You probably remember their long hitting streaks, but did you realize that Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley still have the longest two hitting streaks in baseball since 1988?
Just ahead of September 2005, Rollins said he would hit .400 in the regular season’s final month. He ended up hitting in every single game that month, going 49 for 122 to hit .402.
Rollins’ 38-gamer is the longest hitting streak in MLB since Paul Molitor’s 39 in 1987. Rollins finished the 2005 season with a hit in 36 straight games and carried it over into the first two games of 2006.
There was some controversy back then as to whether a true hitting streak could carry over into a new season. And even if Rollins did improbably beat Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game record – which began 79 years ago this week – DiMaggio’s mark still would have held up as the longest ever single-season hit streak.
Rollins, despite the superstitions typically associated with these things, wasn’t shy to talk about it during that offseason. And the opportunity came up a lot.
“You know they’ll be coming after you,” a limo driver in Las Vegas said to Rollins that offseason.
“Huh?” Rollins asked
“The hitting streak,” the driver replied. “You know the pitchers will be coming after you.”
Rollins was shocked the driver knew. “They don’t even have major league baseball in Vegas,” he said. “I guess some people have noticed, and that’s cool.”
Utley’s 35-game hit streak came later in the 2006 season, matching Luis Castillo’s in 2002 and trailing only Rollins’ over the last 32 seasons.
Utley’s streak began on June 23, 2006 and ran through Aug. 3. He hit .405 in the 35 games with 25 extra-base hits, 30 RBI and 35 runs scored. Yet the Phillies went just 17-18.
Utley, unsurprisingly, handled his streak differently.
“I tried to talk to him about it one time,” Rollins said in ’06. “He had just gotten a hit in his last at-bat against Atlanta (on July 21, the 22nd game of the streak). We were out in the field, and I said something to him. He just gave me those big eyes.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Are you superstitious?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ That was the end of that. I haven’t talked to him about it since.”
Over the last two decades, many of the extended hitting streaks across the game have ended at exactly 30 games, whether that’s something psychological or just a coincidence. From 2000 to 2016, Freddie Freeman, Andre Ethier, Ryan Zimmerman, Moises Alou, Willy Taveras and Albert Pujols all hit in 30 straight games and had their streak snapped in Game 31.
In fact, the only player since Utley and Rollins to hit in more than 30 straight games was Dan Uggla in 2011, an ironic fact because Uggla would have been one of the least likely players of his era to deliver that sort of consistency. Uggla hit .233 the year he hit in 33 straight games and was a career .241 hitter.
It’s not a coincidence that these long hitting streaks have largely disappeared from the game. MLB’s strikeout total has risen 14 seasons in a row. In 2019, there were 10,563 more strikeouts than in 2005, the year Rollins’ hit streak began.
Walk totals have also risen dramatically over the last five years. There were 1,875 more walks in 2019 than there were in 2014. Utley, a very selective hitter, walked only 11 times during his 35-game streak. In the current era, he’d have likely walked more, which would have given him fewer opportunities to pick up extra hits or perhaps extend the streak.
There are so many fewer balls in play nowadays. And the singles hitters like Castillo and Juan Pierre have never been valued less. For much of baseball’s history, if you hit .290 without walking or hitting for power, you were still regarded as a .290 hitter. Now, if you hit .290 without walking or hitting for power, you’re probably not at the top of your lineup, and your low OPS sticks out just as much as your .290 batting average, maybe more.
Rollins’ streak nearly ended on opening day 2006. He went hitless in his first three at-bats, then faced a 3-0 count against Adam Wainwright in the eighth inning of a lopsided game. Give then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa credit for his handling of that AB.
“You have to play the game,” La Russa said. “A hitting streak, that’s part of the game. We can’t walk him in that spot. I wouldn’t want us to be the team that walked him in his last at-bat and took it away from him.”
Rollins and Utley also just had the skill sets conducive to long hitting streaks. Both could hit for average and for power, both had speed, and when they got hot, look out. One of the most important factors in a hitting streak is beating out bang-bang plays. Utley had eight infield hits during his streak. Rollins had six during his.
Another major factor was lineup protection. As hot as Utley was in the summer of ’06, intentionally walking him didn’t make a ton of sense because he was batting in front of Bobby Abreu (until Abreu was traded) and Ryan Howard. Utley’s 35-gamer took place the same year as Howard’s historic MVP season, the .313/.425/.659 with 58 homers and 149 RBI season. Back then, you were not putting anyone on base ahead of Howard if you didn’t absolutely need to.
In a shortened 2020 season, it is unlikely that someone will eclipse Rollins’ or Utley’s mark. Just fewer opportunities. Which active major-leaguers are best equipped to exceed Rollins’ 38-game streak?
I wouldn’t bet on anyone but my top four picks, based on skill, contact rate and aggressiveness would be Whit Merrifield, D.J. LeMahieu, Jeff McNeil and Tim Anderson. It’s an enormous ask of any player, but the key would seem to be finding a very good hitter who doesn’t walk much and bats toward the top of his order, allowing for the maximum number of chances to extend the streak.