On-Base Streaks and What They Mean … If Anything

His streak is still more impressive than Cabrera’s.

It has often been said that squaring up a round ball with a round bat is the hardest thing to do in sports. Considering that anyone who succeeds 3 out of 10 times is considered quite the accomplishment, I would say it probably is the hardest thing to do in sports. However, it is a bit easier to simply get on base. You can get walked, get hit by a pitch, get on by catcher’s interference, and even get on by an error. We all know about Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting in 1941, but Ryan Zimmerman’s 43-game on base streak begged the question — what is the longest streak of simply getting on base? Well, I took a look on Baseball-Reference’s Play Index to look up the best streaks in the past 55 years, and here’s what I found.

Orlando Cabrera – 63 in 2006 with the Angels
Mark McGwire – 62 in 1995-1996 with Oakland
Jim Thome – 60 in 2002-2003 with Cleveland and Philadelphia
Will Clark – 59 in 1995-1996 with Texas
Barry Bonds – 58 (twice) in 2001-2002 and 2003 with San Francisco
Duke Snider – 58 in 1954 with Brooklyn
Wade Boggs – 57 in 1985 with Boston
Derek Jeter – 57 in 1998-1999 with New York
Frank Thomas – 57 in 1995-1996 with the White Sox
Mike Schmidt – 56 in 1981-1982 with Philadelphia
Ryan Klesko – 56 in 2002 with San Diego

In the past 16 years, Zimmerman’s 43-game streak is just the 31st longest. In the past 33? 49th. In the past 55? 57th. I find this interesting. Why, in the past 16 years, are there so many people with 43+-game streaks but not before? If you look at Zimmerman’s accomplishment (and it is an accomplishment to get on in that many games straight against major-league pitching) against the past 15 or so years, he is not that impressive (though that statement is pretty relative), and looking at the numbers, you would expect someone later this year to top it. However, plop him down in the 1950’s and 60’s, and he’s in some impressive company.

I guess the easy answer is Moneyball and the “focus” on walks, but the biggest spike in on-base percentage is actually from 1994-2000 in the American League, where it topped .340 every season and .350 in 1996 (but has gone down since). The National League never really saw that spike, and I’m guessing the difference is the growing comfort with DH’s (but I won’t actually say that for sure). In addition, players don’t necessarily walk more. In 1956, there was 4.06 BB/9, and it hasn’t topped 3.79 in the AL in the 1990’s or 2000’s. In the NL, the discrepancy between the eras isn’t that great (though there was a significant downturn from 1963-1968, but that was to be expected), either.

Indeed, there isn’t even a great difference in batting average. Since 1993, batting averages have sat in the .260s and .270s in the AL, but it was that way in the late 1970’s and 1980’s as well. The NL has been surprisingly consistent in the last 55 years. So batting average doesn’t seem to be the answer.

So why? The one answer I can come up with is a possible change in philosophy where a team refuses to allow one player (the best on the other team) to beat them. It was no surprise to see Barry Bonds’ name on the list a couple times. Going on, one sees Jim Thome, Alex Rodriguez, Frank Thomas, Albert Pujols, and Gary Sheffield (among others) as main cogs of the list. Does the fear of power, which has increased (though it was pretty high in the 1980’s in the AL and the 1950’s in the NL), cause people to selectively walk certain batters? If you focus on not letting Pujols beat you, you’ll walk him, which increases his streak of times on base but kills his hit streak.

But I’m not sure about that, either. When I look at intentional walks, they haven’t gotten out of hand, and instead, they have actually gone down during the Steroid Era.

Any thoughts?

Streaks from 1954 to 1976, from 1976 to 1993, and from 1993 to the present (you might need a subscription to B-R.com to see these, but I’m not sure).

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4 Responses to “On-Base Streaks and What They Mean … If Anything”

  1. Ian Says:

    Good question. Perhaps pitchers these days more likely to “pitch around” a batter than they were in the old days? If a batter doesn’t get anything good to hit he draws a walk, but it isn’t recorded as intentional.

    Hit by pitch rates have risen too, so that might have something to do with it.

  2. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    I’m not sure hit by pitches really have anything to do with it. They’re pretty infrequent. But I think the other is a legitimate argument, but here’s the point against it.

    Pitchers really can’t pick when they make all their walks. Sure, they could intentionally unintentionally walk a batter, but you would then expect their walks to go up. If a guy typically walks 3 a game, then by following this, wouldn’t it go up to 4? He couldn’t just save one walk to use on that guy. So, if this was an actual strategic movement, wouldn’t walks go up? Maybe not. Maybe it’s so insignificant that it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen Chipper get walked in such a way so many times that I’m not sure it should be insignificant, but I know it happens and walks still haven’t gone up. So, in total, I don’t really know and am hoping someone with a better grasp of numbers figures it out.

    I hope people other than me understand that winding statement.

  3. lar Says:

    I can’t remember if it was in a Bill James piece or a Rob Neyer piece, but someone like that recently mentioned a theory: for any hit streak (and this can be adapted for on-base streak), there’s a certain percentage of it happening. For example, a .300 hitter has a 0.243% chance a 5-game hitting streak (.3^5). Well, for a 30 game hit streak it becomes .3^30 = 2.06 x 10^-16. When you have 30 teams with 9 batters each playing 162 games a year, those probabilities come into effect and, all of a sudden, you have 2 or 3 extra people doing it a year (or however it works out).

    I suspect that’s pretty much all we’re seeing with these on-base streaks. The “pitching around the big-time slugger” theory also probably plays its part, too.

  4. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    Yeah, I didn’t really think about that. But still, the number of teams has gone up 50% (20 to 30), but the number of these streaks has increased like 400%.

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