Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Scoreless Innings Streak

Zack Greinke's streak of 43 consecutive innings without an earned run ended in the first inning of last night's game when Vernon Wells singled in Marco Scutaro from second. It was a very exciting streak that landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week (and would've been even more exciting if his defense hadn't allowed an unearned run last week, thus forcing us to look for other ways to adequately qualify its awesomeness). But, as impressive as it was, Greinke was still two complete game shutouts away from breaking the all-time record, set just over 20 years ago by the Dodgers' Orel Hershiser. To put that in perspective, in Greinke's six games without an earned run, he only went 9 innings twice (in his last two starts). He would've needed to double that output to pass Hershiser.

But I'm not here to talk about Zack. Instead, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look back at Orel's 1988 season and see what everyone was saying. After all, if a 43 inning consecutive "scoreless" inning streak is enough to get a Kansas City Royal on the cover of SI for the first time in 15 years, that 59 inning streak must've been pretty exciting too.

First, let's take a look at what writers were saying about Hershiser entering the 1988 season. After a strong rookie performance in 1984 where he went 11-8 with a 2.66 ERA, and an even better 1985 season where he went 19-3 with a 2.03 ERA, Hershiser seemed to regress in '86 and '87. In those two years, he had a perfect .500 record (30-30) with a 3.43 ERA. People seemed to be unsure of what he might be able to do next. From the 1988 Athlon preview guide:
"Hershiser's 16-16 record [in 1987] would seem to be scant improvement over 14-14 the year before. Nevertheless, his pitching markedly improved. He was third in the National League in earned run average at 3.06 and complete games with 10, first in innings pitched with 264 2/3 and tied for fourth in strikeouts with teammate Fernando Valenzuela with 190. He was named to the National League All-Star team for the first time in his four-year career and also was selected to a postseason all-star team by one baseball publication.

Those numbers were good enough for only a fourth-place finish in Cy Young voting, well behind Philadelphia Phillies reliever Steve Bedrosian, the winner. Hershiser's lackluster September and sustained weak hitting by the Dodger offense cost him wins and votes."
By the time Hershiser's streak began on August 30, he already had a 17-8 record with a 2.88 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 203 innings pitched. He was clearly one of the top pitchers in the league at the time, but his August 30th start was fairly non-descript. From the next day's LA Times:
"The victory improved Hershiser's record to 18-8 and, with six starts probably remaining, he has a good chance to win 20 games for the first time in his career.

"I'll be very satisfied if I get 20," said Hershiser, who reduced his ERA to 2.84. "But I'm not going to stop there and say, `See you in the playoffs.' I've got a shot to win 24 (games), and it'll help the team if I do."
Hershiser's bid for his fourth shutout ended in the fifth, when Tim Raines hit a run-scoring double to left field and Dave Martinez singled home Raines, cutting the Dodger lead to 4-2.

But the Expos did not threaten after that..."
At the time, there was no reason to get excited about this start, save for it being Hershiser's 18th victory of the year. After all, it's not all that uncommon for a pitcher to finish up a complete game with four scoreless innings. Six days later, the Dodgers traveled to Atlanta and Orel had his first dominating start of the streak: 9-inning complete game, 4 hits, 1 walk, 8 strikeouts, and, at one point, he retired 16 consecutive batters.
"When Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser hunkers down at his personal computer to log data about Monday night's outing, a 4-hit shutout of the woeful Atlanta Braves, he probably will not note the quality of competition or the ease with which he won his 19th game.

In the analytical mind of Hershiser it didn't matter that a rainout Sunday in New York aborted his scheduled start against the team with the National League's best record and, instead, pitted him against the league's worst team.

"The key is not to think you're playing the Mets, not playing the Braves," Hershiser said. "The key is to just go out and beat whoever's out there. If we can just narrow things down to a minimum, it gives us the best chance to win our division.""
The Times also included this quote at the end of the game's recap. It may have seemed innocuous at the time, but it seems to be a good indicator of how Hershiser was been able to keep the streak going for as long as he did:
"Monday night's victory was Orel Hershiser's fourth straight complete game. He is 3-1 with a 1.00 earned-run average. In his eight previous starts before this streak, Hershiser was 3-4 with a 4.76 ERA. Just as he refused to say he was in a slump, Hershiser now says "I'm not on a streak. I'm just pitching well.""
Two starts later, Hershiser faced the Braves again, this time on only three days' rest. With yet another complete game, eight-strikeout shutout, and only two-and-a-half weeks left in the season, people began to take notice:
"The battle for the National League's Cy Young Award, the race within a race, drew tighter Wednesday night.

First, the Cincinnati Reds' Danny Jackson was hammered by the Houston Astros, allowing 7 runs in 5 innings of a 7-1 loss.

Then the Dodgers' Orel Hershiser sustained his late-season roll in a 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves.

Jackson is 21-7. Hershiser is 21-8, having pitched six consecutive complete games and three consecutive shutouts.

Before a Dodger Stadium crowd of 42,434, Hershiser extended his shutout streak to 31 innings. He allowed only six hits in besting Atlanta's veteran right-hander, Rick Mahler (9-15)."
And that's when Drysdale's name was first brought up:
"Is he close enough to be looking at Don Drysdale's major league record of 58 consecutive scoreless innings?

"That first came up in '85 when I had 30-some in a row," he said. "In my view, (the Drysdale record is) an unbelievable feat, one of the records that may not be broken.

"It's hard enough to throw a shutout, and he threw six and then some. I don't know if I have enough innings left in the season and enough pitches left in my arm to do it.

