Catch 22: Assessing the Dominance of the Indians Historic Win Streak

By: Ryan Kelly

Reading Time: 8 minutes

After the Indians took an early exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Bronx Bombers, I thought it appropriate to look back at their first-place regular season finish in remembrance of the season that was.  When looking back, one thing comes to mind: the streak.  From August 24th to September 14th, Cleveland rattled off a remarkable 22 straight wins, breaking the 2002 Oakland Athletics American League win streak under the orchestration of Mr. Moneyball, Billy Beane.  As I sat in my dorm room and watched the improbable, come-from-behind 22nd victory against the Royals, I thought to myself just how dominant Cleveland seemed to be over this four-week stretch.  But how historically dominant were they?  Where does this remarkable stretch stack up against some of the greatest win streaks in the history of American professional sports?

Before comparing their streak to some other notable performances, let’s view the numbers on the Indians, themselves.

 

2017 Cleveland Indians (22 Games)

Margin of Victory:  During their run, the Indians did not just win games.  They demolished their opponents.  Winning by an average of just over 4.7 runs per game, closer Cody Allen was often not needed to close out the games; many of the wins were all but sealed by the time Andrew Miller rolled in during the 7th or 8th inning.  To put this number into some perspective, only two teams actually scored 4.7 runs per game for the entire 2016 season (Rockies and the Red Sox).  Cleveland not only scored 4.7 runs per game, but they beat their opponents by 4.7 runs per game.  Incredible.  Furthermore, the Indians lead the big leagues this year in the margin of victory category, but the next closest team, the Dodgers, won by just over 1.2 runs per game on average.  For this 22-game sequence, the Indians nearly quadrupled that number.  Margin of victory is a good way to measure dominance, and, boy, was Cleveland dominant.

Pitching and Defense: Cleveland allowed a miserly 1.69 runs per game during the streak.  Defense in the field was stellar behind the likes of Francisco Lindor, and the pitching staff shut opposing teams down.  With Cy Young hopeful Corey Kluber and the horrifying lefty Andrew Miller coming out of the bullpen, the Indians pitching staff combined to throw 7 shutouts in the 22 games.  Let that sink in: in 32% of the games, the opposing team did not even get on the scoreboard.

Offense: The offense was just as sound as the defense, scoring a remarkable 6.46 runs per game.  To once again compare the streak to the rest of the MLB, the number one scoring offense in the league, Houston, averaged 5.53 runs per game.  That is a difference of just under a run per game.  Dominance.

Statistical Probability:  A luxury in today’s world of sports analytics is that there are several models used to predict the probability of teams having certain outcomes for games.  While the historic teams that I will compare to the Indians did not have said luxury, the Indians’ numbers are startling enough that I will include them anyway.  The pregame odds that the Indians would win a specific game averaged just over 59% for the streak.  Using this number, it holds that the Indians should have won more like 13 games out of the 22.  While this is still an impressive number, they defied the odds to win all 22.  Although they were actually only statistical underdogs on four occasions, it is nevertheless certainly an impressive feat.  Statistically speaking, the odds of a team with a 59% chance of winning every game going on a 22-game winning streak is 0.0009%, or roughly 1 in 100,000.

While there are countless incredible streaks to which I could compare the Indians’ dominance, I had to choose a few of the greatest.  A few qualifications: in looking for dominating win streaks, I have taken the liberty of not including teams with unbeaten streaks, meaning they tied some games during the stretch.  This, most notably, includes the 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers who didn’t lose for 35 games (10 ties) and the 1916 New York (Baseball) Giants who won 26 straight but actually tied one in the middle due to a weather delay and eventual cancellation.  The second main qualification is that I’m only considering teams who have completed this streak within one season, excluding streaks like Mount Union’s 55 game win streak in college football and UCONN’s amazing 111 game win streak spanning several years.  Though these are incredible accomplishments, they are much more difficult to compare statistically to the Indians’ run.  Thus, the teams I have chosen are the 2002 Oakland Athletics whose record of 20 games was the AL record broken by the Indians, the 1971-72 LA Lakers who won an NBA record 33 in a row, and the 2007 New England Patriots’ 18 game win streak prior to losing the Super Bowl thanks to David Tyree’s little helmet magic trick.

 

2002 Oakland Athletics (20 Games)

Margin of Victory: Over their 20-game hoorah, their average margin of victory was an astounding 3.65 runs per game, blowing their opponents out of the water.  But this 3.65 looks just a little less dominant when we factor in the Indians mark of 4.772.  First point Indians.

Pitching and Defense: Whereas the 2017 Indians shut out their opponents in 31.8% of their wins and held their opponents to a startling low average of 1.69 runs/game, these Athletics were a little less proficient.  They shut out their opponents in a still solid 10% of their wins, but they allowed 3.25 runs/game.  Not a bad mark by any stretch of the imagination, but even this low mark is nearly twice what the Indians posted.  Second point Indians.

Offense: Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez led the incredibly proficient Oakland offense.  Billy Beane’s statistical prowess perhaps manifested itself best with this lineup, which put up an incredible 6.9 runs per game over the stretch.  Compared to Cleveland’s mark of 6.46, the two teams might appear very similar; however, half a run is significant.  Final point to the Athletics.

Verdict: Indians

Despite the Athletics proving to be just a little more offensively dominant, Cleveland’s pitching and defense was truly remarkable.  Another note: both teams won half of these games on the road.  Quite impressive.

Cleveland may have been more dominant than the team whose record they surpassed, but what about teams from other professional sports leagues?  Next up: the 1971-72 LA Lakers.

