March 14, 2006
The Best Ever
When I was a kid in school and the teacher would tell us something about our state being the top producer in the nation of one thing or the other my heart would swell with pride. This parochial pride extended well beyond my state and national borders, too. When we studied the Solar System in third grade and I was told Earth had more chromium than any other planet in the solar system (or some such thing--don't hold me to the chromium example), I would pump my fist and say, "Yes! In your face, Neptune!"
Yes, humans are a prideful lot. We're also temporally prideful. In other words, we like to think that we are, at any given moment, living through the best of times and/or the worst of times. ("Hell yeah, hottest August on record.") This extends to baseball. We want to believe that we're seeing the very best who ever lived in the right here and the right now. In recent years, we've been told by some that Mark McGwire was the best first baseman who ever lived, Barry Bonds was the best left fielder who ever lived (which has since been upgraded to greatest player) and Roger Clemens was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. I don't bring those up to argue their merits but to illustrate that we like to think we are the presence of eternal greatness.
With that in mind, I thought we'd look at a couple of career records that have one or more of "our guys" (temporally) on the verge of breaking through to the top. You all know about the home run thing, an issue fraught with complexities I'm in no mood to broach at this juncture. Instead, we'll talk about some other all-time figures that could well be breached by one of our contemporaries.
Every other pitcher in the top 15 is either still active, pitched a good portion of their careers in the 1990s or dates from well over 100 years ago. The highest-ranked pitcher who falls between these two eras is Juan Marichal at number 17. It's probably not fair to compare pitchers from the 1870s with others when discussing this category because of the relative difficulty of throwing a walk back then, but it's a testament to these modern pitchers that they can hold their own under the circumstances. Not surprisingly, 14 of the top 15 walks-per-nine inning ratios belong to pitchers who started their careers in the 1870s. The lone exception was a rookie in 1881. That was Jim Whitney who is just ahead of Lieber in fourth place. Ironically enough he actually lead the National League in walks in his rookie year and had a ratio of well under 2-to-1 before getting untracked.
Another of those 19th Century hurlers is Tommy Bond and Martinez trails him 4.439 to 4.322. As outstanding as his ratios have been the past three seasons, Martinez will not be able to catch Bond if he keeps going at those rates. If he could somehow return to the 1999-2002 craziness (when he went at it at a 7.46 rate), then down would go Bond. Before Schilling's injury problems in 2005, his ratio was on the climb. If he can return to his 2003-04 ratios while striking out around 200 men, he would move to number one by the end of 2007.
Martinez has actually taken two steps backward over the past couple of seasons. The Mets didn't support him last year and he has lost 10 points from his 2004 total. How hard will it be to catch leader Spud Chandler? An 18-5 record in 2006 will bring Martinez to .707, still 10 points behind. This is very much a high wire act at this level of achievement.
Hudson went 14-9 last year for the worst winning percentage of his career. He also has yet to lose in double figures. He's now pitched about 50 fewer innings in his career than Chandler did and his record stands at 106-48 to Chandler's 109-43. As for Oswalt, anytime you find yourself tied with Lefty Grove for anything you're on to a good thing. That's where he is right now--having the same career winning percentage as Grove. He's been around for such a short time that any kind of slippage at this point and he'll go plummeting down the well. Let's say he approximates his PECOTA record of 15-9. That will only drop him a couple spaces into Babe Ruth territory, which is still pretty lofty. If the Astros were to turn off the run tap like they did for Roger Clemens last year he could just as easily go 12-12. It's probably important to remember that through the age of 26, Dwight Gooden was the career leader in this category.
Hit by Pitch
Biggio will also bull his way into the top 10 in doubles this year. One thing about him you might not realize--and this means absolutely nothing but is fun to note--is that he is the highest-ranking non-cornerman or outfielder on the all-time strikeout list. He's currently at 24th all-time and will crack the top 20 this year. The next-highest is catcher Lance Parrish at 30th.