Winning streaks are a beautiful hodgepodge of luck, skill, and timeliness. The 2003-2004 New England Patriots hold the National Football League’s longest streak with 21 wins, which included a Super Bowl victory. The 1971-1972 Los Angeles Lakers reeled off 33 consecutive victories, led by some guy named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As impressive as these marks are, they pale in comparison to a 20-spot on the baseball diamond. Each baseball game is more of a coin flip than any football or basketball game; meaning the improbable nature of the streak is amplified.
When the 2002 Oakland Athletics went up 11-0 in the third inning on September 4th, 2002, Bay Area residents were ready to pop the champagne. They were a mere six innings away from toppling the Kansas City Royals and breaking the record for longest American league winning streak, previously held by the 1947 New York Yankees (19 wins). The Royals had other plans. Five innings later, Mike Sweeney homered to cut the lead to 11-10. Oakland collectively inched towards the edge of their seats. A Luis Alicea single in the top of the ninth knotted the game up at 11.
Enter Jason Grimsley, an old Tribe friend of the crawl-through-the-air-duct-to-retrieve-Albert-Belle’s-corked-bat variety. The bat thief quickly induced a Jermaine Dye pop fly for the first out. The game looked destined for extra innings, but pinch-hitter Scott Hatteberg wanted to get home. Hatteberg ripped a no doubter over the right center field fence to extend the Athletics winning streak to 20. The third straight game walk-off victory for the Athletics was needed to break a record that had stood for 55 years.
In popular culture, the symbol of the Athletics streak is Billy Beane, the general manager who turned the game around based on seemingly abstract books written by Bill James. Played by Brad Pitt in the movie adaptation of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, Beane challenged conventional baseball wisdom by finding market inefficiencies in player value.
On Tuesday night, the Cleveland Indians, highlighted by a Corey Kluber complete game, blanked the Detroit Tigers 2-0 to secure their 20th consecutive win, tying the 2002 Athletics. It’s fitting that the organization that created the backbone of the concepts and ideas Beane borrowed in the creation of his Moneyball philosophy would be the first to replicate a streak of this variety.
Comparing the two teams is a perfectly inane exercise, but the results are curious. The streaks differ a little bit in variety. 13 of the 20 wins registered by the Athletics were by three runs or less. The Indians’ streak has featured seven such games. Oakland’s plus-76 run differential is nothing to scoff at, but dwarfed by a plus-102 mark posted by Cleveland. Indians opponents have been steamrolled at every turn, while the Athletics streak survived on heroics and fortune. Naturally, a deeper dive into the quality of teams is in order.
2002 Oakland: Headlined by Eric Chavez (5.7 fWAR) and Miguel Tejada (4.5 fWAR), two emerging superstar infielders (sound familiar?), the A’s 2002 position players accounted for 23.1 fWAR. A 109 wRC+ mark was good for fifth in baseball, bolstered by above average walk and strikeout numbers, along with a steady dose of power. According to FanGraphs baserunning statistic, they were sixth overall. The other aspect of the game was a different story. FanGraphs WAR uses UZR to depict defensive value and the Athletics were nightmarish according to this statistic, finishing with 25th in baseball with 26.8 runs below average.
2017 Cleveland: Through 145 games, the dynamic middle infield duo of Jose Ramirez (5.2 fWAR) and Francisco Lindor (5.1 fWAR) have provided the foundation for the Indians’ position player core. The Tribe have already surpassed the Moneyball A’s in fWAR at 24.4 wins above replacement with seventeen games remaining. Although they have posted a slightly lower wRC+ at 106, they have been a top tier baserunning (sixth in MLB) and fielding (11th in MLB).
Advantage: 2017 Cleveland
2002 Oakland: Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Cory Lidle were as dynamic as groups of starters could be in 2002. All in their mid-twenties with the exception of Lidle, they propelled an A’s staff to the head of the class. Their road to success was much different than the Indians of today, as they relied heavily on outs on balls in play rather than strikeouts. The A’s staff finished fourth in fWAR with 18.2 wins above replacement on the mound, finishing third in ERA and sixth in FIP.
2017 Cleveland: They see Oakland’s Hudson, Zito, and Mulder and raise them Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger. There is no contest on this end of the debate. Though strikeouts may be a bit inflated compared to 2002, the Indians are well on their way to setting the MLB record for strikeouts per nine innings, while somehow maintaining the lowest walk rate in the league. FIP and ERA are no different, as the Indians hold commanding league leads in these categories, as well. Firsts across the board in these categories have translated to 27.5 fWAR, nearly 5.5 wins more than any other rotation.
Advantage: 2017 Cleveland
2002 Oakland: ERA totals indicate that, as far as runs allowed is concerned, the Athletics had a middling bullpen in 2002. Their peripherals were much kinder, however. FIP viewed them as the 5th best in baseball, buoyed by the relievers avoiding the long ball. Chad Bradford, Billy Koch, and the trade deadline acquisition of Ricardo Rincon formed an imposing trio with the ability to close the door on opponents and accounted for 4.9 fWAR (sixth in MLB).
2017 Cleveland: The Indians bullpen is as dominant in relation to other teams as their starting counterparts. Large leads in ERA and FIP provide an objective basis for crowning them the top bullpen among the league. The 7.8 fWAR is second only to the New York Yankees (7.9), who have a few decent relief options of their own. Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and Joe Smith are the backbone of a bullpen with experience and depth.
Advantage: 2017 Cleveland
While fWAR is far from perfect as a value barometer, it provides a solid foundation for comparing teams across eras. It is dangerous to compare strictly by WAR total, though, given the changing dynamics of the game. The safer route for comparison is measuring each team’s place among their counterparts, in which the 2017 Indians grade out much better. Peripheral hitting and pitching ranks among teams echo the Indians’ advantage in fWAR.
The 2002 Athletics untimely October demise came at the hands of a Ron Gardenhire’s Minnesota Twins team that was, by all statistical accounts, inferior. This speaks to the variance-laden nature of playoff baseball. As the Indians look to continue streaking prior to the playoffs, solace can be found within the numbers. Though the streaks feature the same number of wins, the Indians are by far a more complete team that has controlled its end of mitigating playoff variance about as much as possible.