Episode 18: October 1, 2010
Is Ty Cobb’s .366 lifetime batting average really an unbreakable record? What about Barry Bonds’ 762 career home runs? Or Nolan Ryan’s 5714 strikeouts? And will anyone ever hit 50 home runs and steal 50 bases in a season?
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
Let's get something straight about Ty Cobb. A lot of people look at Cobb's .366 career batting average and dismiss it as an artifact from a different era. Batting averages were higher back then, right? Well, it's easy to assume that Deadball records are irrelevant, but it's not that simple. The game *was* different, but get this: Cobb played from 1905 to 1928. During those 24 years the league average was .279. During the past 24 years (since 1986), the league average has been .280.
I'm Alex Reisner...
It's easy to get confused because baseball changed so fast 100 years ago and numbers were less consistent from one year to the next, but all of Cobb's batting titles came during the Deadball Era. 1919 was his last one. Those high batting averages you might be thinking of didn't happen until 1920. Between 1905 and 1919, while Cobb won 11 batting titles, the league average was actually just .266, 14 points lower than it is today, and Cobb was hitting .377, .383, .420, .409, .390, .368, .369, ... He was extremely consistent, year after year between the ages of 20 and 32, hitting for an average around 3 standard deviations above the mean (something Tony Gwynn did just 5 times in his career).
I'm not saying that Cobb would hit .420 if he played today. It's a different game, and nobody knows what Cobb would have done. I'm saying if you're looking at career batting averages and you say, well, Cobb is the all-time leader but he played in a different era so we can't compare him to, say, Wade Boggs...well, the league batting average was about the same so "batting averages were higher then" is not a reason the numbers are incomparable. Cobb's dominance in his era was extraordinary and I'd suggest that his .366 is probably more comparable to today's numbers than most people initially think.
Now I'm not saying it's a totally legitimate comparison either, because the *distribution* of batting averages was different...the standard deviation was higher which basically means there was more of a gap between the best and worst hitters. But it's important to understand that there's a huge difference between Ty Cobb's lifetime .366 and, say, Lefty O'Doul's .349 during the 20s and 30s when the league average was almost .300 (.297).
Anyway, last week I talked about unbreakable records and if you think Cobb's lifetime batting average is unbreakable, well what if a player came over from Japan, like Ichiro, in his late 20s, played for a few years, and then went back to Japan before he started to decline? I can see that kind of player challenging Cobb's record. You need 3000 plate appearances to qualify as a career leader in a rate stat, and you can get that in 5 years. In fact, Tony Gwynn, from 1993 to 1998, in over 3000 PAs hit .361, so he was just 5 points short. And Wade Boggs hit .356 in over 4000 plate appearances from '83 to '88. Anyway, I just want to point out that I think Cobb's record is a *little* more relevant and breakable than people usually think. I'm not saying anyone's going to break it anytime soon, but I wouldn't place any big bets on it standing for another 50 years.
Last week I think I may have confused some people, maybe even myself, about what kinds of records are breakable. At the time I thought that records that were set by players having fluky seasons were, in general, more likely to be broken than less fluky records set over longer periods of time. But now I'm not sure. I based this theory on the idea that if one player gets lucky and has an unusually great year, the same thing could just as easily happen to another player. He has to be a little *more* lucky than the last guy, or maybe just a better player, but eventually it seems like it should happen. And I still think this is true for records like Bonds' 73 home runs. It may be a while, but Ned Williamson's 27 HRs lasted for 35 years. Ruth's 60 lasted 34 years, and Maris' 61 lasted 37 years. So it may be 2035 before Bonds' record is broken, but I do believe it'll be broken.
But then I thought of Hack Wilson's 191 RBIs. Now that was a fluky season, but the record's stood since 1930, and since Jimmy Foxx in 1938, the only player to even break 160 is Manny Ramirez (165 in 1999). The year before that Juan Gonzalez had 101 at the All Star break, but he ended up with just 157. All of the top 20 RBI seasons, with the exception of Manny's, are from the '30s or earlier, and I actually don't know why this is. Why are all the huge single-season RBI totals from 70 years ago or more? If you have any ideas, please give me a call or leave a note in the comments on the web site.
So I'm not sure if my theory on the correlation between flukiness and breakability stands, but I want to talk about another single-season record that's about as unbreakable as they come. This record is not a fluke in that it was due much more to the player's skill than to luck, although it was an outlying season, even for the record holder. It's also one of the most shocking records set in the past few years. Let me name some of the single-season runners-up and see if you can guess what it is:
* George Brett: 31
* Vlad Guerrero: 32
* Ted Williams: 33
* Ryan Howard: 37
* Albert Pujols: 44
* Willie McCovey: 45
So McCovey is 4th all-time on this list with 45, and the leader owns the top three spots, with 61, 68, and then, ridiculously, 120. In a season I'd probably name as one of the 5 greatest seasons ever by a batter Barry Bonds set the record for intentional walks with 120. This wasn't the year he hit 73 home runs. This was 2004, the year his OBP was over .600. The year teams were so afraid of him that he walked every third time he came to the plate, and he still managed to hit 45 home runs and slug over .800, while striking out just 41 times. The numbers are just comical, and I think the most telling ones are the walk totals. 120 intentionals, 232 overall, both records by huge margins. Those records are far harder to beat than his 73 home runs, and probably even harder than his 762 career home runs. When the opposition gives you first base one in three times, it's not luck. It might be bad strategy by the opposing team, but it's not luck. Remember that Bonds still managed to bat .362 that year and exactly 1 in every 3 hits was a home run. I can't imagine anyone being walked as often without putting up similar numbers.
