The unbreakable recordsby Shane Tourtellotte
September 18, 2013
Baseball fans love records. They hold to those numbers as touchstones of the game, towering above the everyday action on the field. The greatest proof of their grip is how some of those numbers—714, 61, 2130—still resonate with us years or decades after they have been surpassed.
And we hate it when anybody messes with them. Getting MLB to change official records that were actually wrong, like Hack Wilson's 190 RBIs in 1930 or Ty Cobb's 4191 hits and .367 batting average, took years of tooth-pulling pain. Hit one more home run in eight more games, and you're the villain instead of the hero. Ask Roger Maris. The chemically-aided assaults on home-run records in more recent years are still raw enough wounds not to need much restatement.
No wonder there's a comfort in records that seem proof against any attempt to better them. Cy Young's 511 wins are about as unreachable as anything in baseball, cementing his place as one of the greatest pitchers ever. Cobb's lifetime batting average, even after its downward revision to .366, hasn't been surpassed in a single season since 2004.
To catch those records might require a fundamental change in the nature of the game itself, something as big as the long gradual change from those bygone times until today.
There are plenty of baseball records that changing conditions have left effectively unbreakable. That hasn't stopped me from imagining ways to break them.
I'm not going after Young or Cobb, at least not their iconic numbers. The records in my sights today are more obscure, but they are marks that changes in the game seem to have put out of reach. However, with a little imagination, ingenuity, and downright sneakiness, they might be pulled down from the peak of unattainability. At least, from a certain point of view.
Don't look for particular rhyme or reason in the records I choose, except for what interests me. There is no reflection intended on other records, except that maybe I don't know about them or haven't thought about them yet. There's no reason the few records I observe here need to be an exclusive group—and you may interpret that how you will.
Fewest strikeouts in a season
The record: Three. Yes, three. If we require that a player be eligible for the batting title by modern rules—meaning 3.1 plate appearances per game played, which would be 504 for a 162-game season—the mark belongs to Joe Sewell of the 1932 Yankees. He tallied that trio of whiffs over 576 plate appearances, over 90 more than needed for his club's 156 games.
This is remarkable, and at the same time unremarkable. It's remarkable because, on one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball history—one of the very few to tote up 1000 runs in a season—a team associated with hard and free swinging, Sewell was the ultimate contact hitter.
It's also unremarkable because his teammates were following his lead. There was no Yankee with more than 67 plate appearances that year, apart from pitchers, who struck out more than he walked. (League-wide, walks outnumbered strikeouts by about an 11-10 ratio.)
What makes it more unremarkable is that Sewell did this every year. He had nine straight seasons with strikeouts in the single digits, only one of them short of modern batting-title eligibility (though with 414 trips to the plate in 109 games, his 1930 campaign was eligible by the rules of the day). 1932 is merely the best in a long skein of amazing displays of bat control.
The nearest approach to this record in anything like modern times was by Nellie Fox, striking out 12 times each in 1961 and '62, with nearly 700 plate appearances each year. Felix Fermin managed 14/514 in 1993, and Tony Gwynn put up a 15/577 in strike-shortened 1995.
It's almost impossible these days to combine super strikeout avoidance with good offense. Of the nine player seasons from 1961 on with 15 or fewer whiffs, eight of them came with an OPS below 700. Gwynn's season was a .368/.404/.484, crowned with a batting title. It took someone as exceptional as Gwynn to be the exception.
How to break it: As a matter of raw numbers, beating Sewell's mark is unimaginable in today's game. A fifth of all plate appearances resulted in strikeouts in 2012: 19.3 percent in the American League, 20.2 percent in the National. Two strikeouts in 504 plate appearances would be a rate of 0.4 percent.
That's so many standard deviations off the norm, the eschatological event in the religion of your choice (read: the End Of The World) seems much more likely. Really, you could have gotten much shorter odds on the 2012 Mayan apocalypse.
Those rate numbers I gave, however, show the way toward finessing the point. If we take the record as a comparison of the player's strikeout rate to the league rate, there may be a chance for someone to surpass Sewell. But what comparison?
