On April 27th, 1983, Nolan Ryan became the strikeout king of Major League Baseball, de-throning Walter Johnson with career K No. 3,510. As we discussed earlier this week, however, Ryan would go onto strike out another 2,205 batters before finally hanging up his cleats, finishing with a total nearly 1,000 Ks higher than that no-name scrub in second place (Randy Johnson).
For a little added context, there have been only five individual 300+ strikeout seasons over the past decade, and only six pitchers who’ve done it in the last 20 years combined. By contrast, Ryan recorded six 300+ strikeout seasons on his own … plus another nine with over 200 Ks.
Needless to say, I stand by what I said at the time: the strikeout record isn’t going anywhere, not even in this extreme strikeout environment. The combination of Ryan’s longevity and dominance, plus the increased reliance on relievers today just doesn’t leave much room for a legitimate challenger.
HOWEVER, maybe I was a little overzealous when I said it was among the safest records in MLB, or suggested that it was the only inner-circle unbreakable record we’d talk about this week. Because former Cubs outfielder Hack Wilson may have something to say about that.
At ESPN.com, David Schoenfield took a look at the most interesting records for each of MLB’s 30 franchises, which reminded me of Hack Wilson and his single season RBI record ….
MLB Single-Season RBI Leaderboard
- Hack Wilson (1930): 191 RBI
- Lou Gehrig (1931): 184 RBI
- Hank Greenberg (1937): 183 RBI
- Lou Gehrig (1927): 175 RBI
- Jimmie Roxx (1938): 175 RBI
- Lou Gehrig (1930): 174 RBI
- Babe Ruth (1921): 171 RBI
- Hank Greenberg (1935): 170 RBI
- Chuck Klein (1930): 170 RBI
- Jimmie Fox (1932): 169 RBI
Now, you probably are familiar with this record being Hack’s, what with him being on the Cubs and also baseball fans like statistics. And you also already know that 191 is a lofty total, just based on what your gut tells you having watched baseball over the years.
But have you really internalized just how ridiculous that is? Like, really taken a moment to contemplate what it would take to get there? I hadn’t. And I know you can see how close some of his peers were to his total back in the day, but as Schoenfield explains to great effect that record isn’t going ANYWHERE.
Before getting into the logistics of how someone could topple this record, let’s give this a little modern context. Surely, someone has gotten close in the last 90 years, right?
Eh … not so much.
In 1999, Manny Ramirez (165 RBI) came as close as anyone who knew the outcome of WWII, and Sammy Sosa (160 and 158) was right there with him. Juan Gonzalez had 157 RBI in 1998, and Alex Rodriguez made it all the way up to 156 in 2007. In the last decade alone, Miguel Cabrera (139 RBI, 137 RBI) holds first and third place for his work in 2012 and 2013, with the Orioles Chris Davis (138 RBI in 2013) sandwiched in between him. And for the Cubs, Javy Baez (111 RBI in 2018) is the top mark since 2010. (Also? These modern players had an extra 7 games on the schedule to work with.)
To put some context on those numbers: 160 RBI is 83.8% of the record. Seems close? Well, if we were talking home run record, 83.8% of Barry Bonds’ 73 is 61 homers. How “close” would you really feel like a guy who hit 61 homers was to getting to 73?
So to put it bluntly, even the superstars at the height of the steroid era and the juiced ball era weren’t sniffing Wilson’s record. But as it turns out, that’s not entirely their fault. Wilson was extremely talented and couldn’t have done what he did without being one of biggest offensive forces in the league, but he was also the benefactor of some extremely irreplicable circumstances.
On the surface, there are some obvious advantages, like the high-scoring era of the 1930s and playing in a great hitters park (Wilson hit .388 with 33 home runs at home, compared to .321 with 23 home runs on the road, per Schoenfield). But those are less idiosyncratic than everything that comes next.
I’ll let Schoenfield deliver this part in his own words:
Wilson spent all 155 games batting cleanup. The top three spots in the Cubs’ lineup had OBPs of .332, .425 and .425. An important facet of that, however, is that they hit a lot of doubles (120) and triples (44) to put themselves in scoring position, but not an abundance of home runs to drive themselves in (38). That gave Wilson a ton of RBI opportunities, and he hit .356 with 56 home runs.
AH. Now here’s where it gets weird.
Wilson hit cleanup for 155 games in 1930, behind two OBP machines and one solid on-base hitter. But the key wasn’t just getting on-base, it’s how they got on base. These three hitters held a unique combination of on-base skills and power with a total dearth of home runs, providing an extraordinary number of opportunities for RBI. Familiar comparisons of players who’s meet this criteria – per Schoenfield – include 2004 Ichiro Suzuki (.414 OBP, 8 HRs), 2018 Joey Votto (.417 OBP, 12 HRs), and 2016 DJ LeMahieu (.417 OBP, 11 HRs).
Imagine putting a peak offensive weapon behind those three peak season batters in the middle of baseball greatest offensive era.
To get even more specific, the Cubs top three hitters reached base 912 times in 1930, which, after accounting for their home runs, leaves roughly 874 times on base in front of Wilson (we can’t be precisely certain due to a lack of complete data, but this is a rough estimate). By contrast, the top three players from any team in 2019 reached base 863 times, but because their names are Alex Bregman, Marcus Semien, and Mookie Betts, they also hit 103 homers, which reduces that total down to 760.
In order to replicate roughly the same number of chances, you’d need to use 2004 Ichiro Suzuki (331 times on base, 8HRs), 2013 Joey Votto (320 times on base, 24 HRs), and 2016 Mike Trout (310 on base, 29 HRs).
If those three guys led off for your team – all in the same year – and hit ahead of someone with a 171 wRC+ like 2004 Albert Pujols, 2015 Mike Trout, or 2005 Derek Lee, then … yeah. Maybe that record could be taken down.
How much you want to bet on that happening?
Yeah. This guy’s record is safe
Rare HACK with Joe E. Brown- from the Flagstaff Films Baseball home movie archive pic.twitter.com/5SMB74INIu
— Flagstaff Films (@flagstafffilms) April 21, 2020
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.