Deion Sanders: What Could Have Been

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In real life, Deion Sanders was a legendary football player and an average-to-below-average baseball player. He never made a Major League Baseball All-Star Game, and he never played more than 115 games in a season.

However, what if Sanders had focused on baseball? Let’s look at a hypothetical.

Decision 1: The Draft

Path 1: Kansas City Royals, 1985

The Kansas City Royals selected Sanders in the sixth round of the 1985 MLB Draft. While he did not sign with the Royals, this likely is the most indicative of what Major League Baseball thought of Sanders. However, his draft position was likely deflated slightly because Sanders was heading to Florida State in the fall. In this universe, Sanders’s love for baseball outweighs his love for football. Perhaps he would have been drafted earlier if he intended to sign.

Path 2: New York Yankees, 1988

The New York Yankees drafted Sanders in the 30th round of the 1988 MLB Draft. While his 1985 draft position was somewhat realistic, this 30th-round selection was subject to Sanders’ domination at the collegiate level as a cornerback. Had Sanders been worse at football (or put less focus on it), he likely would have gone earlier in the draft.

Verdict: Path 1

For the sake of this hypothetical, let’s say Sanders signed his contract with the 1985 Royals. While Kansas City is not necessarily the best location to become a megastar, the Royals were able to finish off a decade of excellence. From 1975 to 1985, the Royals won 90 games seven times. They made the playoffs seven times between 1976 and 1985. They went to a pair of World Series, winning in 1985.

Decision 2: MLB Debut

Path 1: Real-Life Comparison

In Sanders’ actual career, he debuted in the Majors just 11 months after being drafted by the Yankees. While he might replicate this 11-month minor league stint in this hypothetical, his minor-league track was accelerated for two reasons. On one hand, Sanders played college baseball for several seasons, helping his development. On a more serious note, Sanders’s placement in the Majors could have been a ploy by the Yankees to keep him in baseball.

Sanders played 14 games for the MLB club in 1989, so it appears that the Yankees rushed him to some degree. He had decent stats (92 OPS+), but without the threat of football, he likely would have not been rushed through the minors.

Path 2: Hypothetical

For this hypothetical, Sanders’s rise through minor league baseball will be closer to that of Kevin Batiste. Batiste was a second-round pick in the 1985 draft. Like Sanders, Batiste was an outfielder out of high school. Batiste spent three full seasons in minor league baseball in addition to rookie ball in 1985 and a half-season in 1989.

Sanders ended up being better than Batiste, but keep in mind that he had college baseball experience. He would still be on a faster track than Batiste, but he would not fly through the minors within one year. For this, Sanders would arrive in the Majors for a stint in 1987 and be on the Opening Day roster in 1988 for the Royals.

Willie Wilson was the Royals primary centerfielder in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988. However, he turned 30 in the 1985 season, so his time was dwindling.

Verdict: Hypothetical Minor League Path

After a solid stretch in 1987, Sanders would be named as the Opening Day centerfielder over Wilson in 1988. To enter 1988, the Royals would have an outfield of Bo Jackson, Sanders, and Danny Tartabull.

Jackson and Sanders are cult legends because of their two-sport status, but Tartabull was likely the best of the three, especially at this point. He earned MVP votes in 1987 after hitting 34 home runs. He had an OPS+ of 144 with the Royals across 657 games.

Decision 3: How to Extrapolate Sanders’ Career

Path 1: Like-for-Like to His Real Career

Sanders’ production is strangely close to current Tampa Bay Ray Manuel Margot. Sanders had a career OPS+ of 89 while Margot has an OPS+ of 90. Sanders was at elite base stealing and solid defender while Margot is an elite defender and solid base runner.

Through Margot’s age-26 season the most similar batter is Carlos Gomez. Gomez’s best seasons were his age-27 and age-28 seasons, but his career trajectory is a solid comparison to Margot.

Using Gomez’s career as a guide for Sanders, expect Sanders to steal approximately 500 bases. The steal rate was higher in Sanders’s time, so he would likely beat out Gomez’s final tally of 268. Inversely, Sanders would likely eventually have a season or two with 20 home runs as Gomez did. He would never be a power-first player, but he could have some seasons with 40 extra-base hits.

As a fielder, Sanders would be in play for a couple of Gold Gloves had he played 150 games a season. He was third in total zone runs as a centerfielder in 1992 and second in 1994. Over a full season, he might have won the Gold Glove.

Path 2: Assume Moderate Growth

Sanders is one of the greatest athletes in human history, but his body was geared toward football more than baseball. In this universe, Sanders is more refined as a baseball athlete. This has two consequences. Before the age of 30, Sanders would maximize his speed and pure athleticism. Instead of winning just one triples title, he would win several. The second consequence is that Sanders could have adjusted his body type over time to have a graceful transition to more a power approach while playing a corner outfield spot.

