Monday, December 29, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part VII--Walt Dropo)

Walt Dropo's nickname "Moose" was derived from his hometown of Moosup, Connecticut. The moniker appropriately described his physical stature as well. Standing six-foot-five and weighing 220 pounds, the brawny first baseman burst upon the scene in 1950, leading the American league with 144 RBIs and 326 total bases. He was the first Red Sox player to capture Rookie of the Year honors, beating out Yankee great Whitey Ford by a wide margin. Though Dropo never came close to matching his rookie numbers at any other point during his career, he established a remarkable record that still stands during the 1952 slate. Traded to the Tigers in early-June of that year, Dropo made the Red Sox regret their decision when he strung together 12 consecutive hits over a two-day span. The streak began on July 14 at Yankee Stadium. Dropo went 5-for-5 (all singles) off of two different Yankee hurlers. The following day, he went 4-for-4 in the opening game of a doubleheader at Washington. In the nightcap, he established an all time record when he gathered a triple, double and single in his first three at-bats. After popping out to catcher Mickey Grasso in the seventh inning, he delivered a 2-run single in the top of the ninth. Dropo finished the '52 campaign with a .276 batting average and 97 RBIs--the second highest total of his career. In all, he spent thirteen seasons in the majors, averaging 12 homers and 54 ribbies per year.

Dropo was not the only major league player to collect 12 consecutive hits. In 1938, Red Sox third baseman Pinky Higgins broke a long-standing record of 10 straight safeties set by Jake Gettman in 1897 and tied by Ed Konetchy in 1919. Higgins needed 14 plate appearances to gather 12 hits (he walked twice during the skein). In recent times, two major leaguers have come moderately close to matching the all time mark shared by Dropo and Higgins. In 1992, Bip Roberts of the Reds hit safely in ten straight at-bats. In 2006, Matt Diaz of the Braves turned the same trick. Five years later, second baseman Josh Magee of the Greenville Astros assembled a streak of 12 consecutive hits. Since the Appalachian League is several levels below the majors, Magee's accomplishment went largely unnoticed.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part VI--Dale Long, Don Mattingly and Ken Grifffey Jr.)

Not all of the great home run records are held by guys named Bonds, Aaron or Ruth. For one week in 1956, Dale Long of the Pirates established himself as one of the most prolific sluggers in history, drilling homers in eight consecutive games. Long was a highly competent first baseman who spent time with six teams between 1951 and 1963. Though his career numbers are somewhat unremarkable, he will forever be remembered for his '56 power surge. The Pirates won 7 of 8 games during Long's home run barrage, which began on May 19 and continued through May 28. A crowd in excess of 32,000 at Forbes Field gave Long a standing ovation after he lifted a Carl Erskine pitch into the left field stands to set a new major league record. The Pirates had rewarded Long for his efforts earlier in the day by offering him a salary increase. Long finished his greatest season ever with career-high marks of 27 long balls and 91 RBIs. He never came terribly close to matching those numbers in any other season and, despite the Pirates' promise of a pay raise, he was traded to the Cubs in May of '57. To date, Long's record has never been broken though he shares it with two other prominent players--Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey Jr. 

Mattingly is fondly remembered as the heart and soul of the non-contending Yankee clubs of the late-'80s/ early-'90s. Among the smoothest fielding first basemen in history, he captured nine Gold Gloves during a fourteen-year career that was cut short by chronic back trouble. He enjoyed his peak seasons at the plate between 1984 and 1986, leading the league in multiple offensive categories. Though his numbers dropped off slightly in '87, he still managed to set the all time record for grand slams in a season (6--a mark that was later tied by Travis Hafner of the Indians). In July of '87, Mattingly found a place beside Dale Long in the record books with homers in eight consecutive games. Mattingly's numbers during the streak were even tackier than Long's, including 21 RBIs and a pair of grand slams. Though he remained a steady presence in the Yankee lineup for several more years, he never collected more than 23 homers in a season after 1987.

