Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why Are Streaks Such a Big Deal?

In the recent issue of The Sporting News, they had a story on the top sports records of all-time. As is often the case, the Joe DiMaggio hitting streak was prominently mentioned. The Andre Ethier run to 56 has garnered daily news reports and it's only halfway there. I just, for the life of me, can’t figure out why.

Why is it so impressive to do a rather mediocre thing many times in a row? After all, a player who collects 200 hits averages more than a hit a game. It somehow matters whether you get two hits, then zero, then two hits as opposed to one hit in three games? How does that not seem weird? Ted Williams had a higher batting average than Joe D during the streak. So, he had more hits per plate appearance, but it wasn’t as good of a performance? If someone managed to get exactly one hit in every game of the season, his 162 hits would be more impressive than another player who got 240 hits, but gapped them up a bit? It even weirder when you look at close calls that extend streaks. There was a scoring decision during DiMaggio’s streak. A ball could have been an error, but was instead his only hit of the game. In another case, a hitless DiMaggio was on deck with one out and one on in the ninth. Rather than risk grounding into a game-ending double play, the batter bunted. DiMaggio then came to the plate and got his only hit. So because those oddities happened we get the greatest achievement in the game? What if the entire streak was made up of games like that? What if for 60 straight games David Ortiz bunted a ball down the third base line for exactly one hit every game. Is that impressive?

At least Joe DiMaggio had to do something to earn his streak. All Cal Ripken had to do was show up. I’ve always said that the most impressive part of Ripken’s streak wasn’t games 1000 to 2000. It was game 1 to 1000. It was amazing that a manager never gave him a day off for no particular reason early in his career. Second game of a double header perhaps. Sure, once the streak gets to 1500 games, everyone knows he’s staying in the line-up at all costs. But, why not in the early years? That’s amazing to me. But, in the end, there is any number of players who played in more games than Cal Ripken or Lou Gehrig. They just didn’t do them all in a row. So?

Some of my favorite blown out of proportion streaks are the pitcher streaks. Roger Clemens made news not too long ago with a win streak. Of course, there were several no-decisions mixed in there. There were cases where he left the game on the hook only to have his team come back to tie it up. And that makes an impressive streak? 

Team win streaks are always fun too. This team, or that team, has won ten games is a row. Boy is that amazing. Of course, nobody notices that they just didn’t face a quality pitcher in ten games. Or that it might be better to win every series as opposed to winning a bunch in a row, and then losing a bunch.

Streaks may be fun to talk about. Ones that start the season are always entertaining. For a while there, Shea Hillenbrand had a hit in every game of his career. That was fun. The whole hit-a-day-Shea was a nice rhyme. But, it wasn’t an amazing achievement. It was fun.

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