I don’t know what the top story in baseball actually is, because we don’t have a measurement for that. I guess it could be anything. What it should be, though, is the fact that the Toronto Blue Jays have won 11 consecutive games. If this were a simple 11-game winning streak, it’d be newsworthy, just because of the odds. But adding to the richness here is the identity of the team, and everything it’s been through. A team that was supposed to be good then was not good, then suddenly became impossibly good, climbing all the way back into the race. Just when people were ready to start officially writing the Blue Jays off as a bust, they picked themselves up in the fastest way possible.
The standings, now, are incredibly tight. In the American League East, five games separate first from fifth, which is also fourth. The Jays are three back in the wild card, and while there’s a point at which the gap is too large to fancy yourself a contender, the point’s a hell of a lot bigger than three. This is a team that’s been banged up, and this is a team that’s about to have the return of Jose Reyes. Unless things quickly reverse course, the Jays won’t soon be selling any pieces. They’ve erased much of their disadvantage.
What’s the analysis here? It’s so simple and so cliche I’m going to try to fit it all into a paragraph. The Blue Jays are not this good, and they’ve over-achieved over the course of their winning streak. That’s the only way to not lose. At the same time, they’re not as bad as they looked before this got started, and no data can be thrown away. The Jays, right now, overall, are a little better than .500, and that seems about right. You can’t ignore a slow start because of a streak; you can’t ignore a streak just because it’s unusual. I can’t tell you anything better than our projected standings page. The Blue Jays project to be fine, just like every other team in the division. They project to be non-elite, which isn’t what fans want to hear when a team looks unbeatable. But, that’s the uninteresting reality. The AL East is one place where a trade could make a significant difference.
That’s the Jays. They’re a pretty decent baseball team on an amazing run that’s re-invigorated the fan base. Within two weeks, the Jays managed to rescue the whole season. Maybe the true mark of being out of contention is being more than one long winning streak away from contention. Anyway, looking at the Jays, I got curious, as happens sometimes. What is the history of streaks like this? What teams rip off such long streaks of consecutive wins? Might we learn something about the Jays by examining the history?
I decided to look at the window between 1970-2013, because I didn’t feel like going further back than 1970. That’s arbitrary, but so is the subject of this post. Over that span, counting the Jays, there have been 68 in-season winning streaks of at least 11 games. This year’s Braves just missed, topping out at ten. The longest streak, of course, is 20, by the 2002 Athletics. Then you drop all the way down to 16, by the 1977 Royals. Of the 67 streaks not counting the Jays, 37 ended at 11. Another 13 ended at 12.
Obviously, good teams are more likely to have long winning streaks than bad teams. An 85-win team is four times more likely to win 11 consecutive games than a 75-win team, and six times more likely to win 14 consecutive games. Combining all the seasons with streaks of at least 11 games, you get a combined record of 6022-4719, good for a .561 winning percentage. Remove all the wins in the streaks themselves and you’re left with a winning percentage of .525. Good teams do this, suggesting the Blue Jays might well be a good team.
But what’s the breakdown? Here, let’s look at those 67 streaks, excluding the Jays, noting each team’s final winning percentage on the year:
.650 or above: 3 teams
.600 – .649: 10
.550 – .599: 28
.500 – .549: 15
.450 – .499: 9
Below .450: 2
These long streaks, mostly, belong to good teams. But they don’t belong exclusively to good teams, and 11 of the teams that won at least 11 consecutive games wound up under .500. According to math, that should happen some of the time. The math matches the reality! Way to go, math!
If you’re not curious about the bottom of that list, you’re not paying close enough attention. Those are bad teams that won a lot. The worst winning percentage for a team that had a winning streak of at least 11 games is .414, belonging to the 67-95 Baltimore Orioles from 1987. Meanwhile, in 2004, the Devil Rays won 12 consecutive games, and this was a quote:
“At the beginning of the season it was terrible. We were just Tampa Bay,” Lugo said. “Now everybody is calling us the stinging Rays.”
The Devil Rays finished at 70-91 and .435. It was, at least, their best season yet, barely. Lou Piniella wasn’t a magician, or he was a magician who came into contact with a more powerful, suckier force.
The 1996 Pirates won 73 games, but they won 11 of those games in a row at one point. And incredibly, the 1999 Padres finished 74-88. Yet they made time and space for a 14-game winning streak, spanning from June to July. The year before, the Padres went to the World Series, and maybe the streak was a suggestion that the Padres were going to try to repeat. They didn’t repeat, and they might not have tried.
What kinds of teams rip off long winning streaks like the Blue Jays have done? Good teams, mostly, which is encouraging. But a streak like this from a mediocre team wouldn’t be unprecedented, and we need only go back to 2004. Those Devil Rays by month:
Just often enough, baseball doesn’t make any sense. That’s kind of how we got here in the first place. It didn’t make great sense for the Blue Jays to be bad, and it then didn’t make great sense for the somewhat-bad Blue Jays to become unbeatable. That they’ve done what they’ve done lately is an indication that they might well be a really good and talented team, but more important is the simple fact that the season isn’t over prematurely. It looked for a while that things were headed that way. No one’s going to be able to tell you what the Blue Jays are going to do, but for the time being, the Blue Jays have done enough. This is a season that’s come back from the dead.