Unlike the men he shares the record with, Ken Griffey Jr. was a productive long ball hitter throughout his career. In addition to hammering 630 career homers (placing him sixth on the all time list), he won ten straight Gold Glove Awards between 1990 and 1999. If his name remains unlinked to steroids over the next twelve months or so, he will almost certainly end up as a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2016. "Junior's" streak of eight consecutive games with a homer came in July of 1993. The Mariners had a somewhat anemic offense that year, ranking eleventh in batting average and tenth in runs scored. Consequently, 5 of Griffey's 8 homers during the skein were solo shots. His 45 round trippers represented twenty-eight percent of the team's total home run output that year. In 1997, Griffey tied the all-time mark for homers in a season by a center fielder with 56. He duplicated the feat the following year.   

Monday, December 15, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part V--Mark Buehrle and Yusmeiro Petit)

The pages of baseball history are cluttered with extraordinary pitching feats. In terms of sheer dominance, few come close to matching the performances turned in by Mark Buehrle and Yusmeiro Petit. During their record-setting scoreless innings streaks (discussed at length in my previous post), Don Drysdale and Orel Hershiser yielded more than two dozen hits apiece. Neither was as commanding as Petit when he retired 46 consecutive batters in 2014 and Buehrle when he mowed down 45 straight hitters during the 2009 campaign.

A big man at 6-foot-1, 250 pounds, Petit is currently property of the San Francisco Giants. Serving as a swingman, he routinely throws around 95 miles per hour. Though his lifetime numbers are rather pedestrian at best (19-26/ 4.76 ERA), he has shown sporadic flashes of brilliance during his seven years in the majors. The Venezuelan right-hander came within one out of a perfect game in September of 2013, coughing up a ninth inning hit to Eric Chavez of the Diamondbacks. Spending roughly equal portions of time as a starter, middle reliever and closer this past season, Petit etched his name into the record books. His incredible run began on July 22 in a shaky start that saw him retire the last batter he faced. He followed with six perfect relief appearances spanning 12.1 innings. After retiring the first eight Colorado hitters during a August 28 spot-start, he gave up a double to opposing pitcher Jordan Lyles and an RBI single to Charlie Blackman. Comparing his record-setting 2014 performance to his near-perfect game the year before, Petit said: "I was more relaxed this time. I concentrated a little bit more. I told myself I couldn't let the opportunity present itself and fall short again." Petit was a major contributor to the Giants' World Series run this year, logging 12.1 scoreless postseason innings before making an ineffective relief appearance in Game 6 against the Royals.

While Petit's record involved a patchwork of scattered appearances, Mark Beuhrle set the major league standard in consecutive starts. Unlike Petit, Buehrle has more than a dozen good seasons under his belt. Known as one of the fastest working pitchers in the majors, he has been known to finish games in under two hours--an oddity nowadays. Buehrle has five effective pitches in his arsenal, including a cut fastball and laboriously slow change up. He had everything working for him in 2009, when he mowed down 45 consecutive batters, breaking the record set by Jim Barr of the Giants in 1972. Barr's record (41) was tied by Buehrle's White Sox teammate Bobby Jenks in 2007.

Buehrle's impressive run began on July 18 versus the Orioles when he retired the last batter he faced. He followed with a perfect game on July 23 at U.S. Cellular Field. It was the eighteenth perfecto in major league history and an exciting one at that. In the top of the ninth, leadoff hitter Gabe Kapler his a towering fly ball to left center field. DeWayne Wise made a gravity-defying catch to rob Kapler of a homer. Only five batters worked the count full against Buehrle that day. In his next start, the brawny southpaw picked up right where he had left off, setting down the first 17 Minnesota hitters he faced. Buehrle remembered his record-setting moment fondly. "At the start of the inning, I looked down to the bullpen at Bobby [Jenks} and he's just laughing at me. When I got the one or two guys out, he threw his hat on the ground, acting [mad]. Then the whole bullpen started clapping for me." In the sixth inning, the Twins finally scored a run. They added 4 in the seventh to knock Buehrle out of the game. After his crowning achievement, Beuhrle went 2-7 with a 4.78 ERA. He finished the 2009 slate at 13-10/ 3.84.   

