Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
July 12, 2007
BASEBALL: Baseball's Most Impressive Records
You often hear discussion of what are baseball's most unbreakable records; it's a hardy perennial of the barroom or talk radio debate (I recently got a marketing email from a company selling a video on the topic).
But "unbreakable" isn't really the yardstick for a great record. Let's use the most glaring example: in 1879, Will White threw 680 innings. By modern standards, that's almost beyond comprehension; pigs will fly before you see a pitcher throw 681 innings in a single season. But is it really that impressive? The previous record was 622, in a 66-game season (by 1879 the schedule was 80 games for White's Reds). Five years later, Old Hoss Radbourn threw 678.2 innings, and Guy Hecker threw 670.2. White deserves a tip of the cap for out-working his contemporaries, but his record was set at the best possible time - the historic high-water mark of starting pitcher innings - and narrowly survived a challenge just 5 years later.
No, what I'm interested in is the baseball's most impressive records. So I bring you this list. First, the parameters. No team records, just individual feats. No single-game records - if the name "Mark Whiten" doesn't remind us that anybody can have a great day, I don't know what will. No postseason records, since the opportunities to set those are very unevenly distributed. No fielding records, for a long list of reasons regarding the nature and availability of fielding stats. No managing records, although Connie Mack's 53-year managing career is impressive under any definition, as is Joe McCarthy managing 24 years with three different franchises without having a losing record once. And no negative records - Nolan Ryan's career walks record is perversely impressive, but not worthy of honor. All I looked at was career and single-season hitting and pitching records, and streaks.
Second, my criteria for choosing and ranking the records. I looked at three factors. One, how far the record stands out from the #2 (and for measurement I compared to the second-best by a different player, rather than, say, compare two Barry Bonds seasons). Two, the level of skill, consistency or exceptional endurance involved - winning games and hitting home runs is more impressive than at bats or hit by pitches. Relatedly, I gave more emphasis for higher-profile stats, and didn't look at really obscure records or metrics (no VORP record here). And three, I gave extra credit to players who - unlike Will White - set their records under less than the ideal conditions for setting that particular record.
Finally, in a few cases I consolidated in a single "record" multiple records a player set in a single season or career that basically flow from the same cause, such as Barry Bonds' walk and intentional walk records.
This doesn't claim to be a scientific list; I have my opinion, you have yours. But my justifications and the facts are provided.
Vander Meer's is more in the nature of a single feat than a streak, but the fact is, Major League Baseball has been around for 131 years, and in all of that time, only one man has pitched back-to-back no-hitters. The rarity of the thing, given that many opportunities, argues for its impressiveness.
Hubbell's win streak is impressive and tops the #2 on the list (Rube Marquard) by 20%. On the other hand, it's somewhat artificial because (1) it overlaps two seasons and (2) during the streak he lost Game 4 of the 1936 World Series. If the streak was longer (see below) I might have listed him, but either way it is still an impressive feat.
Granted, doubleheaders have always been somewhat rare and it's been decades since anybody pitched both ends of one, so Reulbach, unlike Vander Meer, didn't have as much potential competition. Even so, it's a significant accomplishment to be the only one to do it.
D. The Consecutive Complete Games Record
The record for consecutive starts with a complete game is commonly thought to belong to Jack Taylor, variously attributed as 185, 187 or 188 between 1901 and 1906 (the most thorough examinations seem to support the 185 number; when I was younger I recall it being listed as 176). But back before they moved the mound in 1893, Jack Lynch seems to have thrown 198 straight in the American Association in 1883-87 and 1890, although the one in 1890 after a 3-year absence involved him absorbing 18 runs on 22 hits, and I have no idea what he'd been doing in the interim.
Even with the uncertainties and the prevalance of complete games in those days, though, finishing that many in a row over a period of 5-6 years is really hard work. So these guys get the Honorable Mention. Now, for the list - the number in parentheses is the percentage by which the record exceeds the next best total by another player:
20. Tris Speaker, 792 Career Doubles (6.2%)
Speaker's doubles record is a mountain few have approached. #2 on the list is Pete Rose, and he needed 15,000 plate appearances (a good 30% more than Speaker) to get within 50. Craig Biggio hits gobs of doubles, has been incredibly durable and is in his 20th season, and Biggio still needs 131 doubles to catch Speaker. Speaker did play the second half of his career in a good era for doubles, and played nearly his whole career in two great doubles parks - Fenway and League Park in Cleveland, which also had a high, close fence (60 feet high and 290 feet away in right) you could bounce doubles off.
