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May 22, 2009

Checking the Numbers

Going Streaking

by Eric Seidman

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Back in 2007, fans of the Seattle Mariners were given free rides aboard the Wild and Wacky Weaver Wagon. On any given night, they had no idea whether the Jeff Weaver toeing the rubber would resemble the Mr. Hyde who had been victimized by 50 hits and a 14.32 RA in his first 22 innings of work, or the good Dr. Jekyll with the 3.10 RA and 1.26 WHIP over his next nine outings. As Weaver aptly demonstrated throughout that roller-coaster campaign, baseball is a game of streaks, with players fusing together stretches both hot and cold before arriving at their statistical bottom lines. Scan the game logs for any player in any season and you are bound to find spurts in which a Pujols hits like a Theriot, and vice-versa. In spite of their prominence, though, streaks can be very detrimental by distracting fans from actual production levels, and a little annoying as they tend to go unnoticed when not bookending a season.

A little over a week ago, Ryan Zimmerman snapped a streak during which he recorded hits in 30 consecutive games. While impressive, that feat offers very little meaningful information when taken on its own. For all we know, he could have accrued exactly one hit in each of the games and finished the streak with a .235/.315/.340 line. These numbers would be low even for Willie Bloomquist, and the player in question would be lauded more for a superfluous feat than for his actual production. Streaks do not generally work like this, however, as the player involved tends to be on a roll throughout that span. The point still remains that what should be of more interest is how the player actually performed during the streak, and not the streak itself. At the very least, both facets should be viewed together.

Zimmerman produced at a very high level during his streak, slashing .382/.427/.649 from April 8 to May 12, a REqA, excluding the stolen-base components, of 1.066. What was more impressive: recording hits in 30 consecutive games, or putting up those gaudy numbers for an extended stretch regardless of whether or not a streak occurred? If Zimmerman posted similar numbers but went 0-for-4 in two different games, I tend to doubt his torrid stretch would have garnered as much notice. Then again, the streak did kick off the 2009 season, occurring between the third and 32nd games of the season, and the media absolutely loves hot and cold starts and finishes to a season. With the hitting streak passing the DiMaggio halfway-point and occurring at the beginning of the year, the Nationals have gotten a share of the spotlight for something besides their abysmal record.

Zimmerman has never put together a 30-game hitting streak prior to this season, but has he ever performed like this over similarly long spans? To find out, I engaged in the rather grueling process of querying and scripting for streaks in a database. For Zimmerman in particular the goal involved determining his statistics in every individual 30-game stretch in each of his four major league seasons, and pooling them all together. For visual reference, I essentially calculated the data for Zimmerman that could be found by going to his Baseball-Reference.com game-logs page and utilizing the tool that enables users to calculate data in specific stretches by clicking on a few rows. If you can imagine clicking on the rows for every 30-game stretch of his career, then you have an idea of what the end result looked like in my database table.

It turns out that even though Zimmerman has certainly performed well for elongated spurts, none have matched or bested his hot start to the current season. Otherwise, his best stretch began in the second game of a doubleheader against the Mets on July 28, 2007 and lasted until an August 28 game against the Dodgers. During that time frame, Zimmerman hit .322/.379/.636, solid enough for a 1.008 REqA. Zimmerman certainly deserves attention for his performance throughout the recent 30-game hitting streak, but not simply because he recorded at least one base knock in each game.

Another streak that had earned recognition earlier this season, albeit with negative connotations, involved Bengie Molina's inability to draw a walk. Molina stepped up to the plate 119 times before jogging to first base on the heels of a free pass. This is not necessarily uncommon for the hacktastic Molina, as he experienced walk droughts several times last year:

Start        End           PA   
September 3  September 23  70       
April 28     May 18        59       
August 1     August 21     59       
June 25      July 11       52       
May 29       June 13       42

Interestingly enough, none of his longest droughts overlapped, which occurs quite frequently when looking at streaks; a streak from April 2-9 is not really a different time period than one from April 4-11, since the latter encompasses most of the former. Even though Molina will never be known for his prowess in the patience department, his longest drought did not even crack the top twenty from a year ago. Perhaps if he served as the backstop for Weaver's former employer, the Mariners, he could have occupied the top spot on the leader board.

