Which MLB Records Are Likely to be Broken?

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Over at MLB.com, Matt Kelly has a great article about “unbreakable” MLB records. It includes some of the ones you’d expect (Nolan Ryan‘s career strikeouts, Barry Bonds‘ single-season walks record, etc.) and a few you might not know about (Jody Davis throwing out 89 would-be base-stealers in 1986, Joe Sewell striking out just three times in 1932, and so forth).

That got me thinking: which records are most likely to be broken? But that’s a lot of work. So instead, let’s look at some records that seem pretty likely to be broken without being so bold to say they are the most likely:

Mark Reynolds‘ 223 strikeouts in 2009

In 1970, Bobby Bonds struck out 189 times, shattering the old record of 187 set by … Bobby Bonds in 1969. From 1969 through 2003, the elder Bonds held the single-season strikeout record.

Beginning in 2004, when Adam Dunn broke the record with 195 whiffs, there have been 26 player seasons with more strikeouts than Bonds’ previous record of 189. That’s right — a record that stood for over 30 years has been broken 26 times in the past 14 years. Dunn’s 195 stood as the record for three years, before Ryan Howard struck out 199 times in just 144 games in 2007. The next year, Reynolds became the first player ever to strike out 200 times in a season, dipping his toe in the water with 204 strikeouts in 152 games for the 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks. Apparently the water felt fine, because he jumped right in, striking out 223 times the next season. That record still stands, nine years later.

But the times, they are a-changin’. Or continuing to a-change, perhaps. Joey Gallo has struck out 99 times already in 2018, putting him on pace for 229. Yoan Moncada is on pace for 222. New York Yankees teammates Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge are on pace for 225 and 223 strikeouts, respectively. Only one team has ever had two teammates strike out 180 times in a season — the 2014 Philadelphia Phillies, “led” by Howard with 190 and Marlon Byrd with 185. The Yankees are basically a lock to have two teammates with 200, 210 each seems likely, and both topping Reynolds’ record is not out of the question.

Source: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images North America

I don’t know if this record will be broken this year. Gallo’s Texas Rangers and Moncada’s Chicago White Sox both won’t have anything to play for late in the season, so they might give their slugging whiffers (whiffing sluggers?) some strategic time off to keep them away from the record. The Yankees will be fighting for the division and home-field advantage and all sorts of things, so Stanton and Judge will likely keep getting their at-bats all season, but paces change and players go through hot and cold streaks.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet against the record falling this year, but I’d put a lot of money on someone topping Reynolds in the next five years.

Francisco Rodriguez‘s 62 saves in 2008

After Bobby Thigpen set the record with 57 saves in 1990, it seemed inevitable that someone would break it, because it was threatened almost immediately. Dennis Eckersley had 51 saves in 1992; Randy Myers had 53 in 1993. Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera each topped 50, and John Smoltz and Eric Gagne both had 55-save seasons. So when Rodriguez broke the record in 2008, it wasn’t a huge surprised, although the fact that he broke it on September 13 with two weeks left in the season was a surprise. K-Rod went on to save four more games, finishing with 62. (He also had seven blown saves that year, so he could have put the record more out-of-reach.)

No one has come close to the record since 2008; Jim Johnson, Mark Melancon, and Jeurys Familia have each had 51-save seasons, but that’s the closest. But that’s kind of my point: We live in a world where guys like Jim Johnson can have 51 saves in a season just by pitching pretty well for a pretty good team. It seems like just a matter of time before a great pitcher on a great team backs into a 63-save season.

The one thing working against this record chase is the higher-scoring environment. The Los Angeles Dodgers won 104 games last year, but they had just 51 saves as an entire team, with All-Star closer Kenley Jansen getting 41 of them. It got so “bad” that Jansen’s teammates left notes and gifts in his locker to apologize for ruining all his save chances by scoring too many runs. Closers like Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman both pitch for dominant teams, but both teams have stellar offenses that might take away save opportunities. The best chance this year might be for a guy like Edwin Diaz, who is currently on pace for 59 saves pitching for a Seattle Mariners team that isn’t likely to have blowouts the way the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers might.

So, while conditions are not perfect for this record to fall, it seems inevitable to me that someone will have 63 saves sometime in the next decade or so.

