Modern record-book marvels, pitching

A couple of months ago, I took a look at some hitting records set since Major League baseball expanded its postseason back in 1969 and the odds of those records falling in the next 3-4 decades. Naturally, a companion piece on pitching standards was in order, so here it is.

Saves, single-season

You’d have to be an excellent reliever to set the single-season record for saves, right? Well, no, actually. You’d just have to be in the right place at the right time.

Just ask Bobby Thigpen. During an otherwise mundane nine-year major league career, Thigpen and the White Sox team he played for had everything click just right in 1990. He finished 73 games that season and compiled a record 57 saves, protecting the lead in well over half of Chicago’s 94 victories. Thigpen did pitch very well that year, sporting a 1.83 ERA, 211 ERA+ and 1.038 WHIP in 88.2 innings.

Those accomplishments earned Thigpen an All-Star nod, a fourth-place finish in the American League Cy Young voting and even a fifth-place tally in the Most Valuable Player voting. His 7.1 strikeouts-per-nine and 3.2 walks-per-nine, leading to a middling 2.19 strikeout-to-walk ratio, illuminate a strong-if-unspectacular performance that benefitted greatly from opportunity and luck.

Before Thigpen, the single-season standard bearer was Dave Righetti with 46 in 1986, so when Thigpen surged past Righetti a mere four years later and increased the record by 24 percent, it’s no wonder it took a while for the record to fall once more.

Of course, the mark now is held by Francisco Rodriguez, who shut the door on 62 occasions (out of 69 games finished) during the Los Angeles Angels’ 100-win 2008 campaign. Four years later, K-Rod finished with a whopping three saves while serving as a setup man in Milwaukee for John Axford. Rodriguez is still looking for a job for 2013.

It seems that just about any reliever could stumble into the right situation and accumulate a whole bunch of saves one season, so identifying who might take down the record is about impossible. However, one thing K-Rod has working in his favor when it comes to the long-term security of the record is simply the length of the season. Each team plays 162 games a year, and only the best teams get 90-plus wins, which seems to be the low threshold for anyone hoping to earn 63 saves.

Those wins have to be close often enough to require the use of a team’s closer, and they need to be spaced out just right so that he doesn’t get worn out or skipped if too many opportunities come up in a row. And, of course, that closer would need to convert nearly every chance he gets, as Eric Gagne did in 2003 when he didn’t blow a single save among his 55 opportunities.

For the single-season save record to fall, it would require a perfect confluence of factors, but we’ve seen it happen before.

Odds of record falling: 13.42 percent.

Saves, career

As Thigpen, Rodriguez, Righetti, Gagne and countless others have aptly demonstrated, it’s difficult to remain an effective closer for an extended period of time. Only five players have saved more than 400 games in their careers, and only two have surpassed the 500-save mark. Of course, those two gentlemen also reached the 600-save plateau.

Trevor Hoffman’s “Hell’s Bells” intro song played as the preview for nearly all of his 601 career saves. You may know that his final save was not recorded for his long-time team, the San Diego Padres, but for the Milwaukee Brewers. However, did you know that his first save also was not as a Padre, but as a Marlin? Indeed, Hoffman’s first 35.2 major league innings—and two saves—were thrown for Florida.

Hoffman twice led the league in saves, reaching as high as 53 in 1998 and topping the NL with 46 in 2006. In the surrounding years, he remained a steady force at the back of the bullpen, consistently closing down game after game until he retired following the 2010 season with the big-league mark of 601 saves. His career totals of a 2.87 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1.058 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, and 3.69 KK/B in 1035 innings indicate the staying power necessary to compile a massive saves total.

However, even as Hoffman was setting the record, he was looking in the rear-view mirror at the one who soon would overtake him.

The New York Yankees once had this pitcher in 1995 who started 10 games for them one year and pitched nearly as many times in relief. He stunk, with an ERA of 5.51 and a WHIP over 1.5. Figuring to give him another chance, they put him in the bullpen the next year, and he proceeded to throw 107.2 innings with 130 strikeouts, an ERA of 2.09 and an ERA+ of 240, picking up five saves along the way. Quite the improvement, huh?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

In 1997, their previous closer gone to Texas via free agency, the Yankees decided it was time to unleash possibly the most effective single pitch ever in the ninth-inning role, handing over the closer duties to Mariano Rivera. The rest, as they say, is history.

Serving batters an unhealthy diet of his deadly cutter, which induces almost nothing but swing-and-miss hacks and broken-bat squibbers to the infield, Rivera has usurped Hoffman as baseball’s all-time saves king—with 608 and counting—and assumed the mantle of greatest relief pitcher ever.

