The Untouchable Record

While watching a game at the ballpark, a friend of mine asked me which was the most impossible record to break: Cy Young's 511 wins or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.  I thought for a second, and replied, "neither".  Of course, both records are unlikely to be broken, but that doesn't mean that they are impossible to break. 

Two players have had hitting streaks of 44 games, and DiMaggio himself had a 61 game streak in the Pacific Coast league before he was acquired by the Yankees.  In order for the record to be broken, someone who is predisposed to hitting streaks, like Ichiro or Vlad Guerrero, just needs to get on a lucky run.  I'm not saying it's likely or even unlikely, but it's certainly possible given some of the previously unthinkable hitting seasons we're witnessed the last several years.

And contrary to prevailing wisdom, the biggest obstacle for someone trying to break Young's record total of wins is not the number of starts.  Nolan Ryan started only 42 fewer games than Cy Young did.  Don Sutton, Steve Carlton, Tommy John and Phil Niekro all made at least 700 starts.  While Cy Young's career .618 winning percentage is very good, there have been almost 70 pitchers with better winning percentages, 9 of whom are still active.  Ryan was not one of them; his winning percentage was .526.  Had Ryan pitched as well and been on as many good teams as Roger Clemens (.660), Randy Johnson (.678) or Pedro Martinez (.707), in theory, he could have gotten close to Young. 

The problem is that Young got a far greater percentage of decisions when he pitched than did Ryan.  Young actually got more decisions (827) than starts (813) because he was also used out of the bullpen on days he didn't start.  Ryan only got decisions in 79.6% of his starts.  Clemens and Johnson get decisions in about 77% of their starts.  So if Ryan got decisions at the same rate as Young and had Roger Clemens' winning percentage, he could have won 519 games.  But because he doesn't get as many decisions, his ceiling was around 406 wins. 

Which makes Walter Johnson's 417 wins and .599 winning percentage on teams that had a .492 winning percentage all the more impressive.  How did he manage that?  By producing the second most unbreakable record in baseball: 110 shutouts. 

Not only does the pitcher have to prevent the other team from scoring, but he has to do it for the complete game.  Pitchers just don't throw as many complete games as they once did.  Walter Johnson threw 531.  Roger Clemens was the active leader going into this year with 116.  The last pitcher with at least 300 complete games was Warren Spahn, who last pitched almost 40 years ago.  Not coincidentally, Spahn is the closest any pitcher has come in the last  50 years to the Big Train's shutout mark.  He finished with 63.  Even Cy Young only threw 76 shutouts, and only one pitcher, Pete Alexander is within 30 of the mark.

But it is the complete game that is the key to the most unbreakable record in all of baseball.  No, it's not Cy Young's 749 complete games, although that one is pretty unreachable.  No, the most unbreakable record in baseball was accomplished by a relative no-name who set his record almost 100 years ago tomorrow.  Because pitchers don't throw as many complete games as they used to and because there is such an intense scrutiny on pitch counts and usage that no one will ever be allowed to throw more than a few complete games in a row, "Brakeman" Jack Taylor's record of 187 consecutive complete games, a streak that included games that went 18- and 19-innings and both ends of a double header once, that ended on August 9, 1906, will never be broken.