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Joe D. Defied the "Odds," but He's no Cy Young
June 23, 2003
**See 04/29/04 Update below**
When it comes to the unbreakable records, many sportswriters are quick to point to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak as one that will stand the test of time. I never agreed with these people, thinking that career records are more difficult, so I decided to see just how hard a 56-game hitting streak can be to accomplish. My results have convinced me that it is much harder than I anticipated, but I'll still stick with Cy Young's 511 career wins as the most unbreakable record. So how hard is it to hit in 56 straight games? Let's take a look.
It will take a hitter even better than this to someday beat DiMaggio's streak.
The easiest way to test the odds of a hitting streak is to use the spreadsheet I have included at the bottom of this article. The inputs can be seasonal numbers, midseason numbers, career numbers, or numbers based on any length of time, but career numbers will likely provide the best estimate for the typical player. Using variables such as batting average, average plate appearances per game, walk rate, and length of hitting streak, you can determine the odds of a particular player to achieve a specific hitting streak. For example, looking at Frank Thomas' career numbers, he is a career .312 hitter who averages 4.32 plate appearances per game with a walk rate of 17.5% per plate appearance. For simplicity, HBP is not considered in plate appearances for this study. Using these numbers, only 1 in approximately 42 million Frank Thomas "type" hitters will achieve a 56-game hit streak in a single season.
A slight increase in the career batting average significantly increases one's chances. A career .350 hitter with the rest of Thomas' stats has "just" a 1 in 1.35 million chance of hitting in 56 straight games. One out of every 38,000 .400 hitters should hit in 56 straight games. Easy, right?
By now, you are thinking, "what are the odds that a Joe DiMaggio can put together a 56-game hitting streak?" Using Joe D.'s career stats before the magical year of 1941, his .343 average, 4.5 PA/game average, and very low 8.4% walk rate gave him a 1 in 105,000 chance. Using his total career stats, DiMaggio's still was a 1 in 1.36 million shot. DiMaggio's odds will be one of the lowest you will find for any player in the last hundred years, so it's not surprising that he is the one with the longest hitting streak. What is surprising is that anyone has a 56-game hitting streak.
Should the great Ted Williams have surpassed DiMaggio's remarkable streak? Not likely. Only 1 in 8 million Ted Williams's are likely to match DiMaggio's total. Why is the Splendid Splinter such as long shot? His robust 20.4% walk rate is great for a baseball team trying to win games but lousy for a guy trying to extend a hitting streak. Williams took the bat out of his hands 1 out of every 5 times to the plate, making it difficult to string together a substantial hitting streak, even with a .344 career batting average.
The numbers don't lie, and the odds prove that DiMaggio's streak is a truly a remarkable feat that should hold up for many years to come. I don't need a spreadsheet, however, to realize that a 20-year old pitcher can come into the league, dominate for 2 decades, winning 20 games per year, and still come up well over 100 wins short of Cy Young, so I'll stick to my guns on my pick for most unbreakable record, but Joe DiMaggio's record has a newfound respect from me.
The Hit Streak Calculator is extremely easy to use. Simply change the 6 variables (green font) and the results will calculate. Use is to calculate the odds on different hitting streak lengths, not just 56 games. If you ever wondered what the chances are of Jeromy Burnitz putting together a 15-game hitting streak, now is your chance.
**04/29/04 UPDATE: The original article only takes into account the odds for a player to accomplish the feat if he played in just one season. When the article says something like "One out of every 38,000 .400 hitters should hit in 56 straight games," it should read "One out of every 38,000 seasons produced by .400 hitters will result in a 56-game hitting streak." The Hit Streak Calculator has been adjusted to include the approximate amount of time (in seasons) you believe the hitter will maintain the same level play. Also, the calculator is defaulted to 162 games, but DiMaggio played in 154 game seasons. This can be adjusted by changing the formula. After the additional calculations, it seems that a player of Joe DiMaggio's caliber (assuming he could keep it up for 10 seasons) has a 1 in 8,300 chance of getting a 56-game hitting streak over the course of his career.
Notes and Predictions
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