If it seems like there’s always a lot of talk about all-time records in the earlier months of seasons, there’s a good reason why. With less and less of a season complete, the sample sizes are smaller and smaller, and over smaller sample sizes, one will observe greater statistical volatility. Basically, it’s easier to be on a record pace after a month or three than it is after five months or six. The trouble with on-pace statistics is that they fail to factor in regression, and regression is a part of our reality. Sometimes record paces are kept up, but most often they aren’t after a player starts to play more like his normal, non-record-setting self.
This season, we’re hearing about some records that might fall, and these days there’s a lot being written about Chris Davis‘ pursuit of the “legitimate” home-run record. But one of Davis’ teammates is also pursuing a long-standing record, as Manny Machado is approaching the single-season record for doubles. Earl Webb‘s record isn’t as sexy as Roger Maris‘ was, and still is in some corners, but Machado’s pursuit has drawn attention to itself as Machado the player establishes himself as one of the game’s elite young talents.
Webb’s record is 67 doubles, set in 1931. No one’s reached 60 since 1936, and the modern-day high is 59, belonging to Todd Helton. Machado has played in all 96 games for the Orioles. He’s already got himself 39 doubles, putting him on pace for 66. ZiPS projects him to finish with 55, while Steamer projects him to finish with 51. Those would be pretty far off, but as of right now Machado is on a promising pace, which has been driving some Google search traffic:
That’s Google Trends data, for “doubles record.” People long didn’t give a hoot, but now Machado’s giving them reason to inquire. As for last year’s spike, Joey Votto had 35 doubles in 83 games before the All-Star break. At that point he was leading the rest of the pack by eight, but he was also playing injured, and shortly thereafter he went on a lengthy disabled-list stint. Which is why this is still Earl Webb’s record, and not Joey Votto’s.
Machado used to be on a better pace. One could say that regression’s already setting in. He was second in the league in doubles in April, he was first in May, and he was first in June. But he’s hit just one double in July, tying him with 15 pitchers. Typically, record-breakers aren’t allowed to take entire months off, so Machado will need to get it going again, but his earlier numbers did buy him some time.
Some things, though. First, it’s worth acknowledging just how unfamiliar and unknown Earl Webb really is. When the average baseball fan looks up who owns the all-time doubles record, he sees a name he’s probably never seen before. It’s not like the Internet has put in a lot of work to fill in the gaps in the Earl Webb story. Webb’s Wikipedia biography goes 125 words. Robinson Cancel‘s Wikipedia biography goes 202. Webb’s a guy with a record, but he played a long time ago, and he wasn’t amazing, and the record isn’t one of those records fathers tell their kids about when they’re young.
And there’s the matter of triples. By talking about how many doubles a guy has, we ignore his total number of triples, even though a triple is just a sexier double. A triple goes through a double — anyone who records a triple could’ve easily just stopped at second base. Realistically, it makes little sense to talk just about doubles, because then you might be penalizing equivalent hitters with better footspeed. Realistically, it also makes little sense to talk about counting stats, instead of rate stats, but then that’s getting pretty nerdy. The other thing — that’s not nerdy. That’s regular sense.
Machado has 39 doubles and three triples, giving him 42…whatever we’re going to call these. Non-home-run extra-base hits. That’s part of the problem. Doubles and triples have easy, distinct labels, whereas there’s nothing for the combination, and we like our records to be simple. But anyway, Machado has 42 of these kinds of hits, putting him on pace for 71. When Webb hit his 67 doubles, he added three triples, giving him a season-ending combined total of 70.
But that isn’t the all-time high. Webb has the record for doubles, but if you combine doubles and triples, the all-time record belongs to Joe Medwick, who hit 77 in 1936. To go with his 64 doubles, he added 13 triples, which were doubles plus one. Here’s the all-time top five:
- Joe Medwick, 77 doubles and triples, 1936
- Paul Waner, 72, 1932
- Charlie Gehringer, 72, 1936
- Ty Cobb, 71, 1911
- Seven players tied, 70
The most recent player to reach 70 was Stan Musial, in 1946. The highest total in the modern era is 65, posted by Hal McRae in 1977. Machado’s on pace to eclipse that, for whatever that’s worth. The overall all-time record is just about out of reach, but Machado was on pace for 78 at the end of June, so this remains a legitimate pursuit. Add in triples and Machado slips a little bit, but not so far that he’s out of the picture.
Just by doubles this year, Machado is leading Joe Mauer by nine. By doubles and triples combined, he’s leading Mike Trout by five. Trout’s recently closed the gap, with six in July, to Machado’s two. Machado might not only fall short of the all-time record; he might not even end up the 2013 league leader. Again, people aren’t going to pay much attention, since there’s no widely-understood word for combined doubles and triples, but it’s the more meaningful number.
I guess maybe even combining the stats is getting too technical. And then where do you stop? Machado’s got a 162-game season. Webb didn’t. Medwick didn’t. Machado has doubled or tripled in 9.7% of his plate appearances. In 1900, Honus Wagner doubled or tripled in 11.6% of his plate appearances. The league-average rates have changed over time, meaning you could conceivably come up with a stat like 2B/3B+. None of this considers park factors. Machado’s 2B/3B rate is 197% the league average. That would be tied for 44th-highest ever, and the best mark since Frank White in 1982. With records, you can go deeper and deeper and deeper, and you can get more and more scientific, and then you can end up with something too complicated to celebrate.
I don’t know if it’s getting too complicated to combine doubles and triples. I should hope not, since a triple is just a better double, and the two numbers are widely understood and available. All triples are doubles, but not all doubles are triples, such that triples are kind of a doubles subset. I don’t see the two as necessarily distinct categories, and so it seems to me like they should be put together. It makes sense to have an all-time leader in triples, but it makes less sense to have an all-time leader in doubles. Combine the two and Machado’s chances of breaking an all-time record get considerably worse. But he’d still be on pace to challenge the record for the modern era, and more importantly, records are hard to break, and that’s why they’re records, and there’s no shame in falling a little bit short. The actual purpose behind following Machado’s record pursuit is acknowledging and appreciating just how good he is. He’s really, really good, and baseball players don’t play baseball to set records.
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