Earlier this week, in a nine-inning game in Baltimore, Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton clubbed four home runs. He joined very select company, as there have been fewer four-homer games by position players than there have been perfect games by pitchers. Hamilton made baseball history, but rather than appreciate his accomplishment, too many people elected to focus on Hamilton's contract negotiations. Too many people wasted an opportunity to appreciate a historical feat.
Friday, we might all be given another opportunity to appreciate a historical feat. Friday, another non-Josh-Hamilton player might make baseball history. I guess we should step back for a moment.
It is a weird thing to care about streaks. It is a weird thing to care about something's distribution more than its frequency. If you have one batter who registers one hit in 30 consecutive games, he has a 30-game hitting streak, and he'll make a few headlines. If you have another batter who registers two hits in 20 games and zero hits in ten games, he has more total hits than the first batter, but he won't make any headlines. Not for his hits.
But still we do care about streaks, perhaps because humans are all about symmetry. We don't care so much that, between May 15 and July 16 in 1941, Ted Williams posted a 1.224 OPS. We care more that, between May 15 and July 16 in 1941, Joe DiMaggio posted a 1.181 OPS but had a hit in 56 consecutive games. That is obviously a wildly popular streak; it's probably baseball's most well-known record. It is impossible to talk about Joe DiMaggio without talking about how many games in a row he had at least a single.
Friday night, an all-time record streak could be equaled. Long before he was general manager of the Angels, Bill Stoneman was a pitcher. In 1971 and 1972, he pitched for the Expos, which meant he also hit for the Expos. Like most pitchers, Stoneman was a terrible hitter. He might've even been worse than you. On April 25, 1971, Stoneman batted three times without striking out. Five days later, he batted two times, and struck out two times. So began a streak. Stoneman wouldn't have another game in which he didn't strike out at least once until April 26, 1972. Actually he had a handful of games in which he didn't strike out, but in those games he also didn't bat. Stoneman struck out in 37 consecutive games.
That established a record, and that record has stood. Bob Veale held the previous record, at 36 games. Veale was also a pitcher.
On September 23, 2011, against the Royals, Adam Dunn batted three times and didn't strike out. That is the most recent game in which Adam Dunn hasn't struck out. He's run his streak to 36. 36 consecutive games with at least one strikeout, with 56 strikeouts in all. Dunn broke the all-time record for a position player some time ago. Now he's taking on the pitchers. Just one pitcher remains - Bill Stoneman.
Friday night, the Chicago White Sox play the Kansas City Royals, and Dunn will presumably be in the middle of the lineup with a shot to tie history. There won't be TV station cutaways to each plate appearance and most people won't know what's going on, but that doesn't mean the shot doesn't exist. With one strikeout, Dunn would tie Stoneman at 37 games, and then possibly set a new record on Saturday. But Friday first. We can't get ahead of ourselves.
In case you feel a little weird rooting for an Adam Dunn strikeout, note that this isn't mean-spirited. It would be one thing if Dunn were still hitting like he was hitting a season ago. But in 2012, Dunn's produced. His current OPS+ is actually the highest OPS+ of his career. Strikeouts have always been a part of his game, so rooting for a strikeout isn't rooting against Adam Dunn - it's rooting for history. Dunn can mash dingers in the rest of his plate appearances for all I care.
Starting for the Royals will be Felipe Paulino. I think it's time for a bit of a game preview. Do you think it's time for a bit of a game preview? Let's try something:
The White Sox will be at home Friday. This means that, if the White Sox lead going into the ninth and hold on, they will bat for eight innings instead of nine. That could conceivably cost Dunn a plate appearance.
Paulino is a right-handed pitcher, and Dunn is a left-handed batter. Dunn's career strikeout rate against righties is a little lower than it is against lefties.
Chicago has a strikeout park factor of 108 for left-handed batters. Put another way, the White Sox's home ballpark inflates strikeouts for left-handed batters.
Paulino actually has a higher career strikeout rate against lefties than righties, over 750 plate appearances.
Dunn and Paulino have gone head-to-head ten times - three times in 2009, and seven times in 2011. Here's how four of those 2011 plate appearances ended:
Dunn has attempted 13 swings against Paulino. Six of those swings whiffed.
Paulino probably won't go the distance; at some point he'll probably hand off to the bullpen. Tim Collins is an outstanding strikeout lefty. Jose Mijares is a decent strikeout lefty. While Paulino generates a lot of strikeouts as a starter, it's not like the Royals have a bunch of contact relievers.
This season, Adam Dunn has struck out in 34 percent of his plate appearances. Last season, he struck out in 36 percent of his plate appearances. If Dunn bats four times on Friday, he stands something like an 80 percent chance of striking out at least once. If Dunn bats five times on Friday, he stands something like an 88 percent chance of striking out at least once. Even if you knock him down to three plate appearances, the odds are still pretty overwhelming. Adam Dunn is staring baseball history in the face. Won't he give it a peck?