Monday, December 8, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part IV--Don Drysdale and Orel Hershiser)

In my last post, we discussed Walter Johnson's streak of 55.2 consecutive scoreless innings, which is still an AL record. It stood as the all time mark in both leagues until Don Drysdale surpassed it in 1968. Drysdale, a towering presence on the mound at 6-foot-6, was one of the most feared pitchers of his generation. He led the league in hit batsmen every year from 1958-1961 and currently ranks among the top twenty of all time in that category with 154. The ornery moundsman once remarked that he started every game angry and stayed that way until it was over. He had very little regard for opposing batters. St. Louis catcher Gene Oliver drilled a deep homer off of Drysdale one day at Dodger Stadium and, after standing idly at home plate admiring his shot, Oliver called loudly to the Cardinals dugout: "Hey, batboy--come get the bat!!" When he came to the plate again, Drysdale deliberately plunked him with a fastball. As Oliver lay on the ground in obvious pain, Drysdale shouted: "Hey, batboy--Come get Oliver!"

Drysdale secured a place in baseball history during the '68 campaign when he assembled a streak of 58 consecutive scoreless innings. In addition to breaking Walter Johnson's all time mark, he eclipsed Carl Hubbell's NL record of 45.1 scoreless frames. "Big D's" streak began with a shutout against the Cubs on May 14. Five straight shutouts followed. Drysdale had a little help along the way. On May 31, his streak stood at 44 innings when the Giants loaded the bases with no outs. Dick Dietz ran up a 2-2 count before Drysdale nailed him in the elbow with a wayward slider. The streak should have ended there, but umpire Harry Wendelstadt invoked a rare ruling, declaring "no pitch" on the grounds that Dietz had made no attempt to get out of the way. Drysdale was able to pitch out of danger, extending his remarkable run. Against the Phillies on June 8, he lasted through four and two-thirds scoreless innings before a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Howie Bedell scored Tony Taylor. At one point during the game, Philly manager Gene Mauch asked home plate umpire Augie Donatelli to check Drysdale for contraband. It had been proposed by some (most emphatically by Giants manager Herman Franks) that Drysdale had been throwing spitballs during the streak. When his remarkable run was over, the big right-hander commented to reporters: "I think all good things have to come to an end...There's always somebody around who can break a record. This gives everybody a target to shoot at. I wish him all the luck and will be the first to congratulate him if I'm around to do it."

Drysdale was indeed alive and kicking when his record was broken in 1988--fittingly by another Dodger. Tall and gangly at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Orel Hershiser looked more like a school teacher than an athlete. He went undrafted out of high school and didn't capture any serious attention from scouts until he earned All-Metro Athletic Conference honors while pitching for Bowling Green University in 1979. He became a full-time pitcher in Los Angeles during the '84 campaign, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting. Hershiser received the nickname "Bulldog" from manager Tom Lasorda, who felt that the brainy right-hander could stand to toughen up a bit. An early scouting report alleged that Hershiser had poor control, a weak fastball and threw a mechanically flawed curve. None of that information was applicable in 1988, when he reset the all time mark for consecutive scoreless innings.

Hershiser began his historic run against the Expos on August 3. He followed with five straight shutout wins. Facing the Padres on the last day of the season, he added ten more scoreless innings. Though his regular season record would end shortly into his first appearance of the '89 campaign, his string in '88 continued into the postseason as he shut down the Mets for 8 innings in Game 1 of the NLCS. Interestingly, he had a little help from an umpire while going for the record--just as Drysdale had in '68. During a September 28 start, arbiter Paul Runge made a controversial interference call at second base on a run-scoring double play to keep Hershiser's bid alive. The streak officially ended on April 5, 1989, when the Reds broke through for a run with two outs in the first inning. After Todd Benzinger delivered an RBI single, the crowd in Cincinnati razzed Hershiser loudly.

