From the desk of Joe Sheehan. Joe Sheehan writes for Sports Illustrated and publishes the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter.
It’s getting real now. After last night’s Mets-aided 4-2 win, the Dodgers are 38-8 since June 21 and 39-11 in their last 50 games — the first two of which were losses. With a win tonight they would become the 35th team in baseball history to play at least .800 ball over 50 games, and the 17th to do so since World War II. The last was the 2005 A’s, who provide an interesting example in that despite going 40-10 at one point, they went 48-64 the rest of the time and missed the postseason.
Nevertheless, playing .800 ball for nearly a third of a season is usually a mark of greatness. Of the 35 teams that have done so, 31 have won their league or division. Two others were competing against teams who were just as hot within that same season: the 1885 Giants, who had a 41-9 stretch that matched the best work of the White Stockings (your people call them “Cubs”) and finished three games out, and the 2001 A’s, who actually closed the season 45-10 and were never within shouting distance of the Mariners, who won 116 games and had their own 41-10 stretch early in the year. The A’s did win the wild card going away.
Just three teams in baseball history have won at least 40 of 50 games and missed the postseason. The 1885 Giants were covered above. The ’51 Indians ripped off a 40-10 stretch in midsummer before closing 21-22 and finishing five games behind the Yankees at 93-61. The 2005 A’s had three movements: a 27-39 start, followed by a 48-17 (with a 40-10 in there) summer, followed by a 13-18 close. These two teams stand out, but they do underline a point I’ve been trying to hammer home, that we underestimate the variability of performance of players and teams. Two of the hottest teams in baseball history were .500 or worse the rest of the time.
Generally, though, playing .800 ball for two months isn’t a fluke. Some of the greatest teams in baseball history — those ’01 Mariners, the ’75 Reds, the ’54 Indians, the ’39 Yankees, the ’29 A’s — are on the list of teams to have pulled it off. That’s the company the Dodgers keep now — and they were 32-40 when they started this run.
The thing is, they could reach higher. The best 50-game stretch in baseball history is by the 1906 Cubs, who went 45-5 on their way to the NL pennant and a historic World Series loss to the “Hitless Wonders”, the White Sox. That is, at the moment, outside the reach of the these Dodgers. Actually, let’s run a chart:
45-5 1906 Cubs
42-8 1897 Beaneaters, 1941 Yankees, 1942 Cardinals
41-9 Nine teams
40-10 21 teams
If the Dodgers win their next four games, they’ll have played the best stretch of baseball since World War II. That Cardinals team, which benefited from having Stan Musial in a war-depleted league, closed 42-8 to edge out the Dodgers by two games; they went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series. The other two teams to go 42-8 won their league, and those 1897 Boston Beaneaters (eventually Braves) snapped the old Baltimore Orioles’ hold on the NL. Those Orioles’ teams are remembered as an 1890s dynasty, while the Beaneaters — who won the NL four times in seven years in the same decade — are forgotten.
This could definitely happen. The Dodgers have two more games against the Mets and then go to Philadelphia, where they’ll send Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw against the Phillies in the first two games of the series. The Dodgers will be favored in their next four games — even against Matt Harvey tonight — and if they win them, they’ll be just the fifth team ever to win 42 of 50 games. We’re a long way from the Brandon League era, is what I’m saying.
If the Dodgers stumble, they can still be in great company. Just three teams since World War II have won 41 of 50 games. Two of them have iconic nicknames: The Boys of Summer and The Big Red Machine. The third, the 1998 Yankees, won 114 games and was the best team in a five-year dynasty. Eleven teams have won 41 of 50 games in the World Series era; all 11 of those teams reached the World Series.
What the Dodgers are doing right now may not reflect their true talent, may well be a mix of luck and ability, may not even mean they’re better than the Braves or the Pirates or the Cardinals. What we know, though, is that their play since early June matches that of not only some of the hottest teams ever, but the hottest stretches by some of the greatest teams ever. This week, they can make history.
The Joe Sheehan Newsletter is an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, a mix of analysis, commentary and opinion, all linked by a deep love of the game. Subscriptions cost $29.95 for a full year and $16.95 for six months. Current subscribers may renew for $24.95 through August 30.