The Legend of Bo Jackson: What Might Have Been…
If you grew up in the late 1980’s, you know that there should be a pagan holiday to celebrate Bo Jackson as the God of Tecmo Bowl. If you thought that the 4.12 40-yard dash that he ran at the 1986 NFL Combine was crazy or inaccurate, the 4.18 that he ran within a week shows the genetic freakness of the two-sport star.
In football, not just video games, Bo Jackson was very special, sharing carries in the Raiders backfield with Marcus Allen. Jackson averaged 5.4 yards per carry over his career, scoring 16 touchdowns in just 38 games over his four-year career, while rushing for 2,782 yards on 515 carries. He just couldn’t stay healthy, with a hip injury ultimately ruining both his football and baseball career, thanks a lot Kevin Walker.
On the diamond, Bo Jackson was fun to watch. His football speed transitioned well to baseball when he was stealing bases, but, surprisingly, he was below average defensively, compiling a -4.7 dWAR over his eight-year baseball career, which wasn’t necessarily the result of his hip issues, either, as his lone positive dWAR came in 1993 (0.1) with the Chicago White Sox.
From 1987 to 1990, Bo Jackson was at his best, ripping 107 home runs, 64 doubles, 13 triples, and stealing 78 bases. Those are solid totals over four seasons, but his .252/.308/.487 line and striking out in 34.4 percent of his at-bats really limited his value, as Jackson put up a total WAR of 8.5 over those four seasons. To put that into perspective, Wade Boggs had a 30.8 WAR, Rickey Henderson had a 30.5 WAR, Alan Trammell had a 23.4 WAR, and Steve Sax had a 9.2 WAR.
So, while baseball wasn’t built upon nerdy statistics during that era, you have two Hall of Fame players (Boggs and Henderson), one player who should be in the Hall of Fame (Trammell), and a guy who many will overlook as a nobody (Sax), who outperformed Jackson tremendously, in most cases from 1987 through 1990.
So, how good could Jackson have become?
Jackson was still in his prime in 1991 when he was injured in the NFL playoffs against Cincinnti, just 28 years old. Jackson came back late in the 1991 season with the Chicago White Sox before missing all of the 1992 season after having his hip replaced.
Had the injury never have happened and we manipulate statistics, we are going to make a prediction about Bo Jackson’s baseball career…
Using the gains that he showed with his plate discipline in 1990 (9.5 percent walk rate and a 28.1 percent strikeout rate, a 2.6 percent increase in walks and decrease in strikeouts from 1989, his lone All-Star season), as well as his power gains over this time (AB/HR, IF/FB, HR %) Jackson would have continued on those gains for roughly four years before beginning his decline in 1995 at the age of 32. From that point on, we will decrease his walk rate and increase his strikeout rate by 3-percent each season for four seasons, while his power numbers decreases by 10-percent each season, and his batting average by 5-percent. This will allow Jackson to retire after his age-36 season in 1999 with dignity. Using a 162-game season average of 613 plate appearances, you’ll see Bo Jackson’s totals below (keep in mind that he never played in more than 135 games in a season):
The numbers above would have required Jackson to continue the gains that he showed in plate discipline in 1990 for several years. The additional contact would provide the power and the power takes away from the speed game that Jackson had. However, Jackson was absolutely ripped physically and was more than capable of becoming one of the most feared power-hitters in the game.
Realistic numbers or not, Jackson would have been one of the weaker candidates for the Hall of Fame if he were to have retired after the 1999 season. While his homerun total of 438 would have been impressive, would it have looked as fantastic with Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Sammy Sosa posting the numbers that they were at that time? And a .256 career average?
What might have been with Bo Jackson is pretty impressive. The hip issues that robbed him of his fame and athleticism were devastating. We have seen it happen before, though…Tony Conigliaro with the hit-by-pitch to the eye or Mickey Mantle and his knees. People who had the opportunity to see those types of players can tell stories about how great they may have been.
People of the 1980’s and 1990’s don’t need real statistics to know how special Bo Jackson was and how great he could have become. While he won’t be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown or Canton, we’ll always have Tecmo Bowl.