For his real career, Sanders averaged 47 steals per 162 games. Before turning 30, he averaged 49 steals per 162. For this extrapolation, he will slightly more efficient at stealing bases. His real-life success rate of 74.7% (217th in MLB history) will be replaced with Starling Marte‘s mark of 77.9% (103rd in MLB history).

This is not a random comparison. Sanders and Marte have identical measurements of 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds. They are also primary outfielders who generally play left or center.

As a hitter, Sanders will have more seasons like his 1992 season. In 1992, he slashed .304/.346/.495, representing his best season in the Majors. His high slugging percentage came from an MLB-leading 14 triples in 97 games. He had an OPS+ of 130.

Verdict: Path 2

By focusing on baseball, Sanders would be moderately better than his real-life counterpart. From 1987 to 1998, Sanders would be a speed and defense prototype in the mold of Kenny Lofton. From 1992 to 1998, Lofton averaged nine home runs and 69 steals per 162 games. For Sanders, these would be closer to 15 home runs and 55 steals. He would compete for Gold Gloves each season, and he would have several 50-steal seasons.

From 1999 to 2005, Sanders would have steady power numbers built more on home runs than his triples. His seasons would be similar to Chris Young‘s 20s on the Arizona Diamondbacks. From 2007 to 2011, Young averaged 25 home runs and 22 steals per 162 games. For Sanders, these numbers would be in the realm of 20 home runs and 30 steals.

Final Projection

In this projection, Sanders would spend 19 seasons in Major League Baseball. He would play approximately 50 games in 1987 before averaging 135 games per season from 1988 to 2005. The 135 figure is an extrapolation of Sanders’ health while in the NFL. He averaged 13.6 games per 16-game season before his 2001 initial retirement.

He played in the NFL until his age-38 season in 2005, so his MLB career will mirror that. He played all 16 games for the 2005 Baltimore Ravens, and he was still a solid player but not a Pro Bowler.

From 1987 to 1998, Sanders would average 65 attempts steals per 162 games. Across a projected 1,535 games, Sanders would attempt 616 steals and be successful on 480 of them (77.9%). As a hitter, Sanders would have a projected OPS+ of 115 with an approximate slash line of .290/.340/.460. In the 12 seasons, Sanders would project for 142 home runs.

After the age of 30, Sanders’s different approach would take over. He would have a more modest steal rate of 35 attempts per 162 games. From 1999 to 2005, Sanders would project to play in 945 games. In his 945 games, Sanders would attempt 204 steals. He would be successful on 159 of them to bring his final total to 639. His total would be 15th in MLB history just ahead of Lofton.

Returning to the batter’s box, Sanders would increase his OPS+ to an average of 120. He would have a slash line of approximately .300/.345/.480. In the seven seasons, he would be expected to hit 117 home runs. He would end with a final total of 259 home runs.

Throw in a handful of Gold Gloves, and Sanders would be a logical selection for the Hall of Fame.

Pause: Sanders Would Be a Hall of Famer?

The protection of Sanders’ career might be on the aggressive side, but Sanders is a Pro Football Hall of Famer. He also had a solid stint in the Majors despite focusing on football. He had a 56-steal season in the one season that he played more than 100 games. In two of the three seasons that he played at least 95 games, he had an above-average OPS+, including an OPS+ of 130 in 1992.

If anything, the steals projection is on the conservative side. Sanders had the athleticism to play as a boundary cornerback in the NFL even at 38, so he might exceed the projection.

The home run production is likely overstating a potential body transition. Sanders never hit more than eight home runs in a season. If his best season, eight home runs in 97 games, was extrapolated to 162 games, Sanders would be on pace for 13 home runs.

Either way, a more accurate prediction of 700 steals, 100 home runs, and generally good defense in centerfield would be more than enough for a strong Hall of Fame case. Throw in Sanders’ larger-than-life personality, and he would have been a fan-favorite for his entire career.

If it means anything, Otis Nixon, a teammate of Sanders told Sports Illustrated “If he had taken off that football uniform and said, I’m going all the way in to play Major League Baseball, Deion Sanders would have been in the Hall of Fame. I know that for a fact.”

What Teams Would He Have Played For?

The two easiest picks here are the Royals and the Atlanta Braves. He was drafted by the Royals and stayed with them in this universe. The Braves come into play because of John Schuerholz. Schuerholz was the general manager that drafted Sanders in 1985 with the Royals. In 1990, he moved to the Braves organization. Sanders could follow in Lonnie Smith‘s footsteps (or his real-life footsteps as he played four seasons with the Braves).

Beyond the Royals and Braves, big-market teams such as the Yankees (who also drafted Sanders), New York Mets, San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers would also be in play for his services.

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Ryan Potts is an avid football and baseball fan. He covers the NFL and Major League Baseball, focusing on the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Braves.