Publish date:

30 Is The New 56

On the 75th anniversary of Joe DiMaggio's record, it's time to change how we evaluate hitting streaks
Author:

IN THE LAST line of his game story in the June 3, 1941, edition of The New York Times, James P. Dawson added this bit of triviality: "DiMaggio, incidentally, has hit safely in nineteen straight games." It was the first recorded instance in which someone referred to what would become the 56-game hitting streak of Joe DiMaggio.

Seventy-five years later we still can't stop talking about the Streak. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called it "both the greatest factual achievement in the history of baseball and a principal icon of American mythology."

Time has enhanced the magnitude of 56 for one very obvious reason: Nobody has come close to it. If getting to 56 is the equivalent of driving from Los Angeles to New York City, nobody has made it past Indiana—not to within 20% of the destination.

This year Red Sox teammates Jackie Bradley Jr. (stopped at 29 games on May 26) and Xander Bogaerts (26 games, June 3) learned the difficulty of driving all the way to DiMaggio.

What we miss when we use DiMaggio as the guidepost, however, is the rare beauty of hitting streaks in a modern game in which it's more difficult to get a hit than it has been in more than 40 years. The three lowest leaguewide batting averages in the DH era have come in the last four seasons. Only five players have made it past 30 straight games in the past quarter century.

Velocity has never been higher (the average fastball is 92.1 mph, up from 90.5 in just 10 years), strikeouts have never been more prevalent (21.2% of all plate appearances, up for an 11th straight season) and the inventory of pitchers has never been greater. In their four-season careers Bradley and Bogaerts already have faced more pitchers (349 and 403, respectively) than DiMaggio ever saw (317) in more than 6,000 additional plate appearances.

Relief pitching is the greatest enemy of a modern streak. Today's relievers strike out 23% of the batters they face and hold them to a .244 batting average. In 1941 DiMaggio hit .407 and struck out only three times against relievers.

As pitchers tire and hitters see more pitches from the same pitcher, the advantage swings to the batter. DiMaggio batted 1,053 times in his career against a starting pitcher for the fourth time or more in a game. Bradley and Bogaerts combined have done so only 20 times.

"You can't compare players from different eras," said Angels designated hitter Albert Pujols, one of his generation's greatest hitters and the owner of a personal-best 30-game hitting streak. "Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Ted Williams ... they were all great, but the game changes so much, you can only compare players within periods of about 20 years."

Incidentally, the variances in hitting overall are greater today than ever. In Dawson's aforementioned report, he also wrote that the Yankees were making "their second invasion of the West." The West? New York was playing in Cleveland that day. DiMaggio batted in only nine ballparks in his career; Bradley (24) and Bogaerts (25) have already played in almost three times as many.

Hitting streaks haven't lost any of their intrinsic charm. The quest for a daily hit makes for a compelling serial within a long season. Commercial television began the same year as DiMaggio's streak, which made "Did DiMaggio get a hit today?" a kind of word-of-mouth parlor game in America in 1941. Today we follow every pitch in real time—we just don't appreciate these streaks as much as we should because DiMaggio put the record so far out of reach.

Thirteen franchises have never seen a streak longer than 30 games. Those teams include the Pirates, whose record is a 27-game streak by third baseman Jimmy Williams that has held for 117 years, and the Athletics, whose record is a 29-game streak by outfielder Bill Lamar that has stood for 91 years.

The mythology of DiMaggio himself also dooms our appreciation of modern streaks. Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence, and 56 chalk pits dot Stonehenge, but 56 belongs to the icon that is DiMaggio. Babe Ruth's career home run record, Ty Cobb's career hits mark and the consecutive-game streak of Lou Gehrig have all been broken in the modern game. But 56 looms as not just unassailable but also mystical.

In most cases we recalibrate the scale of records based on how sport evolves. The record 511 career wins of Cy Young, for instance, has been so out of reach for so long that 300 became the artificial marker of greatness. But because it's the legendary DiMaggio, we don't recalibrate hitting streaks.

So forget DiMaggio for a moment. What Bradley and Bogaerts did was to remind us how extraordinarily difficult it is just to reach 30 straight games with a hit. Nobody has reached that plateau in five years, since Dan Uggla and Andre Ethier did so. When it finally happens again, we should celebrate 30 as a major milestone.

GO FIGURE

1,439

Consecutive home games of the Class A Daytona Tortugas attended by Joe Rowe, a streak that began in 1995 and ended on June 8.

19

Combined field goals (12) and free throws (seven) made without a miss by Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, the most ever by a player in WNBA history, in a 97--73 win at Dallas last Saturday.

4

Consecutive starts of at least six innings with zero runs and three or fewer hits allowed by Tigers rookie Michael Fulmer, who joined the Cubs' Jake Arrieta as the only pitchers in MLB history with such a streak. Fulmer has made nine career starts.

The Biggest Losers

17

Extra Mustard

18

SI Edge

Heat check

20

Rising Stars

Paul Dunne

24

Faces in The Crowd

25

Dan Patrick

Wayne Gretzky

26