Wednesday April 13th, 2016

On Wednesday night, the NBA's Golden State Warriors will play their final game of the regular season with a chance to make history. If the Warriors can beat the Memphis Grizzlies at home, they will break the league's single-season record for most wins with 73, eclipsing the 20-year-old mark of the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls. What's more, Golden State's 73–9 final record would set a new NBA mark for winning percentage, at .890.

That sort of dominance is unheard of in Major League Baseball. A .890 winning percentage over MLB’s 162-game season would translate to 144 wins, but no team in major league history has ever won more than 116, a mark set by the Cubs in 1906 in a 154-game schedule and tied by the Mariners in 2001 in a 162-game season. Neither of those teams won the World Series; combined with the comparatively lower winning percentages of those teams, that is a reminder of the relative parity in baseball even in its most extreme cases.

One of baseball’s old maxims is that every team is going to win one-third of its games and lose one-third of it's games, and it’s what they do with the other one-third that matters. That’s not strictly true in every case, of course, but it does convey the frequency with which baseball’s best teams lose and its worst teams win. The highest winning percentage in major league history belongs to those 1906 Cubs, whose mark of .763 was notably better than Seattle's .716 in 2001. In an 82-game NBA season, the winning percentage of those Cubs would translate to just shy of 63 wins, a total reached 30 times since the 1966–67 season. In a 16-game NFL season, it would mean a 12–4 record, a common occurrence.

Again, that is the greatest winning percentage in major league history. Since the creation of the American League in 1901, just six major league teams have won even 110 games. Here’s that list:

year team w–l pct. notes
1906 Cubs 116–36 .763 Lost World Series
2001 Mariners 116–46 .716 Lost ALCS
1998 Yankees 114–48 .704 Won World Series
1954 Indians 111–43 .721 Lost World Series
1927 Yankees 110–44 .714 Won World Series
1909 Pirates 110–42 .724 Won World Series

Including the postseason, the 1998 Yankees (who went 11–2 in October, including a World Series sweep of the Padres) won 125 games, which remains a major league record. Four 19th-century teams matched or bettered New York's regular-season winning percentage (interestingly, the lowest on the list of 110-win teams above) against shorter schedules, but none of those teams finished the year with a championship:

year team w–l pct. notes
1886 Chicago 90–34 .726 Lost World Series
1886 Detroit 87–36 .707 Finished second to Chicago
1897 Boston 93–39 .705 Lost Temple Cup to second-place Baltimore
1887 St. Louis 95–40 .704 Lost World Series

Clearly baseball will never have a team as dominant as the Warriors in terms of pure winning percentage, but could it see one establish a new mark for total wins in the regular season? In other words, is a 117-win team possible in the modern game? Though there has been just one 100-win team in the past four seasons (the 2015 Cardinals, who won exactly 100 and then lost in the Division Series), the 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners are of a recent enough vintage to suggest that extreme team performances are still possible in the modern game. Further evidence of that comes on the opposite side of the ledger: the 2003 Tigers lost 119 games, one shy of the Mets’ modern record of 120 in their inaugural season of 1962, and the '04 Diamondbacks and '13 Astros both lost 111.

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Of course, for a team to win 117 games would mean that 117 losses would have to be distributed to the rest of the teams in the majors. In 1998, no AL club lost 100 games, but the Yankees did go 11–1 against the expansion Devil Rays, who lost 99. The next two highest win totals in the AL that season were 92 and 88, by the Red Sox and Blue Jays, respectively; New York went a mere 13–11 against those division rivals. The Yankees benefited from a general mediocrity in the rest of the league that season as well as from what was then a balanced schedule; they played only one more game against their fellow AL East clubs than they did against teams from the AL Central and AL West. Indeed, New York had its greatest success that season against the AL Central, going 39–15 (.722) against a division that produced just one winning team (the 89-win Indians). Those Yankees also excelled in interleague play, finishing 13–3 against the NL East, which featured three losing teams, including the 108-loss Marlins.

By 2001, the schedule had taken on it’s current unbalanced format, forcing the Mariners to play 19 games against the 102-win Athletics, against whom they went just 10–9. Seattle made up for it by going 30–9 (.769) against its other two AL West opponents, the Angels and Rangers, both of whom finished with 87 or more losses. In fact, the Mariners won at least two-thirds of their games against every team they faced that year other than Oakland, and they went 15–3 against the dregs of the AL East, the Orioles and Devil Rays, who combined to lose 198 games that season.

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There are already signs this season that the environment is right for a team to put up an extreme win total. Given the number of rebuilding clubs in the NL this year—the Braves and Phillies in the East; the Brewers and Reds in the Central; the Padres and Rockies in the West—that league would have the most likely candidate to reach triple-digits in victories. After all, the NL Central produced three teams (the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates) last year that won 97 or more games. That was the first time there had been three 97-win teams in the majors since 2008 and the first time there had been three such teams in one league since '02. With the Cubs living up to their pre-season hype with a 6–1 start, is it crazy to think that Chicago—if not this season than in one of the next two, with Kyle Schwarber back to full health and before Jason Heyward can opt-out of his contract—could reclaim the single-season wins record it held for nearly a century?

Okay, it probably is crazy. It took 95 years for a team to match the 1906 Cubs, and 110 years later, there has still not been a team that has surpassed it. Still, the National League seems ripe for an extreme win total or two this year or next, before those rebuilding teams start to restore some balance to the league's pecking order. Of course, the fact that the idea of the all-times win total being broken seems so crazy is exactly what makes the kind of season the Warriors have had so special.

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