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The Unbreakables (Part One)

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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?

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hexagram on September 24, 2010 21:19

It seems that you think interesting records are those that demonstrate the player’s abilities. So, if Bonds didn’t hit a lot of home runs in any other year, it isn’t interesting. What’s the relevance of the player to the record? A record is interesting if it is interesting in baseball terms, not in terms of the player. Hitting 73 is interesting (although it isn’t unbreakable).

Now I take you very seriously, so if you say flukiness is an important variable, I’m listening. The distinction you may be looking for is flukiness of the accomplishment per se, not flukiness for the player. I give full credit to Denny McLain (and not for his record of longest jail sentence by an ex-major leaguer). I even give credit to Dale Long. His record suffers from the defects of all streak records, but it wouldn’t be more interesting if he hit in seven straight games a few times, too.

I think we need a good conceptual framework here.

Alex Reisner on September 30, 2010 19:23

OK, so I think I was a little careless with my choice of words. I don't want to turn this into a semantic discussion, but let me try to clear some things up.

1. First I say that some unbreakable records (like 511 wins) are uninteresting because they're from a different era.
2. Then I say feats are uninteresting because they require more luck than skill and hence are no fun to speculate about.
3. Then I say streaks are a little more "credible" than feats because they are less dependent on luck.

So we have a few things here, which I may have conflated:

* breakability
* interest
* credibility

"Breakability" is pretty straightforward. I think we all understand that one. By "credibility" I'm talking about how much I think the player "deserves" to be a record-holder. To me this is directly related to the amount of luck inherent in his achievement. Whether a record is "interesting" is a complicated and, I think, subjective question that I didn't mean to raise, although I clearly did (I intended to have an interesting *discussion* about unbreakable records).

Things that make a record is interesting to me:

* The circumstances in which it was set, including the liveliness of the baseball that year, the height of the mound, the average number of starts for a pitcher, the equipment used, and a lot more, including the player himself. I think, for example, Bonds' 73 HR record is interesting because of the circumstances surrounding it. There's a lot to talk about.

* You can speculate about who will break them. Feats and other fluky records are usually less interesting to speculate about because anyone who gets lucky can break them. I suppose Prince Fielder is more likely to hit two grand slams in an inning than David Eckstein, but we're talking about a difference in odds of maybe one-in-a-gazillion to one-in-a-gazillion-plus-one.

I guess I don't understand how you can separate the record from the player. The 73 HR record exists because Barry Bonds set it. The career hits record exists because Pete Rose set it. I guess I'm accustomed to seeing records as stories. How is a record interesting in baseball or numerical terms alone?

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