Baseball: Past and Present

Editor’s note: I’m pleased to present this article from Rory Paap, a regular contributor here. Rory writes PaapFly.com and also contributes to the Hardball Times. After reading this article, check out his recent post for THT on if Grady Sizemore can save the Cleveland Indians.

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There are quite a few baseball records that are considered untouchable. You can bucket them into three categories: streaks, single-season records, and career records. What I’d like to do here is decide which of these records is the most unbreakable, but I’d like to do it with a twist. Let’s start with career records and you’ll catch on to the twist soon enough.

There are a lot of notable career records that are difficult: Cy Young and 511 wins, Barry Bonds and seven MVP awards, Walter Johnson and 110 shutouts, Pete Rose and 4,256 base hits, Bonds again with 2,558 walks, Bonds again with 688 intentional walks, Sam Crawford with 309 triples, Cy Young with 749 complete games, Ty Cobb with a .367 lifetime batting average, Nolan Ryan’s 5,714 career strikeouts, Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters and Rickey Henderson with 1,406 career stolen bases.

Some of these records are unbreakable because they’re impossible, not because they are hard. For example, no player will ever again win 511 games in their career, as Cy Young did. That’s an untouchable record. But if I sit here and tell you that, is it compelling? You’re certainly entitled to your own opinion, but it’s not. Not by a long shot in my book.

Why is that? Well, it’s pretty simple. Pitchers don’t pitch nearly as many games or innings as they used to. It’s nothing like when Young pitched and that became even truer when the trend in baseball went from a four-man to a five-man rotation in the early 1970s. If a pitcher is exceptionally healthy he will make 34 starts in a season. If he was exceptionally healthy and won every start for 15 seasons, he would win 510 games. Difficult? Damn near impossible. I’m eliminating it from contention.

Walter Johnson’s 110 shutouts is an exceedingly impressive record as well, but also exceedingly undoable. With the five-man rotation, modern pitch counts, and specialized bullpens, it’s not a reachable goal. Cy’s complete games record is unfathomable.

How about Bonds’ seven MVPs? That’s difficult and there’s nothing that’s changed that would preclude a player from winning an armful of those. It’s gone off my list. Rose’s hit record stays, and I think Ichiro would have been just the man to challenge it had he not played in Japan prior to coming to the MLB. Both of Bonds’ walk records seem untouchable but each fair game to challenge. I think Sam Crawford’s triples record is challengeable too, not that anyone will ever catch him. Ty Cobb and his .367 career average is ridiculous, but I’ll leave it in. Same with Ryan’s strikeouts and no-hitters as well as Henderson’s stolen bags.

We’re off to a rousing start. But let’s speed up the pace.

There are a bunch of great streaks too: Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams’ 84 straight games reaching base, Vince Coleman stole 50 straight bags without being caught, Johnny Vander Meer’s two consecutive no-hitters, Orel Hershiser’s 59 straight scoreless innings, Carl Hubbell’s 24 straight wins, Don Drysdale’s six consecutive shutouts, Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive starts, Bonds’ four consecutive MVPs, Randy Johnson’s and Greg Maddux’s four consecutive Cy Young awards, Brooks Robinson and Jim Kaat each won 16 straight Gold Glove’s and Eric Gagne once saved 84 games in a row.

It’s time to trim the fat on those. Hubbell’s 24 straight wins, while impressive, is ultimately dependant on offensive support so I’m discarding it from contention. I’m also tossing the 16 Gold Glove streak, considering the voters gave Derek Jeter one last season. I’ve never been big on popularity contests. The rest seem good to me.

In terms of single-season records, I like these best: Bonds’ 73 home runs, Bonds’ 232 walks in a season, Bonds’ 120 intentional walks in a season – maybe I should have made a Bonds category. Henderson stole 130 bases in a season and Jack Chesbro’s won 41 games.

We also have Ichiro’s 262 hits, Earl Webb’s 67 doubles, Chief Wilson’s 36 triples, Hack Wilson’s 191 RBI, Bonds’ 1,422 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). Matt Kilroy’s record of 520 strikeouts in a season, 1886 appears safe, but the modern record is Ryan’s 373 in 1973. How about Francisco Rodriguez’s 62 saves? Sorry, this is added to the who-gives-a-crap category. Bob Gibson’s modern record of a 1.12 ERA is very impressive.

Of these, we only need to throw out a couple: Chesbro’s 41 wins for the same reasons I junked Young’s 511 and Hubbell’s 24 consecutive as well as the Rodriguez’s 62 saves for reasons I’ve already stated. Also on the wins: even if baseball went back to a four man rotation, the pitcher would have to win every single game he pitched in order to get 41 wins. Sound reasonable? I didn’t think so.

For fun, let’s mix in some unenviable records. You’d hate to show up on this list. For single-season grounded into double plays (GIDP) we have Jim Rice with 36 – Watch out, Billy Butler is on your tail.

We also have strikeouts with the 223 that Mark Reynolds put up – he owns spots one, two and three and might eclipse them all in 2011 as he’s moving to the tougher league, and the AL East at that. How about the single-season wild pitches record? Mark Baldwin can sleep easy with 83. What, it’s not Rick Ankiel’s record?! It’s not the modern record, anyway. Juan Guzman managed a remarkable 26 in 1993. Bravo

It’s time to pick my favorites, which aren’t necessarily the toughest – I’ll pick three per category.

Career: Ryan’s 5,714 strikeouts, Henderson’s 1,406 stolen bases and… a wild card.

Three players hold the record for the most Sabermetric Triple Crowns in a career. Why have I chosen this? Because it’s awesome and I’m not much on the original Triple Crown (batting average, home runs, RBI). I’m using Fungoes’ version, i.e. the highest OBP, total bases (TB) and runs created (RC) in a season. It’s a three-way tie between Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Of note is that Williams and Hornsby each won two traditional Triple Crown’s in their five Sabermetric Triple Crown seasons. They’re the only players in history with two.

