You don’t need a dumb baseball writer to tell you there is an element of luck involved with the Indians’ 22-game winning streak. There’s a heckuva lot of talent involved, too, and that’s why it’s the Indians winning 22 games and not the Padres.
But every lengthy winning streak comes with some streaks of good fortune. If it seems like I’m trying to diminish the Indians’ winning streak, I’m not. It’s just a different way of saying, “Warning: Baseball games contain baseball.”
To prove this point, I had an idea. I was going to watch Thursday night’s game and note all of the tiny, forgotten moments that contributed to the 22nd win. For example, look at this pitch from Josh Tomlin with two runners on base:
The glove says “down,” but the ball says, “no.” It was the hangiest of breaking balls, thrown in a hitter’s count, with runners on base, to a batter who was expecting it. A 22-game winning streak looks like Jose Ramirez stretching a single into a double in the 10th inning. But it also looks like that hanging curveball. Winning streaks are filled with great players doing great things, but they’re also the absence of bad outcomes, too.
Pointing out all of those moments, over and over, would be tedious, though. They’re implied. They’re in every win from every team. It’s hard to hit a round ball with a cylindrical bat, unless it’s really easy to bloop a hit where the fielders aren’t, unless it’s somewhere in between, et cetera, and so on, and so forth.
Instead, let’s just look at the defining at-bat of the game. Which becomes the defining at-bat of the winning streak. Which becomes a synecdoche of the whole sport, really, if we can get pretentious about it.
If you’re wondering what “synecdoche” means, don’t worry, we’ll just look it up using the Apple IOS dictionary, and ...
That’s a real screenshot, and if you wanted more proof that the universe is working on behalf of the Indians at the moment, there you go. I’ve been the blinking-meme guy for the last 15 minutes, and I don’t know how to stop.
ANYWAY, the defining at-bat was Francisco Lindor in the ninth inning. Not just because he hit the double to tie the game, which directly led to the extra-inning win. But because, well, let’s use words to find out.
The pitcher was Kelvin Herrera, a closer going through a bit of a rough season, but still someone who seems like a rough at-bat. The sequence of pitches went like this:
- 96-mph fastball
- 97-mph fastball
- 96-mph fastball
- 96-mph fastball
Those fastballs were scattered about the zone like this, according to Brooks Baseball:
That’s from the catcher’s perspective, and what it’s telling you is that the best pitch to hit — the only pitch to hit, really — was the first-pitch fastball. Once Lindor took that, it put him at a serious disadvantage. He actually isn’t that bad once he gets to an 0-2 count (.748 OPS compared to a career .822 OPS), but it’s not like he gets better. And it was the only pitch in the strike zone.
There are two pitches that sum up the winning streak for me in this at-bat, though.
The first one is this:
That’s Lindor failing at what he was trying to do. That’s not my way of being mean; it’s just an honest description of what happened. Lindor was trying to put the baseball in fair territory, but he misjudged the speed, location, or both, and he was only able to foul-tip the ball into the catcher’s mitt.
Look at the screenshot:
If the ball is a millimeter lower, it’s a pop-up that ends the game. If it’s a millimeter higher, it’s a strikeout that ends the game. Lindor had to fail in a very, very specific way on that pitch. In the middle of a 10-game losing streak, that pitch is absolutely chopped down off home plate. That’s just how it works, apparently.
The second pitch that sums up the winning streak is the final pitch of that at-bat: an outside fastball, not unlike the one that Lindor foul-tipped up there. It was lofted to left field, where this happened:
Think of all the things that had to be in place for that to be a double. Alex Gordon needed to be a step in instead of a step back. He needed to be able to jump that high and not an inch more. He needed to be able to run 17.3 mph instead of 17.31 mph. He needed to be Alex Gordon in 2017 and not Alex Gordon in 2014. He needed to be Alex Gordon at all, really. The weather needed to be exactly what it was and no cooler.
The catcher needed to call for another fastball. And Herrera had to hit his spot. If he screwed up, maybe the Royals would have won. Think about that last sentence for a few minutes, and remember that the sentiment could explain a lot of the most memorable games in baseball history, too.
The most important detail, though, is that Lindor had to have the preternatural hitting ability to crank a 96-mph fastball on the outside edge, driving it all the way to the wall. It’s not insignificant that he saw a similar pitch earlier in the at-bat. He’s excellent at his job, and his continued success is not an accident, which means the continued success of the Indians is not an accident.
That’s the winning streak, then. It’s skill, unmistakable and easily defined. Lindor hit that ball because he’s better than most baseball players. It’s also the absence of undesirable outcomes, though. Lindor failed in that same at-bat, but he failed in a way that allowed him to keep hitting. It was the right player at the right time, the right fielder in the wrong place at the right time, and it was the cosmic tumblers clicking into place.
This is all why the 1927 Yankees didn’t win 22 straight. This is why the Big Red Machine never won 22 straight. This is why the 2017 Indians have won 22 straight, and Lindor’s at-bat has happened over and over again in different contexts, for different players. But this one is the easiest to isolate and define. It’s the perfect explanation of why this is so rare.
It’s the perfect explanation for why this is so beautiful.
The Indians have won 22 games in a row, and that’s because they’re a fantastic baseball team. But it’s also because of the little things: the chances taken and the pitfalls avoided. Lindor’s outstanding, dramatic at-bat can explain why, and every detail is responsible for the most ridiculous winning streak any of us will probably see in our lifetimes.