Cleveland

Just Plain Crazy

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

Cavaliers Reality Check

"This offseason has been a nightmare for the Cavaliers" said every virtually basketball writer at some point this summer. Unfortunately for Cavs fans the past few months have been tumultuous. It started when Dan Gilbert in typical Scrooge-like fashion didn't renew GM David Griffin's contract. To make matters worse the second best team in the NBA failed to land any major assets to help bridge the gap with the Golden State Warriors. Of course most recently, reports suggest that Kyrie has requested a trade and now that the request has been made public the Cavs have lost all leverage in any negotiation for the star point guard. to so many it is obvious that LeBron is going to leave in 2018 for the Lakers leaving the Cavaliers with Kevin Love, few draft picks, and little wiggle room in salary cap space. Just like that Believeland will return to normalcy. 

Most Cavs fans should be disappointed with their team's offseason. However, the narrative painted above is so fun to read that it becomes all to easy to fall into the trap of believing it's true. These four things should help bring everyone back to reality. 

1.   LA isn't Perfect

Throughout his career LeBron has followed a similar pattern in contract negotiations that has allowed him to always maintain leverage over front offices. This means that no one knows where LeBron will go when he opts out of his contract after this upcoming season. He does this on purpose, to maintain power and autonomy.  However, too many people have misinterpreted this as meaning that LeBron is leaving, most likely to the Lakers because they have cap room and he lives there. The Lakers also have Lonzo, are managed by Magic Johnson, and seem to be the preferred landing spot of Paul George. 

Unfortunately for Lakers, fans LeBron isn't playing in the Staples Center next year just because he has a house in the area. If that were true, many other great players would be suiting up  in yellow and purple. Next, Lonzo Ball has played exactly 0 games as an NBA point guard. He might be great but chances are not immediately. He will need time to develop into a superstar. In all likelihood, after next season, the Lakers will have missed out on 5 consecutive playoffs. They might be great in the future, but the franchise needs time. LeBron doesn't have time at this point in his career. He needs to win now.  

Lastly, the Lakers play in the western Conference which is likely home to six of the best 8 teams in the entire league. Playing in this conference hurts LeBron dramatically.  not only will it be harder for him to make it to the Finals every year, but he will also play in more meaningful games earlier in the playoffs which could impact the longevity of his career. The east isn't getting better any time soon and his best bet is to remain in that conference and hope that a markedly improved West does more damage to the Warriors on their way to the finals  

2. Cavs Reign in the East

The Cavs without Kyrie are still the best team in the Eastern Conference. This is assuming that the Cavs don't mimic the Pacers and manage to at least find an average player when they trade away their all-star point guard. Cleveland still retains the best player on the planet for at least one more year. Regardless of how much the Celtics have improved and how poorly the Cavaliers have managed this offseason, LeBron is still enough to carry the Cavaliers through the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The eventual series with the Celtics will be closer than 2017's version, but I don't see the Celtics stopping James on his quest to an 8th straight finals appearance. 

The most comforting piece of information for any Cavs fan is that the East is worse than it has ever been at any point in LeBron's career. During the summer of his decision, LeBron had the option to join Wade in Miami in order to conquer the first form of the super-team in Boston. This time around there isn't a team in the east that offers a better opportunity for him to beat the Warriors if he decides to leave Cleveland. LeBron might have to stay in Cleveland by default. 

3.   Kyrie's Trade is About Him

This past week Kyrie's request for the front office to trade him was leaked and his preferred destinations are San Antonio, Miami, New York, and Minnesota. Despite many writers' best efforts to convince the public, Kyrie is not requesting a trade out of Cleveland because the franchise is on fire. This trade request has little to do with Dan Gilbert's mismanagement or David Griffin's departure. If Kyrie was really concerned that his current team was poisonous he would not have requested a trade to New York.

This trade request is about Kyrie wanting to step out of LeBron's shadow. This DOES NOT mean that Kyrie and LeBron are feuding like middle-schoolers. He wants to be the centerpiece of a contending franchise and work towards becoming an all-time great, not just the G.O.A.T's greatest sidekick. That desire is genuine, maybe selfish, but genuine. 

4. The Kyrie Opportunity

As much as it hurts to lose a franchise player and fan favorite, Kyrie's trade request presents the Cavs and freshly appointed GM Koby Altman opportunities that they didn't have before. It gives them the opportunity to trade away one of their best players without angering LeBron and retool in order to compete with the Warriors. They can convince another team to swallow up one of their bad contracts and leave room to sign other players in the summer of 2018 in order to convince LeBron to stay. Even in the apocalyptic scenario where LeBron leaves, the Cavaliers can trade away Irving and put the franchise in position to rebuild. 

That apocalyptic scenario certainly could happen next summer, but Cavaliers fans should rejoice in the fact that 2018 is a year away. Moreover, they should seek solace in the fact that tweets and subtweets really shouldn't substantiate a report and that if LeBron tweets Happy Birthday to a rising star in the league he isn't necessarily going to join that team, he might just be doing it because he knows we will eat it up. And we have.  

 

 

Image: By Erik Drost from United States - Cleveland Cavaliers, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36677943