More Unbreakable Records
August 15, 2003

Sports Illustrated recently published a list of baseball records they thought were unbreakable.  Some are, some aren't.  Here's their list, the probability that the record can be broken and some records at the end that truly are unbreakable.

1) .367 Lifetime average compiled by Ty Cobb.
Breakability - unlikely, if not impossible.  Cobb, Joe Jackson, Rogers Hornsby and Ed Delahanty (4 of the top 5 on the all-time batting average list) each had at least one season in which they topped .400.  Cobb, Hornsby and Delahanty had three each.  Jackson had one and a season in which he finished at .395.  One such season would be a marvel for even the best average-conscious modern player (like Tony Gwynn) but more than that seems far fetched.  Even Ted Williams, who also had a .400 season, finished 23 points short of Cobb's career mark.

2 Consecutive no-hitters thrown by Johnny VanderMeer in 1938.
Breakability - no chance.  Only a couple of players have come remotely close to tying the record and since breaking it would require another no-hitter, it just seems ridiculous to think someone could.  Nolan Ryan threw 7 no-hitters over a career which spanned 773 starts.  Sandy Koufax threw 4 no-hitters in 314 starts.  Bob Feller threw 3 in 484 starts.  Jim Maloney threw 3 in 262 starts.  Those are the only men since the deadball era to throw at least 3 no-hitters.  The odds of someone throwing 3 no-hitters in consecutive starts are so astronomical that it doesn't make sense to even calculate them.

3) 36
triples legged out by Chief Wilson in 1912.
Breakability - extremely tough, but possible.  While it's true that only 4 players in the past 50 years have had as many as 20 in a season, triples are significantly impacted by the ballpark.  Teams build new ballparks with strange quirks all the time - Minute Maid's hill in centerfield, ProPlayer's irregular centerfield wall, etc.  Some crazed architect will come up with an idea that will make triples much more likely.  Players with triples' speed are in abundance in the majors and with teams focusing more on offense over defense, fast runners + bad outfielders + quirky park dimensions = more triples.

4) 50 hit-by-pitches by Ron Hunt in 1971.
Breakability - likely.  Unless baseball outlaws all types of armor, batters will continue to encroach upon the plate, making hit-by-pitches far more likely.  Combine that with an emerging crop of young pitchers who throw hard and are unafraid to pitch inside - Vicente Padilla,  Brandon Webb, Kerry Wood, Victor Zambrano, Shawn Chacon, Mark Prior, etc. - and someone will challenge the HBP record fairly soon.

5) 56
consecutive games with a hit, accomplished by Joe DiMaggio in 1941.
Breakability - unlikely but possible.  DiMaggio's record is largely due to luck and the type of hitter he was - he did hit in 61 straight in the PCL - but he did benefit from generous scoring decisions by the official scorers.  At least once during his streak he was given credit for a hit on a play which could have been scored an error.  Give Ichiro or Vlad Guerrero or Albert Pujols the same luxury, they could do it too.

6) 59 Consecutive scoreless innings pitched by Orel Hershiser in 1988.
Breakability - tough but likely.  Remember, it's not consecutive shutouts that is his record, it's consecutive scoreless innings.  Which means a reliever could do it.  There have been several dominating performances from relievers in the last several years, and even a less than dominating starter like Cory Lidle went nearly a month last year without being scored upon.  Seeing Eric Gagne or John Smoltz go unscored upon for 4 months, or Mark Prior or Jason Schmidt go 2 months without allowing a run doesn't seem very far-fetched.

7) 110
Career shutouts by Walter Johnson
Breakability - no chance.  Pitchers don't throw as many complete games as they used to in part because of pitch counts, but also because of the way bullpens are used.  No pitcher since the deadball era has come within 45 shutouts of Johnson.  Given the diminishing opportunities, it's unlikely anyone ever will, much less match or break it.

8) 130
Bases stolen by Rickey Henderson in 1982.
Breakability - unlikely although possible.  The game goes in cycles and the day is coming when run scoring will not be as routine as it is now.  True, baseball will try to accommodate the fans insatiable lust for high scoring games and home runs, but the cycle of talent is beginning to turn towards the pitchers, so managers will have to turn to something to counter it.  Despite playing in the highest scoring era in history, guys like Juan Pierre (who has 57 steals this year) and Carl Crawford (38) are still running.  Imagine how much more they will steal if the home runs start to dry up league-wide.  The  record Henderson has that won't be broken is his career 1400+ stolen bases.  That record is 500 more stolen bases than the best records from eras where stolen bases were the most valuable in history.  

