“How long do you think it would take for an MLB team to realize that a particular replacement-level player, let’s call him ‘Gonny Jomes,’ has a supernatural power that causes the team that carries him to: A) win the World Series, B) reach the playoffs, C) play at a 100-win regular season pace, D) never lose a game?”

 

Effectively Wild listeners probably don’t need anyone to tell them that if you spend long enough with the Baseball-Reference Play Index (coupon code BP), you’re virtually guaranteed to uncover some kind of statistical curiosity or fun fact that you’d never been aware of. One of the many tools available is the Streak Finder, which unsurprisingly allows you to search for the number of consecutive games featuring any number of stats, from runs and stolen bases to walks and pickoffs, and for individual players or teams.

A few weeks ago, as part of our ongoing quest to find the most Gonny Jomes-like players, a conversation with other BttP contributors naturally turned to whether players’ personal winning streaks were Play Indexable. The answer was…sort of: the Streak Finder allows you to search for the number of consecutive wins or losses a pitcher has appeared in but sadly, the same isn’t true for hitters. Naturally, I had to find out who the record holder was in this category, so I set the criteria to ‘Team Ws’ and after a few moments, the following leaderboard popped up (also available as an image file):

NameStrk StartEndGmWLGFSVIPHRBBSOHRERATm
John Smoltz3/6/0225/5/0373307160764713178611.42ATL
Dennis Eckersley1/10/9123/8/925360504162.1481277131.73OAK
Billy Wagner2/8/0631/5/07460044314741996241.53NYM
Mariano Rivera7/6/0916/9/093630332836.116293610.50NYY
Jose Mesa26/6/9522/9/95362033283630393720.50CLE
Mark Melancon26/6/1515/9/153330262232231082712.25PIT
Drew Storen28/4/1530/7/153310282531.120573911.44WSN
Eric Gagne14/8/039/5/043320302638.1204105730.94LAD
Tony Watson30/6/1515/9/153230102925962512.79PIT
Robb Nen22/7/0013/4/013220322232.114365100.84SFG
Rod Beck27/4/9322/7/93321031213225634131.41SFG
Aroldis Chapman26/6/124/9/123110302730.214165600.29CIN
J.J. Putz28/6/1112/4/12311029282820543411.61ARI
Rafael Soriano28/8/129/5/133000272131209102962.61NYY-
WSN
Mariano Rivera21/5/0331/7/033050271735.228733111.51NYY
Dennis Eckersley18/9/8910/6/903040282436.120403510.99OAK
John Franco13/9/8813/6/893030282440279152901.35CIN

 

Seventy-three games! John Smoltz did not lose a baseball game he appeared in for almost an entire year, missing out by just over a week. I will take this opportunity to note that Atlanta lost one of his two games in the 2002 playoffs, which doesn’t break this streak by virtue of not being a regular season game, so he wasn’t quite invincible for this period. And yes, closers by their nature tend to appear in far more wins than losses, but the fact that Dennis Eckersley is a full twenty wins behind Smoltz tells you that it is still a remarkable record.

smoltz-03-cardAt the time, I’d only discovered brief mentions of this on the internet and I was yet to find any comments from Smoltz or the team on the streak, and so I sent this fun fact to Ben and Sam for discussion on the podcast, asking why they thought it hadn’t got much attention, and if they believed it had much impact on Smoltz and his teammates. Sam noted that he was more surprised that anyone¬†had noticed at the time, given that this wasn’t the easiest record to track.

Subsequently, I came across an Associated Press article on the streak by Paul Newberry from the day it ended in May 2003, featured on the website of the Midland Daily News, which included quotes from Smoltz, fellow great Greg Maddux, and pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Smoltz, as perhaps any moderately competitive person would, hoped that the streak would continue “forever”, Jomes style (ignoring that Jomes himself would have little influence on his team’s success):

“I wanted it to go on forever, see how long I could take it,” Smoltz said after the streak ended with a 7-6 loss to Cincinnati. “I personally don’t think it will be broken.”

Despite the streak spanning two seasons and ending in May, Mazzone already had one eye on the awards voting:

“It’s awesome,” Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. “You do something like that, you put yourself in position for the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards.”