"But I'll settle for three more (the number of starts he has left). I don't want to give up a run until I have to.""
Over the next two weeks, Hershiser would make two more starts, each on the road in Houston and San Francisco. As with the other starts in the streak, these were nine-inning shutouts. The start in San Francisco seemed to be his toughest. In it, Hershiser gave up five hits and struck out only two, all while throwing the highest number of pitches in any of his streak-shutouts. 

That start put him 9  innings short of  Drysdale's record with only one regular season start left to match it.  (it was 9 2/3 innings, but Elias made a ruling that partial innings don't count for starters, so "58" became the official record.) This exact scenario was broached the week before. On the day of his San Francisco start, the Times ran a story about Hershiser's run at Drysdale's record, including quotes from Drysdale himself. The possibility of Hershiser needing to pitch an extra inning to break the record was considered, but no one really seemed to give it much consideration.
"The most impressive statistic, however, is Hershiser's scoreless inning streak. But Hershiser, normally optimistic to a fault, said he does not believe he can surpass Drysdale.

"It's hard enough to throw one shutout, let alone two more in my last two starts," Hershiser said. "Even if I did, I still would come up short."

Maybe not, Hershiser was advised. There is the possibility-considering the slumbering ways of the Dodger offense-that Hershiser would have to pitch extra innings in one of his two remaining starts, thus qualifying.

Or, he could always request to work an inning of relief, something that no doubt would not thrill Manager Tom Lasorda.

"Oh yeah, I can just see me asking Tommy to do that on the last day of the season with the playoffs coming up," Hershiser said.

Lasorda laughed at that scenario."
It was almost prepostorous to consider: the game going into extra innings in the one chance that Hershiser had to break Drysdale's record before the season ended? No one could write a more sappy ending to the season. That's what it came down to, though.

In his last start of the season, Hershiser faced off against Andy Hawkins and the San Diego Padres in Jack Murphy Stadium. The first nine innings proved to be a scoreless affair. Hershiser struck out two, walked none, and gave up four hits. Hawkins matched zeroes with Hershiser while striking out six. After Hawkins shut down the Dodgers again in the tenth, Hershiser came out for his one chance at Drysdale's record. Marvell Wynne struck out to lead off the inning, but reached base on a wild pitch. The next two batters moved him over to third and, with two outs, Hershiser intentionally walked Garry Templeton to face the pitcher's spot. Keith Moreland promptly flew out to right, and Hershiser's hold on the record was secure. That was the last inning Hershiser pitched that day, but the game wasn't decided until the 16th, when the Padres won it 2-1.
"Where have you gone, Don Drysdale?

Well, Drysdale, now a Dodger broadcaster, was among the greeting party awaiting Hershiser after he forced pinch-hitter Keith Moreland to fly to right fielder Jose Gonzalez for the third out in the 10th inning of a then-scoreless tie between the Dodgers and the Padres.

Drysdale gave Hershiser a bear hug. So did Manager Tom Lasorda, pitching coach Ron Perranoski and each Dodger player. It was a repeat, though with far more feeling, of the celebration bestowed upon Hershiser an inning earlier, when he tied Drysdale's record.

"I never thought I would break this record," Hershiser said. "I thought nobody would break this record. But now, I think somebody can break it from me, because I'm nobody special."

Hershiser spoke those words with what appeared to be total sincerity. Also in all sincerity, he said that he did not want to break Drysdale's record, just tie it.""
Hershiser went on to win the Cy Young, and deservedly so. His line for the year, following his 6 straight shutouts, looked like this: 23-8, 2.26 ERA, 15 CG, 8 ShO, and 178 K in 267 innings pitched. No other pitcher received any first place votes. The Dodgers would, of course, go on to win the World Series, and Hershiser would win NLCS and World Series MVP awards. The scoreless streak would end in the first inning of Opening Day 1989 after a full offseason of speculation (and this awesome baseball card). But it's the "59" that we all remember today, and which kept the baseball world captivated in September of 1988. It's a shame Greinke wasn't able to keep his streak going, but at least we got a taste for what it was like. For now, though, Hershiser is the only person alive to know the pressure of a monumental streak like this.

* Small note: I can't say for certain since I can't find an official stat online, but I feel pretty confident in claiming that the record for most consecutive innings without giving up an earned run has to belong to Don Drysdale. Of course, Drysdale owned the record for most consecutive scoreless innings at 58, set in 1968, before Hershiser broke it. However, in the last game that he pitched in prior to the beginning of that streak, he gave up an earned run in the 4th inning and then pitched to a couple of batters in the 7th before being relieved. After Jack Billingham relieved Drysdale, one of the inherited runner scored on an error by the shortstop. Therefore, if you tack the two innings Drysdale pitched at the end of that game without giving up an earned run, his streak becomes 60 consecutive innings without giving up an earned run. Like I said, I can't verify this, but I feel pretty good about claiming that it's so.


LAprGuy said...

Hershiser also pitched 8 scoreless innings against the Mets in game 1 of the NLCS, running his streak to SIXTY-SEVEN innings ... amazing!

lar said...

Thanks for pointing that out, LAprGuy. I had wanted to say something about it, but the post was long enough as it is. That's still pretty amazing, though. 67 innings in a row, and all of them with serious playoff implications. he definitely deserved the Cy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Wezen. This was so much fun to recall...what a streak and year that was for Dodger fans!


Anonymous said...

will be broken by lincecum this year, record will belong to a giant!!!