On July 17, South Bend shortstop Andrew Velazquez went 0-for-4 with a strikeout. For almost anyone else, that wouldn't be noteworthy. But for Velazquez it was the first game since April 21 that he had not reached base, an on-base streak that stretched for 74 games.
It was an amazing run, a demonstration of his ability to control the strike zone and figure out a way to reach base day after day.
But it wasn't a minor league record.
At the time, multiple sources reported that Velazquez broke a minor league on-base streak record of 71 games, previously held by Kevin Millar and Kevin Youkilis. Velazquez was on MLB Network this week to talk about his record.
Velazquez's streak is the longest minor league on-base streak we know about, but it really illustrates how much minor league history we don't know. Reliable records for something as esoteric as minor league on-base streaks go back maybe 20 years. Using the same timeframe for a major league hit streak, we'd be talking about Jimmy Rollins' 38-game hit streak as the major league record, leaving out the seven longer hit streaks that came before it.
“That's what people don't understand. They want it to fit in a nice box like it does today. It's going to be impossible to recreate it," long-time minor league executive and historian Dave Chase said. Chase has spent years trying to develop a minor league baseball museum. As part of that, he is part of a small group of volunteer historians who’ve pored over old box scores and newspaper clippings for years to try to fill in the numerous gaps in the history of minor league ball.
Those efforts have managed to fill in some of the obvious gaps. But more than anything they have illustrated how much we'll never know.
Want to know the best single season on-base percentage in minor league history? There is no answer. OK, OBP is a somewhat modern stat. Slugging percentage? Same problem. Runs batted in? We have some ideas, but it's not a comprehensive list. Earned run average? There's no chance that we'll ever have an accurate answer.
Once you get past some pretty basic first-line stats—batting average, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, stolen bases and pitchers strikeouts—the limits of what we know for minor league baseball gets stark pretty quickly.
In 1919, Joe Wilhoit hit safely in 69 consecutive games for Wichita (Western League). It's the longest hit streak in professional baseball. But we don't know if he had an on-base streak that was even longer because no records were kept of his walks or hit-by-pitches that year. Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 61 consecutive PCL games in 1933, but again, we don't know what his on-base streak was.
It's impossible to be fully confident that Wilhoit's 69-game streak is the longest in minor league baseball history. There might be a longer one that was lost to history because the player switched leagues midseason or it otherwise went unnoticed.
Gary Redus' 1978 minor league seasons is one of the hidden gems of baseball. He hit a minor league record .462 for Billings. He posted a .552 on-base percentage (he walked 62 times in 68 games) while hitting 17 home runs and stealing a league-best 42 bases. Why was he in Billings all year and never promoted may be one of the most baffling questions of the 1970s, just ahead of the missing gaps on the Nixon tapes, but we also don't know if he posted an impressive on-base streak as part of his amazing season.
Minor league box scores for many years didn't include walks for hitters (or hit-by-pitches). Look at a Spink Baseball Guide from even the 1940s and you won't find total walks in a season for hitters in many leagues. Walks were thought to be just a mistake by the pitcher, not something that was actually in part controlled by a hitter's knowledge of the strike zone.
This type of issue last surfaced in a significant manner in 2004 when Cardinals' righthander Brad Thompson threw 57 2/3 scoreless innings in the Double-A Southern League. There was some argument whether it set a minor league record, or whether it fell short of Irv Wilhelm's mark with the 1907 Birmingham Barons (For more see: http://www.baseballamerica.com/news/040520thompson/).
When it comes to major league baseball, retrosheet, the Society of American Baseball Research and other historians have been able to fill in many of the gaps in knowledge. Major League games box scores ran in papers around the country, as did play-by-play accounts of many games, giving researchers countless options to fill in blanks in knowledge. The information for minor leagues was much more limited. If the Ontario paper didn't run a box score for an Ontario Orioles game in 1947, it doesn't exist. And for the games for which box scores can be found, the stats are often much more sparse than a modern day box score—that's why ERA records can't really be recreated.
There is plenty of room for further research to try to continue to make the gaps of knowledge smaller, but when it comes to minor league stat “records,” especially when it comes to more esoteric stats, we need to acknowledge just how much we don't know.