If there's anyone who is qualified to comment on the evolution of rules and conditions in baseball, it's John Thorn. He is a prolific writer on the history of the game and the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball. I talked to Thorn about some of the conventionally considered "unbreakable" baseball records and what makes them unbreakable—or if they even are.
Baseball's Unbreakable Records
Cy Young: 511 Career Wins, 749 Career Complete Games
Cy Young's career ended over a century ago, but his legacy lives on in the award named in his honor that celebrates the best pitcher in each league every year. He is a fitting source of aspiration as the record holder for most career wins and most career complete games in baseball history. A member of MLB's "All-Century Team," Young was an undeniably top-rate pitcher, but to achieve those specific records—and keep them out of reach from any modern ace—he had a little help from the era in which he played.
"No one will get to 511 career wins because we don’t have a four-man rotation. In fact, for much of Young’s career he was in a three-man rotation with the fourth starter being the spot starter, as the fifth starter came to be in the 1950s and ‘60s," Thorn says.
Not only did Young get more chances on the mound, but the turn of the century was also particularly pitcher-friendly. "Young pitched in the dead-ball era, which means that not only did he pitch more frequently but he was facing softer lineups. There were two or three batting positions in every club that you could coast by."
It's hard to overstate how dissimilar baseball now is from what it once was. Simple changes, such as the number of baseballs used in each game can tip the scales slightly on who has the advantage in each at bat. "Now, if a ball is fouled off at the plate it is discarded. Then, unless a ball split in half, it might go six or seven innings or perhaps even a whole game. So those batters who batted at the end of the game were facing a mushier, discolored ball."
As evidenced by his record-setting complete games, Young pitched to a decision more frequently than his modern counterparts with their risk-averse inning limits. For all these reasons, baseball will probably never again have the perfect storm of ability and conditions to challenge his records, which we can deem unbreakable.
Old Hoss Radbourn: 59 Single Season Wins
Radbourn's baseball career ended before the 20th century even began, which means that his record has held longer than any other on this list and that the game conditions were very, very different. For one thing, the season was even shorter then—just 112 games—which makes this feat that much more impressive. But wildly counteracting that is the fact that, much like in the case of Young, Radbourn had a lot more chances to get a win.
These days, cracking 20 wins on the season practically guarantees a pitcher Cy Young award contention, but consider that the most games even started by a pitcher in 2013 was 34. In 1884, when Radbourn won those record-setting 59 games, he made 73 starts. Even compared to his contemporaries on the mound, that was a notable number of starts. But Radbourn had more than just a different set of conventions on his side.
"Radburn’s pitching style was pretty much underhand and sidearm," Thorn says. "When you’re throwing underhand, which is a more natural physiological motion, you can pitch more innings."
None of this is intended to diminish Radbourn's accomplishment; with just 12 losses he also led the league in win-loss percentage that year. But it does put the record well out of modern reach, at least until another submariner comes along.
Joe DiMaggio: 56-Game Hitting Streak in 1941 (and other offensive feats)
This record is will likely remain unmatched for the foreseeable future simply as a testament to DiMaggio's place as one of the best hitters who ever played. But there is a related detail that Thorn considers even more untouchable.
In 1941, the same year that he strung together his record-setting streak, DiMaggio struck out just 13 times in 541 at-bats. He played in the 1930s and '40s, but several decades earlier, the ratio for great hitters was even more pronounced. In 1897, Hall-of-Famer Willie Keeler led the league with a .424 batting average and 239 hits. In the 564 at bats he took that year, Keeler struck out just five times.
These offensive records—DiMaggio's hitting streak, Keeler's strike out ratio, and Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average—are tied to factors that have since changed, including, as Thorn calls it, a "style factor." "There is no longer a stigma attached to striking out," he says. "The object of the game from the 1850s on was to put the ball in play, allow the fielders to have a chance and run like crazy."
These days, both the number of strikeouts and walks is way up as pitchers nibble the edge of the plate and batters practice patience to up their on-base percentage. And, accordingly, high batting averages and the frequency of balls-in-play (the sort of thing a talented player like DiMaggio needs for a 56-game hitting streak) are down.
According to Thorn, "Baseball is such a delicate mechanism that you can make the slightest adjustment in either rules or custom and practices and have a huge impact on the balance between offense and defense."
Baseball's "Unbreakable" Records (That May Be Broken)
Mariano Rivera: 652 Career Saves
People were calling Mo's save record unbreakable before the Yankees closer even retired at the end of last season, which naturally resulted in one hell of a farewell tour. He has 51 more saves than runner-up Trevor Hoffman and 174 more than third place Lee Smith, but can we really call it unbreakable less than a year after it was set?
"No," says Thorn. "My crystal ball is cloudy on this but the save is an elective statistic, like the stolen base, and it is entirely dependent on a manager’s usage."
You don't have to pitch much to get a save, you just have to pitch at the right time. A manager could choose to use a pitcher in save situations—not just to boost the reliever's number but also presumably because he thrives under pressure—and thus give him lots of opportunities to record a save without subjecting him to too many innings.
"It has come to be the pattern that almost all Major League managers reserve their best relief pitcher for the ninth inning," Thorn says. "They do not bring him in for the middle of the eighth except in dire circumstance or in September or in October. Specialization is the trend in the species, not only in sport, and it’s irresistible. So it would not surprise me if someday someone were to top Rivera’s record if we continue to use many pitchers in a ballgame."
Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer baseball has seen—so far. But it might be that he's the best closer to have the right combination of opportunities so far. With no disrespect to Sandman, this one could be broken.
Nolan Ryan: Seven Career No-Hitters
It's just seven, after all. But no-hitters are few and far between. Second-place Sandy Koufax threw four no-hitters, and no other pitcher has tossed more than three. Ryan and Koufax are both Hall of Fame pitchers but ultimately a no-hitter is, as Thorn says, "something of a freakshow stat."
Ryan's no-hitters, and even more so his record-setting career strikeouts, are a testament to what he was like as a pitcher. "He was the most feared and least hittable when he was at the top of his game," Thorn says. But there's a lot of luck involved in racking up a number of no-hitters. Thorn thinks there are equally intimidating pitchers today who could twirl their way into the record books if they can stick around long enough.
"I don’t think it’s unbreakable. You could look at today’s pitchers and say maybe Stephen Strasburg, maybe Aroldis Chapman if he transformed into a starting pitcher. There’s the Sidd Finch factor here, somebody’s gonna come along throwing 110 mph and no one is going to be able to hit him, it’ll take a while to catch up." (Finch is the fictional pitcher who was invented by George Plimpton for an April Fools Day issue of Sports Illustrated. The English orphan-turned-yogi-turned-Mets-pitcher supposedly threw 168 mph.)
Even Chapman can't match the subject of Plimpton's hoax for speed, but Thorn says athletes improve every 20 years. With pitchers throwing ever harder it will take batters some time to catch up, leaving this record vulnerable to being broken.