These MLB records might be unbreakable

January 9th, 2023

The saying "Records are made to be broken" is about as old as the existence of sports records themselves. But in baseball, some achievements truly stretch the limits of that adage.

Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters in 1938 is one of those achievements. Only a handful of the 200-plus pitchers with a no-hitter have managed even a few perfect innings during their next trip to the mound. Vander Meer's pair might indeed turn out to be "unbreakable," or as close to that term as possible, and it calls to mind a handful of other records that are collecting dust as years go by.

Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak is one of the most famous "unbreakable" records, but his .357 average in 1941 suggests that -- with all the right circumstances in play -- a high-average, low-walk hitter could someday approach "Joltin' Joe." How that player would handle the media scrutiny as he approaches the mythical "56" is another story, of course.

With Vander Meer and DiMaggio in mind, here are a handful of other modern records that seem "unbreakable." Some of them you'll know right away; others may surprise you.

(For the purposes of this exercise, we are sticking to records that could feasibly be broken, so Cy Young's record of 749 complete games, for example, is not part of this conversation.)

The records you likely know

Cal Ripken Jr.'s 2,632 straight games played
Plenty has been written about the streak of the "Iron Man," who not only matched Lou Gehrig's once-unbreakable mark, but kept on playing for another three straight seasons. Ripken survived several close calls, including a severely twisted right knee in 1993, ankle injuries in '85 and '92 and the '96 All-Star Game, when reliever Roberto Hernandez slipped and broke Ripken's nose during a photo shoot for the AL squad (and that didn't even stop Ripken from playing in the Midsummer Classic). The longest streak recorded by any player since is Miguel Tejada's 1,152 games from 2000-07 -- not even half of Ripken's total. Ripken's streak is also more than double the NL record of 1,207 games by Steve Garvey from 1975-83.

Ichiro's 262 hits in 2004
Few players have thrilled fans in as many different ways as Ichiro, and that included his impeccable bat control and timing at the plate. Breaking Ichiro's single-season hit mark would require an uncommon combination of consistency, opportunities and the ability to make contact -- an increasing rarity in the modern game. Plus, Ichiro logged 704 at-bats in that magical 2004 season, one of only four players to cross the 700 at-bat plateau in a single campaign. So to break this record, you'd have to hit .373 and log more than 700 ABs. Good luck.

Nolan Ryan's 5,714 strikeouts and 2,795 walks
Even with today's ever-escalating strikeout climate, it's hard to imagine anyone pitching with both the ferocity and dizzying longevity needed to catch Ryan. The Ryan Express' desire to strike out every hitter had its trade-off, producing a walk record also unlikely to be equaled. But we'll likely never see another pitcher quite like him, in either regard.

Rickey Henderson's 1,406 career steals and 130 steals in 1982
Baseball is a cyclical game, but right now, it's hard to imagine the stolen base being featured again like it was in Henderson's heyday. The last player to attempt 130 steals in a season was Vince Coleman in 1985, and 34-year-old Dee Strange-Gordon was the active steals leader through the 2022 season with just 336.

Hack Wilson's 191 RBIs in 1930
Driving in runs is one of the more context-dependent statistics in baseball. While there's no doubt Wilson went on an absolute tear in 1930 (.356/.454/.723 with 56 home runs), he also played in an extreme offensive environment (a record six players topped 150 RBIs that year) and had a pair of superb table-setters in front of him in Kiki Cuyler (.428 OBP) and Woody English (.430). Manny Ramirez's 165 RBIs in 1999 stand as the closest recent attempt, but it still fell about a month's worth short of Wilson's mark.

Chief Wilson's 36 triples in 1912
Wilson never again hit half as many triples as he did in this historic year, pointing to how difficult this kind of campaign would be. No one hit more than nine triples in 2022.

Barry Bonds' 232 walks in 2004
With the kind of power that could persuade managers to intentionally walk him in the first inning or with the bases loaded, no one in baseball history tested the limits of statistics quite like Bonds. For context, only one player other than Bonds has walked at least 170 times in a season (Babe Ruth, 1923), and Bonds alone piled up more than half the walks that the entire Pirates squad drew in 2004. He was also issued 120 intentional passes that year, and only one player other than Bonds -- who had 68 IBBs in 2002 and 61 in '03 -- has ever drawn more than 45 in one year (Willie McCovey, 1969).

Babe Ruth's 177 runs scored in 1921
Like Wilson's RBI mark, Ruth got a good bit of help from a lineup that collectively hit .300 and averaged 6.2 runs. But don't shortchange the 353 times that "The Bambino" reached base, which still stands as the fifth-highest single-year total in modern history. Hitting 59 homers will go a long way, too, of course. Even at his peak, Bonds never scored 150 times in a season; Jeff Bagwell (152 runs in 2000) is the most recent player to crack 150, and he was the first since Ted Williams in 1949.

Pete Rose's 15,890 plate appearances and 4,256 hits
It is conceivable that Ichiro could have been within shouting distance of Rose's hit mark had he debuted in America well before his age-27 season. It's much harder to imagine any player not only equaling Rose's 24 big league seasons, but also maintaining the excellence required to average 662 plate appearances per season as the Hit King did. For as long and as well as Albert Pujols played, for example, he just finished his career more than 2,800 plate appearances and nearly 900 hits behind Rose.

Hank Aaron's 6,856 career total bases
Bonds may have eclipsed Aaron as the Home Run King, but no one comes close to "Hammerin' Hank" in this measure of metronomic power. Stan Musial still stands closest to Aaron with 6,134 total bases, while Miguel Cabrera -- the new active leader with Pujols retired -- is more than 1,600 behind.

Off the beaten path

Ron Hunt's 50 hit by pitches in 1971
Eclipsed only by Hughie Jennings' 51 body blows recorded before the founding of the American League, Hunt's rather painful '71 campaign hasn't been seriously challenged in nearly half a century. Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, second all time with 285 hit by pitches in his career, could only peak at 34 plunkings in 1997.

Reggie Cleveland's 3 home runs allowed in 1976
This is most certainly the wrong climate for any qualified pitcher to challenge Cleveland's mark for any non-strike season in the Integration Era (1947-present).

Jody Davis' 89 baserunners caught stealing in 1986
Davis' total ties for 166th all time, but everyone ahead of him played before the end of World War II and integration. Davis raced past Gary Carter's 75 caught-stealing throws in 1983, and no other backstop has reached 70 since Tom Pagnozzi in '91. As we referenced with Henderson above, there simply aren't enough steal attempts now to create an environment where one could throw out baserunners like Davis did for the Cubs more than 30 years ago.

Joe Sewell's three-strikeout season in 1932
An easy candidate for the toughest hitter to strike out in the history of the game, Sewell's career punchout percentage (.014 percent) is best described as "microscopic." The Hall of Famer's three strikeouts over 576 plate appearances in 1932 -- the fewest of any qualified season with at least 502 trips to the plate -- is now matched by numerous hitters on every day of the Major League schedule.