9) 177
Runs scored by Babe Ruth in 1921
Breakability - pretty unlikely, but not impossible.  The fact is that only 3 players since Ruth have scored as many as 150 times in a season (Ted Williams in 1949, Joe DiMaggio in 1937 and Jeff Bagwell in 2000).  And actually, the real record is 192 set by Billy Hamilton back in 1894, but the modern record is Ruth's.  It not only requires a player to get on base a ridiculous amount, but it also requires that he be followed in the line-up by RBI machines.  Ruth had Gehrig and Muesel.  Barry Bonds has... Benito Santiago.  A Yankee would be the most likely candidate as they are about the only team that can afford to replicate a line-up as powerful as the Yankees of the 20s.  A Red Sox is a possibility too, as they have significant wherewithal to field a line-up of sluggers and a better park to hit in.

10) 191
RBIs collected by Hack Wilson in 1930
Breakability - very tough, but possible.  Unlike the runs scored record, this only requires one player to be the RBI machine.  And all he needs is two or three guys to get on base a lot in front of him.  In 1990, Joe Carter drove in 115 runs, despite hitting just .232 for the season (OPS of .681).  How'd he do it?  He had Bip Roberts, Roberto Alomar and Tony Gwynn hitting in front of him.  Admittedly, 115 is a far cry from 191, but Carter was a terrible hitter that year and yet he still managed a surprising number of RBI.  A very good hitter with good on base guys in front of him can catch Wilson.

11) 511
Career wins for Cy Young
Breakability - highly unlikely, if not impossible.  As I posted in another column, it's not the number of starts that makes this unlikely, but the number of decisions a starter gets these days. 

12) 2632
Consecutive games played by Cal Ripken
Breakability - highly unlikely, but remotely possible.  With players going on the DL or managers giving slumping players a day off, consecutive game streaks are pretty rare.  However, sports medicine is improving so dramatically and so quickly that it's possible in the next 50 years that sports injuries will rarely be career threatening and injuries that force players to the DL now will only require a day of attention.  It will no doubt take a special player who is big, agile and durable enough to withstand the daily grind, but it is possible.  What is unbreakable about Ripken's record is that it was accomplished by a shortstop.  Only catcher and perhaps second base routinely get more punishment on the ball field.  A first baseman, on the other hand, should be able to withstand the rigors of daily play.  In fact, 2 of the top 5 game streaks were set by first basemen.  Oddly enough, one of the other top 5 was set by a shortstop (Everett Scott).

13) 5714
Career strikeouts for Ryan
Breakability - very tough, but possible.  Ryan's record is reachable.  Kerry Wood and Pedro Martinez are slightly behind Ryan's pace.  What sets Ryan apart is that he struck out 1631 batters after age 38.  If Randy Johnson does the same, he will finish with 5377.  Wood looks like the best candidate to challenge Ryan; if he stays fit and healthy, his current pace puts him at around 4200 by the time he's Johnson's age, 500 strikeouts ahead of the Big Unit's pace.

14) 4256
Career hits for Pete Rose
Breakability - tough, but possible.  Rose's hit record for example only requires that a great player come up at an early age and stay healthy and driven long enough to do it.  Rose had the added benefit of being able to write himself into the line-up for several years at the expense of better players (Nick Esasky, Eric Davis and Kal Daniels each could have benefited the Reds with more playing time).  Alex Rodriguez is probably the best candidate in the majors right now.  Given his current pace and a normal deterioration curve later in his career, he should threaten the all-time record in home runs, RBI and runs before he's 40 years old and be somewhere in the neighborhood of 3800-3900 hits by age 40.   That would put him 2-3 years from Rose.  Given how much influence he already wields in Texas' personnel decisions, it would not be too far fetched to see himself writing himself in the line-up (if he so chose) as either a player-manager or as an owner (just kidding about the latter, of course).

So what truly unbreakable records did SI miss?  Jack Taylor's record of consecutive complete games comes to mind.  As does Nolan Ryan's record for walks allowed (2795).  Unless the pitcher is striking out everyone he isn't walking, no manager will ever tolerate a pitcher long enough to challenge that record.  Cy Young's record 7354 inning pitched also seems pretty unreachable, especially considering that the only modern pitcher who's remotely close (Phil Niekro) finished with nearly 2000 fewer innings (5404).  And despite what Bonds has done over the last 3 years, it seems highly unlikely that anyone will ever challenge Babe Ruth's career slugging percentage of .689, which is still almost 90 points better than Bonds', and 75 points better than the current active leader in slugging percentage, Todd Helton (betcha didn't know that).