Streaks: Do They Matter?

Does a string of losses keep you from having a good team? 

The somewhat indifferent start of the Braves this season, a quarter of a season of 0.500 ball (or so), concerns folks, and not without reason.  While 0.500 ball has been competitive in the first quarter of the season in the NL East, it won’t be competitive by the end of the season, probably.  And there is more cause for worry in that the Braves have had 3 losing streaks of four games in this first quarter of the season.  Good teams don’t lose four in a row or more vary often, do they? 

Well, sometimes they do.  I took every World Series winner since 1961, when the season expanded to 162 games.  I then looked at how many losing streaks of four games or more they had in the regular season.  The record, 5 bad streaks, is held by the 1993 Blue Jays; they had two 4-game losing streaks by June 13, and then had a horrendous stretch in early July when they had two 5-game losing streaks sandwiching a lone win: 10 out of 11.  Amazingly, they were 3 up in the standings when that stretch began and were still ½ game up when it was over.  They had another 6 game losing streak in early September at which they were still tied for the lead, but then proceeded to run off 9 wins in a row and 17 out of 21 to get to the playoffs.  The short (possibly obvious) answer is that you can still have a good record with a bunch of losing streaks as long as you have some winning streaks as well.

The 1993 Jays were far from unique.  The 1975 Big Red Machine won 108 games but had a 6-game losing streak and two 4-game slides.  The Miracle Mets had three 4-game and one 5-game losing streaks.  The 1979 Pirates Family had 2 4-game losing streaks, one 5-game losing streak, and one 6 game losing streak.  The 1990 Reds lost eight in a row at one point.  Finally, the 2014 Giants (who had to get in by a Wild Card) had two 6-game, one 5-game and one 4-game collapses en route to a World Championship.                                                            

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s not like you need some 4-game losing streaks to build character or something.  The Red Sox champs in 2013 and 2018 had none, and the average number of 4-game-or-more losing streaks since 1961 is a little over 2.  But you can lose 7 or 8 in a row and still hoist the trophy at the end of the year: Eight teams have.  Just don’t have a big losing streak in October:  that never works.

How late can you be a 0.500 team?

On a related issue, how long can you stay in idle around 0.500 and still get a ring?  Let’s start with the bad news: of the last 58 champs (not counting last year’s Dodgers) 17 were never under 0.500 and another 22 had their last stint at 0.500 in April.  11 last experienced total mediocrity in May, hopefully to be augmented by this year’s Braves.  But the good news is that 5 winners were at 0.500 at some point in June, and 3 teams were at 0.500 as late as July: the 2003 Marlins (7/2), the 1985 Royals (7/12), and the 1964 Cardinals (7/24).  On July 24th 1964 the Cardinals were 10 behind the Phillies, and in current parlance, one might have thought they’d be sellers at that point.  But they went 46-21 for the rest of the season and were assisted by one of the most famous September collapses in baseball history:  the Phillies still led the Cardinals by 6.5 on September 20th and managed to blow it.  When the circumstances are right, you can tread water for over half a season, even the start of the season.

And almost any good team will have long stretches in which they win only half their games. The only World Series winner (not counting last year) who didn’t have at least a 30 game stretch of the season in which they played 0.500 ball is the Big Red Machine in 1976. And some teams treaded water for months. The 1981 Dodgers were a 0.500 team between June 16th and October 4th. The 1987 Twins didn’t gain a game between April 10th and August 28th. The 2000 Yankees were a 0.500 team between May 9th and the end of the regular season. And the 2006 Cardinals were 5 over 0.500 on April 22nd and finished the season 5 over, at 83-78: 162 days of completely average play… just about the whole damned season.

Just because great teams had some bad (or mediocre) stretches doesn’t mean such things are good. But this is just another example of small sample size bias — when the Braves have a mediocre month, there is indeed a chance that they are a mediocre team. In fact, that’s probably the way to bet, because the vast majority of teams are mediocre, kinda by definition. But to those who see progress and green shoots, mediocrity for a month, or even two, ought not dampen your enthusiasm a whit. Hell, if you’re the 2006 Cardinals, and you reside in a mediocre division, all you have to do is have a good couple of weeks in the regular season, win the October Crapshoot and you can wear your ring proudly for the rest of your life.