February 13, 2008
Doctoring The Numbers
Mets, Rangers, and Orioles
Lost in all the hype and controversy of Barry Bonds' pursuit of the career home run record last season was that it is rare to see any all-time career record fall. The game's 130-year history, thorough stat-keeping (consider that the NFL didn't even start recording sacks until 1982), and a wide range of offensive contexts in different eras makes it much more difficult to set an all-time record in baseball than in other sports. (In contrast, in the NFL, the rushing TD, passing TD, and receiving TD single-season records have all been broken in the last two years.)
Some baseball "records" are unbreakable because they were achieved under conditions that are simply unrecognizable today. No one's going to approach Cy Young's 749 complete games anytime soon, which neither reflects poorly on today's pitchers nor reflects well on Young.
Nevertheless, some records are breakable, and we know this because they have been broken in recent years. The flip side to Cy Young's complete games record is the saves record, which in the last 20 years has been held by four men: Rollie Fingers, Jeff Reardon, Lee Smith, and now Trevor Hoffman. And we all remember baseball's week-long celebration when Jesse Orosco broke Dennis Eckersley's year-old record for games pitched.
But aside from reliever-dominated records, and aside from Barry Bonds carrying off the marks for home runs and bases on balls, only two players have broken major counting records since Pete Rose retired with the hits record and the other testaments to his durability (games played, at-bats, singles, and, of course, outs). Those two are Nolan Ryan, with his 5714 strikeouts (and his 2795 walks), and Rickey Henderson, with his 2795 runs and 1406 steals.
Ryan's records appear safe so long as teams continue the maddening trend of reducing the number of starts and innings given to their top pitchers. Johan Santana has averaged over a strikeout per inning each of the last six years, but he's never made more than 34 starts or thrown more than 235 innings in a season, and would have to maintain his current strikeout pace until he's 46 to break Ryan's strikeout record.
Henderson's records are much more vulnerable. If his runs scored record isn't broken by Barry Bonds (who's just 68 runs behind), it will almost certainly be broken by Alex Rodriguez, who already has 1501 runs and should pass Henderson in about seven years. Henderson's stolen base record towers over the competition like few others (Henderson's total is 50 percent higher than Lou Brock, who is in second place), but he may have also found a worthy challenger: Jose Reyes.
The keys to breaking any career record are these: start your career early, end it late, and rack up the numbers in between. Henderson was in the majors at 20 and played until he was 44. He stole 100 bases when he was 21, and 66 bases when he was 39. His career was designed for theft.
Reyes is following the same path. He reached the majors the day before his 20th birthday. He played his first full season at age 22, and stole 60 bases. His steal totals have only increased since then: 64 in 2006, and 78 last season. Reyes just turned 24 last June, and already has 234 career steals. This ranks sixth all-time among players prior to their 25th birthday:
Player SB Rickey Henderson 427 Ty Cobb 337 Tim Raines 316 Cesar Cedeno 255 Jimmy Sheckard 247 Jose Reyes 234
Reyes doesn't turn 25 until June 11th; he needs only 22 steals by then to move up to fourth place on this list.
Reyes certainly has a daunting task ahead: he's already nearly 200 steals behind Henderson's pace. On the other hand, Henderson had already completed the last of his three 100-steal campaigns by age 25. Over the next decade, Henderson would average 67 steals per season, which is exactly Reyes' pace over the last three years.
It also helps that Reyes is, you know, a good player. He may not be in Henderson's class offensively, but he's an above-average hitter and plays an excellent shortstop, so there's reason to think that he will continue to merit playing time into his 40s. In other words, Vince Coleman he's not.
If passing Henderson proves an overwhelming task, Reyes certainly has an excellent shot at ranking second on the all-time steals list when he retires. He needs 705 more steals to pass Brock, which at his current pace would take just over 10 years. Even factoring in some loss of speed as he ages, 1000 steals seems easily attainable so long as he remains healthy.
It was not a good season for the Rangers last year. They lost 87 games, and by the end of the year, players were already grumbling that new manager Ron Washington was in over his head. Mark Teixeira was dumped in a fire sale (a very lucrative fire sale, mind you). The rotation combined for a 5.50 ERA. Worst of all, the team gave Sammy Sosa a full-time job.
But through all the chaos, one player maintained some semblance of stability. Once again, Michael Young was in the lineup pretty much every day, and once again, he finished with 200 hits. After two very undistinguished seasons to start his career, Young went into the 2003 season as a marginal everyday player; certainly there was no reason to project stardom in his future. But starting in 2003, Young has cracked 200 hits every year, and he has made four All-Star teams and garnered MVP votes in three different seasons.