Over 1291.2 innings, he has a 2.21 ERA, 206 ERA+, 1119 whiffs, a mere 277 walks and a WHIP of 0.998. And what’s perhaps most amazing is that those numbers don’t do him enough justice.

Rivera has earned numerous accolades, too, including 12 All-Star appearances, MVP votes in nine seasons, and Cy Young tallies in six, though he’s never won the award. And, of course, there are those five World Series championships and 17 playoff appearances in his 18-year career.

No, he has not been perfect, as anyone who watched the 2001 World Series can attest. However, Rivera’s postseason performance includes such highlights as 42 saves, a 0.70 ERA, and 33.1 consecutive scoreless innings – all major league records. Yes, this is veering a bit off path since the record up for discussion is a regular-season one, but deviating a bit to reinforce how phenomenal Rivera has been seems appropriate.

Rivera mostly throws one pitch, and almost no one can touch it. His all-time saves mark looks rather untouchable, too.

Odds of record falling: You’re kidding, right? On the high side, I’ll go with 0.1 percent.

Consecutive shutout innings

Just before baseball broke into four divisions, the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale spent his early summer—May 14 through June 8—no allowing a single run. These days, that might be five or six starts and 40-45 innings, but back in 1968, that meant 58 frames from Drysdale, and that consecutive number of scoreless frames broke the 1913 mark of Walter Johnson, one of the game’s all-time great hurlers.

Amazingly, St. Louis’ Bob Gibson began a chase of Drysdale before the LA hurler had even finished his run. Gibson reached 47.0 innings before surrendering a tally. Of course, this was the original Year of the Pitcher, so runs were scarce overall, and the opportunity to set a record was rarely better.

In 1987, baseball had one of its more potent offensive campaigns ever, with both leagues setting single-season home run marks. In 1988, things settled down, with homer rates plummeting nearly 30 percent from the season before. Still, it was a tough time to be a pitcher—unless your name was Orel Hershiser.

Hershiser, a Dodger like Drysdale, kept National League baserunners from crossing home plate for 59 straight innings, squeaking by Drysdale to establish the all-time record that still stands. Over those 59 frames, Hershiser whiffed a mere 38 batters, but he limited his opponents’ opportunities by surrendering only 31 hits and 11 bases on balls.

The season ended with Hershiser’s streak intact, and there was some debate about baseball’s official stance that records such as this one can not carry over to the next year. However, that discussion was settled quite easily when Hershiser gave up a first-inning run to the Cincinnati Reds on Opening Day of 1989. The book was close din every way on his accomplishment, and that achievement remains at the top of the charts.

There have been a few good runs at Hershiser’s mark since he set it, with Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey reaching 44.2 scoreless innings this past year and Brandon Webb getting to 42 blank frames in 2007. One of the more surprising challengers was Brad Ziegler, who began his career in 2008 with 39 straight scoreless innings, all in relief.

Since 1988, on one pitcher has gotten within 15 innings of Hershiser’s record. It’s a bit like Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, both in the number itself—59 vs. 56—and in the total of each player’s closest pursuer—44.2 innings by Dickey and 44 games by Pete Rose. Their challengers have barely gotten three-quarters of the way there, which leaves a rather cavernous gap, one that is likely to remain.

Odds of record falling: This record is impressive, but it’s more likely to fall that DiMaggio’s, especially as the pendulum swings back towards pitching dominance, so I’ll say 15 percent.

Any other pitching records set in the last 45 years seem likely to last that long into the future? Let me know in the comments below which ones you think will survive.

Greg has been a writer and editor for The Hardball Times since 2010. In his dreams, he's the second coming of Ozzie Smith. Please don't wake him up.
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Greg Simons
9 years ago

Apparently a second part to this article could be created.  I did want to leave some room for discussion, a goal that I certainly achieved.

I appreciate everyone’s comments.  Please keep them coming, and maybe I will do that second part down the road.

Ian R.
9 years ago

How about Jesse Orosco’s record for career pitching appearances? Several guys have come pretty close, most recently Mike Stanton, so it doesn’t look totally untouchable, but Rivera is the only active player with anything resembling a shot and he’s STILL 200 games behind.

dennis Bedard
9 years ago

This topic is a treasure trove of numbers that really highlights the way pitching has changed.  Off the top of my head, I remember in the early 70’s Wilbur Wood won and lost 20 games in the same season. There was a span where he started almost 50 games a year and completed about half of them.  Again, I am going by memory of old strat o matic cards.  The chances of a modern pitcher going 20-20 plus or starting 50 games is pretty close to zero.

