21 means nothing: How Cleveland’s streak, Dodgers’ slump translate into MLB playoffs

Any time your team sets the new, all-time American League record for most consecutive wins, it’s cause for celebration. This year’s Cleveland Lindors* team has steamrolled 21 straight opponents, racking up one more win than the 1899 Cleveland Spiders all year long. During this streak, Cleveland has shut out its opponents an amazing seven times. Then there’s this: During those 21 games, the Lindors hit 41 home runs … and their opponents scored 35 runs.

Any time your team suffers through its longest losing streak in 73 years, it’s cause for (at least some) consternation. The Dodgers lost 11 games in a row, and 16 out of 17. Despite carrying the best record in baseball, L.A. has some real issues, including unsettled situations at second base and in center field, and a starting rotation that’s absolutely dripping with talent, but also clocking tons of injuries this year.

Watch a historic winning streak or painful losing streak occur just a few weeks away from the start of the playoffs, and the natural reaction becomes … overreaction. Cleveland is on fire, and that momentum will carry into October, where World Series glory surely awaits. The Dodgers are falling apart, and a team that’s endured multiple doses of heartbreak in recent postseasons will surely experience another one this year.

Fret not, Dodger fans. And don’t get ahead of yourself, Cleveland fans. For all our obsession with who’s hot and who’s not, there’s no evidence to suggest that how you play heading into the playoffs has any bearing on what happens once you’re actually in the playoffs. Nor do gigantic winning streaks automatically portend October success.

Looking at all World Series winners in the expansion era (1969-2016), we found that there’s no significant correlation between late-season success and playoff success. Research by Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus showed that whether you look at the final 10 games of any given season, or longer intervals, teams that roll into October on a hot streak aren’t significantly more likely to make deep playoff runs than teams that reach the playoffs struggling through a cold snap. (This confirms another study that Neil Paine and I did for FiveThirtyEight back in 2014.)

Want examples? We’ve got examples!

Using two teams of recent vintage, we start with the 2001 Seattle Mariners. The all-time winningest team at 116-46, the M’s also rolled into the playoffs smoking hot, winning 17 of their final 23 games, 10 of their final 12. After knocking off Cleveland in the ALDS, they got rolled by the Yankees, falling in five games. Conversely, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals staged one of the coldest finishes of any playoff team in major-league history, going 25-36 to end the season. They then rolled through the playoffs, taking the NLDS against the Padres in four games, the NLCS on a spinning Adam Wainwright Game 7 curveball, and the World Series in five games over the Tigers. In the process, the Cards became the least successful regular-season team ever to win the World Series, having gone just 83-78 that season.

Sticking to monster winning streaks, regardless of when in the season they occur, you can cherry-pick results here too. Before this year’s Lindors, three teams in the World Series era had won 20 or more games — the 1916 New York Giants (who had a tie in the middle of their 26-game streak, but MLB still counts it for some reason), the 1935 Chicago Cubs (21 straight), and the 2002 Oakland A’s (20 straight). None of the three went on to win it all that year.

Oh and if Cleveland (or Houston, or Washington) runs down the Dodgers to claim the best record in the majors? That matters a bit more than any nebulous concept of late-season momentum — but still probably not as much as you would expect. While home teams do win more often than not in baseball, home-field advantage is a smaller deal for MLB than it is in other sports. Thus the team with the best regular-season record (and the accompanying home-field advantage) often falls short of World Series riches.

From the 1969 expansion year that expanded the playoffs to five teams until 1993, the final complete season without a wild card, the best team in baseball won the World Series just seven out of 23 times (the Reds had the best record in MLB in 1981, but didn’t make the playoffs due to convoluted first-half/second-half system caused by that season’s strike). That rate works out to a 30 percent winning percentage. With four playoff teams each year, you’d give each team a 25 percent chance of winning it all — plus a little more once you consider home-field advantage, thus making the 7/23 rate pretty much spot on with what you’d expect.

In the wild-card era of 1995 through 2016, the best team in baseball won the World Series five times in 22 tries, a success rate of slightly less than 23 percent. That’s quite a bit better than the 1-in-8 chance you’d expect in a random sample of eight playoff teams, as well as in the one-game playoff followed by LDS/LCS/World Series era that started in 2012. Still, even if we assume that small sample size of results is sustainable, we’re giving the best regular-season team in baseball a less than 1-in-4 chance of winning the World Series.

Viewed from that vantage point, the Cubs’ drought-busting success of 2016 looks like an anomaly. And if the Lindors do run down the Dodgers by the end of this season? There’s a good chance that won’t make a lick of difference when the World Series champs are crowned.

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