Meanwhile, Maddux showed a good deal of perspective by indicating that both luck and the rest of the team were heavily involved in the streak:

“It’s absolutely incredible,” Braves starter Greg Maddux said. “So many things have to go right. Obviously, the ball has to bounce your way.”

How lucky did Smoltz get? Well, as indicated by his 1.42 ERA, just 47 hits in 76 innings, and excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio, there weren’t too many outings in which the Hall of Famer looked likely to lose this streak. Nonetheless, there were a few occasions on which it could easily have fallen short of Eckersley’s mark. Here are five moments in which this streak almost ended, and the one where it did, with each featuring a link to the Baseball-Reference box score, play-by-play & WPA chart:

 

Streak Game 30, August 6th, 2002: ATL 4-3 ARI

Atlanta came into the bottom of the ninth with a 3-1 lead and the ball in the hand of their closer. When Craig Counsell lined out to CF on his second pitch, they had a 95% chance of winning the game. Junior Spivey then singled up the middle for his fourth hit of the game and with an extremely strong 4-5-6 coming up for Arizona, Smoltz couldn’t afford many mistakes. He struck out Luis Gonzalez looking on four pitches, but didn’t fare so well with Erubiel Durazo, who doubled home pinch runner David Delucci, and then Quinton McCracken, who did the same for Durazo to tie the game, despite Smoltz running both to 1-2 counts. Steve Finley couldn’t walk it off, flying out to CF, and so the game went to extras. Tim Spooneybarger and Kerry Ligtenberg then no-hit Arizona for four innings, with Ligtenberg getting the win after Andruw Jones hit the winning home run in the top of the 13th. This was one of only two blown saves for Smoltz in the entire 73-game stretch.

Streak Game 32, August 9th, 2002, ATL 6-5 HOU

Another 13-inning marathon, made all the more improbable by the fact that Atlanta had to score three runs in the top of the ninth off Billy Wagner to stay in the game, which they promptly did. With the game being on the road, Smoltz was held back and finally came in to close out the win after Gary Sheffield had homered on a 3-2 pitch from Nelson Cruz (no, not the Mariners slugger) to break the 5-5 tie in the top of the 13th. It all looked very simple when Gregg Zaun struck out and Julio Lugo hit one to Andruw Jones in CF, only for Craig Biggio to single to right and come racing around third on an Orlando Merced double. Instead of tying the game up, however, Biggio was out at home on Rafael Furcal’s throw after Wes Helms’ relay from left, ending the game and preserving the streak. It had been over two years since Wagner gave up three earned runs in a game, and it would be another 13 months before he did so again.

Streak Game 35, August 19th, 2002: COL 6-7 ATL

The Rockies’ win expectancy was at 91% in the bottom of the eighth, with a 5-2 lead. A home run, error, double and single later, the game was tied, and because it was a tie game at home, this time Smoltz was coming in. After two groundouts, Smoltz again looked comfortable, only to give up a single to Juan Uribe and then a double to pinch-hitter Greg Norton, scoring Uribe and putting the Braves behind 6-5 going into the bottom of the ninth, with just a 20% chance of winning. Fortunately for Smoltz, Sheffield and Chipper Jones were the next batters up, and both deposited pitches from Rockies closer Jose Jimenez over the fence, handing him his eighth loss and fourth blown save of the year and keeping Smoltz’s run alive in walk-off style. It’s clear that Sheffield should claim plenty of credit for sustaining the record in the clutch on multiple occasions: in addition to his go-ahead 13th inning blast on August 9th, it was the second time he hit a crucial ninth-inning homer in this streak. Just two weeks earlier, Sheffield had ended a tight 1-1 affair against the Cardinals with a walk-off bomb, following a clean 1-2-3 inning from Smoltz.

Streak Game 38, August 27th, 2002: ATL 5-4 PIT

Atlanta was up 5-1 in the bottom of the ninth, but that lead looked less comfortable when Ligtenberg put men on first and second with no outs. Enter Smoltz, who promptly gave up a double to Kevin Young that scored one run, and then a groundout that brought home another, with Young advancing to third. Adam Hyzdu walked and following a strikeout of Pokey Reese, Abraham Nunez singled home Young to cut the deficit to 5-4. The tying run was at third with two outs; that was as far as this rally got as Jason Kendall flew out to right and Smoltz notched his 46th save of the year. This was the last significant drama before Smoltz would pass Eckersley; in fact, he would not give up two hits in an appearance again until the end of April 2003, and allowed just two in total in his remaining 11 games of 2002.

