History is a wild thing to witness in real time. That can be true of culture – just look at the past 12 months of politics and natural disasters – as well as in sports. It can be difficult to contextualize the exact magnitude and consequence of events occurring each second.
The Cleveland Indians have now won 21 consecutive baseball games, a modern record that eclipses anything any team has done in Major League Baseball in eight decades. It’s a stunning accomplishment that has propelled the team from a merely good regular season to suddenly one of the best in the franchise’s century-old history.
The last team to win 21 straight, the 1935 Chicago Cubs, played in an eight-team National League with no interleague play. So yes, they played the same seven teams for the entire season until the World Series. The Western-most NL franchise was the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs had five future Hall of Famers, none that an average fan likely could name.
That season, Cubs pitchers threw 81 complete games out of 154 regular season outings, with only 589 strikeouts against 400 walks. (For comparison, the Indians have a league-leading 7 complete games in 146 games, with 1,447 strikeouts against 375 walks.) It was a completely different game of baseball. The color barrier was still a decade away from being broken.
The modern winning streak record – held by the 2002 Oakland Athletics, inspiring the book “Moneyball” – is a far more similar comparison, but several degrees less dominant. The A’s only out-scored opponents by 76 runs (141-65) in 20 games. Only seven wins were by four runs or more; the last three were all nail-biter walk-offs. It was still historic, yet nothing quite as earth-shattering.
Here are some of my favorite statistics from the history we’re witnessing right at this moment:
The run differential – It cannot be overstated that outscoring opponents by 104 runs (139-35) in a 21-game stretch is straight-up bonkers. Of the 21 wins, 13 have been by 4 runs or more. There have been seven shutouts. The Indians were an under-performing team by run differential even before this stretch, but now are making 21 straight look far too easy.
It’s useful I think to discuss a bit more about run differential in the comparison versus the 1995 Indians. That season, the Indians had a plus-233 run differential (840-607) in 144 games. It was a higher-scoring baseball atmosphere. Their Pythagorean expected winning percentage was .644, compared to an actual winning percentage of .694. The 1995 Indians were masters of dramatic victories, going 28-14 in one-run games and winning 27 games in their last at-bat.
The 2017 Indians are blowing teams away. They now own a plus-222 run differential (740-518) in 146 games. Given the lower-scoring baseball games that they participated in, the run differential is more meaningful. That is what leads to an Pythagorean expected winning percentage of .658, compared to an actual winning percentage of .616. This team is blowing opponents out of the water.
The pitching – FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan wrote last week about how the 2017 Indians may have the best pitching staff ever. At the time, Indians pitchers were on pace for 30.9 Wins Above Replacement cumulatively over the course of a 162-game schedule (they’re now on pace for 31.2). The mid-’90s Braves had five straight seasons of 27-WAR pitching staffs extrapolated over a full schedule. The 1996 Braves hold the current record of just 29.5 per 162 games. These Indians may shatter that number and leave no room for debate.
Sullivan highlighted how the Indians have had no “bad” pitchers find any playing time all season. The only negative-WAR contributor (i.e. below replacement value or Quadruple-A worthy) has been reliever Shawn Armstrong. Most teams usually have a handful of such pitchers log innings throughout the course of the season. The Indians pitching staff has been relatively healthy, never much worse than average even for the worst of the bunch, and dominant over time.
No American League starting rotation has finished with a sub-3.30 ERA in a full season since 1981. Considering the Indians staff started with a horrendous 4.91 ERA in 2017’s first 58 games, they won’t catch that mark. But since June 11, Indians starters now have a totally dominant 2.86 ERA in 88 games. They’ve struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings and walked only 2.2 per nine innings. They’ve allowed a .282 wOBA, per FanGraphs; that’s in the ballpark of the Indians careers of Trevor Crowe and Andy Marte offensively.
The context – Before the streak began, the Indians were 69-56 (.552). They had a plus-118 run differential (601-483), which inferred a .599 expected winning percentage. But those were merely ordinarily good numbers, things that you may see from a half-dozen teams in a given season. The Indians led the Twins by 4.5 games in the AL Central, they trailed the Astros by 7.5 for the AL’s best record and trailed the Dodgers by 20 games for MLB’s best record.
Now three weeks later, the Indians still have an expected winning percentage 40 points higher than their actual winning percentage. They also now lead the Twins by 13.5 games in the AL Central, hold a 2.5-game lead on the Astros in the AL and trail the Dodgers by only four games for MLB’s best record.
Not too long ago, the Indians were 48-45. Now, their competitors are starting to come crashing down to earth just as October approaches. After Houston cruised to a 42-16 start, they’re only 45-42 in the three months since. The Dodgers, who had a 40-6 run in early June through August 1, just won back-to-back games after shockingly dropping 16-of-17.
To provide some more commentary on the impressiveness of the Indians, here are other Tribe-oriented links from around the web:
Amazingly, The Indians Are Even Better Than They Seem [Neil Paine/FiveThirtyEight]
Real or not? It’s time to appreciate the greatness of Indians’ win streak [David Schoenfield/ESPN]
As Indians stack wins in record streak, a new label emerges: America’s Team [Bob Nightengale/USA TODAY]
The Indians are the story of September baseball [Mike Lupica/Sports on Earth]
Ho-Hum: The Cleveland Indians Make It 21 Wins in a Row [Benjamin Hoffman/The New York Times]
Everyone wants to talk about Indians’ record-tying 21-game win streak, except the Indians [Dave Sheinin/The Washington Post]
And here are some non-Tribe sports links I’ve read recently:
Climbing the mountain with Kyrie Irving [David Zavac/Fear The Sword]
How the NBA Was Saved on the Back of a Napkin [Seerat Sohi/Sports Illustrated]
Moneyball at 20: Inside Billy Beane’s legacy after 2 decades running the A’s [Susan Slusser/San Francisco Chronicle]
Disneyfication of clubs like Manchester City keeps showing benefits [Paul MacInnes/The Guardian]
Jose Altuve’s offensive dominance has him well on track for Cooperstown [Ryan Spaeder/Sporting News]
Sports Drink Makers Are Waging an $8 Billion Thirst War [Larissa Zimberoff/Bloomberg]