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August 20, 2003

Breaking Balls

Record Breaking

by Derek Zumsteg

Barry Bonds' prolific mashing has pushed him in to a shot at the major league lead in career home runs. All this attention has neglected some other possible feats in career achievement. There are two historic baseball records under assault, and no one seems to care.

When players threaten to break the single-season strikeout record, they get benched. We've seen it happen even if they're having productive seasons, like with Jose Hernandez when he was with the Brewers.

Andres Galarraga passed Jose Canseco on the career strikeout list this year, taking over position two on the list. Galarraga's not a full-time whiffer, though, and we have to look further down on our list to find our next great hope: Sammy Sosa. Sluggin' Sammy had 1,834 Ks going into this season, and he reels off 150 a year. Plus, he's only 34, and should have a few more fine years left in him. He and Galarraga could be two-three after this season, and after that you're looking at Jim Thome (who stands about 30th all-time right now) as the only non-Sosa candidate to challenge the long-standing reign of K King Reggie Jackson. Jackson's 2,597 strikeouts are the Mt. McKinley of career marks to the Everest and Kilimanjaro of home runs and hits.

Sammy's climbing, though. At 150 K/year, it's only going to take him another four seasons, his age 35-38 years. Sammy's a good bet to be a regular player for another three years, and probably more, if he wants to continue playing.

Strikeouts have always been an accepted side effect of swinging for the fences. Most of the guys that head up the procession of strikeout kings are the power hitters of today and yesterday. But the first truly great power hitter, Babe Ruth, was only 65th going into this year. We would expect that strikeouts would be on the rise, as more teams encourage their players to work deep into counts, trying to work the pitcher for a meatball they can drive for extra bases. It's appropriate, then, that Sammy Sosa will be the first serious challenger since Jackson retired, since he was once a pure hacking power guy who discovered the gospel of plate discipline to become a complete hitter.

The other neglected story is plunkings.

Craig Biggio could become the all-time leader in hit-by-pitches. At the start of this season, Biggio was sixth all-time, with 214 HBPs. At press time he has 20 more this year, and is now #5 on the list, passing Dan McGann to trail Ron Hunt, who has 243. The all-time leader is Hughie Jennings, who got plunked 287 times in his 17-year Hall of Fame career.

Jennings is interesting--that 17-year career includes a 1903 season where he only appeared in six games, and after four years, a game in 1907, two games in 1909, and one game each in 1912 and 1918, at the age of 49. It took Jennings 15 years to get those last four lines in his Baseball Almanac...err...Total Baseball...never mind. Jennings is said to have been a real hustling player and a vicious bastard, which may have been why he got plunked all the time: 51 times in 1896, 46 times each in 1897 and 1898 (good for three of the top four spots on the single-season leaderboard). And in case you're wondering if that was just the way things were, the second-place guy in 1896 was Scrappy Bill Joyce, who only got a ball in his ear 22 times that season. Jennings also put up a .472 OBP that year, good for second in the NL.

Biggio could get plunked 25 times a year hanging around in the dugout. As a regular, he probably only needs three more seasons of semi-regular play to get past Jennings.

Biggio's problem is going to be finding the playing time. He's declined precipitously in the last few years and the move to the outfield has not revived his bat. He's hitting only .256/.341/.400 with Kenneth Lay Memorial Field as his home park, way off his career averages. We all saw how fast Chuck Knoblauch disappeared after moving off the keystone. In Biggio's favor, he's a gamer who provides veteran leadership and may try to keep playing however he can, accepting stop-gap roles from clubs with old-school GMs and a spot to fill on that year's roster. And he's signed through 2004 at $3 million for next year, which means he's got the natural tendency of GMs to play their big-money guys on his side, even if he's traded from the Astros.

What if he really starts trying to get plunked, though? Biggio gets hit a lot, but more because he's willing to take one on the arm if it's inside than any kind of intention to get on base through bodily sacrifice. What if Biggio actually stood on the plate like Carl Everett and, if he doesn't get a pitch he can drive, he instead flinches convincingly, allowing the ball to glance off him. Unless there's a dramatic change in the way umpires enforce the rules, Biggio could get himself whacked constantly, and take over the top spot in a hurry.

The face of the game is changing so rapidly, with the adoption of baseball analysis and different approaches at the plate and on the mound, that we're seeing many of baseball's great records challenged, on every side. If you're looking for records that are certain to be around in five, 10 years, you're probably best off with sacrifice hits and triples, and for pitchers, the more wince-inducing stats like games started and (even worse) complete games. And in 20, 30 years, maybe Pitchomat 2000 will be running up on those, too.

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