On the anniversary of DiMaggio beginning his magical run, let's consider who is best equipped to do something similar today.
It was only 78 years ago Wednesday that Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio began his legendary trek toward history. His 56-game hit streak lasted for more than two months of the 1941 season—from May 15 through July 16—and stands as one of baseball's most unbreakable records. It was an unfathomable feat then, and even more so now.
The scruntiny any player would face if they made a serious run at the record now would be intolerable. It's not going to happen, but we asked our staff to be a bit imaginitive. Below are their picks for one player today who they could envision getting a hit in 56 straight games.
My pick to get a hit in 56 straight games (total fantasy; no way this is happening) would be Nolan Arenado. Well, he did once get halfway there. (Only four other active players have done so.) He's a terrific hitter who doesn't walk a ton and plays his home games in the world's best place for hits.
Michael Brantley has some of the best contact skills in the game—and this year, he's been doing even better than usual in this department, as one of only two players with a contact rate above 90%. While it's certainly true that a high contact rate doesn't always (or often) equal a high rate of good contact, for Brantley, it often has, and he's begun the season on track for a career year. That’s saying something. Excluding his injury-ravaged 2016, in four of his last five seasons, he's had a batting average above .300... and in the fifth, he hit .299. Sure, it's hard to identify any player who could reasonably serve as a "favorite" for a feat like this in 2019, but if there's anyone who puts the ball in play enough to qualify, it's Brantley.
I'll go with Lorenzo Cain, and not only because he went 5-for-6 in a game earlier this week, a fun bit of numerical symmetry for this particular roundtable question. If you're going to back someone to break DiMaggio's record, you want to look for a few key traits. Specifically, you want to back a player with elite bat-to-ball skills who doesn't walk a ton and has at least above-average speed. You also want someone who uses the whole field and doesn't get shifted on much, if at all. Cain checks all those boxes and hits leadoff, which means extra plate appearances compared with someone in the middle of the order. With Cain, you're getting a ton of bites at the apple in every game, and you're doing it with a player who has hit .299 over 2,995 plate appearances going back to the start of the 2014 season.
Sure, it’s unlikely anyone ever snags a hit in 56 straight games, but we’ve seen Jose Altuve put together lengthy streaks before. At his worst, he should still be considered among the most consistent hitters in MLB. Consistent batter with a smaller strike zone? I’ll take my chances.
I'll take my chances with someone who already knocked a hit in 31 straight games between the end of last year and the beginning of this one, Whit Merrifield. It's an unconventional pick, sure, but so is this kind of record. Merrifield's got the speed to collect a few rogue infield singles, the endurance to play every day and the quality contact ability required to go on a lengthy run of success. Playing in a quiet market like Kansas City doesn't hurt, either.
How many even knew Merrifield was more than halfway to DiMaggio's record earlier this season?
To possibly get a hit in that many straight games in today’s game, a player would have to swing at everything and make quality contact with most of those pitches. I present you Ozzie Albies, whose greatest liability last season—swinging at everything—has become an asset to him because of his contact rate on pitches outside of the zone and how hard he hits the ball. In addition to being a truly gifted hitter, passing DiMaggio would take a ton of luck, favorable official scoring and a lack of walks—all of which assisted DiMaggio in his 56-game streak. I’ll take Albies as someone who can succeed in today’s era of elite relievers and high spin rate.
Ozzie Albies hit his third career grand slam tonight, driving a 1-2 pitch off the facing of the second deck in right field.— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) May 5, 2019
At 22 years, 117 days, @ozzie became the youngest player with three career grand slams since Seattle’s Alex Rodriguez hit three by the age of 20 in 1996. pic.twitter.com/IyUuXYbg2q
Present injury woes aside, Jose Altuve is one of the few players alive who could even march halfway to Joe DiMaggio’s historic streak. Our current whiff-heavy age makes 56 nearly impossible, but Altuve is built to rack up an impressive hitting streak nonetheless.
He sprays the ball to all fields and plays in a friendly ballpark, surrounded by one of baseball’s deepest lineups. It’s difficult to pitch around Altuve when Alex Bregman lurks on deck. This season has not been kind to Altuve as he enters Tuesday batting a career-worst .243. Yet the small sample size is far less indicative than Altuve’s 1,014 hits and three batting titles since 2014. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming within 20 games of DiMaggio. If any player were to pull off such a streak, Altuve is as good a bet as any.
Let’s use Science to determine this answer. After all, the ideal player to break DiMaggio’s record is one with a high contact rate, minuscule strikeout and walk rates (so as to eliminate empty at-bats where the ball isn’t put in play), and also routinely puts up high BABIP figures.
That’s a lot of conditionals, you may be saying to yourself. And it is. That should illustrate just how hard it is to do what DiMaggio did, especially considering the not-insignificant role luck played in the whole thing. But based on all those variables, the hitter who would be your best shot is … well, no one. The Angels’ David Fletcher has the game’s highest contact rate and also rarely walks or strikes out, but he has no power. Willians Astudillo similarly doesn’t whiff or draw free passes, but his playing time is irregular. Maybe Michael Brantley or Mike Trout or Jose Altuve? Ultimately, my bet would be Altuve, who best marries batting average with power, but the real answer here is it will never happen. Even science has its limits.