We could try simple subtraction. The strikeout rate in the American League of 1932 was 8.25 percent of all plate appearances. Joe Sewell struck out in 0.52 percent of his plate appearances that season. That puts his rate at 7.73 percentage points below the league average. By that reckoning, anybody who struck out less than 11.57 percent of the time in the 2012 American League would have beaten Sewell's record.
There were 10 players who did that in the 2012 AL, starting with Michael Brantley of the Indians with a 9.2 percent punchout rate. This sure breaks the record, but it obviously isn't the comparison we're looking for.
Better to try multiplicative. Divide Sewell's 0.52 by the league's 8.25, and you get .063: Sewell struck out at 6.3 percent of the overall league rate. (I was ready to call this K-, similarly to OPS+, but someone at FanGraphs just beat me to it. I'll stick with the percentages.)
To duplicate that in 2012, a player would have had to fan in just 1.22 percent of plate appearances in the American League, 1.27 percent in the National League. Tony Gwynn's noteworthy 1995 came in at 15.2 percent of the NL average. Cut his whiffs in half, and he was still shy of Sewell's comparative pace.
That starts looking right: awfully tough, but maybe just doable. Even so, a straightforward multiplicative rate comparison might not be the correct approach. Doubling the league strikeout rate probably doesn't double every player's rate across the board, even leaving random variance out of the equation. Contact hitters get a greater effect, while hackers have a somewhat lesser one than average.
There may be some combination of additive and multiplicative effects working in tandem, or even something more complex, involving both the floor and the ceiling, zero and 100 percent.
What this means is, I'm overanalyzing. Rate against league average is a perfectly serviceable method and gives some faint hope that the record could be vulnerable. Faint as in, you'd need something like seven strikeouts over a full modern season, but heck, that's better than two.
Finding a second Gwynn to make the attempt is too much to ask. Our better hope is to find one of those old-fashioned banjo hitters, making contact at all costs in hopes that the BABIP gods pull through for him.
Not that any contemporary general manager is looking for such a player to put on his team. But GMs do make mistakes. Indeed, the fallibility of GMs is probably our best hope in this scenario.
Most team losses in a season
The record: The Cleveland Spiders of 1899 have an assured place in the annals of baseball infamy as long as this record stands, which ought to be forever. This team, the dumping ground for the lesser players in a syndicate that owned two major league clubs, went a hideous 20-134, including a finishing kick of 1-40 to close out their existence.
Spurred at least partly by the Spiders' spectacle, the National League contracted from 12 teams to eight in the 1899-1900 offseason, wiping Cleveland off the boards.
134 losses in a season is a daunting mark to challenge. Even with eight games added to the schedule after expansion, the 1962 Mets could manage only 120. The 2003 Tigers made a gallant attempt at the Mets' "modern" record, but won five of their last six contests to fall short at 43-119. But even had Detroit gone winless in its final two months—an 0-60 string if you count its four losses to end July—they still only would have tied the Spiders at 134 losses.
And if you think that record is beyond reach, I've got a related one that looks even better. Unable to draw flies at their home park (a serious inconvenience for Spiders, you must admit), the Cleveland team went nomadic, playing what would have been home dates in their opponents' cities so they could at least get their cut of the road gate to stay solvent. The Spiders played 112 road games in 1899 and lost an unfathomable 101 of them.
If you had to pick one Spiders mark to be unbreakable, you would leap at the road losses. That one's physically impossible, right? There are only 81 road games on the schedule for any team, and you certainly couldn't voluntarily give up home dates to get more, not in the modern league.
Well ... not voluntarily.
How to break it: The trick here is that a team could be sent on the road involuntarily. It has happened three times in the last few decades, coincidentally all within a four-year span. Technically, one of them was not quite involuntary, but it may have felt so at the time.
Two involved safety issues at the ballparks. The 1991 Montreal Expos were sent traveling when a multi-ton chunk of concrete snapped off Olympic Stadium and fell on Sept. 9. They played their last 26 games of the season on the road.
Three years later, ceiling tiles in the Seattle Kingdome fell to the ground hours before a July 19 game, missing some Mariners who were on the field stretching. The game obviously was postponed, and the Mariners took an unplanned 20-game road trip before the strike ended the season.
The third instance was, if not exactly the Houston Astros' idea, still pre-planned. The Astrodome got chosen to host the 1992 Republican National Convention. The time needed to refit the Astrodome for the event, then break it all back down, produced a scheduled 26-game road swing for the Astros from late July to late August.
