By the Numbers: Determining the unbreakable mark

Greg Jayne: By the Numbers

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 

Baseball's most unbreakable record?

That's easy.

No, it's not Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Or Cal Ripken's 2,632 consecutive games played. Or even the 122 errors committed in one season by Herman Long and matched by Billy Shindle.

OK, OK, that last one is probably untouchable. But I submit that baseball's most unbreakable record is Cy Young's 749 complete games — and there is some statistical analysis to back up this assertion.

photoCy Young still holds 14 major league pitching records, some that may never be broken.

All baseball records, obviously, are a function of the era in which they were set. It's no coincidence the home-run record was broken during the Steroids Era; it's no coincidence that the record for stolen bases will not be broken by an active player.

Years ago, Bill James devised a method for assessing the vulnerability of a career record. It's very simple:

• Take the league-leading totals in a particular category from the past five years. For example, the average league-leading home-run total from 2008-12 (10 league seasons) was 43.4.

• Divide that number into the career record for the category. Barry Bonds holds the home-run record with 762. That reflects 17.6 seasons of recent league-leading totals, which means the record could fall in the coming years but probably won't.

There's nothing complicated or scientific about this method. It's not as though Stephen Hawking is going to write a dissertation about the odds of certain baseball records falling.

But James' formula does point out how the statistical nature of the game changes over time. From 1998-2002, for example, the average league-leading HR total was 56.7. The record at the time — Hank Aaron's 755 homers — represented 13.3 league-leading seasons, meaning the record was destined to be broken.

Let's look back to when Babe Ruth held the home-run record with 714. Through the 1965 season, Ruth still was 180 homers ahead of everybody who had ever played, and the record appeared unassailable.

Yet, those 714 homers reflected 15.1 seasons of the league-leading total from 1961-65, meaning the record was vulnerable. Within a decade, it was gone.

So, which records are currently vulnerable?

Reggie Jackson's mark of 2,597 career strikeouts equals 13.0 league-leading totals. In the Strikeout Era, that record is certain to fall.

Jamie Moyer's feat of allowing 522 home runs represents 14.3 league-leading totals. That record is vulnerable.

Hank Aaron's total of 1,477 extra-base hits reflects 17.6 league-leading seasons. That record is probably safe, but is more vulnerable than I would have guessed.

And probably the most interesting revelation is that Tris Speaker's record of 792 doubles — which nobody has come remotely close to — might be attainable. Over the past five years, the average league-leading mark has been 48.6 doubles; Speaker's standard represents 16.4 such seasons.

Speaker's record certainly is more vulnerable than Rickey Henderson's 1,406 stolen bases. Considering that nobody else has 1,000 steals, it's no surprise that Henderson's mark equals 24.6 years of recent league-leading totals.

Yet Henderson is no Cy Young.

Playing in an era when pitchers would make 45 starts a season and complete 85 percent of them, Young set standards that are unapproachable in the modern game. His 511 wins represent 24.3 league-leading seasons; his 316 losses equal 19.2 league-leading totals; and his 7,356 innings pitched match 30.5 such seasons.

Impressive. But they can't compare with his complete games.

Young pitched 749 complete games — equal to 99.9 seasons of recent league-leading seasons. One player could lead his league in complete games for each of the next 100 seasons, and he would just be pulling even with Young's record.

That is a record that is untouchable.

Questions or comments for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To read his blog, go to http://blogs.columbian.com/greg-jayne