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Sep 18

Let’s Go Streaking

This New York Mets longest winning streak of the season is four games, which they’ve accomplished on three separate occasions. This surprises me since the Mets are hovering near .500 (73-80, but being outscored by just six runs their Pythagorean record is closer to that of a 76-77 team), and it seems almost impossible to not rattle off a fairly respectable win streak at some point in 162-game schedule. An average winning streak this season is 6.3 wins. Wouldn’t they just luck into one? They played both the Rangers and in the NL East. Nope. Four games. But, that doesn’t even make them particularly special or all that interesting since the White Sox, Twins, and Pirates have also never won more than four games in a row this season (the Pirates somehow achieving this while being 81-70 and in possession of the second wild card spot) and the Diamondbacks having won no more than three games in a row all season (having done so five different times).

This post isn’t about the Mets, though. Not really. If so, peripherally then.

Looking back over the years, through the Mets existence, I noticed that in the two years they won the World Series they led the Majors in that year’s longest winning streak, both at 11 games, so I began wondering if being the best at winning successive games meant all that much for predicting postseason success. There’s logic to it. To make the postseason a team has to win a fair number of games (not every team goes 82-80 like the 2005 Padres or 82-79 like the 1973 Mets and makes the playoffs); teams that win a lot are probably pretty good, and good teams beat up on weaker teams from time to time, stringing together wins; and good teams are probably more likely to win the World Series.

Maybe it’s not a well-constructed syllogism, but it made sense to me. I then decided to limit my search, beginning in 1969 when MLB added the Padres, Expos, Royals, and Seattle Pilots (soon to be the Milwaukee Brewers one year later) and brought the total number of teams to 24, making it more relevant to modern times. I don’t know if it’s easier or more difficult to maintain a winning streak when you only play against seven other teams, but I figured an eight-team division didn’t mean all that much for a modern 30-team league. I could have started in 1962 when there were 20 teams, but 1969 was the year of Woodstock, Apollo 11, and the Miracle Mets. Also, 1969 brought us Slaughterhouse-Five, The Godfather (book), and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, so that’s where I started.

After all of that, can we schedule the Angels, Nationals, or Royals—there’s a three-way tie between these three for the season’s longest winning streak at 10 games—for a championship parade?

The short answer to that question is no. As with all things Mets, leading the Majors in the longest winning streak and winning the World Series is uncommon and has happened just five times in the last 44 years there has actually been a postseason (nothing to see here, 1994; move along please). The last time a team led the league in consecutive wins and won the Series was in 1991 when the Twins won 15 in a row and beat the Braves in a Series that made legends of Jack Morris and Kirby Puckett. That’s a span of 21 postseasons without the team with the longest winning streak winning the Commissioner’s Trophy.

Here are the five teams that have done this trick:

Season Team Winning Streak
1969 Mets 11
1971 Pirates 11
1975 Reds 10 (Tied with Red Sox)
1986 Mets 11 (Tied with Red Sox)
1991 Twins 15

Hooray! Win Series and Longest Winning Streak

I found it rather amazing that both the 1975 Reds and the 1986 Mets won 108 games, yet each finished with a rather modest winning streak considering.1 Both teams led the league in wins that year, and those were the only two years where a team finished first in all three categories: team wins, longest winning streak, and Series champ. In fact, the team that finished with the best record in the Majors had the longest winning streak only seven times. The last two were the Mariners in 2001 that won 116 games and had a 15-game streak and the 2002 A’s that were tied with the Yankees with 103 wins and won 20 games in a row. Just take a moment to think about those numbers. The Mariners won 116 games and the A’s won 20 in a row. Since 1969, a team has won 15+ consecutive games just five times, and it happened in back-to-back-to-back years with the Braves in 2000, Mariners, and A’s.

Below are the teams that won the most games and finished with the longest winning streak:

Season Team Record Winning Streak
1975 Reds 108-54 10 (Tied with Red Sox)
1977 Royals 102-60 16
1986 Mets 108-54 11 (Tied with Red Sox)
1988 A’s 104-58 14
1992 Braves 98-64 13
2001 Mariners 116-46 15
2002 A’s 103-59 20

MLB Win Leader and Longest Winning Streak

If you wanted to place a bet for one of the current contenders to win the Series based on something as silly as this you’d probably want to put a few dollars on the Tigers who have the third longest streak this season at eight games. In the last 44 postseasons, the champion has finished the season with the second longest streak seven times and the third longest streak seven times. That means of the 88 teams to play in the World Series since 1969, 19 of them, or about 22%, have finished in the top three.

If you’re wondering what are the chances we’ll perhaps see the Nationals play either the Angels or Royals in the Series, bringing together the co-leaders for longest winning streaks, based on this highly scientific method, then you probably won’t be all that surprised to learn that it’s happened twice: 1975 with the Reds and the Red Sox and 1986 with the Mets and the Red Sox. Of course, those two series might have the two most memorable plays in postseason history with Carlton Fisk’s Game 6 home run and the whole Bill Buckner / Mookie Wilson grounder between the legs thing, so if we should happen to see some combination of these three teams, then we can expect something historic (perhaps a Bryce Harper and Mike Trout epic home run derby that sets the stage for a decade of postseason meetings).

There have been two occurrences where the top two teams met in the Series, 1971 with the Orioles and Pirates and 1998 with the Padres and Yankees, with the number two teams (a tie, naturally) meeting twice as well: 1979 with the Orioles and Pirates again and 1995 with the Indians and the Braves.

All in all, we’re more likely to see one of these three teams reach the World Series and lose than win. The team with the longest winning streak has lost the Series nine times, with the Rangers managing to do this in both 2010 and ‘11. The last NL team to do this was the Rockies in 2007 and then the Padres in 1998.

Summary

None of this really surprised me. I didn’t really expect there to be any correlation between a team that happened to catch lightening in a bottle and rattle off a long winning streak and marching through the postseason unopposed. I’d imagine there’s a correlation with quantity of smaller winning streaks (in the 5-7 range) throughout a season that one long winning streak, but I didn’t dig that deeply into it.

I also didn’t look into the shortest winning streak for an eventual champion was, but that would certainly be worth investigating as well.

  1. Modest, here, should be taken in context. Winning 10+ in a row is a difficult thing to do, and since 1969 it’s happened 141 times, or about 3 times each season. In contrast, a team has won 108+ games just six times during that time. Winning that many games is absurd, the mark of a great team, and wouldn’t you just naturally assume a few lengthy winning streaks?

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