The team weathered it okay, going 12-14 in a year when they went 22-33 for the rest of their road games and 81-81 overall. (If nothing else, it was better than the Republicans did.) Stadium woes and political muscle have produced month-long road trips. Could something worse send a team onto the road for the whole season?
I will resist my Tom Clancy instincts to whomp up specific nightmare scenarios that could evict a team for a whole year. (I did something like that once in my science-fiction writing. It's not a comfortable task.) If you need some real-life model, consider the NFL's New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina. They had to play "home" games in New Jersey and San Antonio before finally fetching up in Baton Rouge for the remainder of the 2005 season.
Whatever disaster overtakes our theoretical victim team's park, it isn't sufficient that it's bad enough to keep them out for all 162 games. It also has to keep them from settling into some other temporary home, the way the Saints found refuge at LSU's Tiger Stadium.
The best bet here would be some serial setbacks in the restoration of the ballpark, the expected re-opening date never so far away that it makes more sense to find another place to play. That would be singularly frustrating, to players and fans alike. It also means that whatever calamity befell the park (or city), it wasn't total, so we probably can exclude a few of the worst nightmare scenarios. That's a small relief, the only one we can offer here.
A team playing its entire schedule on the road is not nearly unprecedented in pro baseball. In the independent Atlantic League, for instance, six of the last 12 seasons have featured a traveling team, fittingly nicknamed the Road Warriors, filling in when shifts between leagues have left them with an odd number of clubs. These Road Warriors were never as formidable as Mad Max. Their best season was a 54-72 campaign in 2007, and their cumulative winning percentage is a woeful .325.
Those dire stats lead us back to the point of the exercise. Whichever team in our scenario draws the Black Spot will be playing in conditions all but guaranteed to drag down their performance, maybe by a huge amount. They won't have to be that poor in the first place for a 102-loss season not only to become quite foreseeable, but to seem all but certain in retrospect. Who could play good baseball under those circumstances, right?
Cast in this way, it's a surprisingly attainable mark. It's also one that cannot actually be tried for, not that anyone would be trying to lose 102 games. Destructive forces outside baseball would be producing the chance for the record. That, plus the negative nature of the record, would make it a rather dismal pursuit. We can hope we never see it happen, even as we acknowledge that it's not impossible.
Yes, that was depressing. Let's find something more fun.
Shortest nine-inning game
The record: On Sept. 28, 1919, the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Giants played the first game of a season-ending doubleheader in a head-spinning 51 minutes. And they weren't even trying. Only in the top of the ninth, once it dawned on players that something remarkable was happening, did the Phillies exert themselves to finish the game quickly. Only Phils shortstop Dave Bancroft, the final batter, actually tried to get himself out, and did so to finish the 6-1 Giants win.
The recap in The New York Times noted that the Giants and Phils played a 1913 game in a lightning-fast 32 minutes, but it was a postseason exhibition. Batters ran out their hits until put out, and fielders ran to their positions between innings. They obviously were aiming for a speed record, if an unofficial one. They got the official one without such efforts, then settled down for a quick but normal nightcap to close out the schedule.
How to break it: Obviously, you're going to have to try, and try hard. Plus, you're going to have to unwind the last 90-plus years of how media coverage has intruded upon the game.
I'll break those criteria down a little. First, when I say everyone has to try hard, I mean everyone. This has to be an openly avowed attempt to break the record, and both teams have to commit themselves fully to it. That probably means this is a late-season game, with nothing on the line for either club.
That's natural enough; it was that way for the Giants and Phillies, playing on the final day of the year. It doesn't mean either team has to lay down, but if they're less than utterly fixated on winning, that admittedly helps.
Find a couple starting pitchers who work fast. (It's a trifle inconvenient that the two fastest-working pitchers in baseball are currently on the same team: Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey of the Blue Jays.) Teams that don't work the count hard at the plate would help plenty: as I write, that's the Brewers and the Rockies.
Weak offenses aren't that critical—seven runs came across in the record-setting game—but it's a nice bit of insurance. Currently, the White Sox and Marlins score the fewest runs per game, and they're also third and fourth in fewest pitches per plate appearance. We may have our match-up.