19. Ichiro Suzuki, 225 Singles in 2004 (9.2%)
If you look atop the single season singles record list, you will find it dominated by 1890s hitters Willie Keeler and Jesse Burkett, from an era when league batting averages ranged from the .290s to as high as .309. Yet, in an age of the longball, Ichiro the Throwback left Keeler's record in the dust. Swimming against the modern offensive tide, and in an extreme pitcher's park no less (Ichiro that season hit .338 at home, .405 on the road) makes his accomplishment more impressive.
18. Nolan Ryan, 7 Career No-Hitters (75%)
The no-hitter is something of a flukey one-game achievement, or this record would rank higher, but only two pitchers have thrown 4 no-nos, and Ryan almost doubled the total of #2 man Sandy Koufax, throwing no-hitters in three decades.
17. Billy Hamilton, 192 Runs Scored in 1894 (8.5%).
Hamilton played in the best of circumstances for the scoring of runs - the highest-scoring season ever, a loaded lineup that set the all-time record by hitting .349 as a team and including three other .400 hitters. But then, he still scored 8.5% more runs than anyone else in his era, and his record has never been seriously challenged even though it was set in a 129-game season. And, of course, scoring runs is the whole point of the game, and you get a lot less help from teammates than with RBIs; this is the most prestigious sort of record.
16. Rickey Henderson, 130 Steals in 1982 (10.2%)
Rickey's single-season steals record stands out, but further than it did at the time; Brock had stolen 118 nine years earlier, and Vince Coleman would steal 110 three years later as a rookie, the first of three straight 100+ seasons. I'd rate Rickey higher but for the fact that he was caught a record 42 times; he would have helped his team more if he'd attempted 120-130 steals instead of 172. That said, the 1982 A's were a team that had rapidly collapsed from a contender, so Rickey gave a lot of excitement to fans who had little else.
Either way, the record was partly a matter of choice, and less impressive for being so.
15. Owen "Chief" Wilson, 36 Triples in 1912 (16.1%)
Not only did Wilson set the triples record by a comfortable 36-31 margin, but he finished 10 triples (38%) ahead of the nearest 20th century competitor. It's rare to see anybody reach mid-May anywhere near Wilson's pace. It's just a freakish accomplishment for a guy who played seven seasons as a regular and cracked 20 triples only the once.
14. Walter Johnson, 110 Career Shutouts (22.2%)
And note that Johnson is 39.2% ahead of the #3 guy, Christy Mathewson (Grover Alexander is #2). 110 shutouts is an astonishing figure, a shutout every six starts and more than a quarter of his 417 career wins (he needed them too - Johnson played for good teams and bad, but the latter were sometimes appalling, like the team where the team leader in RBI drove in 44 runs). Johnson did pitch in the best time for shutouts, the era when ERAs were low and unearned runs were rarer than in the 1880s, and when aces finished their starts. He did throw 24 shutouts in 8 years from 1920-27, though.
13. Cal Ripken, 2,632 consecutive games played, May 30, 1982-September 19, 1998 (23.6%).
Ripken's streak is commonly listed at or near the top of lists like this, but it's not by any means unbreakable - you just need to want it badly enough, be healthy and lucky and a good enough player not to get benched. Unlike the pitching workload records, it's not a feat of spectacular physical endurance, nor does it require any particular skill or accomplishment.
All that said, 16 years without missing a game - including several years of not missing an inning - is nonetheless an impressive feat of willpower and durability, and Ripken left Lou Gehrig three seasons in the dust. That deserves some recognition here.
