Perfection Never Lasts Forever

It’s finally over – Eric Gagne doesn’t make the century mark. His consecutive saves streak ended at 84 when Arizona strung three hits together to plate 2 runs and tie the game 5-5 in the 9th. Gagne’s streak is 30 games longer than the previous record, set by Tom Gordon 5 years ago. No doubt it is a wonderful accomplishment, but baseball history is filled with other interesting streaks of pitching perfection.

The ultimate goal of pitching is to prevent runs, and so the consecutive scoreless innings streak has been of great significance for a long time. The record is held by Orel Hershiser at 59 consecutive scoreless innings, achieved in 1988 during the greatest season of his illustrious career. 1988 was a pitcher’s year and Dodgers Stadium was one of the toughest parks in baseball to score a run in.

The former record holder was also a Dodger – Don Drysdale. He tossed 58.1 consecutive scoreless innings during the height of the second deadball era (1968). Before Drysdale, the record was held by one of the greatest pitchers of all-time: Walter Johnson (56 innings). There was much fanfare attached to Hershiser’s accomplishment – it was hailed by Sam McManus of the L.A. Times as comparable to Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hit streak in difficulty and significance.

The record for consecutive punch outs also has a high profile. Tom Seaver had a string of 10 punch outs (5 of them called third strikes) on April 22, 1970 against the San Diego Padres. There may be a longer streak spread over two or more games, but I’ve found no mention of one. Seaver mowed down the last ten hapless Padres he faced before running out of innings. His next start was against the Dodgers – Maury Wills grounded out to end Seaver’s strikeout streak.

Another rare feat is striking out the side on 9 pitches – an ultra-perfect inning, so to speak. It turns out that this has been done only 37 times, including once this season by Ben Sheets. Three pitchers have accomplished the feat twice (and they may be familiar names to some of you): Lefty Grove (1928), Sandy Koufax (1962, 1964) and Nolan Ryan (1968, 1972). Needless to say, no one had done it in two consecutive innings.

The most talked about feat of perfect pitching is the perfect game. A perfect game is defined for official purposes as at least nine innings in length, in which the pitcher earns a complete game and retires all opposing batters without any reaching base. Since 1900, there have been only 15 official major league perfect games (and two in the 19th century).

Most of you know that Randy Johnson tossed the most recent perfecto on May 18, 2004, the first in the major leagues since David Cone’s in 1999. In his previous start (May 12th versus the Mets), Johnson gave up a single to Joe McEwing to leadoff the 6th and then retired the next six batters before leaving the game. In the start after the perfect game, Johnson pitched retired the first 6 batters before allowing a leadoff double in the third to Florida’s Abraham Nunez. But how many baseball fans were aware that if Johnson had been able to get through a 1-2-3 third inning, he would have broken the record for consecutive batters retired? Johnson’s perfect streak ended at 39 batters, two shy of the longest streak on the books.

Listed in the table are most of the perfect game pitchers from Catfish Hunter’s 1968 gem to the present and the number of batters they retired consecutively over multiple games. Of necessity, those occurring from 1993 to 1998 are not included due to the unavailability of play-by-play logs from an online source (if anyone is aware of such data please e-mail me).

Date of Perfect Game Pitcher Next Game Broken up by Consecutive
Retired
By K
’68 May 8th C.Hunter May 14th R.Carew 29 11
’81 May 15th L.Barker May 20th B.Bochte 31 13
’84 Sept 30th M.Witt April 9(’85) K.Puckett 28 10
’88 Sept 16th T.Browning Sept 21 W.Clark 40 12
’91 July 28th D.Martinez Aug 2 W.Chamberlain 31 5
’99 July 18th D.Cone July 23rd K.Lofton 30 11
’03 May 18th R.Johnson May 23rd A.Nunez 39 14

Around the same time Hershiser was making headlines, Tom Browning wrote his name into history with his perfect game. Browning is not the kind of pitcher we expect to have a long streak of batters retired; nevertheless his streak of 40 is the second longest in history (we think). The pitcher who holds the record was not dissimilar to Tom Browning, except that he was not lefthanded. Righthander Jim Barr established the high water mark, retiring 41 consecutive batters in 1972.


Jim Barr and Tom Browning – Mirror Images?
Browning Innings K/9 W/9 H/9
1987 183.0 5.75 3.00 9.89
1988 250.2 4.45 2.30 7.36
1989 249.2 4.25 2.31 8.69
         
Barr Innings K/9 W/9 H/9
1972 179.0 4.32 2.06 8.35
1973 231.1 3.42 1.91 9.34
1974 239.2 3.15 1.76 8.37

Jim Barr established the record in his second major league season, not long after his conversion to starting pitching. To do it, he mowed down some of the best batsmen of the early ’70s – Lou Brock, Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Joe Torre and Ted Simmons among them. He retired the last 21 Pirates he faced on August 23, 1972 and then the first 20 Cardinals on August 29th before Bernie Carbo doubled with two outs in the 7th. Barr completed the game and earned a 3-hit shutout. What is amazing is that he struck out only 3 batters during the 41-batter streak, which means his fielders converted all 38 balls in play into outs during that stretch.

I didn’t know about Barr’s streak until a month ago, when it was the answer to a trivia question during one of the games I was watching on Extra Innings. In the course of researching perfect pitching streaks, I stumbled upon a very interesting article by Baseball Prospectus’ Keith Woolner, which may have been the source material for the trivia question. Woolner found that between 1972 and 2003, there have been 68 streaks of 27 or more batters retired consecutively by a particular pitcher, including the seven official perfect games during that time. That’s about two a year on average. The fact that Eric Gagne didn’t retire as many as 27 straight batters in his dominating 2003 season illustrates how difficult it will be to break Barr’s record.

How unlikely is it for a pitcher to retire 41 consecutive batters? Let’s build a probability chart and find out:

Out Probability Odds of 41 Straight
.62 1 in 325.04 million
.65 1 in 46.83 million
.68 1 in 7.36 million
.71 1 in 1.25 million
.74 1 in 230 thousand
.77 1 in 45 thousand
.80 1 in 9.4 thousand

The first column represents the chances of a particular pitcher getting a particular hitter out; the second is the chance of stringing together 41 successful outcomes (outs) at a given out probability. A streak like this can only start after a plate appearance in which a batter reaches base. I don’t have a precise count, but I estimate it to be about 63,380 in the majors in 2003. That’s about how many chances there were to start a consecutive batters retired streak.

Thus, if every pitcher were average in his ability to retire batters, and that average were around 68% (it was about 66.2% in 2003), the chances of a 41-batter streak occurring in a given year would be about 1 in 116 (7.36 million divided by 63,380). In reality, the odds are probably a tiny bit better than that because of the way pitching talent is distributed, and because consecutive batting events are not completely independent.

The one common feature of all streaks of perfect pitching is that they end. When you see a pitcher throw up a bunch of zeroes or strikeout a string of hitters, you’ll know exactly how far away they are from the records held by Jim Barr, Orel Hershiser and Tom Seaver.

References & Resources
Retrosheet is a great source for pre-1993 boxscores. The Baseball Almanac has list of special feats, including perfect games and 9-pitch/3-strikeout innings.

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