Young's 200-hit streak is easily overlooked, given that Ichiro Suzuki is currently working on a streak of seven. But aside from Ichiro, only one other player (Wade Boggs) in the last 70 years has managed 200 hits in five straight seasons. Only 12 players in history have garnered 200 hits in even four consecutive seasons:
Player Years Willie Keeler 8 (1894-1901) Wade Boggs 7 (1983-1989) Ichiro Suzuki 7 (2001-2007) Chuck Klein 5 (1929-1933) Al Simmons 5 (1929-1933) Charlie Gehringer 5 (1933-1937) Michael Young 5 (2003-2007) Jesse Burkett 4 (1898-1901) Jack Tobin 4 (1920-1923) Paul Waner 4 (1927-1930) Bill Terry 4 (1929-1932) Kirby Puckett 4 (1986-1989)
Young's achievement is even more impressive when you consider that he started the streak at second base, and one year into it moved over to shortstop. Gehringer was a second baseman throughout his streak, but no one else on this list played the middle infield.
Even after discounting the first year of his streak, when he still played second base, Young is the first player in major league history to rap out 200 hits in four straight years while playing shortstop. In fact, only one other shortstop has managed 200 hits in even three straight years. That shortstop is Derek Jeter, who turned the trick between 1998 and 2000…and then started another streak, which is still active, in 2005.
So congratulations on an impressive achievement, Michael Young. Just don't look back--someone is gaining on you.
Let's not beat around the bush here: to this point in his career, Daniel Cabrera might be the biggest waste of talent in baseball. The raw talent is there for Cabrera to be one of the elite starters in the game. He's a beast on the mound, standing a hulking 6-foot-7. His fastball befits a man of his size--according to the Bill James Handbook, the average velocity on Cabrera's fastball last season was 94.3 mph, the sixth-highest of any starting pitcher in the majors. There's also some sink to go with that speed, as his groundball/fly ball ratio last season was a healthy 1.52, ranking in the top third of qualifying starters.
All that's missing is some command of the strike zone, which is appropriate, because all Cabrera does is miss the strike zone. He walked 108 batters last season, leading the AL in walks for the second straight year. This was an improvement in one way--in 2006, he walked 104 batters in just 148 innings, becoming just the sixth pitcher in the last 30 years to walk 100 batters in a season of under 150 innings. (The other five include notable wild things Bobby Witt, Jason Bere, and Victor Zambrano, as well as Eric Plunk and Kazuhisa Ishii.)
On the other hand, while Cabrera threw a career-high 204 innings last season, he also gave up 207 hits. Toss in 15 hit-by-pitches, and he allowed 320 baserunners to reach safely last season, the most by any pitcher since 2004, and the most by any non-Rockies pitcher since 2001.
The end result was that Cabrera became just the eighth pitcher in modern history to lead his league in the unholy trifecta of walks, earned runs, and losses in the same season:
Year Lg Pitcher L BB ER 1903 NL Togie Pittinger 22 143 136 1907 NL Stoney McGlynn 25 112 114 1915 AL Weldon Wyckoff 22 165 108 1932 AL Bump Hadley 21 171 149 1977 NL Phil Niekro 20 164 148 1983 NL Mike Torrez 17 113 108 2002 AL Tanyon Sturtze 18 89 129 2007 AL Daniel Cabrera 18 108 126
Phil Niekro is excused; his placing on this list is a testament to his extraordinary durability more than anything else. Two years later he would famously lead the NL in losses…and wins.
From among the rest, though, Torrez was enduring an ignominious end to an otherwise fine career, and Hadley and Pittinger had their moments. As for the other guys, I think we could lock Rob Neyer, Steven Goldman, and the entire membership of SABR in one room and they wouldn't be able to pick McGlynn and Wyckoff out of a crowd. The best way to describe them would be to call them the Tanyon Sturtzes of their era. (Sturtze also led the league in hits allowed, making him the only pitcher in AL history to lead in all four categories).
Cabrera supporters can certainly point to Randy Johnson as another tall, fire-breathing starter with massive control issues who eventually put it all together. And if you squint really hard you can sort of see the resemblance--the statistical resemblance, anyway. Johnson led the AL in walks at ages 26, 27, and 28, and Cabrera is just now entering his age-27 season.
The difference is that even when Johnson was wild, he was still reasonably effective. His ERA was better than league-average all three years, whereas Cabrera has never posted an ERA better than league-average. Maybe the Orioles should sit Cabrera down with Nolan Ryan and see if they can replicate the mystical meeting that supposedly turned Johnson's career around. Unfortunately, Cabrera has already worked with his own mystic, Leo Mazzone, and that worked out so well that Mazzone got fired.
The talent's still there. The results may never follow.
I'll end this column with a brief and shameless plug of my new blog dedicated to the Kansas City Royals, which appropriately enough is entitled Rany on the Royals. If, like me, you suffer from the unfortunate affliction of being a Royals fan, or if you have a friend or family member who suffers from said affliction, I'm afraid I have no cure. All I have to offer are my words--thousands upon thousands of them--and the knowledge that someone suffers from this affliction even more acutely than you do. I hope you enjoy the blog, and I appreciate your support.