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.
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?