Sunday, October 12, 2014


Even outside Kansas City they are going agog for the Royals.

The winning streak is up to six games--actually, nine if you go back to the middle of the Reagan era, when the Royals were last in the post-season: they rallied for three straight wins against the Cardinals to win what is still their only World Championship.

There is still a long way to go--six more wins, to be exact--but the Royals are starting to exhibit what those who have yet to discard their ouija boards like to characterize as "inevitability." A small, concentrated dose of scrappy playing and several dramatic wins in close games can't help but produce a lot of magical thinking.

The record for most consecutive wins in the post-season is twelve. It has been done twice, by the same team (the New York Yankees), under vastly different circumstances.

The "real" record--twelve consecutive World Seres wins--was set by the Ruth-Gehrig squad in three consecutive sweeps (though by "consecutive" we don't mean in consecutive Series: after sweeping the Pirates and Cardinals in 1927-28, the Yankees took three years off while the Philadelphia A's dominated the AL--then they came roaring back in 1932 to bury the Chicago Cubs).

That mark was "tied" by the 1998-99 squad, which ripped through an ALCS, a WS, and an ALDS before finally dropping a game to the Red Sox in the 1999 ALCS.

Twelve teams have fashioned at least eight consecutive post-season wins. The most recent to do so before the Royals did it: the San Francisco Giants, who had a ten-game post-season skein snapped just a few days ago when the Nationals beat them. (The 1988-89 A's and the 1937-41 Yankees are the other squads with ten straight wins--again, the Yankees punking their opponents in World Series games.)

The "Wins Above Average" by defensive position for the 1969 NL (focusing on the Mets)...
The Giants fashioned a collective 0.90 ERA in those games; only the Orioles, in eight straight wins from 1966-69 (four against the last gasp of the Koufax Dodgers, three against Killebrew's Twins, and one before the roof caved in against the Mets), had a lower ERA in their streak.

Overall, teams with the longest consecutive post-season win streaks are doing so with their pitching: the top twelve squads, each with at least eight straight wins, have fashioned a collective 2.01 ERA.

The Royals haven't quite got that kind of pitching mojo working, at least not yet. But their ERA in the nine-game (thirty-year...) skein is a respectable 2.63.

It could be that baseball needs a kind of "immaculate conception" post-season, the one that comes along once every five decades. The Royals strongly resemble one of baseball's most noted "miracle teams"--the 1969 New York Mets.

True, the Mets won more games--but "by resemble," we mean that their strengths and weaknesses are highly similar. The snapshots of the "Wins Above Average" by position data available for each team at Forman et fils indicate that the two teams were strongest in left field (Cleon Jones for the Mets, Alex Gordon for the Royals), with lesser strength in center (Tommie Agee for the Mets, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson for the Royals).

They had weak offensive infields, negligible right fielders--but they had solid pitching (though the Royals were more patchy in terms of starers--there is no Tom Seaver to be found anywhere near the 2014 KC rotation).

The other "upset" team in this mix is the team that won an upset World Series exactly one hundred years ago--the 1914 Boston Braves. (Ironically, in this age of sudden mediocrity, the Royals are probably more highly regarded as a potential Series winner than either of the "Miracle" teams.)

What further distinguishes the Royals from the 1969 Mets and the 1914 Braves is the team's lackluster finishing kick: The Braves went 29-7 (.806) from Game 120 to the end of the regular season; that's second best all-time amongst World Series winners (beaten only by the 1942 Cardinals, who went 31-6). Likewise, the Mets were superb down the stretch, finishing 1969 with a 32-11 record starting at game 120.

...and the same chart highlighting the Royals in the 2014 AL have a LOT of similarities.
Not so these Royals, who managed a 24-19 record over their closing 43-game patch in 2014. But they have been making up for lost time--upending the A's in a spasmodic "winner take all" Wild Card game (a bad idea for baseball, as we've noted elsewhere), upsetting a comatose (and overrated) Angels squad, and now giving the Orioles pause.

The "immaculate conception" concept usually means, however, that the team fades away and isn't heard from for a long, long time. The 1914 Braves fit that definition, while the 1969 Mets did squeak their way into the World Series four years later, thanks to a weak division and some clutch starting pitching. But they weren't heard from again for more than a dozen years.

If the Royals win another six games in a row, they'll have
the same canary-swallowing cat-like smiles that Steve'n'Judy
had on display here, way back in 1968, the year before the last miracle...
The Royals would bring post-neo sabermetrics around to a place strongly resembling where its tail exists,  but it won't matter much. They are likely to go the way of all flesh 2015 and beyond, but the midwestern contingent will have a moment of Reaganesque nostalgia to cling to in the long interregnum to follow, where a series of lifeboats will form a circle in the wine-dark sea and speak in hushed tones about that "shining city upon a hill" where everything is up-to-date but curiously out of step.

"Immaculate conception" teams are baseball's point of connection with American exceptionalism, and one could argue that the game and the nation needs something like this to perpetuate its self-illusion. Who are we to argue with that, even if it's as bogus as a three dollar bill? As Stephen Stills, in his shining moment as "ersatz poet in search of a face-saving erectile dysfunction" once opined: "I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are--you make it hard."