12. Hank Aaron, 6856 Career Total Bases (11.8%)
Aaron's homer record may be under seige, but his career total bases record, held by a margin of some 700 over Stan Musial and nearly a thousand ahead of #4 Barry Bonds, remains safely out of reach. Aaron had 3771 hits, 98 triples and 624 doubles to go with 755 HR. To do that required durability (15 straight seasons of over 600 plate appearances, 19 straight of over 500, and the first year he fell short he still hit 40 homers), consistency, tremendous power and a good batting average, and he did it despite playing more tha half his prime years in a pitchers' park and running his career straight accross the low-scoring 1960s.
11. Old Hoss Radbourn, 59 Wins in 1884 (11.3%)
Unlike the innings record, winning a huge number of games in a season requires more than just showing up for work. Even at the height of the everyday starting pitcher's era, only three pitchers ever won 50 games in a season, and Radbourn beats the next closest (John Clarkson in 1885) by six wins despite having pitched, much unlike Clarkson, for a team that finished fifth in the league in runs scored. The man ended the 1884 season 47 games over .500 in a 112 game season, almost singlehandedly winning his team the pennant, and he did it the hard way, by posting a league-leading 1.38 ERA in a near-the-record 678.2 innings, and topped it off by winning all three games of the first-ever postseason 'world's series' without allowing an earned run.
1884 was the pinnacle of high-inning starting pitching (average innings started falling off sharply within two years), and talent was spread thin that year due to the upstart Union Association at a time when the two leagues barely had enough talent as it was. So, that counts against ranking Radbourn's feat even higher. But it's no exaggeration to say that he did more to help his team win that season than any player ever in any season.
10. Ty Cobb, .366 Career Batting Average (2.2%)
Cobb's margin over Rogers Hornsby is the narrowest of any record on the list, but he well deserves the high ranking. The lifetime batting average record is one of the game's most important and prestigious, and Cobb has held it wholly unchallenged for eight decades. I believe Hornsby and Al Simmons were the last significant players to crack .360 more than a season or two into their careers, and I don't believe anyone has actually been ahead of Cobb at the end of a season at any point since (Joe Jackson was above .370 through age 24, Willie Keeler through age 30). Plus, Cobb did most of his damage before the high-average 1920s arrived; at the end of 1919 he was a 32-year-old lifetime .372 hitter. Plus, unlike other percentage record-holders like Ed Walsh's career ERA record, Cobb held his pace over an extraordinarily long career, 24 seasons and more than 13,000 plate appearances.
9. Eric Gagne, 84 Consecutive Saves, August 28, 2002-July 3, 2004 (39.2%)
Gagne's streak, like Hubbell's, was sort of interrupted, albeit by a blown save in the All-Star Game. And yes, saves are somethingof an artificial stat. But still, Gagne's whole job was to close out wins, and for nearly two years he did that every time he was asked without fail, surpassing the prior record (Tom Gordon with 54) by a margin of 30 saves.
8. Pedro Martinez, 0.737 WHIP in 2000 (4.3%)
Baserunners per inning, or WHIP, is a bit of an obscure stat - or was until the dawn of rotisserie baseball - but it's a real measure of pitching excellence to hold the all-time record for it. Pedro's also third on the career list, surrounded entirely by a top 10 of deadball-era pitchers like Walsh and Addie Joss and Three Finger Brown. His single season record is 4.3% ahead of #2 Guy Hecker in 1882, but Hecker pitched just 104 innings; he's 5.8% ahead of Walter Johnson's 1913 season.
I rate Pedro this highly because, while other players on this list reached their accomplishments under less than ideal conditions, nobody else set one so much in the teeth of hostile conditions. Pedro did this in Fenway Park in 2000, in a hitters' park (Pedro's road WHIP was 0.680) in a league with a 4.91 league ERA; he led the league in ERA by a margin of two runs and Mike Mussina at 1.187 had the only other WHIP in the league below 1.200.
7. Barry Bonds, .609 OBP, 232 Walks, 120 Intentional Walks in 2004 (10.2%, 36.5%, 266.7%)
All three of these records are integrally related, so I rate them as a single accomplishment. Bonds busted Ruth's walk record by 63 and Ted Williams' OBP record (set in his .406 season) by more than 50 points, and he did so in good part because he surpassed the second-highest non-Bonds IBB total (Willie McCovey's record) by a margin of 120-45. (Note that they didn't keep IBB in Ruth's day, he almost assuredly beat that in the years before Gehrig came up).
