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Odds against Ethier in quest to keep streak alive much longer


With an RBI infield single Monday night against the Cubs, the Dodgers' Andre Ethier became the first man to collect a hit in 28-straight games since the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman hit in 30 straight in early 2009 and just the 10th man to assemble a streak of 28 or more games since the turn of the millennium. Impressive as that might be, Ethier is only half way to Joe DiMaggio's record of 56 straight games, a record he can only tie by duplicating the feat he has already achieved, something it seems safe to say isn't going to happen. In the 92 seasons since 1919, which is as far back as's game logs go, there have been 65 streaks of 28 or more games, not counting Ethier's; 28 of them didn't even make it to 30.

The closest anyone has ever come to DiMaggio's 56 games was the record DiMaggio broke, the 45 game-streak of Wee Willie Keeler that started with the final game of 1896 and extended 44 games into the 1897 season. Just behind Keeler is Pete Rose, who hit in 44 straight games in 1978 but was stopped still a dozen games shy of DiMaggio. Only three other men in history have hit in 40 consecutive major league games, and only DiMaggio and Rose have done it since the death of president Warren G. Harding in 1923.

Every time a batter comes to the plate, the odds are against him. Since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, the same year that DiMaggio hit in 56-straight games, no batter has gotten a hit in as many as 40 percent of his at-bats over a full season, and even Williams in 1941 went hitless in nearly 70 percent of his plate appearances due to all the walks he drew. The odds of a good hitter getting a hit in a single game are far better (DiMaggio in 1941, for example, had an 81 percent chance of getting a hit in any random game), but having that particular coin come up heads 56 times in a row is every bit as unlikely as it sounds, if not more so.

There have been many attempts to calculate the odds of DiMaggio's hitting streak, but even that is a near impossible task. There are simply too many variables at play to run a simple probability equation. The best advanced number crunchers have been able to do is to run computer simulations to see how often such a streak occurs given the probabilities provided by batting average.

One such simulation was run in 2008 by Cornell professor Steven Strogatz and graduate student Samuel Arbesman, who published their results in the New York Times. Strogatz and Arbesman simulated the entire history of baseball, from 1871 to 2005, 10,000 times, using every major league player and their actual batting averages, and produced roughly 4,200 streaks of 56 games or more. That sounds like a lot until you realize they simulated 1.34 million seasons and such streaks occurred in just 0.3 percent of them, or one every 319 years.

Another simulation run in late 2003 by Bob Brown and Peter Goodrich, the results of which were published in the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)'s Baseball Research Journal, suggested that a hitter of Joe DiMaggio's ability could have played for 18,519 years and not hit in 56-straight games on more than one occasion. The results of those two simulations are wildly disparate, but they lead to the same conclusion: It isn't going to happen again in our lifetimes.

And those are just the odds, divorced from the pressure-packed human reality of performing the feat. The actual act of hitting in 56 straight games, with the increasing media attention and every opposing pitcher and team gunning to become the one that stops the streak, is another thing entirely. The Indians' Ken Keltner was a seven-time All-Star and the third baseman on the Tribe's last championship team in 1948, but he is best remembered for making two key plays to help stop DiMaggio's streak in 1941. Rose's streak came to an end in part because Atlanta relief ace Gene Garber asked to pitch a third inning in a game the Braves were leading 16-4 just to have a chance to stop Rose.

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"Bobby Cox wanted to take me out to at that point to give my arm some rest," Garber told Baseball Digest's Joe O'Loughlin in a 2004 interview. "I told Bobby that I wanted to stay in and stop Rose's streak." Garber fell behind Rose 2-1, then, for fear of ending Rose's streak via a walk, went exclusively to his changeup, which was not only his out-pitch, but the pitch he could best control. Rose fouled off the first, then missed the second, ending the game and his streak. Garber jumped for joy, drawing the ire of Rose.

"I thought Garber had won the World Series," Rose said after the game. "Most pitchers with a 16-4 lead just challenge you. They ain't out there inning-and-outing you, upping-and-downing you like it's the seventh game of the World Series"

Said Garber, "I realized at that point, I would be forever linked to this event and that the rest of my career would take a back seat to this incident."

Ethier can reach the 30-game mark with hits against the Cubs on Tuesday and Wednesday. He has reason for optimism given his strong numbers against the two scheduled Chicago starters, Ryan Dempster (7-for-20) and Carlos Zambrano (8-for-18). Then, after an off-day on Thursday, the Dodgers will hit the road to face the Mets and Pirates. Ethier has had success against Saturday's Mets starter Chris Young (12-for-29) and has a double in just two trips against Sunday's starter, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, but he has never faced 24-year-old lefty Jonathon Niese, who will start for New York on Friday. Niese could provide a significant challenge in that Ethier is hitting .443 against right-handers this season, but just .219 against lefties. Still, the Dodgers have already faced six lefty starters during Ethier's streak. Ethier is hitting .333 or better in his career against all four starters he's likely to face during the Pirates series, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm, and Charlie Morton, albeit in very small samples against everyone but the former San Francisco Giant Correia. Of those three, only Maholm, who should start the potential 36th game of Ethier's streak, is left-handed. Ethier is 2-for-6 career against Maholm.

If Ethier manages a hit in each of those games, he'll return to Los Angeles with his streak at 37 games, which would tie Tommy Holmes of the 1945 Boston Braves for the ninth-longest streak of all time, but would still be 19 games short of DiMaggio's record.

Because he has not yet reached 30 games and the weekend brought two significant news stories -- the devastating tornado that hit Alabama on Friday and the slaying of Osama bin Laden on Sunday -- Ethier has avoided the spotlight of the national media attention thus far. If, however, he gets to 30 games on Wednesday, he'll likely be a major story when he arrives in New York this weekend. Recalling DiMaggio's streak, late Yankee pitching great Lefty Gomez told Maury Allen, "He got up to thirty, thirty-five games and that was all anybody in the country seemed interested in. Joe was the biggest news there was. They moved him from the sports pages to the front pages." That was in the summer of 1941, when Hitler's army was marching across Europe and before there were 24-hour television stations looking to fill time, never mind several 24-hour sports and baseball channels ready to cover his every move and cut live to his every at-bat, all hoping for something that by every reasonable expectation isn't going to happen.

It's early in the season, so there are no pennant races to draw attention away. The Dodgers are a .500 team coming off a losing season and facing an ownership crisis that has made their fanbase ever more eager for a positive on-field distraction. Even Ethier's streak comes with off-field baggage given the outfielder's late-March comments about 2011 possibly being his last year in L.A. because of what he perceived as the Dodgers' unwillingness to pay arbitration prices for their best young players. That was something of a sour-grapes reaction to the team's stalled talks with Ethier's agent about a contract extension and the subsequent extension given to pitcher Chad Billingsley, as well as the non-tendering of catcher Russell Martin, but it spoke to the impact the McCourt divorce is having on the psyche of the team.

Given that, Ethier's streak feels all the more important to both Dodgers fans and players, which will only serve to ratchet up the pressure on the 29-year-old Ethier, leaving him along in the spotlight to face impossible odds and an army of pitchers hoping to experience their own Gene Garber feeling.

Should Ethier get his streak past 30 games, where 19 of the 53 longest streaks in major league history -- including Zimmerman's -- stalled out, that pressure will only increase. Should it get past 35 the intensity will be immense. Odds are, though, it won't get that far.