Modern record-book marvels, hitting

Barring some nigh-incomprehensible changes to the game of baseball, no one ever will surpass Cy Young‘s career win total of 511, nor Old Hoss Radbourn’s single-season mark of 59 victories. Ditto Sam Crawford‘s career triples tally of 309 or Chief Wilson‘s single-season total of 36.

Of course, those records date back to 1917 or before, and the game has evolved significantly since then. But what about records that have been established in more recent times, say, since divisons were created? Which of these modern-day benchmarks are most likely to still be standing 30-40 years from now, and how likely are they to fall? Let’s discuss, shall we?

Home runs, single-season

As we all know, the single-season home run record fell twice within three years, first in 1998 as Mark McGwire crushed 70 long balls, then in 2001 when Barry Bonds sent 73 abused spheroids over fences around the nation. Setting aside any issues of how those totals were reached, 73 is the bogey for future sluggers.

The game has changed quite a lot in the last decade, as the pendulum has swung back in favor of pitchers. League-leading homer totals are falling below 50, leaving the top boppers roughly 50 percent short of the record. Based on current trends, Bonds’ total seems unapproachable.

Of course, as Bonds and Roger Maris proved, a major spike in home run output sometimes is necessary to reach lofty longball heights. Bonds never exceeded 49 homers in any season outside 2001, and Maris’ next-best mark after his 61 round-trippers in ’61 was a mere 39 the year prior. Tack on a couple dozen shots to Jose Bautista‘s best season, and Joey Bats ends up with 78 moon shots.

Still, the chances of someone making a run at this mark are slim. Everything has to come together for a hitter to knock one out of the park at a rate of nearly once every other ballgame, and such a confluence doesn’t occur very often.

Odds of record falling: Less than five percent.

Home runs, career

Babe Ruth was the home run king for nearly 40 years. Hank Aaron held the record for over three decades. Bonds’ career total of 762 has been the benchmark for only a bit more than five years. That trend, and a certain shortstop-turned-third baseman, make it at least somewhat possible that Bonds will be the career longball leader for just a few more years.

Alex Rodriguez sits 115 homers behind Bonds and has five years left on his 10-year, $275-million pact. Injuries and age have held his homer total below 20 both of the last two years, but before 2011 he hadn’t posted a season with fewer than 30 home runs since 1998. Given the personal legacy he would establish—as well as the financial incentives ($6 million each for homers 660, 714, 755, 762 and 763)—it seems A-Rod will be extremely motivated to get back to crushing the ball as he has in the past.

Whether Rodriguez’s body will allow him to do so is something wholly different, as the news that he will miss at least the first few months of the 2013 campaign demonstrates. Can A-Rod play enough to average 23 homers a season over the next half decade and unseat Bonds atop the all-time home run list? It seemed an achievable goal a year or two ago, but the odds against him doing so grow longer all the time.

The pursuit of the record—and the $114 million in guaranteed salary—will keep Rodgriguez on the field as often as he is able over the next half-decade. And if A-Rod is close to the magic number and his contract runs out, who doesn’t think he’ll re-sign somewhere in an attempt to finish his pursuit?

Still, what looked nigh inevitable a couple seasons ago now look more like a longshot.

Odds of record falling: 30 percent and falling.

Stolen bases, single-season

When Rickey was in his prime, no one was better at being Rickey than Rickey. The game’s all-time greatest speedster and leadoff hitter, Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in 1982 in only 149 games. The next-best total since then is Vince Coleman‘s 110 in 1985, and the high-water mark since the turn of the century is Jose Reyes‘ 78 in 2007.

The differences between the game in the 1980s and today aren’t quite as significant as the changes between a century ago and now, but when it comes to stolen bases, the differences are even more stark. Unless Billy Hamilton explodes on the scene for the Cincinnati Reds, earns a starting role and posts an on-base percentage significantly higher than one-time burner Coleman, Henderson’s mark is quite safe.

Odds of record falling: Maybe three percent.

Stolen bases, career

Henderson’s career stolen base total of 1,406 is 50 percent higher than the next-best total, Lou Brock‘s 938. The active leader in steals is Juan Pierre with 589 swipes, while no one else has even 500. With Henderson’s tremendous lead on the competition and present-day baseball’s reduced emphasis on the stolen base, Rickey should continue to be “the greatest of all time” for a very long time.

Odds of record falling: Virtually nil.

