NEVER SAY NEVER

An examination of the most unbreakable records in sports

Crunching the numbers. Composite photo by Jack Brame

Here's why the Tampa Bay Rays have taken two straight from the Astros in the ALCS, and it's the only possible explanation – the Rays are used to playing in front of tens of thousands of empty seats.

In 2019, the Rays finished in 29th place (out of 30 MLB teams) in attendance, averaging only 14,731 fans at home in crappy, desolate Tropicana Field. In 2018, next to last again, averaging 14,259 fans. Both times, the only team to draw fewer fans was that disaster down the Tamiami Trail in Florida, the Miami Marlins.

In 2017, the Rays grabbed the gold ring, dead last in the big leagues, averaging only 15,670 fans. That's the sound of one hand clapping.

Over the same three-year period, the Astros averaged 35,276 fans (2019), 36,796 fans (2018) and 29,674 (2017) in beautiful Minute Maid Park.

I know, the attendance excuse is scraping, but desperate times …

Meant to be broken?

During the French Open final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the Tennis Channel put up a graphic of "unbreakable" sports records:

Rafael Nadal's 12 French Open titles (now 13).

Chris Evert's 125 consecutive victories on clay.

Steffi Graf's Golden Slam: winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Olympic gold medal in 1988.

Bill Russell's 11 NBA titles.

Michael Phelps' 23 Olympic gold medals.

Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

I'm not certain that some of these records are "unbreakable." Actually I'm surprised that a slap hitter, batting leadoff so he gets five at bats a game, hasn't already topped Joe D's hit streak. The baseball record that defies all boundaries of the modern game, and is 100-percent guaranteed never to be broken, is pitcher Cy Young's 511 wins. Let's crunch the numbers. If a pitcher won 20 games for 25 seasons, he'd still need 11 more wins to match Cy Young. Consider that in 2019, only two pitchers in all of baseball won 20 games, and they both happened to be Houston Astros – Justin Verlander with 21 wins and Gerrit Cole with 20. The active pitcher with the most wins in Verlander with 226 wins, followed by Zack Greinke with 208 wins. Both are well into their 30s, and they're not even halfway to Cy Young. As baseball historians and nerds know, Cy Young also holds the all-time mark for losses with 315 L's. If you really want to stump Charlie Pallilo, ask him how many shutouts Young tossed. Answer: 46. For comparison, Verlander has pitched 16 seasons. He has nine career shutouts.

At some point, a tennis player could match Graf's Golden Slam. I'm a little surprised that Serena Williams hasn't done it.

For sheer "no chance, never ever gonna happen," the sports record that stands alone atop Mount Olympus is Joey Chestnut's 13 victories in the July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest, regarded as the Super Bowl of Competitive Eating. There's no telling how many Yellow Mustard Belts Chestnut will win before he retires. He's still at the top of his game, shattering his own record in 2020 by inhaling 75 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. The second place finisher, Darron Breedon, consumed "only" 42 dogs.

Here are a few non-sports records that I believe will never be approached:

Robert Wadlow holds the record of being the world's tallest man in Earth's history: 8 feet 11 inches (and counting). He died in 1940 at age 22 and still growing. The tallest players ever in the NBA are Manute Bol and Gheorghe Muresan, both 7 feet 7 inches – more than Subway footlong shorter than Wadlow. The tallest current player is Tacko Fall at 7 feet 5 inches, or as Wadlow would call him, "Shorty."

The heaviest man in history is Jon Brower Minnoch of Washington State, who tipped the scales, presumably at a truck station, at 1,400 pounds. He once went on a diet and lost 924 pounds, also a record. Think of it this way, he dropped more weight than the entire Houston Texans defensive line. However, less than a year later, he yoyo'd back over 1,000 pounds. He weighed 798 pounds at the time of his death in 1983.

Tazio Gavioli of Italy did 36 chin-ups using only his pinkies in 2018.

NFL star defensive back Patrick Peterson holds the record for taking the most selfies in one hour – 1,449. He took photos with the entire student body of Dear Valley High School in Glendale, Arizona, one at a time, in January, 2018. Obviously, as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, he had lots of free time in January.

Time saver

If tennis wanted to save fans a lot of time and money, they'd just have Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic play a round-robin tournament at the Grand Slams. The only reason that Dominic Thiem snuck into the winner's circle at the U.S. Open this year was because Federer was out with an injury, Nadal chose not to come to New York and Djokovic was disqualified after accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball.

While we're at it, college football should just have Alabama play Clemson one game, winner-take-all, for the national championship.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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