Episode 17: September 24, 2010
The breaking of records is often surrounded by controversy. We have a tendency to defend the past as somehow superior to the present. Which of baseball’s great records are unbreakable because a player was extraordinary? And which because the game has changed? What records are the most interesting to think about?
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
The shortest outfield fence in baseball history was at White Stocking Park in Chicago, where the White Stockings played from 1878 until 1884. Down the left field line it was only 186 feet and to right field it was 196. Because it was so short the rule was that if you hit the ball over the fence in left you got a double instead of a home run. But in 1884 the White Stockings decided to make things exciting. They brought the left field fence even 6 feet closer and home runs were awarded if you cleared it. At that time only one player had hit more than 10 home runs in a season, but in 1884 *4* White Stockings players hit over 20.
I'm Alex Reisner...
Ned Williamson, The White Stockings' third baseman, was the new single season home run king, with 27. As you can imagine, people weren't too happy about this. It seemed Chicago was making a mockery of the single-season home run record. White Stocking Park was replaced by West Side Park the following year but the damage was done. Baseball's single season home run record was an absurd, unbreakable number, set by players who had had an unfair advantage. This should sound familiar to you...
Thirty-five years went by and only 4 times did a batter hit 20 home runs in a season. The closest anyone came to Ned Williamson's 27 was when Buck Freeman hit 25 in 1899. The runner up that year, Bobby Wallace, had 12. In 1918 a pitcher by the name of Babe Ruth led the American League in home runs with 11, despite only playing in 95 games. The next year Ruth played 130 games and finally broke Williamson's record by hitting an amazing 29 home runs.
The next year the league began the process of outlawing the spitball and other so-called "freak deliveries" and Ruth hit a ridiculous 54 home runs. This was the beginning of a new era.
People are upset today because Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs while using a maple bat, a slingshot elbow protector, and probably an illegal muscle-building substance. But people were upset in 1961 when Roger Maris broke Ruth's record of 60 home runs, because he didn't break it within the 154 game season that Ruth had back in 1927.
I say all this to put recent events in context. Baseball is always changing. Just this week, Cubs rookie Tyler Colvin was stabbed in the chest with the barrel of a shattered bat and there's already talk about outlawing maple bats. If that happens, given the perpetual short supply of Major League quality ash, we might start seeing new kinds of wood used for bats. Mets catcher Josh Thole, among others, have been experimenting with a bat that has an asymmetrical knob that claims to be a much smoother swing. So in the next few years we could start seeing some changes in bat material and shape, and who knows how either one could affect hitting stats.
We tend to think of records as unbreakable. Maybe not unbreakable, but we see the kind of extraordinary season that Bonds had in 2001 or that Ichiro had in 2004 with 262 hits, or Randy Johnson in 2001 striking out 372 batters. These are unique players who seem almost designed to break these records, and it's hard to see how anyone else could do it. Who's going to strike out more batters than 6'10" Randy Johnson who throws 95 MPH with what looks like no effort? Someone would have to start 34 games and strike out 11 batters every time! It's crazy! Well, eventually, someone will do it. There are all kinds of pitchers out there who can strike out batters for a variety of reasons. It takes an extraordinary player to break a record, that's why it's a record! But extraordinary players *do* come along. You just don't know what they're going to look like until you see them.
When records finally are broken, someone always gets upset. We tend to have a reverence for the past even though we don't always know the circumstances surrounding the old records, and it's easy to find fault with the present, and resist the change. Barry Bonds cheated. Mark McGwire cheated. Roger Maris had an unfair advantage and so did Ned Williamson.
I guess what we really want is a fair fight. We want to see a home run derby with Williamson, Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Sammy Sosa, McGwire, Bonds... and that can't happen, for obvious reasons. But we still *have* to know who's the best. I don't know why we all have this need to know who's the best, but we do. We spend so much time talking about it and thinking about it and writing about it. But we can't have these guys face off against each other so we're stuck looking at the numbers. And the numbers are hard to compare because baseball is always changing. Maris had more games, Williamson had a shorter fence, Cy Young pitched more often, and so on. So to some extent we *can't* compare the raw numbers.