It also helps if the better team is playing at home, as the Giants did in 1919. Finishing the game in eight-and-a-half innings is an advantage of only a few minutes, but that's huge in this case.
There are plenty of time-eating activities that have to go by the boards for this to have any chance. Batters won't be able to fiddle in the box, recinching their gloves and adjusting their cups to mess with the pitcher's rhythm. Players and managers alike won't have the luxury of arguing any close plays.
In fact, looking forward to next year's expanded replay rules, they had better hope there aren't any close plays, because they'll probably have to keep their challenges in their pockets.
Pitchers might also have to eschew their usual warm-up tosses before each inning, but this may not be the inconvenience it seems. They need those warm-ups because they've just spent some time, perhaps a lot of time, in the dugout cooling off and stiffening up. If they're on the bench for three minutes rather than ten, they will have remained looser.
Indeed, some people trace the waning stamina of modern starting pitchers to all the time they're forced to waste between bursts of activity. A game like this might give us a keyhole view into whether this hypothesis holds water.
All of this planning gets nowhere, though, if television and radio aren't willing to cooperate. If you have a standard two-minute commercial break after every half-inning, you've eaten up about two-thirds of your maximum playing time right there. You need your networks and sponsors to embrace, for one day, a much different system.
Cutting down to a single half-minute spot between innings won't be enough: too much money goes away, and no TV channel will throw money away on a stunt.
Whatever ads are done in the dash between innings, they will have to specifically acknowledge and boost the advertisers as partners in the record-setting attempt, to make it worth paying two minutes of rates for 30 seconds of ad. The announcers likely will be pulling some weight on this: "This inning is brought to you by Brand X. [Read ad copy] We thank Brand X for helping make this special broadcast possible."
It could go that way, or in another direction. For something as far outside the box as this, enforcing one specific way to be creative is stupid. But it does require both broadcasters and advertisers to buy into the pursuit of the record as much as the players, managers, and umpires. Without that, the effort never gets off the ground.
Oh, and we probably need to do something for the concessions folks at the stadium. Nobody is going to get in a line to buy a bratwurst when that could cost you two innings. The obvious method is to make this game part of a doubleheader so they can recoup with the other game and between contests.
Yes, I mean a single-admission doubleheader. Now the owner needs to buy into the idea, too. I begin to think only mass hypnosis could make this attempt happen. Where's Bill Veeck when you need him?
Lastly, if anyone ever does attempt this, ideally it will be in the American League. I don't say this because the designated hitter rule means there is less strategic necessity to remove pitchers, with the lost time that entails, although that is a consideration. I say it so that a just-missed attempt still will have a chance to break the AL record: 55 minutes between the Browns and Yankees on Sept. 26, 1926, a 6-2 St. Louis win.
That was another doubleheader and also on the last day of the season. The Yankees were hurrying to catch a special train to get them back to New York for the World Series, and did they ever hurry: the two games were played in a combined two hours, seven minutes. For extra trivial interest, Lou Gehrig left the 55-minute game midway through in favor of Yankees coach Fred Merkle—yes, that Fred Merkle—playing what would be his final game.
Most shutouts pitched on one day
The record: Two. This is one of my favorite baseball records and probably the one that comes closest to being truly unbreakable. On Sept. 26, 1908, Ed Reulbach of the Chicago Cubs was sent in for both ends of a twin-bill at Washington Park in Brooklyn.
Having a pitcher throw both ends of a double-header was a moderately common stunt at the time, sometimes done for show, sometimes done to give the rest of a fatigued pitching staff a chance at a breather at one guy's expense.
The Brooklyn Superbas themselves were something of a breather, a seventh-place club facing a team on its way to winning its third straight pennant. Washington Park also was pitcher-friendly despite a short right-field wall that helped Superba Tim Jordan to the league home run crown with 12.
The 25-year-old Reulbach combined these factors with his own skills to twirl a 5-0 blanking in the first game and a 3-0 whitewashing in the nightcap. He scattered eight hits and one walk over all 18 innings.
Despite this kind of display usually being reserved for the best and most durable pitchers, nobody else in major league history ever pitched two shutouts on one day. The closest we come is Irv Young of Milwaukee in the minor league American Association pulling the trick on July 13, 1909. He pitched 1-0 and 5-0 games, even hitting the home run that won the first one.
