Streaking

There’s nothing inherently good or bad about a team being streaky. Ten wins and 10 losses count the same in the standings whether they come in bunches of 10 in a row and 10 in a row or neatly alternated over a 20-game stretch. That isn’t to say that the former wouldn’t cause a few more ulcers among the front office and the faithful, but team streakiness isn’t usually the sort of thing that gets much attention from analysts.

And that’s probably how it should be. That doesn’t stop the topic from being interesting, though. (Especially when, as you’ll see over my next few articles, it’s overlaid with other team characteristics.) Like most things that happen on a baseball field, we are inclined to explain streakiness to external factors, such as a team’s youth, reliance on an inconsistent slugger, or an uneven bullpen. Again like many things on a baseball field, much of what we try to explain is really just luck; send a team out there for 162 games, and even the steadiest 81-win squad isn’t going to win all the even-numbered games and lose all the odd ones.

For now, I’m not going to do much to explain the phenomenon, I just want to get a grip on what we’re working with. If we’re going to discuss team streakiness, we need some way to measure it.

The yardstick

In their simplest form, streaks are just a matter of stringing together wins or losses. A team that bunches its wins (and by extension, their losses) is considered streaky, while one that doesn’t conspicuously do so is not. Quantifying that should be pretty simple.

Take, for instance, last year’s Chicago White Sox. They were 90-72, 18 games above .500. If you pick your way through their game log for the season (or, better yet, write a script to do the work for you), you’ll find that on 82 occasions, they won a game they day after a win, or lost a game a day after a win. In other words, about half the time they were in the middle of a streak.

It’s not quite that simple, though. If a team is 18 games better than .500, of course they should be a little bit streaky. There’s no way to win 90 games in a 162-game season without stringing some wins together here and there. Some of the streakiness we measured above is really just an indication that the team was good. (If we were looking at a 72-90 team, we’d see the same phenomenon, only as a reflection of the team’s ineptitude.)

Thus, setting aside the 18 times that the White Sox had to have a win following a win, they were in the middle of a streak on 64 occasions (82 minus 18) out of a possible 144 (162 minus 18). As it turns out, the resulting rate of 44.4% is almost exactly the median among MLB teams in the expansion era. In not-quite-layman’s terms, that means that, setting aside the streaks that can be attributed to the team’s likelihood of winning, there was a four-in-nine chance that on any given day the Sox would be amidst a streak.

The extremes

The first obligation of anyone devising a new measuring tool is to share the resulting best and worst. Here are the streakiest teams of the expansion era:

YR      TM      W       L       STRK
2002    TOR     78      84      59.6%
1996    COL     83      79      58.9%
1969    HOU     81      81      58.6%
1996    CIN     81      81      58.6%
1981    DET     60      49      58.2%
1994    OAK     51      63      57.8%
1999    BAL     78      84      57.7%
1998    BAL     79      83      57.6%
1966    CIN     76      84      57.2%
1961    CHA     86      77      57.1%
1966    ATL     86      77      57.1%
1986    CLE     85      78      57.1%
1975    SFN     80      81      56.9%
1991    MON     71      90      56.3%
1991    SEA     83      79      56.3%

And the least streaky:

YR      TM      W       L       STRK
2005    SLN     100     62      20.2%
1995    CLE     100     44      23.9%
1991    CLE     57      105     25.4%
1962    NYN     40      121     26.3%
1985    PIT     57      104     27.2%
1965    MIN     102     60      27.5%
1977    MIL     67      95      27.6%
1966    CHN     59      103     28.0%
1993    ATL     104     58      28.4%
1988    BAL     54      107     28.7%
1967    KC1     62      99      29.0%
1968    CAL     67      95      29.1%
1970    CIN     102     60      29.2%
1976    CIN     102     60      29.2%
1989    OAK     99      63      29.4%

One thing pops out looking at those lists. It appears that I might not have correctly handled team quality in determining streakiness. Most of the very consistent teams are 100-game winners or losers (or close), while most of the streakiest are close to .500. Why is that?

There are, I think, two factors at play. First, there is some overcorrection. When you’re dealing with a team that is 50 (or, in the case of the 1962 Mets, 82) games above or below .500, streakiness just can’t be separated all that effectively from team quality.

Second, extremely good or bad play may look like streakiness, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for streaks that don’t fall into the season’s pattern. If those ’62 Mets had been more even in distributing their wins and losses, they would’ve won at least one of their first nine games, but probably no more than two. Extremely poor play looks a lot like streakiness, while in cases like these, it’s probably isn’t.

That said, there are plenty of cases where very good teams were very streaky:

YR      TM      W       L       STRK
1977    PIT     96      66      53.0%
1978    LAN     95      67      50.7%
1973    LAN     95      67      49.3%
1985    NYA     97      64      48.4%
1990    PIT     95      67      47.8%
1993    TOR     95      67      47.8%
2006    MIN     96      66      47.0%
1992    ATL     98      64      46.9%
2005    CHA     99      63      46.8%
2006    DET     95      67      46.3%

In addition to those teams (chosen from among the 142 95-game winners in the last 45 years), you may have noticed the 90-game winner and 90-game loser in the “streakiest” list above. It’s rather difficult for a mediocre team to be consistent, but a very good or bad team can be quite inconsistent, at least once we take their demonstrated skill level into consideration.

Oddly enough, all of the teams in the last list were streakier than the 2002 Oakland A’s, the club that strung together 20 consecutive victories. Tough to believe, though it begins to make sense when you recognize that the A’s never lost more than four in a row and did that only three times. With losses somewhat evenly distributed throughout the season (except for that monster run), it stands to reason that the A’s wouldn’t go down as one of the streakiest teams in baseball history.

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