Yes, steroids. But still, taken on its own merits, those are mind-blowing margins on a couple of records I'd never thought would be broken.
6. Babe Ruth, .690 Career Slugging Percentage (8.8%)
Only 34 times in the game's history has anybody but Ruth slugged above .690 in a season; aside from Albert Pujols, who is still early in his career, only five other players have career figures above .600. Bonds is 82 points behind Ruth. The Babe sustained this pace over a 22-year career, leading the league 13 times in 14 years and only once having enough at bats to qualify and finishing lower than third.
Joe D's streak - unlike Gagne's - would be 57 if you counted the All-Star Game. What makes it even more amazing, as you probably know, is that he started a 17-game streak the day after this one ended. Another player could get hot and break this one, and I don't list it quite as high as the season and career records that follow, but it is nonetheless a sustained accomplishment of consistency, and the margin compared to the next-closest streak (Keeler and Pete Rose at 44 apiece) places it very high on this list.
4. Mike Marshall, 106 Games and 208.1 Relief Innings in 1974 (12.8%, 23.8%)
Unlike White's innings as a starter, Marshall's workload passes the "wow" test - it was recognized as a jaw-dropping accomplishment at the time it happened, and nobody else has tried anything like it since. The innings is the real whopper here (if you are wondering, the #2 non-Marshall total is Bob Stanley; the Steamah threw 168.1 innings in relief in 1978). Some LOOGY may yet challenge the games record a third of an inning at a time, but that relief innings record, though not set really so long ago, will never again be approached.
3. Nolan Ryan, 5714 Career Strikeouts (23.3% and falling)
Ryan's margin is being eaten away by the #2 man, who as of this morning is Roger Clemens, 17 Ks ahead of Randy Johnson. But both are ancient - Clemens is 44, Johnson is 43 - and more than a thousand strikeouts behind Ryan. Ryan maxed out the record in every direction - he started very young (19), set the single-season record at his peak, and pitched until he was 46. He threw heavy workloads at a very high strikeout rate. Yes, Ryan pitched in a great era for power pitchers, but he buried the record far from his most impressive contemporaries and way out of reach of anybody before or since.
2. Rickey Henderson, 1406 Career Steals (49.9%)
Rickey's record is just preposterous - nobody could have imagined when Lou Brock set the career steals record that somebody would not just blow by Brock but get halfway to lapping him. Like Ryan, Rickey started early, peaked above everyone else and stayed ridiculously late, and ended by putting his record so far out of reach that nobody will even talk about it again.
1. Cy Young, 511 Career Wins, 7354.2 Career Innings, 749 Career Complete Games (22.5%, 22.5%, 15.9%)
I'd be disinclined to rate Young at the top for mere durability, but first of all he ran off and hid with the career wins record, and hardly any record is more significant or prestigious; he did that in part by having the ninth-best career ERA relative to the league (by ERA+) of anybody with more than 2500 career innings, sixth-best among anybody with 3,000 innings, and he threw more than twice that. And second, while it's true that plenty of guys carried heavy workloads in Young's day, and while it's true that by the end of his career Young was facing guys who would have long pitching careers, Young and Young alone was able to do both, which is why his records stand so far and away beyond anyone in his era, before or since.
Consider this illustrative chart. Among all the pitchers who threw 400 innings in a season even once, only 12 of them managed to stay in a rotation (100 or more innings or 20 or more starts) for more than ten seasons, and everybody but Cy hit the wall by 14 seasons. I list each pitcher with their number of seasons throwing 400, 200 and 100 innings:
Note: Pud Galvin threw about 100 innings in the National Association; if you discount that, Young's margin for Major League innings expands. The chart includes as well Bobby Mathews' NA experience. Also, Kid Nichols, Young's nearest contemporary, won 20 games twice in the minor league Western Association in mid-career and then returned to be a top major league pitcher without missing a beat, so he would be closer to Young than anyone else, but still far behind.
This is why Young stands alone at the top. Nobody can match his ability to carry those huge 19th century workloads and keep going into his 40s.