I got an email a few weeks ago from a friend of mine. He asked which I thought was the more impressive achievement: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, or Ted Williams’ .406 batting average. I’ve been giving it quite a bit of thought lately, and I thought I’d put some of my thoughts down here.
First of all, let me say this: I do not believe that anyone who is currently playing in the Majors will ever surpass either of these achievements. It may happen someday, but if I had to bet my house on one or the other, I would put it all on “Never gonna happen.”
My friend who sent the email (we’ll call him Brian, since that’s his name) makes a distinction between “most impressive” and “least likely to be broken” — he thinks someone is more likely to bat .407 than to have a 57-game hitting streak, but he thinks Williams’ feat is more impressive.
I don’t make that distinction. I think what makes great records impressive is how unlikely they are, and by definition that means they are equally unlikely to be broken. So for me, what it all boils down to is which is least likely to be broken.
So which feat do I think is more likely to be surpassed? The hitting streak. And now I’ll tell you why.
Since 1941 (when Williams and DiMaggio both accomplished these marvelous feats), there have been 21 hitting streaks of 30 games or more. These streaks belonged to the following men: Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Tommy Holmes, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Luis Castillo, Benito Santiago, Dom DiMaggio, Vladimir Guerrero, Kenny Landreaux, Rico Carty, Willie Davis, Albert Pujols, Luis Gonzalez, Eric Davis, Sandy Alomar Jr., Nomar Garciaparra, Jerome Walton, George Brett, Ron LeFlore, and Stan Musial. For those of you keeping track at home, there are only seven great hitters in that group (Rose, Molitor, Guerrero, Pujols, Garciaparra, Brett, and Musial). If there is a 30-game hitting streak, it is twice as likely that it was accomplished by an average-to-good hitter as by a great hitter. That’s because you dont have to be a great hitter to get one hit a day for 30 games; you just have to be lucky. To get to 56, you probably have to be pretty darn good AND lucky, but I think the fact that the record is held by a legitimately great hitter is at least a little bit of good luck on the part of baseball, rather than a complete reflection on how good you have to be to do it.
So there have been 21 guys who got 54 percent of the way or higher to DiMaggio’s record. Brian makes the point that George Brett got 96 percent of the way to .406, but I am not sure that’s an accurate way to look at it, because no one bats .000 for an entire season. I don’t know how to put things on an equivalent scale to figure out how “close” someone has come to batting .406, and to be honest with you, I don’t think there really is a way. Do we say the cutoff is .357 (54 percent of the way from .300 to .406)? Or do we do .371 (54 percent of the way from .330 to .406)? There’s no right way. But I can tell you this much: whatever number you choose, if it’s over .350, a vast majority of the guys on the list will be great hitters. For every good hitter like Paul O’Neill or John Olerud, you have a dozen great hitters like George Brett, Rod Carew, Ichiro, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, etc.
Let’s look at it this way: you could, theoretically, bat .200 over the course of a 56-game hitting streak, going 1-for-5 in every game. To bat .406 over the course of a 600-at-bat season, you have to average 1.5 hits a game for the entire 162-game season.
Did you know that of the 21 guys who have had hitting streaks of 30 games or more, only six of them — Molitor, Holmes, Carty, Willie Davis, Alomar, and Brett — even batted .406 or better over the course of the streak?
No one has really come close to passing these remarkable feats of hitting prowess, and I don’t think anyone will. But it would take a great hitter being great for an entire season to pass Williams’ mark, while it would just take a really good, really lucky hitter being good and lucky for two months to break DiMaggio’s record. And to me, that says that Williams’ mark is more impressive.
I think that Orel Hershiser’s scoreless innings streak belongs in this conversation. I would be shocked if this record is ever broken, considering this era of offensive explosion and relief pitching specialists and relatively few complete games, let alone shutouts. No pitcher has thrown more than five shutouts in a season since Tim Belcher in 1989; Hershiser did it six games in a row in 1988. You talk about records that may never be broken, and Hershiser’s streak has to be one of them.