Ian R.
9 years ago

Also, Bret Saberhagen’s 11:1 K:BB in 1994. Cliff Lee came tantalizingly close in 2010, and Curt Schilling was within striking distance a decade ago, but those are the only two modern seasons to even be in the same ballpark.

Dan Floersch
9 years ago


As a life-long baseball over, I now have – Bleeding Baseball: The Trivia, Records, and Oddities of America’s National Pastime – available as a Kindle product on Amazon. This is the best $2.99 a baseball fanatic will ever spend.

Not only over 800 questions/answers – but, many Side Notes and Fun Facts to accent the entertainment experience.

The Drysdale/Hershiser feats are prime examples of additional, unique, statistical insight.

Many highly unique occurrences – such as the only player to homer in his first mlb at-bat and homer in his last mlb at-bat – and those were his only two career home runs.

Hope you can look into this and enjoy!


David P Stokes
9 years ago

Technically, I’d say that there’s a near 100% chance that the career record for saves will be broken this year.  Who knows how Rivera will perform coming off his injury, but it’s hard to see how he won’t be good enough to get at least 1 save and break his own record.  wink

David P Stokes
9 years ago

On a more serious note, I had missed the earlier column on batting records, but in regards to Ripken’s consecutive games streak, there was some commentary at the time that his streak was in progress that it was surprising that Gehrig’s record would be broken by a shortstop.  It shouldn’t have been surprising.  IIRC, 3 of the 6 longest streaks are by shortstops.  It’s easy to see why if you think about it—a good defensive shortstop can stay in the lineup through a hitting slump that would cause a player at any other postion (except catcher) to be benched.

Dennis Bedard
9 years ago

Not to get off topic, but playing in a long number of consecutive games is meaningless and probably counterproductive.  If there any difference between a shortstop who plays in 2100 consecutive games versus one who plays in 2050/2100 games and takes a day off every three months?  The answer is there is not.  And there is a huge difference between playing in a game and contributing to your team’s performance.

9 years ago

Actually, with strikeouts on the rise, I’d say 21K in a game is doable. I think Strasburg has a pretty good shot if he stays healthy and starts to be allowed to go 9 innings. He’s got a historic stirkeout rate and got close to the record in his very first MLB game – 14K’s in 7 innings.

Hank G.
9 years ago

Since the current usage of a designated closer has evolved, the record for career saves has steadily increased. Rivera’s record is less than 15 years of league-leading performance, so according to Bill James’ rule of thumb is vulnerable.

Unless the usage of relievers changes dramatically, I think the odds of someone breaking Rivera’s record are considerably higher than .1%.

Peauquis Bifforoba
9 years ago

Chance of someone matching Wilbur Wood’s 1973 feat of winning 20 and losing 20 in the same season: 100%. Phil Niekro went 21-20 in 1979.

Dennis Bedard
9 years ago

He did it in 1979.  The question is whether it could happen in the next 3 or 4 decades.  HIghly, highly unlikely.

9 years ago

Firpo Marberry. The best ever. Look him up.

Michael Caragliano
9 years ago

Nolan Ryan’s 383 strikeouts has now stood 40 years. Off the top on my head, I’d think that one approaches difficult to untouchable. Even with batters like Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds making 200 whiffs a year almost acceptable, you’d need a pitcher who could log an unheard of (for today’s starters, anyway) number of innings to rack up the strikeouts, or be an exception to the rule, like Randy Johnson was.

Ian R.
9 years ago

Eric Gagne’s record of 84 consecutive saves seems likely to stand for a long while. Apparently #2 is Tom Gordon, at 54 – almost a third of the way behind.

dennis Bedard
9 years ago

Nolan Ryan’s 7 no hitters.  Chance of that happening again?  1%. 
Randy Johnson hitting a duck while throwing a pitch in spring training.  Will never happen again.
A start pitcher getting indicted for lying to Congress?  0%.

Greg Simons
9 years ago

Michael, with offense declining and whiffs continuing to increase (as you mentioned), I could see a confluence where this record could fall, but I agree it’s very unlikely.

Ian, similar to the single-season mark, it would require just the right breaks.  If a pitcher for some reason was used more often with a three-run lead, that could allow for some cushion such that he didn’t have to be perfect in order to be “perfect.”

Dennis, I’d put the odds of aanother pitcher with seven or more no-hitters around 0.00001%.