Yesterday Eric Seidman of Baseball Prospectus wrote an article about era-dependent records. He says no one's going to break Cy Young's 511 career win record, not because pitchers today aren't as good, but because nobody pitches as often as Young did, so we should ignore Young's numbers when we're talking about Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, or Roy Halladay. Seidman points out that Todd Helton's 59 doubles in 2000 are the single-season record in the Wild Card Era. It's fewer than the 67 doubles Earl Webb hit in 1931 but it's more than anyone else hit in the past 15 years. Basically he's saying you shouldn't talk about Webb and Helton in the same sentence. Webb holds the record in his era, Helton holds the record in his, but we can't compare them because the game has changed too much.
I don't completely agree with all of Seidman's article, but I think this point is fair. He's tired of hearing people say that nobody will break the all-time wins record because it's not an interesting statement. Of course nobody will. It's like comparing a newspaper to a web site and saying The New York Times has a higher print circulation than Yahoo. It's true, but it's mostly irrelevant. So how do we have an interesting discussion about baseball records?
First, let's break records down into four categories:
1) career totals, like Young's 511 wins
2) season totals, like Bonds' 73 home runs
3) streaks, like DiMaggio's 56 consecutive games with a hit
4) feats, like Fernando Tatis hitting two grand slams in the same inning
Let's dispense with feats first. I'm going to say these are generally not very interesting because they're almost entirely based on luck. I don't think anyone would say Fernando Tatis is the greatest grand slam hitter ever because he hit two in an inning. Not many players have ever even come to the plate with the bases loaded twice in an inning, and I doubt that if he had the opportunity again, Tatis has any real ability to repeat. Other records that fall into this category are Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters and Ed Reulbach's 2 shutouts in the same day. These are things you didn't even know were "a thing" until someone did them, and you could make up others, like back-to-back perfect games, two unassisted triple plays in a game, or hitting for a double cycle: 2 singles, 2 doubles, 2 triples, and 2 home runs. These records are good trivia questions, but they're basically meaningless when it comes to player skill. They might be broken one day, they might not. It's not that interesting to speculate.
So let's move on to streaks. These are slightly more credible that feats, but not much. They include Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak, Orel Hershiser's 59 scoreless innings, and 8 consecutive games with a home run, set by Dale Long, Don Mattingly, and Ken Griffey, Jr. These streaks are accomplished within a short amount of time and involve a lot of luck. What I mean by luck is that these players don't show any ability to repeat the streaks. Outside of their 8 game HR streaks, Long, Mattingly, and Griffey's longest streaks were 2, 3, and 5 games respectively. DiMaggio's second longest hitting streak? 24 games.
Cal Ripken's 2632 consecutive games were played over a period of 17 years, which means that streak was far less dependent on luck. In fact, I'd say this is among the most legitimate records in baseball. Outside of Barry Bonds' 73-HR season he never hit 50. Roger Maris, outside of his 61-HR season never hit 40. Jack Chesbro, outside of his 41-win season never won 30. These are isolated accomplishments that were not repeatable. They were flukes. Luck. Cal Ripken played every single game for 17 years, and it should be a very long time until anyone comes even close to threatening that record.
Let's move on to single-season records now. As you can probably tell I have more respect for records which are achieved over a longer period of time, but a season isn't that long. As I said, Bonds and Maris were lucky to hit as many home runs as they did. But in this category we also have Rickey Henderson's 130 stolen bases in 1982. Now this is the record for the modern era and it does not appear to be lucky. Henderson led the league in stolen bases 9 out of 10 years in the 80s and stole over 100 three times. He appears to have had a real ability to steal an outrageous number of bases. Today managers seem to believe less and less in the stolen base. There are a lot of statistical studies that show that unless your success rate is extremely high, the chance of getting into scoring position isn't worth the risk of an out. In fact, with Henderson's 76% success rate in 1982 it's likely he cost the A's as many runs as he manufactured with his stolen bases. It appears this reasoning is beginning to sink in with managers, and stealing bases is becoming sort of a lost art. So it should be a very long time until this record is broken. The last time anyone stole even 80 bases was 1988 when Henderson stole 93 and Vince Coleman stole 81. In the 20 years before that Lou Brock stole 118, Coleman stole over 100 3 times, Ron LeFlore stole 97, Omar Moreno stole 96, and Tim Raines and Willie Wilson also broke 80. This shows what a great base-stealer Henderson was *and* how much the game has changed just in the past 20 years.
Anyway, there are some other single season records to discuss, of course we have the career records too, and I also want to talk about the likelihood of a 50-50 Club, but I'm out of time for this week, so I'll pick up from here in Part 2.
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