Baseball is a notoriously fickle sport.
In 2009, David Ortiz didn’t hit a home run until the end of May and struggled so badly that my Internet dad, Bill Simmons, wrote this now hilariously overdramatic piece that concludes with “...he’ll be benched or released soon.” Ortiz retired last year as one of the two greatest Red Sox ever.
The 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 games, tying a record set in 1906 when baseball more closely resembled my Tuesday night softball league than the game today. Seattle never dropped more than nine games in a month, outscored its opponents by 300 runs… and lost in five to the Yankees in the ALCS.
All of this is to say, baseball is not a game of domination. More than any other sport, it is a game of averages — and the law of averages says it should be practically impossible for even a very, very good baseball team to win 21 games in a row.
But the Cleveland Indians have done just that, and they’ll go for 22 on Thursday night against the Kansas City Royals. Another win puts them solely in second place for the longest winning streak in MLB history, catapulting them past the 1935 Chicago Cubs and something called the Chicago White Stockings. Get to 22, and the Tribe are only gunning for the 1916 New York Giants, who hold the all-time (albeit asterisked, there was a tie/replayed game mixed in) record of 26.
Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in baseball. In fact, I'm prepared to argue, vehemently, that the Indians’ feat is already more impressive than any other team streak, in any other team sport, that we’ve seen in the modern era. Period.
People will point to comparable runs in other sports. The famously perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins, or the infamously almost-perfect 18-1 Patriots of 2007 (sigh). The 1992-93 Penguins, winners of 17 straight. LeBron’s peak Heat team in 2012-13 (27 in a row), early ‘70s UCLA hoops (88), or Geno Auriemma and UConn (90 followed by 111).
None of them measure up to what the Indians have done over the last three-plus weeks.
Unlike other sports (ignoring injuries), fundamental and critical parts of a baseball lineup change daily. A great starting pitcher can only throw once every five days. Even a given bullpen arm can only pitch two, maybe three days in a row before needing rest. Yes, the Indians have Corey Kluber (2.44 ERA), but they also have Josh Tomlin (5.13).
These are players who figure hugely into the outcome of games. It'd be like a hockey goalie having to sit every third game, or a starting o-line taking every other game off. The variability of starting and relief pitching alone makes 21 straight wins hard to fathom. That’s four times through a five-man rotation without one pitcher, on one night, getting roughed up — or just falling victim to some bad run support.
Which brings me to offensive consistency, something maybe even harder to achieve. Exceptional hitters fail 70% of the time, and even they routinely go through multi-game hitless stretches. It’s why Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is the most untouchable record in pro sports. And the Indians, though terrifically balanced, have only one hitter currently above .300 (Jose Ramirez, at .309).
But slumps aren’t even the biggest obstacle to an offense supporting 21 straight wins. Run production is just as much — if not more — about the sequence of hits as it the frequency. You need timely hitting that comes in bunches and that especially comes with runners in scoring position.
For much of the season, hitting with runners on base has actually been a pain point for Cleveland. Even after 21 consecutive wins, they still rank 24th in baseball for batting average with RISP (.251). That makes their avoidance of the bad-timing bug for 21 straight games all the more incredible. It bucks a season-long trend.
Oh, and to top it off, you can make contact that would result in a hit 98.7% of the time (we know these things now with Statcast), but if you happen to hit it at an elite defender like Jackie Bradley Jr. or Byron Buxton, you may well find yourself trotting back to the dugout.
That’s just bad luck, and in baseball, there’s a lot of it. LeBron executes a perfect post move and misses an open look? That’s his form, his release, or his focus. Tom Brady delivers a perfectly thrown ball that’s dropped? Although it’s not on him, it’s on one of the other 10 guys who also control his team’s success. No sport is as affected by pure luck — the ultimately random exact trajectory and placement of a batted ball — as baseball.
Cobble all of these factors together, and 21 straight wins isn’t just impressive or remarkable or historic. It’s irrationally spectacular. Just. Plain. Crazy. And yes, if it’s so insane, why did almost the same thing happen just 15 years ago, when the 2002 'Moneyball' Oakland A’s won 20 in a row?
I honestly can’t tell you, other than that it was just as improbable then as it is now. Before Oakland, the last team to sniff 20 was the 1947 Yankees, who faltered after 19. It took 55 years for someone to surpass them. It’s taken only 15 years for the Indians to zoom past them both.
There’s no good reason why it has happened again, nor is there a good reason why it's still happening after 21 wins and counting. It’s just plain crazy.
Image By Jfvoll (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons