Baseball As Numbers
Ten, twenty, one hundred, one thousand. Yes, we like our nice, round numbers. The world of baseball even embraces them more than society at large.
Oh, there are certain numbers not ending in a zero that resonate with baseball fans like no others. Mention 755 and nobody outside my immediate family will say the month and year of my birthdate. 73? Yes, that was the year I graduated from high school but that number conjures up a different meaning in baseball circles.
Baseball statistics is a language in and of itself. You can't say the number 60 or 61 without thinking of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris. Offer up 2130 and I've got a black and white still image of Lou Gehrig wiping the tears away from his eyes while giving his "luckiest man on the face of the Earth" speech.
Baseball is full of milestones based on 3000 hits, 500 home runs, and 300 wins. We love them zeroes. Attach a zero to any crooked number and there is bound to be a feat or player that comes to mind.
Rightly or wrongly, the difference between a 20-win season and a 19-win season is much, much more than just one win. Greg Maddux has put together a streak of winning 15 or more games for 17 consecutive seasons. He's won 20 games only two times during that run. Little does anyone know or care that Maddux has also had five seasons with 19 victories. Had Greg won just one more game in each of those years, he would be tied for third with the most 20-game seasons since World War II. Instead, the four-time Cy Young Award winner is tied with Joe Coleman, Larry Jansen, Frank Lary, Joey Jay, and Howie Pollet (among others) for 36th.
Numbers are revered in baseball. Can you imagine what the reaction would be if we just rounded all numbers to the nearest ten? Man, that would be sacrilegious. Yes, we like 'em round but we also like them profound.
Just as 20 wins is everything and 19 wins is just another number, 200 hits makes fans think of Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, or Wade Boggs. Let the number one-nine-nine roll off the tip of your tongue and people are going to think you are talking about your weight or perhaps last year's gasoline prices. One hit in this case may as well be 50 in the world of baseball numerology.
The truth of the matter is that we like to put players in nice, neat boxes. At the assembly line of statisticians, you can hear them packaging 40-HR seasons here and 50-HR seasons there (although Brady Anderson's 1996 campaign may have a hard time getting past the folks in quality control). Does anybody care that Gehrig and Harmon Killebrew each hit 49 dingers twice? I didn't think so.
At the risk of feeding the frenzy surrounding magic numbers, I present the Magical Numbers Tour. Step right this way!
OK, speaking of hitting 40 home runs, there are three active players who have current streaks in tact. Barry Bonds with five, Jim Thome four, and Albert Pujols two. Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa had their streaks halted last year at six. Only the Babe (7) has had more consecutive 40-HR seasons than A-Rod and Say It Ain't Sosa.
Thirteen players are working on two or more straight seasons with 100 RBI, topped by A-Rod and Manny Ramirez (7 each) and followed by Thome (6); Miguel Tejada (5); Scott Rolen, Carlos Beltran, and Pujols (4); and Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui, David Ortiz, Aramis Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, and Aubrey Huff (2). Jimmie Foxx and Gehrig are tied for first all time at 13.
Sixteen have scored 100 or more runs in two or more consecutive years, led once again by Mr. Rodriguez (9, which is every full season of his career); Johnny Damon (7); Todd Helton (6); Bonds (5); Pujols, Lance Berkman, Beltran, and Ichiro Suzuki (4); Rafael Furcal, Craig Biggio, Juan Pierre, Michael Young, Manny Ramirez, Jeff Bagwell, Sheffield, and Carlos Lee (2). With 100 runs this year, A-Rod can move up into a tie for fourth place for the longest streak of such seasons -- behind Hank Aaron and Gehrig (13 each) and Willie Mays (12).
Only three active players have accumulated 200 or more hits for at least two seasons in a row. Suzuki (4) can tie for second place all time with another 200-hit campaign, trailing only Boggs (7). Pierre and Young (2) also have current streaks in tact.
There are other ways to get on base besides a base hit. Five players have walked at least 100 times for two or more years, including Abreu and Thome (6), Bonds (5 with a 200+ season thrown in just for fun), Berkman (3), and Helton (2).
With respect to hits and walks, the following combination is one of my favorite Boggs stats of all:
HITS >= 200 AND WALKS >= 100
1 Wade Boggs 1986-89 4
2 Lou Gehrig 1930-32 3
T3 Babe Ruth 1923-24 2
T3 Lou Gehrig 1936-37 2
Source: Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
That's not a bad threesome. Wade, Lou, and Babe with the recently elected Hall of Famer on top.
How 'bout a few rate stats? Nine players are trying to extend the number of consecutive .300 seasons beyond two, led by Helton (7), Manny Ramirez (6), Bonds (5), Suzuki and Pujols (4), Abreu (3), and Pierre, Young, Jason Kendall, and Mark Loretta (2). Among this group, Bonds and Helton (5), Abreu (3), and Pujols (2) each have .400 OBP streaks on the line as well. Bonds (5), Helton and Pujols (2) are also working on .600 SLG streaks. The only other active player who has posted back-to-back seasons with .600 SLG is none other than Jim Edmonds.
Turning to OPS, five players are currently trying to extend the number of 1.000 seasons beyond two, including Manny Ramirez (6), Helton and Bonds (5), and Edmonds and Pujols (2). Gehrig is once again numero uno in the history books with 11 straight years (1927-1937).
Although not as much attention is paid to negative stats, Pierre is in a position to tie Dave Cash for the most consecutive seasons creating 500 or more outs with three. Bobby Richardson had two skeins of two each. Cal Ripken, Jr. had a record five such seasons during his career but he managed to space them out so as not to post back-to-back seasons more than once.
The type of outs created doesn't mean as much in determining the value of hitters as they do to pitchers but Brad Wilkerson is the only active player with a string of two or more seasons of 150 strikeouts -- and he has accomplished this feat three years in a row. Rob Deer (4) and Sosa (5) are the only batters who have fanned at least 150 times in consecutive seasons more often than Wilkerson, who, with 100+ BB and 30+ HR, is fast becoming known as one of the top Three True Outcomes players in baseball.
Oh, this is also the year Rafael Palmeiro is expected to get his 3000th hit and Maddux his 3000th strikeout. That's 15 years of 200 or 20 years of 150. Either way, 3000 is a big, round number that only two dozen hitters and a dozen pitchers have ever attained in those categories.
Baseball is much more than just numbers, but there is no doubt that the stats are a part of the fabric of the game. The two are inseparable. If you're not convinced, the Magical Numbers Tour is just waiting to take you away.
* * * * *
Speaking of numbers, I strongly encourage readers to pick up a copy of The Numbers Game (Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics) by Alan Schwarz. Henry Chadwick, Branch Rickey, Bill James and more.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]