Hershiser's streak has not been seriously challenged in recent years, though three different hurlers have assembled scoreless strings in excess of 40, the most recent being Clayton Kershaw in 2014.   

Monday, December 1, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part III--Jack Coombs and Walter Johnson)

Right-hander Jack Coombs got noticed by Connie Mack's brother while playing for Colby College in New England. The studious Coombs majored in chemistry and had every intention of making a career out of it until the A's signed him in 1905. Five years later, he turned in one of the most spectacular seasons in major league history. Relying heavily on his fastball and drop curve, he tossed twelve shutouts and won 18 of 19 starts during a three-month span in 1910. He held opponents scoreless in six straight September appearances, assembling a streak of 53 consecutive shutout innings. In the first game of a September 25 doubleheader, he relieved Hall of Fame staff mate Eddie Plank in the ninth inning. He dueled with spit-baller Ed Walsh of Chicago for six scoreless frames and started the winning rally himself. With the streak at 52, manager Connie Mack sent Coombs back to the mound as a starter in the second game. Coombs held the Sox scoreless in the first, but yielded 3 runs in the second, putting an end to his record-setting string. The previous mark had been set by "Doc" White of Chicago, who recorded five consecutive shutouts in September of 1904.

After collecting a league-leading total of 31 regular season wins in 1910, Coombs polished off his most remarkable campaign with three complete game victories over the Cubs in the World Series. He guided the A's to a second world championship the following year with a 28-win effort. Slowed by illness and injury over the next several seasons, he gradually faded from the majors. He made his last appearance in 1920.

 Unlike Coombs, Walter Johnson's star burned brightly for a very long time. Ty Cobb once commented that Johnson's fastball "looked about the size of a watermelon seed and it hissed at you as it passed." Sportswriter Grantland Rice compared it to an express train, giving birth to the enduring nickname "The Big Train." Johnson himself was well aware of his ability to throw the ball with alarming velocity, remarking to pressmen one day: "You can't hit what you can't see." 

The broad-shouldered right-hander (listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds) came from humble beginnings--the son of a poor Kansas farmer. He spent the majority of his career on the woeful Washington squads of the Deadball Era. With minimal run support, he set a record for 1-0 losses (26). By the time the Senators climbed into contention, Johnson was nearing the end of his playing days. He remained effective late into his career, capturing his third and final triple crown at the age of thirty-six. When he retired in 1927, he was the game's reigning strikeout king. He still holds the all time mark for shutouts.

One of Johnson's crowning achievements came in 1913, when he broke Coombs's scoreless innings record. After giving up a first inning run to the Yankees on opening day, he held opponents at bay for the next 55.2 frames. On May 14, Johnson joined the team in St. Louis, having taken a long train ride from his home in Coffeyville, Kansas. He complained of a headache during the game. Despite the malady, he turned in three shutout innings before the Browns finally got to him. Outfielder Gus Williams doubled to left field and second baseman Del Pratt followed with an RBI-single. After the Senators had opened up a 9-1 lead, manager Clark Griffith allowed Johnson to rest, replacing him with left-hander Joe Boehling. Johnson's 1.14 ERA in 1913 remains one of the lowest ever recorded. His 36 victories represented forty percent of the Senators' total win share that season.

The accomplishments of Coombs and Johnson are magnified by the conventions of the era. There were no official relievers in those days. Starters worked on short rest and were expected to go the distance. Most teams used a bullpen by committee format. Since Johnson was so durable, he was often called upon in relief. During his record-setting 1913 season, he made 36 starts and 11 appearances out of the bullpen. Coombs started 38 games and made 7 relief appearances during his historic run. In addition to carrying a heavy workload, both hurlers faced some of the toughest batters in baseball history, including Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker--collective holders of thirty-three offensive records.