Baseball fans are drawn to extremes, which is unsurprising in a sport so thoroughly cataloged. Whether it's the records that are completely unbreakable in the modern game, like Old Hoss Radbourn's 59 wins in 1884, or the values that stick out like a sore thumb from their contemporaries, like Barry Bonds's 232 walks in 2004, there's something fascinating about the performances that are so far from the norm.
But being really, really, unbelievably good isn't the only way to be extreme. It's the absolutely terrible performances that I find most fascinating. After all, great performances are relatively common, since being excellent at baseball is a great way to ensure that you will get to play more baseball. It's much rarer to see truly awful performances that are allowed to continue, and that's why they hold such appeal to me. This was a good week for historically awful performances that somehow endure, as Jon Lester broke the record for the longest hitless drought to begin a career, extending his streak to 59 at-bats.
Jon Lester being awful at hitting is a quiet love of mine. As a pitcher with the Red Sox, he usually had between four and six plate appearances each season, via interleague play, and they were always appointment viewing. This post, by OverTheMonster's Marc Normandin, is a delight, detailing a plate appearance against Cliff Lee during spring training. The Phillies insisted on neither team using a DH, and... well, just go watch the gifs. They're wonderful.
His single, shining day of almost-success was June 27th, 2010. The Red Sox were playing the Giants, and Tim Lincecum was pitching, and not particularly well. Lester came up in the top of the second, with one out and the bases loaded. With the count 3-1, he swung at a 91-mph, middle-middle fastball, and connected.
The title of that video, "Lester's sacrifice fly" ruins the suspense entirely, so you really have to imagine you're watching it happen live. That was a real swing, and real contact! Lester doesn't flip the bat, but you can definitely see just the hint of a strut, and for one moment...
...everyone was ready for a grand slam! Don Orsillo, doing the announcing for NESN, gets excited as soon as the ball is hit, but obviously, it ends up being "merely" a deep sacrifice fly. He probably hit that ball about 400 feet, to the deepest part of AT&T, a ball that (by my rough estimate) would have gone out in about half the parks in the league.
Luckily for us, Lester was dealing that day, and Terry Francona left him in for all 9 innings, in which he gave up 1 run on 5 hits, walking 1 and striking out 9. More importantly, he got to come up to bat 3 more times, and while Lester struck out twice, he worked the count full against Guillermo Mota in the 6th before taking ball 4.
Lester had never walked before that game, and never has since. He had never scored a runner before that game, and never has since. He clearly is capable of putting the ball in play, and hitting it a long way, and yet he just broke a record for offensive futility. He is thirty-one, is in his tenth season of professional baseball, and has yet to get a hit. He has a wRC+ of -94, a walk rate of 1.5 percent, and a strikeout rate of 53.0 percent, and still has been handed a bat 23 times this year, and will probably be handed a bat another 40 times before October. Jon Lester has been terrible at hitting, and it is wonderful.
With all that said, I'll be honest: I want a better record for him to break. "Most PAs to start a career without a hit" is a little too narrow, a few too many qualifiers for my liking. The previous record holder was Joey Hamilton, a pitcher who, after his 57 at-bat drought, went on to post a career wRC+ of -18 and an OBP of .145, far better than Lester's -94 and 0.16. This was a record held by a player with 8 career walks, and I'm just not blown away by it. Jon Lester is, in my mind, the pinnacle of offensive futility, but to be recognized as such, he needs to break some more impressive (depressive?) records. So let's look at other monuments to ineffectiveness, and predict how likely Lester is to take the crown before he retires, and how satisfying it would be for him to do so, on a scale of 1 to 10.
Worst Career wRC+, min. 100 PAs
Current Holder: Don Carman/Yusmeiro Petit, -77
This is an easy one. Lester doesn't have 100 PAs yet, but he'll probably get there by the end of the year, and again, he is at -94 currently, so he has a bit of a cushion. It wouldn't take a lot to get to -77; if he reached base six times between now and the end of the season, his career OBP would be in the .050-.060 range, and Petit's is at .073, so it's certainly possible.
