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Can Whit challenge DiMaggio’s hitting streak and will it count the same?

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Would there be an asterisk if he broke DiMaggio’s record?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Whit Merrifield doubled to begin Sunday’s game, which officially extended his hitting streak to 28, the second-longest hitting streak in franchise history. Only George Brett’s 30-game hitting streak in 1980 stands in front of Whit in Royals lore. However he has a long way to go to even approach the all-time record, one of the most revered in all of baseball, a 56-game hitting streak by the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio in 1941.

Could Whit have a shot at even coming close to the record? The conventional wisdom is that for anyone to approach Joltin’ Joe’s record, it would have to be (1) someone who makes a lot of contact; (2) someone fast enough to beat out an infield single now and then; and (3) a left-handed hitter who is a step closer to first base to beat out that infield single.

Merrifield makes a fair amount of contact for his day with a strikeout rate of just 16.3%, but historically he would be considered a free-swinger compared to guys like Brett (7.8%) or DiMaggio (an insane 4.8%). He is fast enough to lead the Majors in steals, although not a burner like, say Rickey Henderson or Willie Wilson. And alas, Merrifield is a right-handed hitter.

Still, those conventional wisdoms aren’t all that convincing. Tony Gwynn fits all those criteria to a tee and is considered one of the greatest pure hitters of all-time, and yet the longest hitting streak of his entire career was just 25 games. Other speedy, left-handed, high-contact hitters like Ichiro Suzuki and Rod Carew never had a hitting streak more than 30 games. On the other side, Joe DiMaggio wasn’t a right-handed hitter who wasn’t particularly fast.

It seems that a long hitting streak requires a pretty good hitter and a lot of luck. DiMaggio’s streak nearly ended at 35 when he was hitless through six innings against the St. Louis Browns. Manager Luke Sewell ordered his pitcher to walk DiMaggio in the seventh, but Bob Moncrief refused, and ended up giving up a single to DiMaggio.

If Whit is good enough and lucky enough to begin to challenge Joe’s historic record, would he even supplant the streak? Joe’s hitting streak took place all in the course of one season - from May 15 to July 17 of 1941. But Merrifield’s streak began last season. He went hitless on September 9, but reached safely on a hit in each of the last 20 games of the season. Then he took six months off, and resumed his streak on March 28 of this year against the White Sox, collecting hits in each of his first eight games this year, so far.

Officially, baseball recognizes two kinds of hitting streaks - single-season streaks, such as DiMaggio’s, and multiple-season streaks, such as Whit’s. Wee Willie Keeler owns the longest hitting streak over multiple seasons, when he reached safely in 44 consecutive games in 1896 and 1897. More recently, Jimmy Rollins made a run with a 38-game hitting streak, but that came over 2005-2006. There have been 13 hitting streaks of 30 games or more than took place over more than one season.

Longest hitting streaks, MLB history

Single-season Year Record Multiple-season Year Record
Single-season Year Record Multiple-season Year Record
Joe DiMaggio, NYY 1941 56 Willie Keeler, BAL 1896-1897 45
Pete Rose, CIN 1978 44 Jimmy Rollins, PHI 2005-2006 38
Bill Dahlen, CHC 1894 42 Gene DeMontreville, WSH 1896-1897 36
George Sisler, SLB 1922 41 George Sisler, SLB 1924-1925 35
Ty Cobb, DET 1911 40 Hal Morris, CIN 1996-1997 32
Paul Molitor, MIL 1987 39 Harry Heilmann, DET 1922-1923 32
Tommy Holmes, BSB 1945 37 Ron LeFlore, DET 1975-1976 31
Fred Clarke, LOU 1895 35 Vada Pinson, CIN 1965-1966 31
Chase Utley, PHI 2006 35 Chicken Wolf, LOU 1885-1886 31
Luis Castillo, FLA 2002 35 Sam Rice, WSH 1929-1930 30
Ty Cobb, DET 1917 35 Lance Richbourg, BSN 1927-1928 30
Benito Santiago, SDP 1987 34 Charlie Grimm, PIT 1922-1923 30
Dom DiMaggio, BOS 1949 34 Dusty Miller, CIN 1895-1896 30
George McQuinn, SLB 1938 34 Curt Flood, STL 1961-1962 29
Dan Uggla, FLA 2011 33 Lonnie Smith, PHI/STL 1981-1982 28
Heinie Manush, WSH 1933 33 Whit Merrifield, KCR 2018-2019 28
Rogers Hornsby, STL 1922 33 David Ortiz, BOS 2012-2013 27
Hal Chase, NYY 1907 33 Tommy Holmes, BSB 1944-1945 27
George Davis, NYG 1893 33

In the minds of most people, however, there is no distinction. Most lists lump all hitting streaks into one category. Whit is considered to have the second-greatest hitting streak in club history, and could pass George Brett in a few games, even though George’s streak took place entirely within the 1980 season. It would likely only be if Whit comes close to threatening DiMaggio’s record that the distinction would be made. If that were to happen (a pretty big “if” considering how amazing that record is and how it has withstood the test of time) I think most everyone would consider DiMaggio’s the more impressive record, since it took place all in one season.

Still, that shouldn’t diminish what Whit has done. Getting on base via a base hit is harder than it has been in about a half century - the league-wide batting average was just .248 last year, the lowest it had been since 1969.

And of course, Whit could always reach safely via a hit in 56 consecutive games this year.