An obscure, but worthy, baseball record

A's reliever does something that hasn't been done -- but has been thought about -- in 101 years.

Published July 28, 2008 8:55PM (EDT)

It's not every day that a 101-year-old record gets broken, but one of the great things about baseball is that there are some days like that. Sunday was one of those days.

Rookie Oakland A's reliever Brad Ziegler pitched two shutout innings in a 6-5 win over the Texas Rangers Sunday, along the way breaking the record for the most scoreless innings at the start of a career. Ziegler, who made his big-league debut May 31, has tossed 27 frames without allowing a run. The old record of 25, which Ziegler had tied Friday, was set by George McQuillan of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1907.

It's not exactly 756 home runs or a 21-strikeout game or a 56-game hitting streak, but it's also not the kind of obscure, made-up record that has become fashionable in the age of the easily accessible database. My all-time favorite along this line is the flurry of news stories two years ago about Albert Pujols setting a record for the fewest games to hit his first 19 home runs in a season.

I still can't get over that. Fastest man to 19 home runs in a season. Not even 20. Nineteen. That was news.

Unlike with that "record," it's at least imaginable that someone, somewhere, at some idle moment in the last 101 years, actually had the thought "I wonder what the record is for consecutive shutout innings at the start of a career?" It might have happened on a long bus ride in 1953, or maybe in a dentist's waiting room in 1968, the year of the pitcher, when some rookie began his career with a shutout and was taking the hill for his second start.

Rollie Fingers, Andy Messersmith, Jack Billingham and Dock Ellis all made their debuts that year. Four pretty good pitchers. None of them made it to seven shutout innings to start their career.

Ziegler is a 28-year-old side-armer who has survived two skull fractures and a stint in independent baseball with the Schaumberg Flyers. A 20th round pick in 2003 -- by the Phillies! Irony, TV people! -- Ziegler's never been anyone's idea of a hot prospect, which is another great thing about this record and about baseball. A guy can struggle along in the minors for a long time, be an afterthought, and then all of a sudden, he can get hot and do something nobody's done for 101 freakin' years.

Think of all the guys who've started their careers in the last 101 years, which includes about a dozen years of the deadball era as well as the current era of the flame-throwing relief specialist who can just let it fly an inning at a time and never have to see the same batter twice in a game. Ziegler's beaten 'em all at this one thing. A nobody. Baseball's not unique in having that quality, but it has more of it than any other sport.

A long shutout-innings streak is a little bit like a long hitting streak. There's skill involved, of course, but there's also a lot of luck necessary.

Ziegler has hardly been dominant, striking out only 13 and walking six in those 27 innings. Opposing hitters have an absurdly low .216 batting average on balls in play -- fair balls that aren't home runs -- against him. The league average hovers around .300 -- it's .295 in the A.L. at the moment -- and large variations from that are mostly a matter of luck.

Ziegler also hasn't been perfect. It's not as though he hasn't allowed any runs to score at all. They just haven't been his own runs. In fact, on Friday, the night he tied the record, he came into the game and promptly gave up an RBI single to the first man he faced. That run was charged to the previous pitcher. There have been a total of 16 men on base when Ziegler has entered games during the streak. Four of them have scored.

And the streak might not mean much of anything. In other words, sell high, fantasy players who play in leagues that use middle relievers!

Pitchers with unusual deliveries, like the side-arming Ziegler, often baffle opposing hitters the first time or two around the league. But major league hitters catch up. They adjust, and then they talk to each other. Oddball types have a way of crashing back down to earth.

Unlike Ziegler, who only has to face hitters once per outing, George McQuillan put together his shutout-innings streak as a starting pitcher. He was also only 22, not 28, and kind of a hotshot. He won 23 games the next year, though he lost 17, and then settled in to a career as a journeyman with the Phillies, Reds, Pirates and Indians.

He was finished at 33 and largely forgotten until this past week, when his Baseball-Reference page, available for sponsorship for just $5, probably started getting multiple hits per day for the first time ever.

See what baseball can do? It can wake the dead. A hundred and one years from now, some three-handed lefty from the planet Tralfamadore will use his cold-fusion slider to toss 30 straight shutout innings at the beginning of his career, and we -- well, you -- will say, "Brad Ziegler? Never heard of him, but damn, something nobody's done for 101 years. That's one of the great things about baseball, right there."

Then you'll GoogleYahooMicrosoftStarbucks Ziegler, find this story and think, "Wow, writing's a lot better now."

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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