Back in 1996 when Bonds was younger and faster he became the second man ever to hit 40 HRs and steal 40 bases in a season, and I'd like to look at the possibility of someone hitting 50 HRs and stealing 50 bases in a season. Let's start by looking at the evolution of the 30-30 Club. The most glaring fact is that memberships grows exponentially. The first member was Ken Williams in 1922. Then nobody else did it until Willie Mays in 1956 and '57. That's more than a 40 year gap. The next player was Hank Aaron, who did it 6 years later in 1963. Then Barry's father Bobby Bonds did it 6 years after that. In the 70s Tommy Harper did it once and Bobby Bonds did it 4 more times. In the 80s, 7 guys did it. In the 90s 20 guys did it, and in the past 10 years 17 more have done it.
The 40-40 club is still pretty new. Canseco *just* barely made it in 1988 with 42 HR and 40 SB. Bonds made it in 1996 with the same numbers. Alex Rodriguez in 1998 has been the closest so far to a 50-50 season with 42 HR and 46 SB, and Alfonso Soriano was almost as close with 46 HR and 41 SB. Now, my opinion is that eventually someone will do it, but it's going to be a long time before they do, and I want to point out that part of the reason it's so hard is that every time you hit a home run you have at least one less opportunity to steal a base. For example, in Soriano's 40-40 year he reached first base with second base empty 87 times. One of those times he went to second base on a wild pitch so if we ignore that he had 86 opportunities to steal second base. He stole it 27 times, got caught 9, and was picked off 3 times. So if we assume he was trying to steal the times he was picked off, he attempted a steal of second base 45% of the time it was open. That's a *very* high rate. If Soriano had to try to steal second that often to steal 41 bases, he'd have to try it even more often to steal 50, and if he had to hit 4 more home runs he would have had 4 fewer opportunities to be on first so his steal percentage would have to be extremely high. He'd have to get on base more often to bring it down, so it's likely the first 50-50 Club member will have a pretty high batting average. Soriano was the first 40-40 guy to hit less than .300. So anyway, that's why the 50-50 Club is even harder to join than most people think.
Let's talk about pitching records, and the fact that career records often come in pairs. For example Cy Young holds the record for most wins with 511, but he also has the record for most losses with 316. Now, you might think that having the record for the most losses is a bad thing, but it *does* mean you were good enough that they let you lose that many games. You must have been doing something else right. And it's the same thing with Nolan Ryan: he's the career leader in strikeouts, by a tremendous margin, and he's the career leader in walks by an even bigger margin. Now, people say that Young's career losses record is even harder to break than his wins record, but I don't know what they're talking about. Nolan Ryan himself came within 24 losses of Young's record and Phil Niekro wasn't that far behind either (42 behind). But Nolan Ryan's walk record probably *is* even harder to break than his strikeout record, and these are more interesting to talk about than the win/loss records because they're more modern. Randy Johnson, the strikeout record runner up, needed 17% more strikeouts to reach Nolan Ryan. He pitched for 22 years so he'd need 4 more to catch Ryan. That's a lot, but Steve Carlton, the runner-up to the walk record would need 52% more walks. At the rate he was going, Steve Carlton would have had to pitch until he was 56 years old to walk as many batters as Nolan Ryan.
Now, strikeouts are a modern record in that the top 8 on the career leaderboard debuted after 1960, so the records haven't stood that long and with batters striking out more and more over the past 80 years what I'm about to say may seem like a bad prediction, and maybe it's because I'm a Nolan Ryan fan, but I would call both of Ryan's records fairly unbreakable. Randy Johnson struck out a lot of batters, but he came up almost 850 short. Bert Blyleven has the 5th most strikeouts ever and he's over 2000 short. In the last episode I talked about our tendency to think records are unbreakable because the player who would break them seems impossibly good...we can't imagine them. The existing records are so extraordinary, but extraordinary players always come along. The difference here is that Nolan Ryan didn't do what most people say pitchers should do. He never cut his velocity and became a control pitcher. He never pitched to contact. He never stopped walking batters or throwing wild pitches. He went for the strikeout every time. He had a 300-strikeout season when he was 25 and another when he was 42: 17 years apart.
So, again, maybe this is a dumb thing to say, especially when Nolan Ryan himself now owns a Major League pitching staff, but I don't think he'll find any pitcher who can physically do what he did, or a manager who would let him. It took 6'10" Randy Johnson to even come within 1000 strikeouts, and the work load required goes against all medical advice.
So, anyway, I'm probably not done talking about unbreakable records but we're out of time again, so I'm going to leave you with the idea that Nolan Ryan is one of baseball's great freaks.
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