Streak Game 63, May 2, 2003: ATL 4-2 ARI

Yes, technically this is after Eckersley’s mark was already broken, but as Smoltz did not give up a run in September of 2002 or April 2003, and he still went on to add another 10 games to the streak after this, it seemed worthy of noting one more close call, once again courtesy of the Diamondbacks. Atlanta headed to the bottom of the ninth 2-1 up; before Smoltz could even get an out, the game was tied, thanks to a single from Carlos Baerga and a first-pitch double from Mark Grace. With the winning run at second, Smoltz got Spivey to fly out to right, intentionally walked Luis Gonzalez, and then drew groundouts from Danny Bautista and Tony Womack, leaving pinch-runner McCracken stranded at third as the game went to extras. Rafael Furcal’s homer and an error that scored Marcus Giles put the Braves up 4-2 for good in the eleventh. This would be the fifth extra-inning game that Atlanta won during Smoltz’s streak, and just two days later he closed out the sixth, also against Arizona.

The End: May 26th, 2003: CIN 7-6 ATL

Naturally, the streak would be snapped in a game that Smoltz personally made no mistakes in. Once again, Atlanta would come from 3 runs down to tie the game in the eighth or later, this time by scoring three runs off Chris Reitsma in the bottom of the eighth to level the game at 3-3. With Atlanta at home, again Smoltz came in to preserve the tie, and he dispatched the Reds in 15 pitches, striking out two in a clean inning. From there, he could only watch helplessly as he was pinch-hit for by Julio Franco in the bottom of the ninth, forcing the Braves to then turn to another reliever, Roberto Hernandez, to pitch the 10th and 11th. In 2003, Hernandez gave up 10 homers in 60 innings, so it is perhaps unsurprising that after loading the bases on a single, error and intentional walk, he saw his third pitch to Adam Dunn disappear over the fence for a grand slam. Atlanta had their chances in this one too, failing to get a run home when the bases were loaded with one out in the bottom of the tenth, and then rallying for three runs of their own to cut the lead to 7-6 in the bottom of the eleventh. Despite the struggles of that inning, Felix Heredia finally snapped this streak by striking out Andruw Jones.

 

If Atlanta had walked it off in the 10th, or Jones had been able to tie the game up in the 11th, who knows what might have happened? Perhaps Smoltz would still be on a roster, coming in to face one batter a game for a pure Jomes effect, now having won 873 games in a row despite extreme velocity loss and general ineffectiveness. It’s clear that despite his dominance over this stretch, there were still numerous occasions on which this streak could have ended well before it did, and therefore wouldn’t even have challenged Eckersley’s mark. The multiple games in which the Braves won it well after Smoltz’s involvement came to an end also speak to Maddux’s emphasis on factors beyond Smoltz’s control. This was, after all, a very good baseball team; a team that had made the playoffs in the 7 years preceding this streak and won 101 games in both of the seasons concerned.

A closer would win the NL Cy Young Award that year, but it wasn’t Leo Mazzone’s first choice, as Eric Gagne gathered 28 first place votes to comfortably take the accolade ahead of Jason Schmidt and Mark Prior. Both starters were, unsurprisingly, worth far more by WAR than Gagne was that year, and even Smoltz was just 0.4 wins behind. The Atlanta closer did draw some down-ballot support to finish 18th in MVP voting, a mere 417 points behind some guy called Barry Bonds.

One thing seems certain: Smoltz was right that the record isn’t going to be broken. As the table shows, Wagner is the only player to get close to even Eckersley since, while the longest streaks in the last couple of seasons, from Mark Melancon and Drew Storen, ended at less than half Smoltz’s total. The combination of exceptional team, extremely rigid bullpen usage, and sheer good fortune is incredibly unlikely to be replicated again. This might not quite be Cy Young’s win total in terms of unbreakable records, but it’s not far off. If you’re looking for someone to root for, the longest active streak belongs to Cleveland’s Cody Allen, at 16; if Allen only appeared in victories for all of 2017, he should just about get there. It’s not like Terry Francona ever uses his bullpen creatively, right?

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