Despite his nickname of "Young Cy" Young, Irv managed only six years in the bigs, with a losing record every season. Reulbach posted better career figures, going 182-106 over 12 National League seasons plus a one-year fling in the Federal League. Plus, he holds this one fantastic record.
How to break it: Let's face it, that's not happening. Never mind a pitcher throwing 27 scoreless innings in one day—what team is going to play three games in one day? The last triple-header was 93 years ago. The standing Collective Bargaining Agreement bans triple-headers*, and it's hard to imagine the players' union giving away what one must admit is merely a concession to sanity.
* There's something of a loophole, because a suspended game possibly could be completed before a doubleheader if there is no other time it could be played out. For our purposes of requiring three complete games, though, it provides no help.
Tying the record returns us at least to the borderlands of plausibility. Doubleheaders aren't common any more, but they do happen, and usually with enough warning time so that you can plan ahead for them. If somebody wanted to revive this old stunt, presumably a team out of contention on a late-season date, they could try.
But who could actually go out and pitch 18 innings of baseball on one day without sending every trainer and pundit on the continent into cardiac arrest? Pitchers may be physically capable of the feat, but fears of injury caused by the massive fatigue of that much throwing would be overwhelming. A manager who countenanced it would be second-guessed into oblivion before the first pitch was thrown.
Unless the pitcher selected was peculiarly proof against such fatigue. Unless, that is to say, he was a knuckleballer.
Now, there are knuckleballers and there are knuckleballers. Dickey (yeah, him again) had notable success from 2010 to 2012 with his knuckler, but it's a "power knuckler," thrown significantly harder than the usual variety. Thus, it provides much less relief to his arm than it might. In his 2012 Cy Young season, Dickey went 7.05 innings per start, not a highly promising springboard to 18. (For comparison, Justin Verlander that same season went 7.22 innings per start.)
We probably want a more classical knuckleballer for the role, a Tim Wakefield or Phil Niekro or Hoyt Wilhelm. The fact that I'm going back to a pitcher who retired over 40 years ago for my third example underscores that there aren't too many knuckleballers to choose from. Still, when chasing a record like this, we can skimp on probability and go for mere possibility.
Finding a pitcher willing to try this shouldn't be too tough. Knuckleballers are supposed to be a bit kooky, which helps, and more importantly, they have egos just like any other ballplayer. They'd love to counter the impression of their chosen method as a trick, not real pitching.
Finding a team willing to venture this might be harder, but it could help if the knuckleballer in question is at the tail end of his walk year. Not our concern any more if he blows up his arm, right? Callous, but logical.
Once you have the starter pitching both ends of the doubleheader, it's all up to the fates. He probably doesn't get the double shutout, but maybe, just maybe, he's really good and really lucky. And while we have got our fingers crossed for an improbable maybe ... what if his own team couldn't put up a run through nine innings in one of the games? What if he had to extend his shutout one more frame before they got him the winning tally?
It's still two shutouts in one day, but 19 innings instead of Reulbach's 18. His accomplishment is exceeded after all, by the back door. And since the longest shutout in a single game (at least in Baseball-Reference's data banks) is also 18 innings—by Walter Johnson in 1918 and Carl Hubbell in 1933—our knuckling wonder would have pitched the most shutout innings in one day (at least since 1916), as well.
Too bad it's almost impossible. Who wouldn't love to see that?
But you could say the same thing about all the other ideas I've shared today. And probably a few more.
References and Resources
Baseball-Reference provided its usual awesomeness that is so awesomely awesome, it's almost boring by now. I also peeked in on their corporate sibling Pro-Football-Reference to make sure I didn't say something stupid about the 2005 Saints. Online archives of the The New York Times helped with the super-fast games, and I re-checked Cait Murphy's Crazy '08 on Ed Reulbach's feat.
And if you wonder where I got that stuff about Buehrle and Dickey being fast pitchers, swing over to FanGraphs, where Jeff Sullivan is actually keeping track of it.
Shane Tourtellotte is a long-time, occasionally-nominated science fiction writer, currently living in Asheville, North Carolina. He will tell you all about the baseball novel he’s shopping if you give him an inch.