One cool thing about doing the Retired Number Series was all of the ideas for spin-offs I got. However, I wanted to wait until I finished the main series to work on those. Now that that’s out of the way, though, I can work on these side projects.
One thing that I always thought was interesting was the breadth of numbers worn. I remember seeing this chart from Flip Flop Fly Ball and thinking about teams needing triple digit numbers and all the numbers that would have to be out of use to get to them. And from there, I for some reason thought of how that span would look.
Basically, after doing 30 retired number pieces, you get to notice that some numbers show up more than others. In case you were wondering, 20 showed up more than any others, with nine occurrences.* In total, 51 useable numbers have been retired (this disqualifies Cleveland’s 455). They span from 1 (seven times) to 85 (once, Augie Busch). 72 was the highest one that was actually worn by a player (Carlton Fisk).
*Luis Gonzalez, Monte Irvin, Lou Brock, Pie Traynor, Mike Schmidt, Frank White, Don Sutton, and Frank Robinson twice
Seeing stuff like this made me wonder what the lowest unretired number was. When I began, it was 28. Since then, the Twins have honored Bert Blyleven. Apparently though, players don’t like the 8’s. The now-lowest unretired number is 38.
So what as-of-yet-unhonored numbers may someday join these illustrious ranks? Well, Baseball-Reference has introduced a cool tool (at least, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t around when I started). Clicking on a player’s jersey will take you to a list of all the players to wear a jersey in that team’s history (for example, see the Astros’ page). From there, you can navigate to each individual jersey’s page (again, see 20’s page for reference).
Now with a purpose, I investigated each number without a represented player to see what may eventually become the new lowest not-retired number.
#38: The most career WAR (Baseball-Reference’s numbers) by someone with the number 38 is 90.4 by Steve Carlton. However, Carlton only wore it for the Twins in 1987 and 1988 (it doesn’t separate it by years the player was wearing the number). That doesn’t seem likely to happen. Ditto with Robin Roberts, who wore it as an Oriole (1962-5) and Astro (1965-6).
Curt Schilling, though, does seem likely. He didn’t wear it until he got to Philadelphia, but that’s not an issue because he wasn’t good until then either. I’d bet on the Phillies eventually honoring him, although it may not be until he makes the Hall (which will one day happen). Maybe the Diamondbacks too, if they decide his World Series performance is worth it.
After him, there really isn’t a compelling case, unless you want to argue for Carlos Zambrano. While he was good (44.6 WAR), I think he burned too many bridges.
#46: Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, and Juan Marichal each wore 46 for one season. After them, though, is Andy Pettitte, who’s worn 46 for all fifteen of his seasons with the Yankees. I’d argue he’s as safe a bet as almost any player who’s still playing-the Yankees definitely don’t worry about retiring too many numbers, and Pettitte is well-loved.
After him, there’s really no one. Larry Jackson is the next one to wear it for more than 1 season. and those came at the end of his career. Jim Maloney and Burt Hooten also make appearances, but they were just above average for a long time, on teams that have numerous other better candidates (the Reds and Dodgers here, and no offense meant to Maloney and Hooten).
#48: Like I said, the players just don’t like 8’s. This one is a bit more of a stretch than the last two. Rick Reuschel leads all 48ers with 70.1 WAR, and 18 of his seasons came wearing 48. He’d be a good choice for the Cubs to retire, but they’ve had over two decades to retire it with no action yet. It could happen, though. Stranger things have happened.
Failing that, Torii Hunter could work. He’s worn 48 his whole career, but his value is kind of split between the Twins and Angels. We’ll see how that works out. Without those two, we start to get down to players like Sam McDowell and Andy Pafko. Also, Roy White for the Yankees wore 48 for four seasons and managed over 46 WAR, and his primary number of 6 will likely be retired for Joe Torre instead. That’s a lot of conditionals, though.
#50: 50 has been retired, but it was for coach Jimmie Reese of the Angels. There are a few interesting choices, though. Jamie Moyer leads all number 50s in WAR with just over 50. I could see the Mariners retiring his number, although they have a bit of a backlog to get through.
Sid Fernandez (33 WAR) and Tom Henke (23) both show up, but I think both are long shots. You’d have better luck if you picked Adam Wainwright (almost 28 WAR in only seven seasons), who looks poised for a strong career, or J.R. Richard (22 WAR, with over 30 according to Fangraphs), who fits in with the already-retired Astros numbers.
#52: CC Sabathia looks to be set up for this one, although the question becomes whether with the Yankees or Indians. After him, it’s rather slim pickings, with Mike Boddicker and Wade Miller leading the conversation.
#54: This one’s tougher. Goose Gossage is the only player with both more than 10 WAR and more than 10 seasons wearing it in 54 history. Ervin Santana will join that club next year, but that still pretty bad. Goose Gossage isn’t horribly unlikely to happen, though. Especially since his greatest seasons came with the rather retirement-liberal Yankees.
#55: We start getting to some tough calls here. Orel Hershiser looks like a great candidate, with almost 57 WAR and 17 seasons. However, the Dodgers require players to make the Hall to retire their numbers (which I feel runs counter to the thinking behind retired numbers, but whatever). Kevin Appier is right behind him, with 55 WAR and nine seasons wearing 55 for the Royals, but the Royals haven’t been particularly quick to retire numbers so far. Russell Martin and Josh Johnson are pretty far off, too.
#56: Mark Buehrle saves this from an early end, thanks to 54 WAR and 14 seasons in uniform. If not for him, we’d be looking at Jarrod Washburn.
#57: Johan Santana has a pretty good case here, with 51 WAR over twelve seasons. His incredible mid-2000s run for the Twins is probably worth immortalizing for them, at least. Francisco Rodriguez may have one day been placed in the “likely” category, but he seems to have played (and fought) his way out of peoples’ good graces. Darryl Kile’s 57 is already out of circulation for several teams, too.
#58: Of course this is where it would finally peter out. There’s Jonathan Papelbon (with 20 WAR, but only seven seasons with Boston), and that’s about it. The next best players (WAR total-wise, for multiple seasons wearing 58) is Chad Billingsley. There really aren’t any other great choices just getting started, either-even if we switch to people wearing it this year, Joe Kelly is probably your best choice.
Granted, 59 and 60 have equally awful options, and I’ve gotten rather optimistic (probably too much so) in my predictions, but 58 is the lowest one without any real options, so that’s our winner. I have no idea why players apparently have aversions to numbers with 8 in the ones digit,* but it is what it is.
*Another fun fact: no player has ever worn 68 for more than two seasons. That makes it the lowest number where that’s true. Even 69 has been worn by a player for three seasons. I just find this phenomenon really confusing.