Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Four Teams / Two Months / No Consecutive Losses

Before losing back-to-back games for the first time since June 20 and 21, the Dodgers went nearly two months without consecutive losses.  Four teams that did play at least two months without losing two in a row--the 1906 Cubs, 1911 Athletics, 1931 Athletics, and 1938 Yankees--were all at the start or in the middle of dynastic seasons.

Four Teams / Two Months / No Consecutive Losses

Precisely because major league baseball seasons are so long, even the most dominant teams in history endure a slump or two on their way to a pennant-race romp.  More impressive, perhaps, than long winning streaks are when clubs can sustain a level of performance excellence where they are virtually unbeatable for an extended portion of the baseball season, and even then back-to-back losses are not unusual.  On their way to setting an AL-record (since broken) 114 wins in 1998, for example, the Yankees' longest winning streak was 10 games, and they endured stretches of four losses in five games, six in eight (including a four-game losing streak), and eight losses in twelve games (including two three-game losing streaks).  The 110-win Ruth-Gehrig Yankees of 1927, who never spent a day out of first place, lost seven of thirteen games in one stretch and had a four-game losing streak in another.  Neither team went even a month without enduring back-to-back losses.

But four teams that were at the heart of dynasties by measure of winning successive pennants by decisive margins, excelling in all facets of the game, and dominating their league were virtually unbeatable for consecutive months.  One of the most impressive winning stretches was by the 1938 Yankees--the only one of Manager Joe McCarthy's seven pennant-winners with either Gehrig or DiMaggio (or both) on the roster not to win 100 games; they won 99.  (McCarthy's 1943 pennant-winning Yankees won 98 games, but Gehrig was tragically gone and DiMaggio and a host of his teammates were in the service in the first season that World War II had a big impact on major league rosters.)  Favored with obviously superior talent, the McCarthy Yankees almost every season went on an impressive summer surge to put a stake through the hopes of would-be contenders for the American League pennant.

The 1938 Yankees, however, actually found themselves in the midst of a real pennant race with Cleveland and Boston through July.  But from June 23 through August 30, the Yankees won 54 of 67 games (.806) to open up a 15-game lead, never once losing more than one game at a time.  You read right:  for more than two months that year--68 days to be precise--the longest losing streak the Yankees endured was one game--13 times.  The Yankees did not lose consecutive games again until the last day of August and the first day of September.  For the season, the Yankees outscored their opponents by 36 percent (scoring an average of 6.2 runs-per-game to their opponents' 4.5), but during the 68 games they played between June 23 and August 30 (one of which ended in a tie), the Yankees scored 77 percent more runs than they surrendered (528 to 299) for an average score of 7.8 to 4.4.  Twenty-six of their 54 wins were by blowout margins of five runs or more, including all nine games of a winning streak from June 25 to July 4, and in 21 of their victories they held the opposing team to two runs or less, including five shutouts.

The team that interrupted the earlier Ruth-Gehrig Yankees' reign of terror with three consecutive run-away pennants from 1929 to 1931 was the Philadelphia Athletics.  Connie Mack's second dynasty (not to be confused with his first from 1910 to 1914) had each of their pennants essentially secured by the beginning of August.  In 1929, the Athletics won 39 of their first 50 games (.780)--never losing more than one at a time--between the start of the season on April 17 and June 15, before enduring their first two-game losing streak just two days shy of two months.  In 1931, after opening the season with five losses in their first seven games, the Athletics went two full months without losing consecutive games, posting a 41-8 (.837) record from April 22 to June 23, including 17 in a row in May.  That two-month stretch, however, left Philadelphia only 2-1/2 games ahead of the Washington Nationals, and it wasn't until 17 wins in 18 games from the middle to the end of July that Mack's men put the pennant out of reach for Washington, not to mention McCarthy's Yankees.  With stellar pitching and the most imposing line-up any side of New York's, the Athletics outscored their opponents by a phenomenal 80 percent (323 to 179) during that two month stretch in 1931.

Baseball's two earliest dynasties of the modern era--the 1906-10 Chicago Cubs and 1910-14 Philadelphia Athletics, both winners of four pennants in five years--also had one of their teams go at least two months without consecutive losses.  In 1911, defending their American League title from the previous season, the Athletics found themselves 2-1/2 games down on August 1 after losing two straight to the first-place Tigers, but followed up with a 39-14 (.736) record from August 2 to October 3 to assume a commanding 12-1/2 game lead before they next lost back-to-back games.  Although never losing two in a row during that stretch, the Athletics were not quite as unbeatable as the other teams discussed here; in a stretch of 22 games extending from August 10 to September 4, Philadelphia was only 13-9, never winning more than three in a row (even if all their losses were singletons).

The most impressive two-month stretch belongs to the 1906 Cubs, who kickstarted their dynasty with a major league-record 116 wins, getting better as the season went on.  After losing consecutive games on July 22 and 23, before which they had not lost two in a row in more than seven weeks since being swept in a May 30 double-header, the 1906 Cubs were in first place with a superb 61-28 (.685) record, on pace to win 105 but only four games ahead of the keeping-up Pittsburgh Pirates.  From July 24 to the end of the season on October 7, however, the unstoppable Cubs lost only eight games, never more than one at a time, while winning 55 (.873) to establish the highest single-season winning percentage (.763) of any team in modern baseball history.  They did not lose two in a row again until the worst possible time--Games 5 and 6 to the White Sox in the only all-Chicago World Series to date.

Including their back-to-back losses in July, Manager Frank Chance's "peerless" Cubs went 88-21 (.807) after their double-header loss on May 30.  Like Mack's second Athletics dynasty and McCarthy's continuance of the Yankee dynasty, the Cubs excelled in every aspect of the game; they certainly had better defense than the Athletics and arguably better defense than the Yankees.  In the final 76 days of the season, during which they played 64 games (the final one ending in a tie) and suffered only eight losses, the Cubs scored more than two-and-a-third times as many runs (308 to 129) as their opponents, and nearly a third of their opponents' runs (32 percent) came in the eight games the Cubs lost.  (On the season, they outscored their opponents by 84 percent.)  The Cubs won 104 or more games in three of the next four years, and 99 in 1908--the year of the "Merkle Game"--when they finished out the season winning 41 of their final 51 (.804), never losing more than one at a time, between August 17 and the tacked-on-to-the-end-of-the-season Merkle Make-Up Game on October 8.

Did teams like the 1951 New York Giants that had spectacular runs allowing them to overcome significant deficits to win the pennant or their division title typically do so without enduring back-to-back losses?  That will be the subject of my next posting.

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