It wasn’t a duck, but another bird being hit could happen.  I think it was Dave Winfield who pegged one on a throw in from the outfield (possibly aiming for it), and I think he nearly got in trouble with the Toronto authorities for animal cruelty.  (That story could be apocryphal, though.)

And how about if we make lying Congress members stand in against a star pitcher’s 100-mph heat each time they tell a fib?  No, never mind, there would be too many shredded arms from overuse.

9 years ago

Ryan’s single-season Ks, career Ks, career walks, and career losses would all be good places to start.  Frankly, I expected the list to be littered with Nolan Ryan, and we got none.

Speaking of strikeouts, what about the 20 K game?  Will we see more than that anytime soon?  (My guess is – absolutely not.)

Gagne’s consecutive saves streak is a good one, too.

With Ks continually on the rise, I’d be interested in your perspective on Schilling’s K/BB ratio.

This may not truly qualify, but I don’t see anyone winning 7 Cy Youngs anytime soon, so I think Clemens’ record is safe.

Mike Marshall’s record for games pitched looks safe.

Finally, Blyleven’s record for HR allowed in a season would be pretty tough to top, but if the right person came along, it could certainly happen.

9 years ago

Saves????  2/3 of the article on that BS?  At least the comments were worth reading

David P Stokes
9 years ago

I have to agree that given current reliever usage, the saves record is vulnerable, but I think that usage patterns for relievers may be going to change.  I certainly don’t see a move towards less usage of relievers, but unless you only have 1 good reliever on the team, concentrating all the save opportunities on 1 pitcher doesn’t really make sense.  If a reliever isn’t good enough to pitch in the 9th inning of a close game, I don’t want him pitching in the 7th or 8th, either.

9 years ago

I don’t understand the argument for the career SV record being untouchable. Sure, Mo is great and all, but Trevor Hoffman, who was very good but not Mo good, had almost as many SV, and Mo can only play for so much longer. Why is it unreasonable to think that another reliever with skills on par with Hoffman’s might break it? Not likely, perhaps, but not so incredibly unlikely as you indicate.

9 years ago

Regarding the saves, I don’t think it is as impossible as you make it out to be. I think Jonathan Papelbon might have a shot. He doesn’t have to be better than Rivera to get more saves, he just needs to be consistent. He already managed to get a head start compared to Rivera at the same age. If he manages to stay a closer for another 10 years, he will surely approach the record. Of course that is a big if, but I’d still say the odds of Papelbon breaking Rivera’s record are about 4.658%.

9 years ago

Let me point out that Randy Johnson would likely own the single season K record if the DBacks hadn’t skipped his last start at the end of the 2001 season. Unit was at 372 with a final start on the last day of the season coming up against the Brewers who set a single-season team K record that year (Jose Hernandez, Richie Sexson, Geoff Jenkins, Jeromy Burnitz, yeah whiff-tastic). DBacks had a playoff spot wrapped up with no home-field or anything at stake so Eric Knott got the start – Brewers teed off on the back-end of the DBacks’ bullpen for 15 runs but still struck out 8 times.

RJ should own that record.

Greg Simons
9 years ago


There have only been two pitchers ever to top 500 saves, let alone 600, and Rivera – as was mentioned earlier in the comments – will be adding to his total this season.

On the other hand, I started to compose an argument comparing it to the career HR record, but then I realized that record has fallen twice in the last 80 years or so, making me realize my math* on Rivera was wrong.

*Note: there was no math involved.  I was taking a (S)WAG.

The Wilpons Must Go
9 years ago

Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no hitter record is the most difficult baseball record to break.

Dennis Bedard
9 years ago

Not really.  It could happen.  Steve Barber in 1967 pitched a one hit complete game against California and two starts later pitched 8 2/3 innings of a no hitter against Detroit but lost.  I remember that Nolan Ryan pitched 6 or 7 hitless innings after one of his no hitters.  I am not 100% certain of this but seem to recall reading somewhere years ago when I had way too much spare time on my hands.  I just don’t have the energy right now to look it up.

Greg Simons
9 years ago

R.A. Dickey had back-to-back one-hitters this June.

I agree that it’s just about impossible for someone to *break* this “record,” since that would require three straight no-hitters.  However, I also don’t really consider this a record, but more of an incredibly impressive feat or accomplishment.  I have a hard time calling something a record when the number describing it is “two.”

Dennis Bedard
9 years ago

I missed it.  The Wilpons Must Go and Greg are correct It may be tied but will never be broken.