Jimmy Rollins‘ 778 plate appearances in 2007

Players get more days off these days, which works against a lot of these single-season records that are based more on durability than skill. The single-season plate-appearance record has seen very little turnover, with just five men holding the mark since World War II. Frankie Crosetti‘s 757 was the record from 1938-61; Maury Wills‘ 759 held from 1962-73; Pete Rose‘s 771 lasted from 1974-92; Lenny Dykstra had 773 in 1993, which lasted until Rollins’ 778 in 2007.

There are plenty of @MLB records that will never be broken. Let's talk about some that WILL be!Click To TweetThis record chase has conflicting powers affecting it. Players get more days off these days, with just a handful of players each season playing in every game. But more runs scored can mean more plate appearances for the guys at the top of a lineup. A perfect storm season where a leadoff batter plays nearly every day and his team scores a lot of runs — that’s not out of the question. Francisco Lindor, Jose Altuve, and Ozzie Albies are all within sniffing distance this season, and all play for teams with offenses that could provide them even more plate appearances going forward.

I don’t think this record will fall this year, but I think Rollins should enjoy the immense prestige that comes with being the Single-Season Plate-Appearance Record Holder while it lasts.

Clayton Kershaw‘s single-season salary of $35,571,429 in both 2017 and 2018

I don’t know if Bryce Harper will average $40 million per year on the contract he signs after this season, but he will definitely have at least one season in which he makes more than Kershaw’s current salary. For that matter, Kershaw probably will, too. I know, we’re getting bold here.

Jose Lima‘s 2.20 home runs allowed per nine innings in 2000

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Obviously, in the current offensive environment, a lot of home run records are at risk. The thing protecting most of them, and the thing that might protect this one, is that it is based on playing time. When Bert Blyleven set the single-season record by allowing 50 home runs in 1986, his home run rate was only 4.4 percent, which was the highest of his career but actually lower than 11 different starting pitchers this season. But none of those 11 pitchers are going to face 1,126 batters this season, so Blyleven’s record is safe.

Similarly, plenty of guys have allowed more than Lima’s 2.2 homers per nine, but none of them have qualified for the ERA title. Most of the time, if you’re bad enough to be allowing that many homers, you’re not going to stick around in the rotation all season. For Lima, it worked because he was a pretty bad fly ball pitcher pitching for a very bad Houston Astros team that played its home games in a very hitter-friendly stadium.

Only three other pitchers have had a HR/9 higher than 2.0 in a qualified season, and all three of them have pretty obvious reasons. Both Sid Fernandez and Jim Deshaies were nearing the end of what had been solid careers in 1994. Both were pitching terribly and allowing a ton of home runs when the strike ended the season on August 12. Because “qualified” is based on team games played, both Fernandez (2.11 HR/9) and Deshaies (2.07) finished the season with qualified seasons over 2.0. But in reality, had the season not been canceled, it’s unlikely that either pitcher would have remained in his team’s rotation long enough to reach 162 innings pitched.

The other pitcher besides Lime, Fernandez, and Deshaies in the club is Bronson Arroyo, who allowed 46 homers in 199 innings in 2011. Arroyo was a fly ball pitcher on a pretty bad team in a homer-friendly park. Sound familiar?

Source: Harry How/Getty Images North America

But there’s one pitcher who is on pace, right at this very moment, to break Lima’s record this season. His name? Bartolo Colon. Colon currently sits at 2.29 HR/9, which is significantly higher than his career mark but around what you would expect from a 742-pound, 87-year-old hurler who tops out at 61 MPH on his fastball. (Sorry, my internet went down, so I can’t fact-check the numbers in that last sentence.) Colon’s higher home run numbers are probably here to stay; the only question is whether he is. Colon is — say it with me! — a fly ball pitcher on a bad team in a homer-friendly stadium. The Rangers have no real reason to drop him from their rotation, but at Colon’s age (132 years old!), retirement is always just a press conference away. If Colon gets to 162 innings this year, Lima’s record is going down.

Even if Colon doesn’t break the record this year, it will probably fall at some point. Of the 27 pitchers with a season of 1.80 HR/9 or higher, exactly 27 of them have come since 1994, and 13 of them have come in the past decade. With homer-friendly stadiums like Texas, Toronto, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Detroit hosting pretty non-competitive teams these days, look for someone on one of those teams to remove the late Lima’s name from the record books.

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