Strikeouts, single-season

Around the same time the American and National Leagues split into two divisions each, a player emerged for whom the strikeout was not something to be feared but a mere consequence of his style of play. In Bobby Bonds‘ introductory half-season of 1968, he whiffed 84 times in a mere 349 plate appearances, setting the stage for back-to-back record-breaking performances.

Rewarded with a full-time gig from Opening Day of 1969, Bonds had a season unseen in the majors before. He crafted a 30-40 season, slamming 32 home runs while swiping 45 bases, led the National League in runs scored with 120 and cemented his place in the record books by going down on strikes 187 times. That total surpassed Dave Nicholson‘s six-year-old record by 12, which was a comparatively small jump considering in 1963 Nicholson had surpassed Harmon Killebrew‘s previous year’s total by 33!

Bonds unabashedly topped himself again in 1970 by upping his punchout total to 189. It helped that he led the league it plate appearance with 745.

Bonds’ mark was unsurpassed for more than three decades, though several players came quite close, including Pete Incaviglia (185), Rob Deer (186), Cecil Fielder (182), Preston Wilson (187) and Jose Hernandez (185 and 188) and Jim Thome (182). Embarrassment and managerial discretion kept a few of these players from bumping Bonds from the record books, but eventually the stigma of the strikeout would no longer prevail

Three-true-outcomes king Adam Dunn was the first recent hitter to put Bonds’ hacktastic ways to shame. Strikeouts, walks and homers essentially sum up Dunn’s game, with batting average, baserunning and defense quaint concerns of the generic masses. His 195 whiffs in 2004 served notice that strike three was an acceptable outcome of an at-bats as long as there were many others that ended with him either on first base with a free pass or back in the dugout after a 360-foot trot around the bases.

Alas, a mere three seasons later another lefty masher came along in the hulking form of Ryan Howard. His run at the top was brief—a single season—but Howard reached the precipice of the 200-strikeout mark with 199 punchouts in 2007.

And now there is Mark Reynolds, shameless hacker. He scoffed at Howard’s meager total by striking out 204 times in 2008, then mocked all previous free swingers by recording 223 whiffs in 2009.

Eventually there has to be a point where a player’s strikeouts are so detrimental to his overall production that he won’t be allowed to play enough to break the record again. However, we’re not there yet. Reynolds and Howard are still in the majors, and Dunn’s .204 batting average wasn’t acceptable enough that he batted often enough to reach 222 strikeouts last year, one whiff away from tying Reynolds. With two more years on his contract and his resurgent effort of 41 homers in 2012, Dunn likely will have at least a couple more shots to reclaim his spot in the record books.

Odds of record falling: 50 percent.

Strikeouts, career

The other ugly step-sister of hitting records, the career strikeout mark also had a few new champions in a fairly brief period of time. Babe Ruth held the mark for 30 years before Mickey Mantle wrested the lead from him in 1964 and held it until Willie Stargell took over in 1978. But then came the king of swing, Reggie Jackson. Mr. October knocked Stargell from his pedestal in 1982, and Jackson then padded his lead for the next half-decade, finishing his career with a whopping 2,597 strikeouts. (Stargell ended his career with “only” 1936.)

In 30 years since, no one has caught Jackson, though several players have delivered a solid effort. Jose Canseco inched past Stargell with 1,942 punchouts, Andres Galarraga ecliped the 2,000-K barrier by three, and Sammy Sosa made a serious run by totaling 2,306 strikeouts. Alas, all fell notably short.

But again, this is a new era, in which the strikeout is no longer a batter’s mortal enemy. Alex Rodriguez has 2,032 strikeout and will be playing (or at least getting paid) for five more years. And the biggest (perhaps both literally and figuratively) immediate threat is Jim Thome. While his playing time has diminished in recent years, he still has been able to creep within 49 whiffs of Jackson’s career total. Thome struck out 61 times in 2012 in only 186 plate appearances, so if the 41-year-old slugger can find another part-time job in 2013, he likely will become the all-time strikeout king.

For now.

Naturally, this discussion, like the last, also must turn to Adam Dunn. While Thome has 2,548 whiffs in 22 campaigns, Dunn has 2,031 in 10 fewer seasons! Three more 200-strikeout efforts would push Dunn well past both Jackson and Thome and potentially on his way to 3,000 Ks. Yes, it’s possible—maybe even likely—that a player will reach 3,000 strikeouts in his career. Thome may win the battle, but Dunn is virtually guaranteed to win the war.

