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September 23, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Setting the Records Straight

by Eric Seidman

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A few weeks ago, Bob Hertzel wrote a thought-provoking column here at Baseball Prospectus that sought to identify baseball records that would never be broken. The thesis seemed to be that many records may feel out of reach, yet those same records were thought to be impossible to break when they were originally achieved. My friends and I participate in the same type of discussion on occasion when we go out to watch games, and it is one of the most interesting topics to bring up in a crowd of baseball nuts. Not only will strong opinions emerge, but there are usually oddball records that surface over which to ponder. For instance, did you know that Ty Cobb has the AL record with nine inside-the-park home runs in the 1909 season? Or that Eddie Murray has the record for most sacrifice flies in a career with 128? Or how about that Bob Shaw was called for a record five balks on May 4, 1963? With so many stats, records are bountiful, and it is always fun to reflect.

In conversations, Fernando Tatis launching two grand slams in the same inning is usually the one that makes a group reflect in awe at the inherent level of difficulty. Think about it: He not only had to hit two home runs in the same inning, but his team had to be so productive in that frame that they loaded the bases before each of his at-bats. Someone inevitably brings up Cy Young’s career wins and losses records. Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak comes up, as does the 56-game hitting streak by Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. One member of the group will reluctantly bring up Barry Bonds, as his single-season mark of 73 dingers is too mind-boggling to ignore, as are his annual OBPs from 2001-04. Usually, however, discussions of this ilk are dominated by players with names that just are not given anymore like Cy, Enos, Arky, Rube, and Whitey.

And for good reason, as players from the early days of baseball have fairly insane stats on their resumes. Nobody is ever, ever, ever going to approach either the 511 wins or 316 losses amassed by Young. Aside from maybe CC Sabathia, nobody is likely to ever approach even 300 wins again, let alone 400, and the large lefty is by no means a lock to reach even 250 wins. Similarly, nobody is ever going to come in the vicinity of the zany complete games streaks or records from the 1950s and earlier, or the innings pitched totals. The list goes on and on with regards to which records, set back in the Deadball Era or soon thereafter, will never be broken.

But does it matter that they will never be broken? Are they really even records? The answer is the ambiguous “yes and no.” Yes, technically speaking, Young holds the records for wins, losses, games, complete games, shortest first name (he’s tied), but his numbers are not relevant to any period other than his own. The issue isn’t that these records will never be broken, but rather that they are discussed as records in modern day conversations. I am not trying to suggest that what happened in the past is irrelevant, but rather that I have a problem with the lack of contextualization surrounding the idea of a baseball record. Realistically, starting 80 games in a league wherein the normal starter makes 68 starts is equivalent to starting 36 games in 2007 when the normal starter appeared 32 times. The difference lies in the context of the times.

When discussing records, I much prefer to steer the conversation toward era-based achievements. Either that or I like to apply filters when discussing records. For instance, I consider Todd Helton to hold the record for most doubles in the wild card era with his 59 in 2000. Does he hold the all-time record in the history of baseball from 1890-2010? No, Earl Webb’s 67 in the 1931 season tops everyone, but in the era that Helton played, which undoubtedly held more collective talent than any other era, he achieved something nobody else did. Just like Young won 511 games as the high water mark of his era, Greg Maddux’s 355 wins is incredibly impressive relative to his era. The statistics produced by baseball players are dependent upon the times they played, and since these eras can be so incredibly different from a style of play standpoint, it makes no sense to offer straight comparisons.

One issue is that people, by nature, do not like to compartmentalize information when it is not easily separable. It’s easy to group pitchers based on start and endpoints that form a decade, or quarter-century, but an era is likely to be considered more arbitrary than not. In some cases it is rather easy: the wild card era is clearly 1995-onward, as it encompasses the span of time in which the wild card playoff berth was in use. But determining all of the other eras and their respective time frames is ultimately left to easily debatable opinions. Because of the inherent subjectivity, it becomes much easier to just discuss the entirety of baseball in conversations surrounding records.

Additionally, by suggesting that a mark constitutes the best in history, its status is instantly elevated. Saying that Helton holds the all-time single-season record for doubles is just plain sexier than saying he has the record in the wild-card era. Applying a filter along those lines brings about negative connotations, as if the accomplishment is cheapened. In reality, comparing a season from Maddux to one from Kid Nichols would be like comparing a movie with a motor mouth like Chris Tucker to a silent film. Such comparisons are irrelevant because the circumstances under which the end results were produced are in no way, shape, or form similar.

I am not trying to sound like a snot-nosed brat who doesn’t respect the past, but it is growing tiresome to hear people discuss records that will never be broken by bringing up achievements from eras that have absolutely nothing in common with others. It doesn’t cheapen accomplishments at all to apply an era filter. If anything, it should magnify what occurred. Another reason something along the lines of contextualized records may be a tough sell is that the past is treated with such reverence that it is almost blasphemous to suggest that certain records from the past just are not that impressive when compared to others from their era. On top of that, we often don’t appreciate current performances until five or 10 years later, at which point the achievements have crystallized and are used to explain why a new current player’s numbers are not as great as they look.

All of which brings us to the Hall of Fame, and how several current players are likely to be judged based on outdated standards and milestones, which is the most unfair aspect of this lack of contextualization. I would bet money that nobody wins 300 games again, and maybe only a couple of pitchers reach 250, but somebody like Roy Halladay is going to be judged against these benchmarks. While Halladay is likely to get into Cooperstown, there will inevitably be writers who see his, say, 232 career wins and inaccurately compare the total to others accrued in past eras, neglecting to understand that 232 in this day and age might be equivalent to 330 in the past, especially considering he is about as old-timey of a pitcher as we have seen over the last decade.

 All I am asking is that when fans or writers discuss baseball records the appropriate context is used. What happened in Deadball stays in Deadball. Let’s stop bringing up obviously unbreakable records in conversations and focus more on records produced in different eras that could be broken. It might feel like the accomplishments have been cheapened, but I would much rather have it thought of that way than to have people bring up 511 wins in future discussions of unbreakable records.   

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

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