If past teams who’ve blitzed through a month of the season with similar excellence are any guide, the projections don’t necessarily include the words “confetti cannon” and “players wearing ski goggles in clubhouses.” Wielding a roster that can unceasingly thrash opponents for four weeks straight is not the World Series ticket that one might think it is.
Since divisional play began in 1969, the Braves’ winning percentage for June this year (.840) is the eighth best for a team for a month with at least 20 games. Of the seven ahead of them, only one went on to capture the World Series trophy that season while two others won their pennant.
The lone champion of the seven is the 1984 Detroit Tigers, who ran through April at 18-2 before sprinting to a 35-5 start and finally throttling the Padres in the World Series.
The six non-champions include some estimable clubs. The 1977 Dodgers, who lost to the Yankees in the World Series, boasted the first-ever quartet of 30-home run hitters (and also had a September call-up by the name of Ron Washington, who now earns his keep as the Braves’ third-base coach).
The 2002 Athletics, best known for their starring role in “Moneyball” (and whose coaching staff included Ron Washington), ripped through August at 24-4, set an American League record with 20 consecutive wins and finished 103-59. However, Oakland didn’t make it out of the divisional round, losing to Minnesota in five games.
In 2017, the Dodgers and Indians (now the Guardians) were 20-3 in July and 25-4 in September, respectively, both somehow managing to do so without the assistance of Ron Washington. Los Angeles won 104 games and Cleveland 102. Behind Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, Cleveland broke Oakland’s AL record with 22 wins in a row – the longest major-league win streak in a century. But the Yankees ended their season in the division-series round. The Dodgers lost the World Series in seven games to Houston, which later was found to have been assisted by electronic sign stealing.
It’s true that the sample size, like fiery Monsieur Vero’s sense of risk aversion, is small. But a deeper pool of teams that won at nearly as high a clip for a month as the Braves did in June doesn’t alter the findings. Starting in 1969, there’ve been 15 teams (not including this year’s Braves) that completed a month of at least 20 games with an .800 winning percentage or better. That includes the 2002 Braves (21-5 in June, aided by Tom Glavine covering 39 innings over six starts with a 2.08 ERA). By and large, they weren’t teams that just kept pulling off the hidden-ball trick for a month. Of the 15, 14 won at least 90 games (one was in the strike-shortened 1981 season) and 11 won at least 101.
But in that larger set, the 1984 Tigers remain the only World Series winner, although there was an additional pennant winner for a total of four World Series participants out of 15. (Remarkably, six of the 14 non-champions saw their postseason dreams die at the hands of the Yankees.)
So what gives? It doesn’t mean the Braves are doomed, either, because teams that get that hot for that long fall prey to overconfidence or their overabundance of Ron Washingtons.
What it speaks to is the difficulty of winning a World Series, even with a team that looks as indomitable as the Braves, they of the franchise-record eight All-Stars, leading MVP candidate in Ronald Acuña Jr. and a pitching staff that led the National League in ERA before Tuesday’s games and could be healthier (and better) in the season’s second half.
Particularly with the expanded postseason field, the odds generally are against any one specific team winning the World Series. Any attempt to sift through data to identify a sure champion likely will be fruitless.
For instance, over the past 15 seasons, the major-league regular-season leader in run differential – the team that has beaten its opponents by the most runs and would seem to be a logical favorite – has won only three times. In fact, the run-differential champion failed to reach the World Series in 11 of the 15 seasons.
There are no sure bets, particularly with a best-of-three wild-card round and a best-of-five divisional round, where chance plays a larger role in the outcome. No one who has been a Braves fan for longer than four months needs to be told that. Ask Dodgers fans, who last year saw their 111-win team (with the widest run differential of any team since 1939) stumble in four games to the Padres at the divisional round.
There is no shortage of reasons to believe the Braves have as strong a chance as any team to reach the destination they and their fans are pointing to. The offense’s consistent power and production – first in the majors in home runs and OPS – can be staggering. The pitching staff, anchored by Spencer Strider, may show even better should Max Fried and Kyle Wright return from injury in something close to their previous form. Seemingly every move made by president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos works out according to plan. The clubhouse rapport seems healthy and stable.
It could well happen; there’s certainly no reason why it couldn’t. The intent of today’s offering wasn’t to cast doubt or stir up dread. When I decided to inspect the fates of previous month-long winners of the Braves’ scale in June, I wasn’t sure what the data would reveal.
But, as in all ventures, savoring each moment and keeping guards on the optimism seem courses of action that even blazing Jonathan Vero could endorse. And, if possible, avoid the Yankees.