Rk Player               Start      End            PA
 4 Jose Lopez           April 11   May 16        134
 7 Kenji Johjima        April 22   June  1       113
11 Yuniesky Betancourt  April 27   May 30        106
12 Yuniesky Betancourt  May 30     July  2       104
22 Miguel Cairo         August 13  September 24   90

At first glance, I thought that Betancourt's droughts overlapped, but a closer look informed me otherwise. Betancourt went walkless in 106 plate appearances from April 27-May 30, drew a walk, and then went another 104 plate appearances before his next free pass on July 2. Here are the longest walk droughts for hitters from last season, including the aforementioned Mariners:

Rk Player            Start     End         PA
 1 Freddy Sanchez    June 15   August 26  204
 2 Jose Guillen      May 15    June 24    160
 3 Corey Patterson   April 28  August 8   159
 4 Jose Lopez        April 11  May 16     134
 5 Juan Pierre       June  6   August 6   124

Reversing our orientation, here are the longest walk droughts for pitchers from last season, which in their case is very much a positive:

Rk Pitcher          Start      End           PA
 1 Jesse Litsch     April 22   May 24       144
 2 Ben Sheets       May 10     May 31       125
 3 Cliff Lee        July 11    August 4     113
 4 Paul Maholm      May 25     June 15      109
 5 Kevin Millwood   August 20  September 5  107

Jesse Litsch was nowhere near Greg Maddux's 72 1/3 straight innings without a walk, but he did manage to avoid them in five consecutive starts as well as segments of the two starts opening and closing the streak. All told, Litsch came close to reaching the halfway point of Maddux's streak, which says an awful lot for that streak in particular. We talk so frequently about DiMaggio's hitting streak, but it is incredibly difficult to imagine another pitcher not issuing a single walk over a stretch of action equivalent to eight consecutive complete games. How about pitchers avoiding the long ball over extended periods of time?

Rk Pitcher        Start    End           PA
 1 Matt Cain      June 4   August 20    390
 2 Ryan Dempster  July 2   September 3  294
 3 Mike Pelfrey   May 21   July 20      273
 4 Cliff Lee      June 14  July 30      234
 5 Brandon Webb   July 3   August 15    224

Perhaps Cain allows far too many fly balls for his own good, but he has consistently bested the league average on the HR/9 front. From June 4 through August 20, a grand total of 390 different hitters were unable to hoist a ball out of the yard. Most of the games in that span were held in parks that favor the pitcher, but logic would dictate that at least one hitter could jack the ball out of the yard at some point during fifteen straight starts. Another streak that piqued my interest dealt with hitting into double plays. We generally equate double plays with slow runners, figuring that a list showing the longest droughts would consist primarily of speedsters. The first name on the list below may shock you:

Rk Player          Start     End            PA
 1 Pat Burrell     April 30  August 2      332 
 2 Stephen Drew    June  1   August 30     327
 3 Jose Reyes      July 13   September 26  313 
 4 Fred Lewis      May 21    August 24     302 
 5 Josh Hamilton   July 9    September 24  286

Pat Burrell hit into ten double plays last season, but he managed to avoid them at all costs for 332 straight trips to the plate over a five-month span. From August 2 until the end of the season he was victimized by the twin killing much more frequently, but can anyone honestly say they expected to see his name atop such a list? After Burrell, the speedier guys do surface with regularity, suggesting that Burrell's showing was more of an outlier than a piece of data suggesting that slower players hit into fewer double plays than previously thought.

At this juncture, it seemed like it would be fun to take players with poor rates in a certain area and determine their longest such droughts. For instance, of anyone with a UBB/9 of at least 4.0 last season, here are the longest stretches without walks:

Rk Pitcher          Start     End        PA
 1 Daniel Cabrera   May 8     May 25     71 
 2 Garrett Olson    May 10    May 21     56 
 3 Manny Parra      August 4  August 15  56 
 4 Scott Kazmir     May 31    June 11    52 
 5 Manny Parra      June 4    June 17    45

And here are the longest home-run droughts for pitchers with a HR/9 in excess of 1.0:

Rk Pitcher          Start      End            PA
 1 Javier Vazquez   August 7   September 18  196 
 2 David Bush       June 7     July 26       188 
 3 Jon Garland      April 28   June 1        160 
 4 Paul Byrd        July 4     Aug 16        159 
 5 Brett Myers      August 14  September 10  145

Three of these top five pitchers are known for having not yet lived up to their potential. For Vazquez, Bush, and Myers, these stretches must have been ones in which fans caught a glimpse of what their, say, 90th-percentile performance level would look like. The list also documents that even the players with overall poor marks in a specific area are not immune to very solid stretches relative to the statistic with which they struggle.

An interesting tidbit regarding these streaks: not everyone performed well throughout. Though our inclination is to believe that if Matt Cain did not surrender a gopherball for 390 straight batters, he must have produced tremendous numbers, this is not always the case. Streaks are not informative of production levels, but rather offer amusing or noteworthy facts that require more information before determining what exactly their meaning is. As the leaderboards have shown, the most prominent streaks generally take place between the bookend months of a season, even if they're not recognized as much as the ones that occur during them.

This was by no means a scientific or research-heavy piece-though it did take longer with regards to database work than anything else I have ever written-but it seemed important to distinguish between streaks and quality of performance, since the two do not always go hand in hand. Streaks are incredibly fascinating to follow and document, but they do not always portend success and should not be treated as reverently as they sometimes are. That being said, are there any other streaks you would be interested in seeing?

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

Related Content:  The Streak,  Jesse Litsch,  April,  Streaks,  Hot Streaks,  Streak,  August,  September

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