing the catcher position for the next decade. Bailey was taken with the 13th overall pick in last month's draft. He reportedly signed well under the slot value of that pick, although the Giants reportedly have signed third-round pick Kyle Harrison for to a deal well over slot. 

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Earlier this week, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said the Giants would add additional prospects to their player pool. Assuming Hunter Bishop is included once he recovers from the coronavirus, the Giants would have five of their top prospects in camp: Bart, Bailey, Bishop, Heliot Ramos and Marco Luciano.

"Particularly on the prospect front, there's some guys that we've obviously named already," Zaidi said. "Other guys are under consideration, and we may just wind up adding certain guys once Sacramento is up and running and potentially send guys straight there."

With Bailey, Tromp and Bishop, the Giants would be at 54 players in their pool of 60.

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