Reflecting on Ethier's hitting streak
The pause button has been pushed on Andre Ethier's hitting streak, and that's allowed all of us tracking what is now a 29-game string the opportunity to think about what it is we're watching.For one, can you really pause a streak? Does an unscheduled day off -- as Ethier received Wednesday when he was a late scratch from the Dodgers' lineup because of elbow inflammation -- in the midst of the marathon end it in theory, if not actuality? After all, were this an actual marathon, and a runner pulled up lame with an ankle injury midway through and finished the last 13 miles at a later date, you certainly wouldn't still call it a marathon, right? We're not pointing this out to pick on Ethier. Not by any means. No player worth his jock strap wants to rest in the midst of a hitting streak, for fear of throwing off the rhythm of the run. Besides, Ethier's streak has given us great entertainment in this early portion of the 2011 calendar. And rather than get uptight and live in fear of the supposed jinx that comes with talking about such things, he's had as much fun living the streak as we've had watching it. "I don't go home at night or wake up at night worrying about this thing," he told reporters. It's certainly not Ethier's fault that his elbow's bothering him. In fact, he revealed on Wednesday that he's been dealing with the elbow issue since April 14, meaning that he's played through the pain for several weeks and kept his streak intact in the process. It was manager Don Mattingly who finally had to put history (Ethier's streak was the longest ever in April and sits 15 shy of Pete Rose's modern-day National League record) on halt. "You can't let him go out there and do damage to himself," Mattingly said. "I had to bite the bullet with him, give him a game or two and hopefully he'll be ready Friday [in New York]." Good for Mattingly for doing what's ultimately best for Ethier and best for the team, and not becoming a slave to the superstitions of the streak. Still, it's worth pontificating on the philosophical here. After all, a streak, by definition, is a consecutive series. And consecutive, by definition, is one following the other, in order. So, should a chain-breaking day off effectively end any streak, hitting or otherwise?
If anything, Ethier's day off Wednesday only shed more light on the incredible, seemingly unbreakable nature of what Joe DiMaggio accomplished in 1941. Because while it's well known that DiMaggio hit in an astounding 56 games straight in a streak that began 70 years ago this month, it's not as often mentioned that he did so while playing every inning of every game in that two-month span, including seven doubleheaders. Rose also didn't miss a start in his 44-game run in 1978. Of course, that says as much about the era those two men played in as anything else. The stakes, in terms of dollars and cents, riding on players wasn't nearly as high as it is today. The concept of "giving a guy a blow" on day games after night games or when a tough pitcher's on the hill (it's worth noting here that Ethier avoided Carlos Zambrano on Wednesday, though his career numbers against "Big Z" are strong) or when his knees are barking at him wasn't nearly as in vogue as it is in 2011. By rule, Ethier's streak lives on, regardless of Wednesday's break in the action. Hitting streaks can also be carried from one season to the next. And they can even carry on when a player appears in a game and has each of his plate appearances result in either a walk, hit by pitch, defensive interference or sacrifice bunt (sacrifice flies, on the other hand, do count against him). Maybe these quirks would generate more attention or argument if DiMaggio's streak were actually in jeopardy. But it's pretty well established that hitting streaks are as fragile as they are fluky, and what DiMaggio did will likely never be done again. For proof of that belief, we turn to a 2008 simulation conducted by Cornell professor Steven Strogatz and graduate student Samuel Arbesman, which was published in the New York Times. With every Major League player and their actual batting averages taken into account, the two men simulated the entire history of baseball, from 1871 to 2005, 10,000 times -- for a total of 1.34 million season-- and came up with 4,200 streaks of 56 games or more. That means a streak as long as DiMaggio's occurred just once every 319 years. So while DiMaggio's streak might one day be in peril, it likely won't be in our lifetime. (Sorry, Andre.) The simulation doesn't even take into account the media pressures that come for players in Ethier's position. As he nears and possibly rounds the 30-game mark, the attention paid to his streak will increase exponentially. That's because streaks are strangely captivating, even if they are mostly meaningless. After all, a guy could go 1-for-4 in 30 straight games and be batting only .250 in that span. And while the percentage differences are fairly negligible, it has been pointed out many times that Ted Williams (.412) slightly out-hit DiMaggio (.408) during Joltin' Joe's streak, en route to a .406 season for Williams. But streaks are too much fun to ignore. The anticipation that builds up to the player's at-bats, particularly if he starts out a night 0-for-3 and has one last chance to keep the streak intact, can add a layer of drama to even the most lopsided games. So for all our curiosity over what, exactly, constitutes a true "streak," we'll continue to enjoy what Ethier's up to, pauses and all.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.