Streak on a Leash: Zac Gallen Chases History (Again)

Zac Gallen
The Arizona Republic

On Tuesday evening, Zac Gallen will take the mound in Arlington with zeroes on his mind and history at his fingertips. You see, South Jersey’s second-best ballplayer is on a bit of a heater: 28 consecutive scoreless innings pitched, including zero runs allowed in his past four starts.

Now, I can tell some of you are already scrolling back up to the top of this page to check the date on the post. It’s the same feeling you get when you lose track of where you were on your backlog of DVR’d Law & Order reruns. “I feel like I’ve seen this one already. Did I actually watch it or did I doze off on the couch? Is that Lance Reddick?”

Run a show for 20-plus seasons and you’ll recycle a plot point or two. No, you’re not losing your mind: Zac Gallen is on a second extended scoreless innings streak in a matter of just nine months. Last fall, he strung together 44.1 scoreless innings, and now he’s at it again.

Gallen’s 2022 streak broke the Diamondbacks franchise record for consecutive scoreless innings previously held by Brandon Webb, my favorite pitcher of all time. (RIP Brandon Webb’s shoulder.) It’s the seventh-longest streak of the live ball era and the longest ever in a major league that uses the designated hitter. But it’s also only the second-longest streak by an NL West pitcher named Zachary in the past 10 years. (Thanks a lot, Zack Greinke.)

To put what Gallen has done in context, let’s take a look at the all-time longest scoreless innings streaks. Last season, he came within two outs of putting together just the 11th scoreless streak of 45 innings or more in MLB history. Walter Johnson set a new all-time record of 55 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in 1913, and that record stood until Don Drysdale famously broke it in 1968. Along with Denny McLain’s 31 wins and Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA, Drysdale’s streak is one of the trio of achievements that marked that season as the Year of the Pitcher. (Those inclined toward irony might also add Carl Yastrzemski winning the batting title with a .301 average to the list.)

What goes less remarked upon is that Drysdale’s streak was one of three 40-inning scoreless streaks that season. Luis Tiant ripped one off in late April and early May, followed by Gibson, whose 47-inning streak overlapped with Drysdale’s in June. This was part of a 10-start span in which Gibson threw eight complete-game shutouts and had two other complete games in which he allowed a single earned run. All told: 90 innings pitched, two earned runs allowed. Just… get lost. That’s incomprehensible by today’s standards. Gaylord Perry also had a 40-inning streak the season before, which means that of the 25 scoreless streaks of 40 innings or more in the AL/NL era, four occurred within a span of 10 months.

After Orel Hershiser broke Drysdale’s record 20 years later, streaks of 40 or more consecutive scoreless innings went by the wayside until well into the 21st century. There was Webb’s streak in 2007, followed by R.A. Dickey in 2012, Clayton Kershaw in 2014, Greinke in 2015, and Gallen in 2022.

Gallen is still two starts away from another 40-plus-inning effort, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What he has accomplished, however, is to put together two separate streaks of four starts with zero runs allowed over six or more innings pitched. That’s happened just 16 times in the 21st century and only 36 times in the AL and NL since 1901. The only pitchers to do it twice in a career are Gallen, Kershaw, and Tiant. Gallen is already the only pitcher to put together two distinct four-start streaks in a 12-month period. If he keeps the Rangers off the board on Tuesday, he’ll become the only pitcher to put together multiple five-start streaks with these parameters and would own two of the nine total streaks in history.

Over the past nine months or so, Gallen has been the best pitcher in baseball. If you count back to last July 22, when he held the Nationals to two hits and zero walks over nine scoreless innings, he has the most WAR among qualified starters (5.0; nobody else has more than 3.5) and the best ERA (1.69, nobody else is lower than 2.15) and FIP (2.00, nobody else is under 2.74). (Who’s in second place with that 2.74? If you got to Alex Cobb in fewer than 10 guesses, please see the front desk for your prize). Since the start of 2022, Gallen has 13 starts with at least six innings pitched and zero runs allowed; Shohei Ohtani has 11, and nobody else is in double digits.

So obviously Gallen is pitching about as well as any pitcher can at the moment. He wears glasses on the mound because the sheer amount of psionic energy coursing through his body causes his eyes to roll all the way back in his head when he pitches. The rec specs make his completely whited-out eyeballs look a little less creepy on TV.

We think of pitching as being better relative to the competition in the past — the Dead Ball Era and so on. Unless Justin Verlander remains a Cy Young contender into his mid-40s, 300 wins is pretty much dead as a concept. Only 17 active pitchers even have 100 career wins. But these long multiple-start scoreless streaks are happening more now than ever.

The specifics of this chart fall more into the area of trivia than research, and the parameters have been chosen to highlight Gallen’s accomplishments. (In case there was any doubt as to whether I’m above cherry-picking my arbitrary endpoints, remember that the “Zac Gallen has been the best pitcher since…” paragraph starts on a day he had one of the best starts of his career. There are no depths to which I will not sink in my pursuit of fun facts.) If you raise the innings threshold to seven, you lose both of Gallen’s streaks — but you still get nine streaks in the 2000s, compared to 16 in the entire 20th century.

Some of that is the fact that this fun fact uses the start as the operative unit of measure, and not the inning. Pitchers don’t throw as many innings per start as they used to, and all other things being equal, it’s easier to throw six scoreless innings than nine. This much is obvious. Perry’s 40-inning scoreless streak in 1967 included two nine-inning complete-game shutouts, bookending a start in which he threw the first 16 innings of a game that was scoreless until the top of the 21st.

Certain conditions have swung the pendulum back toward hitters in the modern day: the pitch clock, the unpredictable and frequently juiced baseball, modern ballpark design, and so on. But while life is hard on pitchers generally these days, it’s easier for a pitcher to be perfect over long stretches than it was in the 20th century.

Pitchers of old were like marathoners; they could run faster than almost any other type of athlete over any distance, but their greatest asset was endurance. Now, with more pitchers to choose from, nobody needs to throw 300 innings. A workload that once divided over 10 or 12 pitchers over the course of the season can now be handled by as many as 40. So just as a runner who trains for a shorter distance runs faster than a marathoner, today’s pitchers are better on a per-inning basis because they can throw harder over shorter bursts. Pitching in the 1990s and 2000s was like running a 5K. Today’s starters are more like milers. Gallen has thrown 110 pitches in a start once in his entire career; he can hit the gas more than Ozark Jeff Tesreau could.

And the scientific advancements available to modern ballplayers allow them to perform at their peak more often, not only in terms of pitch design but also in training and medical care. A pitcher in the early 20th century might throw back-to-back shutouts, then show up for his third start of the week hours after chasing Rabbit Maranville from bar to bar the evening before. Then he might throw another shutout and muddle through for a couple games with a dead arm and no way to treat it, throw another shutout, then give up eight runs after a pleuritis flare-up, then throw another shutout only to find out that his catcher got bored with baseball, quit the team, and joined the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Consistency is hard to come by under those conditions.

But even as the conditions of baseball bend slightly to make this kind of achievement possible, Gallen is still the only one going out and doing it. Let’s see how much longer the magic lasts.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

15 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
cjmccannmember
11 months ago

S Tier headline

Mario Mendozamember
11 months ago
Reply to  cjmccann

great headline, great writing all throughout.