This year we will find out whether Jon Lester will set a new standard for all players. Not in greatness, though, but in futility. And not in pitching, but in hitting.
Jon Lester now has more plate appearances than any active player without a career hit. His 43 plate appearances dwarf the next longest streak of 28, held by Odrisamer Despaigne in his one season thus far pitching for the San Diego Padres. He is also tied for the longest ever stretch of seasons with a plate appearance without a career hit, a record shared with Justin Verlander of the Tigers. Both went hitless in their first 8 seasons of play in which they had a plate appearance. With Verlander getting his first career hits last season though, the record could become Lester’s alone in 2015. But now that he has switched from the American League to the National League by signing with the Cubs, and given how deep into games he pitches, he’ll get a few plate appearances every time he pitches, and a lot more plate appearances on the season than he’s ever had before. The consequence being that he is almost certainly going to end both strings in this coming 2015 season.
It’s not just the increased number of chances, as numerous as they will be (he is bound to match his previous career total of 43 plate appearances by July, and potentially double that total by the end of the season, tripling his career total in the process). He should also have a better chance of getting a hit each time he comes to the plate, due to increased practice time; even if he didn’t put any added emphasis on hitting in preparation for this coming year to avoid having his bat become a much bigger liability to his team, he’ll get more practice in the games themselves, and with greater frequency.
So it seems a good assumption that he won’t set a new mark for seasons at the start of a career with a plate appearance but no hits. But perhaps he could set the mark for the longest string of hitless plate appearance to begin a career. This speculation brought me to the questions, just what is that mark, and how much longer will Lester’s hitless streak have to continue to for him to break it? The answer has not been so easy to come by.
The answers for complete careers without a hit are easier to find. Baseball-reference.com’s Play Index provides that quite easily. If Lester’s career ended today, here is where he’d place on that all-time list:
Note that this only counts games from the last 101 years (beginning with 1914).
He’s squarely in fourth place, and not far off the lead. Were Lester to retire after two more games played, he just may well top this list. But that’s not likely to happen.
Getting the list of longest hitless stretches to begin a career proved to be more difficult. I got quite far by making liberal use of the “First to nth seasons” fields in Baseball-reference.com’s Play Index, but that only provided totals for hitless full seasons. To determine exactly how long a given player’s career-opening hitless streak went, I had to add to their prior career total how far into the next season their first career hit came. This let some players slip through the cracks, when their first career hit came deep into a season with a lot of plate appearances in it. I later discovered their streak finder for games, and was able to get a list of hitless games at the start of a career, and sort by number of at bats. This has made things much easier. Adjustments from this list have always proven to be small, and it gives me confidence that I now have a complete list – at least back to 1914.
Here is the list of the longest few hitless stretches to start a career, ordered by number of plate appearances (and please note that strikeout totals in a few cases may be low by 1 or 2 strikeouts):
Though it’s probably fairer to sort by at bats instead of by plate appearances. Here’s that list:
That puts Lester in a tie for 19th place overall when going by plate appearances, and tied for 22nd overall when going by at bats. However, after his first two starts of the season, he could very likely reach 6th and 8th on these lists respectively. Barring injury, we should know no later than June whether he takes the overall record of 66 PA and 57 AB away from Joey Hamilton.
Some interesting observations I made along the way in tabulating these lists:
As one might expect, all the top positions on these lists are held by pitchers. Vic Harris leads position players with 39 PA and 36 AB.
My list goes out to about the top 45 or so players. Of these, most got a single for their first hit, but about 10% got doubles. The only one to break through with a home run was Stephen Vogt, a catcher and outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s who did so in 2013.
About 10% got two hits in the game in which they ended their streak. Highest on the list to do so was Marv Breuer, who went 2 for 4 with a walk and double and scored 2 runs in the game in which he ended his streak. I don’t have game details for his breakthrough game, so I can’t tell if the hits were consecutive. Pat Jarvis, at around 9th place on these lists, did get a hit in the next plate appearance after his first hit, having going 0-for-41 before his first hit.
Most players on these lists struck out more than half the time.
Previously I mentioned that Lester and Verlander were tied for most seasons with a plate appearance without a career hit. It is notable that they are both American League pitchers playing in the era of the designated hitter and also in the era of interleague play. This affords the best chance at such a streak, giving each only a few plate appearances per year; not enough for them to care about their hitting all that much, and of course meaning a “string of bad luck” can go a long way by lasting over several seasons.