The Greatest Scoreless Innings Streak Ever
On Tuesday, I posted about Zack Greinke's 38-inning scoreless streak and showed how it was the equal of the famous Don Drysdale streak in 1968. Due to the context of the times and the quality of the opponents, Greinke's 38-inning streak was actually just as difficult as Drysdale's 58-inning streak. But of course Drysdale and Greinke are not the only pitchers to ever compile long streaks. This article follows up on the last one, and tries to determine the most impressive scoreless inning streak of all-time.
The record holder of course, is Orel Hershiser, who pitched in 59 consecutive scoreless innings, dramatically pitching 10 innings in the final game of the season to overtake Drysdale. Other contenders for the title of toughest scoreless inning streak are Walter Johnson, in the American League, who pitched 55 2/3 scoreless innings in 1913 for Washington, and Sal Maglie's 45-inning streak in a tough pitchers' environment in 1950 for the New York Giants. There are other notable streaks, such as Bob Gibson's 47-inning streak in 1968 and Jack Coombs' 53-inning streak in 1910, but because they were accomplished in even stronger pitchers' environments than Hershiser's, we can see right away that they won't be tougher than his record-holding streak.
Looking back at all three of the streaks, we can determine about how likely it was that a quality pitcher could complete each streak. The streak with the lowest probability of course was the toughest.
Using the same methodology from Tuesday's article, I calculated the expected runs allowed for each game of the streak, based on the opponent, the park, and whether the pitcher was playing at home. I then made a small adjustment for defense to account for poor defenses having a higher probability of giving up unearned runs (which would end the streak).
Let's first take a look at Hershiser's streak. Performed in 1988, it was a pitchers' environment. Dodger Stadium was significantly less pitcher friendly than during Drysdale's streak, but was still a pitchers' park. However, only 18 of his innings were at home, making the streak even more impressive. The following chart shows the seven games that composed his streak.
Based on opponent, park, and home field, the average expected runs per 9 IP during the streak was 3.74. Cutting this number down by 25% to get the expected number of runs given up by a good pitcher, not simply an average one, we get 2.99 expected runs per 9 IP. This translates roughly into a probability of throwing a scoreless inning at .801, which he accomplished 59 straight times - very impressive. The probability of completing the streak was .801 ^ 59 = 1 in 485,000. With those odds, the Bulldog certainly pulled off an incredible feat. This was about 5 times tougher than Greinke or Drysdale's feat, but was it the best ever?
Next let's look at the dark horse of the group, Sal Maglie. Being a younger fan, I had not heard of Maglie's scoreless inning streak until recently, and it certainly doesn't have the cache of Drysdale's or Hershiser's. But was it as good or better? Maglie started his streak on August 16th against Brooklyn and ended it September 13th against Pittsburgh, throwing four shutouts in between. 1950 was certainly a hitters year, which made the streak all the more impressive. Below is a chart of the opponents and the expected runs given up by an average pitcher in each of the games.
Maglie's opponents varied between the tough Brooklyn Dodgers and the lowly Pirates, but on average, the average pitcher would be expected to give up 4.81 runs per 9 IP during the streak. For a "good" pitcher, we reduce this to 3.85. Translating this to the probability of throwing a scoreless inning, we get approximately .750. Therefore, the probability of completing the streak was approximately .750 ^ 45 = 1 in 419,000. The Barber's feat was nearly as good as Hershiser's! While he wasn't quite as good the numbers are extremely close, especially considering that there is some estimation error. Still, it's surprising that the unknown Maglie streak is nearly the equal of Hershiser's celebrated feat. The context means that much. But could anyone best both Maglie and Hershiser?
Now let's turn our eyes to Walter Johnson's feat. In 1913 he broke Jack Coombs' record in a tougher pitching environment by throwing 55 2/3 scoreless innings. He started the streak after giving up a run in the first inning of opening day, and didn't allow another one until May 14! Pitching in a combination of starts and relief, he was dominant in his first nine outings. I was able to cobble together the games of his streak (partly due to this nice blog on the Senators and Twins) except for one two inning April relief appearance against whom I could not determine. Below is a chart showing his opponents and the average expected runs per 9 IP.
The average runs per 9 IP was 3.91 for an average pitcher and for a good pitcher this number is reduced to 3.13. Converting this to a probability of a scoreless inning we get about .792. Therefore, over 55.2 innings pitched, the probabilty of a good pitcher completing his streak was .792 ^ 55.67 = 1 in 435,000. This makes Johnson's streak not quite as impressive as Hershiser's, but very close. Due to potential errors in the conversion of runs per nine innings to probability, I think a case could be made for either Maglie, Hershiser, or Johnson to have had the toughest streak, as all three are very close. The difference between them is only one or two innings on a level playing field, so had any of them continued their streak for just a little longer, they would have had clearly the toughest streak of the three.
Can the trio's "record" for most impressive streak be broken? In today's environment, a pitcher (such as Greinke, who now has another 13-inning streak going), would need to reach about 44 innings to match Maglie, and 45 innings to surpass all three streaks. Of course, the fanfare won't start until he reaches 60, but he'll have beaten the toughest streak ever long before that.