20 August 2007

That's Close Enough!

by Joshua Worley

I really don't want Brandon Webb to break Orel Hershiser's consecutive scoreless inning streak.

I became a baseball fan, and a Dodger fan, in 1983. My first favorite player was Dusty Baker. I'm not sure why; I think I thought the name "Dusty" was cool. My second favorite player was Mike Marshall. I have no idea why in this case. Maybe I liked the alliteration of his name; maybe it was because he was a young power hitter who seemed promising. I liked home runs as a kid.

Baker was gone after 1983, though fortunately as a young fan I was oblivious to the acrimonious nature of his departure. So Mike Marshall became my clear favorite player, a status he would hold for the next few years. I am quite sheepish about this, given his reputation for missing playing time for the slightest reason. I remember he did once have to miss time because he had his appendix removed: he can be forgiven that, I think. I don't know if his reputation was deserved or not, but his games played totals per season aren't very impressive. He looks like a fore-runner to JD Drew just by the numbers.

My all-time favorite Dodger is Orel Hershiser. I remember the first time I saw Hershiser in a Dodger uniform: it was late in the 1983 season, and Hershiser and some other pitcher were warming up in the pen. I had never heard of either pitcher, which is why this made such a big impression on me, I think. How often do you see two completely new pitchers warming up side-by-side in the 'pen? I suppose you see it occasionally in September, but I had never seen anything like it before. I wish I could remember the name of the other pitcher, but I can't. Hershiser started 1984 in the 'pen, and then went into the starting rotation right before the all-star break. He became my second favorite player on July 29 of 1984 when he came 4 outs from pitching a perfect game against the Reds. I was 8 years old then, and prone to unreasonable extrapolations, so I was sure that someday he would pitch a perfect game, based on having come so close already. Maybe more than one! Alas, he never did meet this expectation.

Hershiser became my co-favorite player early in 1985, when early in the year he pitched two straight shutouts to put together a scoreless inning streak of 22. A year older but still no wiser, I continued my pattern of unreasonable extrapolations by being dead certain that someday Hershiser would break Drysdale's record of 58 and 2/3 scoreless innings. I know, by the way, that it's officially only 58 for Drysdale, but back then it always had the 2/3 attached. Looking back on my projection of 22 to 59 I can only be amazed that such an unreasonable expectation was fulfilled.

As the years passed Hershiser clearly moved into the front as my favorite player, with Marshall moving into the background. I guess even at that young age I could see that Marshall just wasn't putting it all together. I suppose this means that I was all about the performance of a player even as a youngster. How cynical of the younger me! Thinking it over again, I think my most important criteria for a favorite player is not great performance, but the promise and possiblity of great performance. I stuck with Beltre for many years as my favorite player before he put it all together. I stuck with Dreifort as my favorite pitcher for years without ever seeing much from him. The promise of Marshall faded, but the promise of Hershiser never did. Hence I maintained my unreasonable faith in Hershiser.

This is why Hershiser's record of 59 scoreless innings in a row means so much to me. It's not just that he was my favorite player well before he broke the record. It's that he was my favorite player because I was sure he would someday break the record! I remember listening to those games well after I was supposed to be asleep, exulting when each runless inning went by. I loved reading the newspaper after each shutout, seeing the new total he had reached in print. 22 --- this was when he tied his previous mark that had started my absurd belief in the streak. 31 --- more than halfway there. 40 --- this is when the streak became serious.

So it is with Webb's streak. He's at 42 now, and it's very serious. I recognize that it's probably wrong to root against a player, but I'm doing it anyway. I want Hershiser to continue to hold the record. If someone else reaches 60, then what Hershiser did will feel just a little less special, a little less improbable. I remember back in 1998, when McGwire and Sosa were chasing Maris, Vin Scully had the thought that it would be better if only one of them caught Maris. If both went past Maris, then the record would be cheapened. Oh, it was so easy to reach 61 that two players did it? I think that the single season home run record has been cheapened a bit, after Sosa and McGwire passed 60 multiple times, and then Barry passed McGwire so soon after his 70. It sure makes it look as if something fishy was going on, doesn't it? How special is a record that is suddenly so easily broken or approached?

Of course nothing fishy is going on with Webb. And I think there is a good argument that no excellence of Webb in 2007 can taint in any way what Hershiser did in 1988. It certainly shouldn't taint the joy of that memory for me. But it would, a little bit, at least temporarily. Perhaps that is a personal failing.

I feel I should point out that if Webb does break the record, his streak would be more impressive than Hershiser's. 1988 was truly a down year for offense in the National League. Since 1950 there have been only 4 years with fewer runs scored per game in the National League. 1963, 1967, and 1992 by narrow margins, and 1968 by a wide margin. There were 3.88 runs per game in 1988 NL, compared with 4.63 so far this year. Only five qualifying players hit at least 0.300 in the NL in 1988, with Tony Gwinn leading the way at 0.313! This year there are currently 20 qualified players batting 0.300, with Hanley Ramirez in front at 0.339. In 1988 only Darryl Strawberry with an OPS of 0.911 was higher than 0.900. This year there are 15 players in the NL with an OPS higher than 0.900. ( Barry Bonds leads the way at 1.084. ) Brandon Webb is having to maintain his streak in a much higher run scoring environment.

Webb is now at 42 consecutive scoreless innings, and with two more 9-inning shutouts he would reach 60 innings and break the record. His next scheduled start is this Wednesday August 22 against the Brewers. Now the Brewers are an above average offensive team, but their offense is based on the home run. In fact they lead the NL in home runs hit. The problem with this is that Webb doesn't allow many home runs, with 9 allowed this year, so it may not be as easy for the Brewers to score even one run as one might initially think. Their offensive strength is largely neutralized by Webb. Still, they only need one run.

If Webb gets through the Brewers without allowing a run, then the Padres would stand in his way. That start would be either Monday or Tuesday of next week at Petco, depending on how the Snakes handle their rotation with a day off. One has to like Webb's chances against the weak hitting Padres in their run-limiting home park.

Even if Webb gets through both the Brewers and Padres, he may still be short of the record if he doesn't pitch two complete game shutouts. In particular I think it's unlikely he'll go all 9 against the Brewers. His next start after the Padre game would be against the Rockies in Arizona. The Rockies aren't a great hitting team on the road, and at this point he would need only a handfull of scoreless innings, so again his chances would be good.

I'm counting on Prince Fielder to take Webb deep and end the streak. But if it doesn't happen, if Webb reaches 60, I will congratulate him. And I suppose, somewhere in Arizona there is a 12 year old Diamondbacks fan with an unreasonable faith in Brandon Webb breaking Hershiser's record. So yeah, I'll congratulate Webb.

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