But this isn't a great record to take for a few reasons. One, wRC+ isn't the most widely-known stat, and having to explain to your cousin why exactly Jon Lester is the worst batter of all time isn't fun. Two, it's not a streak or a career record, and Lester could go all Bartolo Colon, smack a few doubles, and suddenly be back out of the history books. Three, even if Lester took the top spot, I'd be far more impressed with Carman (a pitcher for the Phillies, Reds, and Rangers in the '80s and '90s) and Petit. They're so much worse at pitching than Lester, and they still got 100 career PAs! Yusmeiro Petit has only 3.1 career WAR, and Carman 1.6. But that's without including hitting. When you include batting WAR, Petit falls to 2.1, and Carman to negative-0.5. Don Carman had 239 plate appearances, as a replacement-level pitcher and one of the worst hitters ever! Lester's ineptitude can be justified and explained by his pitching WAR of 31-and-growing; Carman has no such veil. He was so bad.
It was at this point that I decided I wanted to write a Don Carman article, rather than a Jon Lester article. Unfortunately, there are no images of him in the photo editor, and the editors said something about "traffic" and "not driving away readers" when I asked. It will have to remain on the shelf. Anyway:
Lester's Chance: 8/10
Most ABs without a hit, completed career
Current Holder: Randy Tate, 47
This would be a good one, a really really good one. Finishing a career completely hitless is a thing of real beauty, and the current record holder is an imposter, a pretender to the throne, a pitcher for the Mets who only played one season and was entirely forgettable. Lester already has more ABs, and part of me thinks he should consider retiring, in order to lock this one up. That would only be a minor improvement over Tate, though: Lester is at 59 ABs for his career, which is basically a single season for an NL pitcher. He's probably going to be playing for the Cubs for another 5 or 6 years, which is at least 200 more ABs. The odds of him not getting a single hit in that time frame are microscopically low -- a player with a true-talent BA of .020 has only a 1.8% chance of going 0-for-200 -- but that's exactly what makes this record so alluring. If, somehow, Jon Lester retired in 2024, with 44 WAR and 422 ABs without a hit, baseball would have reached its conclusion, and everyone could just go home. Probably not going to happen, though.
Lester's Chance: far less than 1/10
Consecutive PAs without reaching base
Current Holder: Joe Oeschger, 53-57
This required some creative usage of the Baseball Reference Play Index, and it's entirely possible I missed someone or made a mistake, so don't take this as a definitive record. That said, as far as I can tell, this one currently Joe Oeschger is the current king, with at least 53 consecutive PAs and as many as 57. This is so much more impressive than any crappy hitless streaks. This isn't the 1970s; we know that walks are useful. Bob Buhl is commonly cited in discussions of the worst hitter ever, and indeed, he holds the record for most consecutive ABs without a hit, at 88. Most of those ABs came in 1962, when he also had SIX walks and an OBP of .090! Too good, by a mile, for this conversation.
In 1918 and 1919, Joe Oeschger played for the Phillies, the Giants, and the Braves, and went 53-57 PAs without reaching base once. He had no hits, no walks, no errors, no HBPs, nothing. That, not Buhl's "streak", is futility.
Joe Oeschger doesn't care about your judgement, though, not least because he ended his career with an almost-decent .165/.192/.187 line, good for a wRC+ of exactly 1. He also set TWO unbelievable records along the way, one for the streak in question and one for the most innings pitched in a single game, at 26.
This is a great streak, one that no one has even appraoched since Jim Deshaies in 1989 and 1990, when he had between 52 and 54 consecutive PAs without reaching base. (Notably (depending on your definition of notably), your friend and mine Don Carman has three separate streaks that show up on the leaderboards, at 50, 46, and 38 PAs).
Not only is breaking a 96-year-old record for being bad at baseball a big deal, but Lester is so, so close. Since the walk he worked out of Guillermo Mota in 2010, Jon Lester has gone 47 PAs without reaching base. More thorough research is required to verify exactly what Oeschger's streak is and that he is the real record-holder, but all Lester needs to do is not reach base in his next 4 to 5 starts, and he (probably) has it.
Lester's Chance: 7/10
Clearly, the final record is the one to watch, since it a) might be broken relatively soon and b) is awesome. I'm going to look into Oeschger's record a little more closely, but I'm also going to watch Lester's start tonight with significant interest, and each of his subsequent starts in June. Whether he knows it or not, he's coming up on something big, and I'm rooting for (against) him.
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Henry Druschel is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.