 

1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers (33 Games)

Margin of Victory: Obviously margin of victory must be considered differently since this is a different sport and era, but I’m going to compare it to the average margin of error for last year’s NBA.  Sue me.  It’s hard to find the average margin of error for the NBA in 1972.  The Lakers won their 33 games by a whopping average of 16 points/game.  16 points/game.  Absurd. The NBA champion Golden State Warriors won by an average of 12 points per game, an impressive number, but only 75% of what the Lakers accomplished.  Without the 3-ball.  Crazy.  I don’t know what else to say.  Now when comparing this to the Indians mark it is definitely a different game, so I will try to compare them relatively to their own sports.  The Lakers won by 4 more points per game than arguably the best team ever assembled.  After the Warriors, no other team came close, with the next highest being the Spurs at 6.2.  The Indians were astounding in the fact that their MOV over that stretch was 4 times that of the next highest team this season.  That is pure dominance.  I am going to hand this one to the Indians, but this is close.

Defense: These Lakers did not play that much defense.  As great as they were, even their defense back-ended with Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the most dominant player ever, was subpar, allowing over 107 points per contest.  Sure, this can partially be attributed to the fact that they played with tremendous pace offensively which gave their opponents more opportunities to score; regardless, they allowed a number than would have placed them in the bottom third of the league defensively in 2016.  Defensively, the edge goes to the Indians.

Offense: Jerry West and his boys scored an astounding 123.3 points per game over their streak. Again: wow.  During an age where there was no 3-point line it is nearly impossible to believe a team could score so much.  Even in today’s NBA where some teams shoot 35-40% of their shots from 3 per game they can’t put up these numbers.  The Warriors led the league in scoring this season with an impressive 116.5 ppg, but this still falls a massive 6.8 points short of the Lakers mark.  This means the Lakers scored 1.056 times what the 2016 Warriors did, which again is the comparison because not much is published about team ppg when the Brady Bunch was the number one show on television.  But the Indians, once again, beat this mark, scoring 1.18 times what the Dodgers have put up this year.  With that said, this number is slightly slanted considering far more points are scored in basketball than runs in baseball.  Both teams proved to be absolute offensive juggernauts over their respective streaks.

Verdict: Tie

I would be inclined to call this comparison closer to a tie.  Whereas the statistics may show that the Indians reign supreme, the Lakers’ streak was 11 games longer and witnessed them win over 40.2% of their season’s games without losing.  One last comparison is to be made, and that comparison is to the dominance of the historic 18 game win streak of the 2007 New England Patriots.

 

2007 New England Patriots (18 Games)

Before experiencing the heartbreak of one of the greatest Super Bowl upsets of all time, the Patriots were perfect.  Tom Brady was in his prime under Josh McDaniel and now Houston head coach Bill O’Brien.  DC Dean Pees had the Patriots defense playing as well as they’ve played during the Belichick era.  They were the most dominant NFL team since the perfect 1972 Dolphins led by Hall of Famers Larry Csonka and Bob Griese.  Let’s take a look at just how dominant they were.

Margin of Victory: During the regular season, the Patriots outscored opponents by 19.6 ppg, with no other team even coming close to this mark.  And in the playoffs, with tougher competition, they still won by 10 ppg for their two victories.  Double digits.  For the entire 18 game streak, this leaves them at a remarkable 18.61 ppg as their margin of victory.  They spent 18 games more than doubling their opponents’ score, on average.  This could quite possibly be the most dominant statistic I have ever seen in professional sports.  The edge here is to the Patriots.

Offense: The Patriots ranked first in nearly every offensive statistical category, from scoring offense to yards to turnovers to first downs.  They were unstoppable, scoring a whopping 36.8 ppg, well above any number elsewhere in the league since 2007.  Their 411.25 ypg may not have been as staggering, but it still led the league and would be an impressive number in today’s NFL, despite the increase in offense over the last decade.  Brady clicked on all cylinders throwing to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, arguably having the best season of his illustrious career.  Cleveland was offensively brilliant during their streak, but, once again, I give the nod to the Pats.

Defense: The defense, while not as proficient as Brady and his boys, still finished top-5 in the league in a majority of defensive categories.  Most notably, they finished fourth in scoring defense and opponents’ yards per game, with these numbers being 17.125 and 288.3, respectively.  They allowed less than 300 yards per game for an entire regular season.  While these numbers dipped slightly in the playoffs against superior competition, they still dominated defensively led by Junior Seau and big Vince Wilfork.  Yet even these numbers are not as impressive as Cleveland’s pitching and defense.  I truly believe that there has never been a streak that contained as incredible defense as Cleveland’s.  The Indians get one point.

Verdict: Patriots

Comparisons between football and baseball are tough, but the Patriots streak seems the most similar to the Indians of the three teams we have evaluated in terms of pure dominance.  Like the Indians, their MOV was larger than the opponent’s points/runs per game.  Like the Indians, they were completely dominant on offense and defense, thriving at all aspects of the game.  As much as it pains me to say it as a life-long Dolphins fan, I think I would have to give the nod to the Patriots in this one, solely because they won 18 of the 19 games they played all season.  They not only had a win streak, they almost went undefeated.  Valiant effort Indians, but Brady and Belichick don’t even lose in cross-sport comparisons.  Sorry Cleveland, Belichick disappoints you once more.

There is no argument that the Indians’ 2017 run is among the most incredible feats in the history of American professional sports.  Even when stacked up against some of the other greatest streaks across sports, the Indians statistically hold their own.  While this season may have ended with a surprisingly early exit from the playoffs given their talent and 2016 World Series experience, the Indians can hold their head high knowing that, this season, they have done something that will not be forgotten.

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