The Dodgers and baseball’s unbreakable streaks
By Cary Osborne
Fifty-six. Fifty-nine. Eighty-four. Twenty-six thirty-two.
They might as well be the winning lottery numbers, because the chances of anyone in baseball surpassing any of those is just as probable.
Those numbers represent four of baseball’s most unbeatable streaks — Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, Orel Hershiser’s scoreless-innings run, Eric Gagné’s consecutive saves record and Cal Ripken’s consecutive games-played streak.
What did it take to set them? Can they be broken? How can they be broken?
We can answer those questions.
“I think there’s a certain level of consistency you have to have,” Hershiser said of his secret to getting to 59 in 1988. “How you come to the park and how you get prepared. I think there’s a certain level of expertise. Then there’s a lot of good fortune. I had to have good defenders behind me. I’ve got to have the ball not fall in because I wasn’t a super strikeout pitcher.”
Zack Greinke went 45 2/3 scoreless innings last season as a Dodger and Clayton Kershaw went 41 in 2014. Still a considerable reach to Hershiser’s 59.
One of Greinke’s best attributes in 2015 was that he was one of the top pitchers in baseball at not allowing the home run. But ranking in the thirties for strikeouts per nine innings, the Dodger defense of 2015 deserves a certain amount of credit for his run.
As one of the game’s premier strikeout pitchers, Kershaw would seem likelier to make a run at Hershiser. The 28-year-old lefty’s control and command are exceptional (illustrated by his nine walks in 121 innings this season), and since 2011 he has the lowest home-run rate per nine innings among starting pitchers at 0.52.
“I was hoping it was going to be Clayton or Zack (to break my record),” Hershiser said. “Just like I was a Dodger and broke (Don Drysdale’s record). I would love a Dodger to break it because that was Don’s original comment — at least we kept it in the family.”
Here’s where Kershaw checks off some other boxes.
“I think there’s got to be some kind of mental discipline — a toughness — to keep the thoughts that this is going to end from creeping in,” Hershiser said of a potential record-breaker. “You believe in future-perfect tense. You have different tenses in English. No matter what has happened in the past, it has no relationship of what’s going to happen in the future.”
And speaking of a Dodger breaking a Dodgers’ record, we saw Kenley Jansen surpass Gagné on June 20 for the franchise saves record with his 162nd.
Could he reach 84? Could anyone reach 84?
“It’s tough, man,” Jansen answered incredulously. “What Gagné did back in the day, that streak is tough to beat. What is it? 84? That’s half a season right there. To save 84 games nowadays, it’s just tough. There’s a reason why he’s one of the best closers in history. It’s tough.”
Jansen said he didn’t even know what his longest run of consecutive saves is. It’s 25 (August 26, 2015 – May 14, 2016).
The next closest to Gagné is Tom Gordon’s 54 consecutive saves.
Like the scoreless innings streak, dominance is key for saves-streak record seekers. Gagné allowed 44 hits (one home run) in 89 innings during the run and struck out 139 batters. He proposes one other thing that has to play in one’s favor.
“It’s a lot of luck,” he said. “I got lucky, that’s the thing. I think stuff-wise, it wasn’t the best I had. It was the luck I had. How about Dave Roberts robbing a home run in Houston (on August 28, 2003)? Dave Roberts is four feet tall! He’s not supposed to rob a home run over the fence in Houston! It’s things like that that shouldn’t have happened.”
All that being said, Gagné thinks his record can be broken.
“Maybe not in my lifetime,” he said, “but hopefully I get to see it.”
The least likely to be passed in this lifetime, with the way baseball has evolved, is arguably Ripken’s games streak.
With matchups, deeper benches and less specialization and more versatility among position players in the game, Ripken’s consecutive games mark feels all the more remarkable and distant.
One player appeared in all 162 games last season — Baltimore’s Manny Machado. He appeared in Baltimore’s first 67 games this year, but his run of 229 straight games ended when he began serving a suspension June 19 for his role in a bench-clearing brawl on June 7.
In 2006, six players played 162. In 1996, it was five, including Ripken and Todd Zeile, who played 163. In ’86, it was six again.
The closest the Dodgers have had to an iron man in recent years in Adrián González. Since 2013, González’s first full season as a Dodger, he has appeared in 562 of 580 games (96.9 percent).
González thinks the game has turned the page on the every-single-day player.
“For the most part, I think the way the game is nowadays, it’s not like an important thing to play 162 like it was then,” González said. “I think players and even managers want to give guys days off for different reasons. There are so many platoon guys now, left-right matchups. Back in the day, you didn’t have that. You had your starting nine and you run them out everyday. The mentality of baseball has changed. I think it could be broken if somebody wanted to, but I don’t think that record is that important for someone to say, ‘I’m going to go after it.”
Even the National League record feels out of reach. The owner of that record — 1,207 games — would agree with Gonzalez’s thoughts on today’s game.
“If you go to Spring Training and ask everybody in the room and ask everybody what their goal is, I dare say playing every game is in the top five or the top 10 (answers),” said Steve Garvey, who played 1,107 of those games in a Dodger uniform.
Garvey takes tremendous pride in his consecutive games mark and detailed what it took to play every day.
“Well, the primary virtue of it is passion, and you really have to have a passion to play the game. You have to love it,” Garvey said. “Back then, that golden era, you wanted to play that many. I played with hairline fractures, hyperextended elbows, flu, migraine headaches, hamstrings. You had to take those things in stride and try and overcome them, whether it was through adrenaline or just play through it.
“There were nights where I had a migraine headache and I’d be in the training room with a cold compress, and minutes before the game I’d get up and invariably my first hit would be in the gap, and I’d be at third base with my head pounding.”
As far as players are from Garvey and Ripken in the marathon, there’s a considerable amount of room between DiMaggio and his followers in the sprint.
Garvey’s best hitting streak was 21 games (1978). Willie Davis is the Dodger leader at 31 (1969). Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr.’s 29 is the 2016 high. No one has reached 40 since Pete Rose reached 44 in 1978.
Gonzalez believes baseball’s evolution has limited the players that have a chance at reaching DiMaggio to a type.
“It would have to be somebody who is really fast, someone who can bunt their way on and hit a chopper and beat it out in the infield — that type of guy,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think a bigger, slower guy can do it because of shifting.”
Gonzalez’s longest career streak is 18 (2012 with Boston).
Sunday marked the 75th anniversary of the day DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak ended. He didn’t even come close again to 56. His next longest streak is 24 games. Only 13 Dodgers have reached that number — the last being Andre Ethier in 2011 with 30 games.