Horse running through field

Zenyatta vs. Joe DiMaggio

by Roger Lyons

Hands down, the greatest streak in sports is Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in the season of 1941. I say this advisedly–advised, that is, by an article written by Stephen Jay Gould for The New York Review of Books (August 18, 1988), which I read back then and managed to track down for this occasion in that publication’s online archive. In it, Gould cites Nobel laureate in physics, Edward Mills Purcell, who conducted probability analyses of all recorded streaks in baseball to find out which ones had been likely to occur all along and which ones were utterly improbable. He found that all “fell victim to the laws of probability,” except for Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

That streak is so improbable, Purcell concludes, that “to make it likely (probability greater than 50%) that a run of even 50 games will occur in the history of baseball up to (then), baseball rosters would have to include either four lifetime .400 batters or 52 lifetime .350 batters over careers of one thousand games.” Nobody has ever hit .400 lifetime, and, then as now, only three major league players have had lifetime batting averages over .350–Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe Jackson. Joe Dimmagio hit only .325 lifetime.

So, there you are. The question is, how many consecutive races would Zenyatta have to win in order to run up a streak as improbable as that?

I wouldn’t know how to get the right answer, but let’s look at it this way. The nearest any player has approached Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak was Pete Rose’s 44-game streak in 1978, not counting the old record of 45 games set by Willie Keeler in 1896–a different era. Dimaggio’s streak was 1.27 times longer than that of Pete Rose.

But we know from Purcell’s study that a 44-game hitting streak has at least a 50% probability. Every once in awhile someone is going to achieve it even though nobody except Pete Rose has done so lately (kind of like the Triple Crown). Given past racing streaks, I think it’s fair to assume that winning 18 consecutive races–she’s won 19 already–is probable enough to be comparable to a 44-game hitting streak. If so, it would mean Zenyatta could equal Dimaggio’s streak by winning 23 consecutive races.

But it can’t be that simple. She has the very great advantage of entering the starting gate at a chosen time and place, and that depends to some extent on how she’s training. Dimaggio had to step up to the plate every day, wherever the Yankees happened to be playing. Again, I don’t know the technically correct way to do this, but it seems to me Zenyatta would have to win, say, 25–maybe 26–consecutive races in order to be in the same ballpark as Joltin’ Joe.

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