Odds of record falling: Easily 95 percent.

Consecutive games played

Do you remember where you were when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig‘s consecutive-games-played record? (It occurs to me that some readers may be too young to remember this event, so the most youthful among you can ignore that question.) I remember witnessing Ripken’s celebratory lap around Camden Yards on TV in my basement—my own, not my mother’s—and the joy it brought to fans not only in Baltimore but around the world. It’s amazing that a guy going to work every day could bring such exhilaration to so many people, but it certainly did.

Of course, it was about more than just showing up. It was that Ripken was a fantastic player for a very long time, a two-time MVP who played his entire career for a single franchise, a man with a friendly smile and gregarious personality that made him easy to like and root for. (I actually know someone who has never liked Ripken, and I’ve yet to comprehend this personality flaw of his.) If anyone was the appropriate person to surpass the record of the iconic Gehrig, it was Ripken.

But if anyone is going to break Ripken’s record, it’s possible we’ll have to wait for bionic implants before it happens. The current leader in consecutive games played is Prince Fielder with a grand total of 343 games, putting him within 2,300 games (or about 14 season) of Ripken. Sure, the designated hitter position could help Fielder, or another player, keep a long streak going, but Ripken’s total of 2,632 games is over 16 straight 162-game seasons. First a player has to be good enough to play that long, and second, he has to be durable enough to do so every single day.

Cy Young and Sam Crawford may have some long-standing company in the record books in 2100 and beyond, as this record is exceedingly unlikely to be broken.

Odds of record falling: 0.000042 percent, or lower.

That’s it for the hitting records. If there are categories I’ve missed, be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Next time, we’ll look at recent pitching records and their likelihood of standing the test of time.

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Comments

  1. David said...

    Doubles and Total Bases would be interesting, I think.  Maybe TB is too close to HR.  But the single-season doubles record has seemed primed to fall.  It’s kind of inexplicable to me that it hasn’t yet.  Love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Bob Rittner said...

    What would you put the odds of these single season records falling in the next 30-40 years?

    262 hits (Ichiro)

    232 walks (Barry Bonds)

    224 singles (Ichiro)

    And this is from 1930, but still unbroken:

    191 RBIs (Hack Wilson): The closest a recent player has gotten is Manny Ramirez with 165.

  3. Ian R. said...

    Of those four, I’d say the RBI record is the most likely to fall, especially as managers start getting smarter about lineup construction. Ichiro’s look breakable (albeit with great difficulty), too. I don’t think anyone will challenge Bonds’ walk record for a long, long, LONG time.

  4. Greg Simons said...

    David,

    The single-season and career doubles records have been in place since the ‘30s, so that’s outside of the scope I set, but I could see someone take down the single-season record.  It’s been approached recently by Todd Helton and Craig Biggio, and if someone has the right circumstances – perhaps a right-handed line-drive hitter in Fenway – it could fall.

    Babe Ruth’s single-season total bases record hasn’t really been seriously challenge forever.  And with walks and strikeouts so prominent these days and offense reduced from a decade ago, I don’t see anyone getting there.

    The closest anyone is to Hank Aaron’s career record is Stan Musial, and he’s ~700 back.  The closest active player is A-Rod at 1400 TB behind.  Aaron’s mark is quite safe unless Albert Pujols can keep going strong for the duration of his Angels contract.  He’s the only reasonable threat for the next 20-plus years.

  5. Greg Simons said...

    Bob, I’m in agreement with Ian.  Hitters like Ichiro are so rare – great average and speed, few walks – that someone passing his hits and singles marks looks quite unlikely.  Also, and this is something I’m going to mention in the pitching article regarding saves, at some point there’s a limit to what can be done.  There are only so many games, so getting more than 262 hits requires the perfect storm of PA, low walks, high BABIP, etc.

    Bonds’ 232 walks may never fall.  It would take someone again developing fearsome power and a phenomenal batting eye.

    With offense down, the RBI record is quite safe, as it has been for several since 1930.

  6. Anon said...

    every time this discussion comes up, I always say outside of streaks (which are fluky – Van DerMeer’s 2 consecutive no-nos for example) Rickey’s stolen base record will not be touched unless there is a major, major, major change in the game. Will not happen.

    (BTW, outside baseball, Jerry Rice’s receiving records are of a similar stature but with the game becoming more and more concerned about concussions, I could see football receiving becoming even more prevalent than it already is. Still would take a hell of a career to get to RIce’s numbers)

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