I have long been enamored with baseball statistics — surely no other sport lends itself to statistical comparisons quite like baseball. As a kid I used to buy a new baseball almanac every year, pouring over nearly every current players’ statistics and analyzing baseball’s all-time records lists. There is one individual statistic that I can’t quite shake — I’m calling it the Best Statistic in Baseball History. If you’ve got a better one up your sleeve, let’s hear it. Drumroll, please…
To keep the drama alive, I will start with my runner-up statistic. This statistic isn’t as specific as the winner, but generally deals with Babe Ruth’s ability to dominate the rest of baseball in single season home run totals. Three years in particular stand out: 1920, 1921 and 1927. In 1927 Babe Ruth had his famous 60 home run season — his 60 dingers was more than the players on any other team hit combined. To put that in 2009 perspective, we’ll eliminate the Yankees who led the majors with 244 home runs last year, because they were Ruth’s team. The Rangers were second in MLB with 224 home runs. Imagine if a single player had hit 225 HR’s last season? That’s what Ruth did.
Then there is 1920 and 1921. In 1921 Ruth hit 59 home runs — Bob Meusel was second in baseball with 24. He more than doubled him up. But in 1920 Ruth actually won by a larger margin percentage wise. He hit 54 home runs while second place finisher, George Sisler, hit only 19. To put that in 2009 terms, if last years home run champ (Albert Pujols, 47 HR’s) had come in second an equal percentage behind the winner as Sisler was to Ruth in 1920, the 2009 home run champ would have had to hit 135 home runs last season.
Ruth’s numbers are just unfathomable. And in an era where steroids and other PED’s certainly were not readily available, there is no way to rationalize his numbers. He was just that much better at hitting the ball out of the park. I understand that Ruth played in a very different era, but he dominated his era in certain seasons in a fashion that no once since has. However, his isn’t my winner for best statistic as he had other seasons where he didn’t even win the home run crown (what was he thinking?). What he lacks compared to my winner, is consistency and duration.
So here it is, The Best Statistic in Baseball History: Greg Maddux won 15 or more games 17 years in a row.
Take a deep breath, sit back, and digest that thought for a moment. Imagine if you could sign a pitcher today to a 17 year deal knowing he’d win 15 or more games each season? The Yankees would easily pay $40 million dollars per year for such a player, and rightfully so. That’d be a nice little $600 million dollar contract, without performance options.
Now I’ll back it up for you. We’ll start with some of the most dominant pitchers of my own generation. Roger Clemens has 7 consecutive 15+ win seasons. Randy Johnson had 5. Pedro Martinez 4, Curt Schilling 3, Tom Glavine 3, Nolan Ryan 3. Maddux had 10 more of these seasons in a row than any of his peers. We can agree that he wins his own generation, hands down. So how about baseball’s all-time leaders?
The next most impressive numbers come from Cy Young, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson, all of whom played in a similar era. Cy Young was able to accumulate 15 consecutive seasons of 15+ wins and is by far closest to Maddux. He would go on to win 511 games and have pitching’s most coveted award named after him. But perhaps more impressively, Walter Johnson had 10 consecutive years where he won 20+ games on his way to 417 career wins. Similarly, Christy Mathewson had 12 consecutive seasons of 20+ wins on his way to 373 career wins. While I admit I have a tough time choosing between 12 consecutive 20+ wins seasons and 17 consecutive 15+ win seasons, one factor sets Maddux’s feat apart. Young, Mathewson, and Johnson’s streaks are all comparable to one another and occurred in the same era, whereas Maddux’s streak came in a hot ball era and is comparable to not one of his peers.
Now for the icing on the cake. During his 17 year streak Maddux’s average season was 18-9 with a 2.82 ERA. He won 4 Cy Young Awards, led the league in ERA 4 times, and won 18 Gold Gloves including a Gold Glove every year of his streak except for 2003.
And all of that came out of a 6-foot, 170 pound body that rarely managed to top 88-mph with his fastball.