Monday, March 13, 2017

Baseball Single-Season Record Progressions

Everyone knows Barry Bonds holds the single-season record for home runs. But whose record did he break?  (One point if you guessed Mark McGwire.)

I’m pretty sure everyone knows Nolan Ryan broke Sandy Koufax’s record for strikeouts. But whose record did Koufax break? (If you guessed Rube Waddell, you get two points!).

A look at the progression over the years of baseball’s single season records can be pretty fascinating. Most of the names are pretty familiar. Some of them, though, are definitely not. Some of the records seem to change constantly. But others have been around forever.

This post looks at some basic single-season baseball records, and how they’ve changed over the years. I start with the ones that have changed the least (the most boring ones, in my regard), and end with the ones that have changed the most (the most exciting ones, to me at least).


Three points if you get this one. It’s Hoss Radbourn, with 59 (!?!?), and goes all the way back to 1884.

Now, if you’re thinking modern era (i.e., post-1903), it’s actually not all that much better. Basically, I’ve got Joe McGinnity setting the record with 31 in 1903, Jack Chesbro setting a new record the next year with 41, and no one subsequently coming close.

This would be a pretty boring chart,
so here’s a pic of Chesbro


Once again, we’ve got a ridiculous record from a long time ago that’s never been touched. And once again, it’s Hoss Radbourn, with an 0.86 mark that dates all the way back to 1880.

In modern times, we have something similar to wins, but with a little more action and a few more faces. In particular, we’ve got the record being reset every year for 3 years, then a new record that would last 3 more, then a new record that would last 100 years and counting. An extra four points if you knew that Dutch Leonard was the guy who set that record.

By the way, that's ERA on the vertical axis
and years from 1903 on the horizontal


For this one, our record goes back to 1876.  This time, though, it was not set by Hoss Radbourn! The record for shutouts goes to George Bradley, with 16. Five points if you’ve ever heard of George Bradley.

This one does have some action post-1903 however. Grover Cleveland Alexander actually tied Bradley’s record in 1916. Between 1916 and 1903, the record was regularly reset by the likes of Cy Young, Joe Walsh, and Jack Coombs. Since 1916, though, it’s all been crickets.


Hey, our first batting record!  For this one, we’ve got Billy Hamilton plating 198 runs, way back in 1894.

Looking at how things shake out after 1903, we’ve got 3 record setters, with several years between each. You’ve probably heard of the last 2, but if you guessed Ginger Beaumont for the 1st one, I’m giving you six points!


So, pre-1903, we’ve got Hugh Duffy with a 440 average, set in 1894.Heard of Hugh? Give yourself seven!

In the modern era, we’ve got a fair amount of activity up until 1924, when Rogers Hornsby set the modern record with a ridiculous 424. Ain’t nobody gonna touch that one.


Stop me if you’ve heard this before … Matt Kilroy, 1886, 513 (!?!?).

Post-1903, we’ve got – as promised earlier – Waddell, Koufax, and Ryan.

And if you’re having a hard time telling the difference between the records of those last two, that’s because of a very good reason. Ryan beat Koufax’s record by a single strikeout – 383 to 382. Do you think he was keeping track?

Stolen Bases

Our final pre-1903 record! And this one belongs to one Hal Nichol, who set a record of 138 way back in 1887. Eight points if you’ve ever heard of Hal.

Post-1903 we’ve actually got, a nice little pattern here. In particular, I like how there was quite a lot of action at the beginning, a bit of a lull, then some more action at the end. 

That gap in the middle, though, is what’s really amazing. It’s like baseball totally forgot about the stolen base. The fact that no one broke the record during those 47 years actually pales next to some of the pitiful season-leading totals. In particular, would you believe Dom DiMaggio once led the AL with a mere 15 stolen bases in 1950?


Finally, a post-1903 record! You probably already know Hack Wilson set this one, with a totally unassailable 191 in 1930. What’s interesting about this progression, though, is the huge gap between the previous records and Wilson’s – almost 20 whole ribbies. And those records were set by no slouches either. Ever heard of a couple of guys with the names of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig? (And, no, you don’t get any points if you have.)  


Hits are an interesting one in that, though there was plenty of action in the early years and with a final record that seemed pretty unassailable, someone actually did come along a lot later and reset it. Remember, back in 2004, when Ichiro broke George Sisler’s record of 257 with a new total of 262? That was definitely one I thought would last forever. Sisler’s record did last for 83 years though.


Here’s another one you’re probably pretty familiar with. Ruth, Maris, McGwire, and Bonds, right? 

Well, I can pretty much guarantee that you haven’t a clue whose record Ruth broke though. And that just so happens to be some guy named Ned Williamson, who hit 27 dangers way back in 1884. (You get pretty much all the points left if you guessed that one.) Interestingly, Williamson’s record would stand for 35 whole years. That’s exactly one year more than Ruth’s record of 60 would stand (and only three years less than Maris’s).


Now for my favorite. In fact, this is the only record that actually shows steady progress for the last 100 years or so. What’s super interesting about this one, though, are the names of the record holders over the years. Yes, Three-Finger Mordecai Brown is in the Hall, but most of these guys most definitely are not. Firpo Marberry, anyone? How about Joe Page? Luis Arroyo? Jack Aker? How about Bobby Thigpen? 

I thought for sure Thigpen’s would have a chance of possibly sticking around forever. It broke the heralded 50 saves barrier, was 11 more than the previous record, and was good for 18 whole years before K Rod broke it with a ridiculous 62 (more than half of his team’s game that year!). Now, that one should stick.

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