To put this into context a bit, know that Bonds and Pujols were both completely dominant players in their peaks (Pujols is still technically in his) and each only have one Sabermetric Triple Crown to their name. That being said, Bonds likely would have won a few more were he not so feared; the number of walks he accumulated precluded him from reaching gaudy total base totals.

Streaks: DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak (obviously), Williams’ underrated record of 84 straight games of reaching base and Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive starts, which still absolutely boggles my mind. Others have tried (Miguel Tejada) and failed. Regrettably, ALS cut the previous record holder’s (Lou Gehrig) streak short.

Single-season: Ichiro’s 262 hits, Bonds’ 73 home runs and Henderson’ 130 stole bases.

What are your favorite records or those you believe are most difficult to challenge?



10 Comments so far

  1.    Jacqueline Peters on February 17, 2011 9:41 pm      

    I love streaks. My favorite is the Oakland Athletics 20-game winning streak in 2002. One, because it is difficult to win that many consecutive games. The team needs a ton of luck. Secondly, because I sat in the stands for all of the home games during that time and thirdly, because as fans we can share in the excitement. The individual records are enjoyed more by the particular player.

    Great post

  2.    Vinnie on February 17, 2011 10:50 pm      

    Rory,
    Ryan had 383k’s. Most difficult? How about the two grandslams in an inning? Only done once. What are the chances of three? Or, most consecutive hits? (12)done only twice. What are the odds of two homeruns in the first two ML at bats? Done just once. Here’s one that can only be tied and never broken. Most rbi on a single(3).

  3.    Www.PaapFly.com on February 17, 2011 11:51 pm      

    More incredible was the fact that both Grand Slams were hit off the same pitcher, Chan Ho Park. That’s rough on the ERA.

  4.    joe r. on February 18, 2011 8:33 am      

    I believe Chief Wilson’s 36 triples in a year may be the most unreachable record. I believe it is not only the major league record, but the Organized Baseball record, i.e., no one in any minor league has tied or exceeded it. No one in the majors has even approached it, the next highest being 26.

    Of course it is a product of its time, somewhat akin to pitching complete game records, and a fluke record at that (Wilson never had an unusual total of triples before or after that year).

    Still, it was a remarkable achievement. One could envision the doubles record (67 by Earl Webb) being broken. It’s difficult to imagine anyone today getting close to 36 triples. Maybe an Ichiro-type player – of whom there’s only one, so far – in his prime, having an incredible fluke season could make a run at it.

  5.    Graham Womack on February 18, 2011 6:00 pm      

    It would require a certain type of ballpark, too. Deadball Era parks were built for triples, big, vast fields that no longer are much seen in baseball.

  6.    stratobill on February 20, 2011 11:08 am      

    The problem with your contention that no pitcher will ever win 511 games or throw 110 shutouts again is that you are assuming that the way the game is played today is the way it will always be played. And that is hardly likely.

    Look at any sport, including baseball, and you’ll see they are constantly evolving.

    Take basestealing, for example.

    Stolen bases were big in the deadball era, then became an endangered species for 40 years until Aparicio and Wills started their pilfering. In the 80′s Henderson, Coleman, Moreno, Raines, and
    Ron Leflore all stole 90 or more bases in a season at least once. But in the last 20 years not a single player has stolen even 80 bases in a season. Things change.

    Regarding the pitching records, what if teams go back to 4 man rotations? What if a pitcher comes along who is so good that he wins two thirds of his starts from age 20 to 40? Lets see, that would be 21 years times 39 starts times .667 =546 wins.

    Is it likely to happen in the next 25 years? No, but it could. What about in the next 100 years? Possibly. I’m not saying that it will happen,
    but it could. Just as I never would of predicted someone hitting 73 homers in a season as Barry Bonds did or someone striking out 138 batters in 77 and 2/3 innings as Carlos Marmol did last year.

  7.    AndrewJ on February 20, 2011 4:48 pm      

    Connie Mack managing one team for 50 years — I don’t see that being challenged. And no, I don’t see any player breaking Fernando Tatis’ record by hitting THREE grand slams in one inning.

  8.    Rory/ Paapfly on February 21, 2011 10:58 pm      

    I like everyone’s additions. I think Granderson had 23 triples pretty recently. That’s still quite a few from 36, but I still think it’s possible to eclipse it if the right player gets in the right ballpark and gets just lucky enough.

    In terms of the comment on whether 511 wins is attainable…

    I may not have come out and said it explicitly, but I was creating a list based on MLB as currently conceived. Plus, even if you go to a four-man rotation it’s not happening. No pitcher is winning 2/3 of his starts for any sustained period of time. Wins are highly dependent on run support, bullpen, etc. I’ll go out on a limb and say 511 will never happen again. And if I’m every proven wrong, you can gladly come and point out my mistake here. I’ll be happy to say I was wrong.

  9.    Vinnie on February 22, 2011 6:58 pm      

    All the pre-1920 pitching stats, both for career and single season should be put off limit. In fact, we probably won’t see another 30 game winner unless they decide sometime to extend the season and play year round.
    Along with that, all those .400 seasons are just about as surely gone as a wild goose in winter. That .424 seems to be pretty sure not to be in jeopardy now, or anytime soon.
    Another pretty heady record that could, but most likey will remain untouched are the 457 total bases in a season, and lest we forget to mention it, no one is going to ever get close to Hack Wilson’s single season rbi mark.

  10.    Mike Ford on March 23, 2011 9:24 am      

    Like the article…I am Earl Webb’s grandson…thanks
    Mike

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  • Written by Graham Womack