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