What the Dodgers' road success tells us about their postseason chances
While much of the baseball world remains focused on the aftermath of the Biogenesis suspension announcements and the surreal turn of events that has allowed Alex Rodriguez to take the field in Chicago, the Dodgers quietly enter play on Tuesday night in St. Louis riding a 15-game road winning streak, the longest in the majors since 1984.
That leaves Los Angeles, which now leads the NL West by six games, two shy of the single-season major league record. Here's the top of the leaderboard dating back to 1916, which is as far back as the Baseball-Reference Play Index goes:
The Tigers' record-setting streak wrapped around from 1983 into 1984; limited to a single season, their 17-game run is tied for first with the Giants. By that criterion, the 2001-2002 streaks of the Mariners and Red Sox fall off the leaderboard, maxing out at 10 and eight in the latter season, respectively.
As you'd expect, the teams who pulled off those lengthy road winning streaks turned out to have pretty good seasons. All of those whose streaks were contained in single seasons finished with winning records, with the 1947 and 1953 Yankees and 1984 Tigers each winning the World Series. Those Tigers, the 1931 A's (who won the AL pennant) and 1976 Phillies (who won the NL East) all topped 100 wins and at least reached the postseason.
Of the also-rans, the most interesting might be the 1916 Giants, who finished 86-66. Not only did their road streak help them overcome a 2-13 start, but they went undefeated over a 27-game stretch from Sept. 7 through the first game of their Sept.30 doubleheader, with a Sept. 18 tie interrupting what was otherwise a 26-game winning streak. Even so, they finished just fourth in the NL. The 1939 Red Sox finished in second place in the AL, which didn't get them to the postseason, but their 89 wins stood as their highest win total from 1918 through 1941, though the first two of those seasons were shortened significantly due to World War I. The 2003 Mariners won 93 games and finished second in the AL West but missed out on the wild card. The worst team of the bunch, the 1957 Reds, still finished 80-74, good for fourth in the eight-team NL.
Beyond that table above, all of the nine teams whose single-season road winning streaks ran exactly 12 games (not listed above, but via the link) finished with winning records as well, though for the 1922 Indians, that meant just a 78-76 finish. Of that group, the 1933 Senators, 1945 Cubs, 1971 A's, 2000 White Sox and 2012 A's all made the postseason, though none won the World Series.
Thanks to the streak, Los Angeles is now 31-24 on the road, half a game better than its 31-25 record at home. Its .564 winning percentage away from Dodger Stadium is the majors' best, a distinction that's generally a harbinger of a postseason berth. In the post-strike era (1995 onward), the team finishing with the majors' best road record has made the playoffs every year except 1999 (when the Reds lost a one-game wild-card play-in), 2002 (when the Red Sox finished tied with the AL East champion Yankees for best road record) and 2007 (when the Mets collapsed by losing six out of their final seven games, all at home). That said, the last team to win a World Series after finishing with the majors' best road record was the 2005 White Sox, with the 2006 Tigers the last to at least win a pennant.
In the grand scheme, road success isn't really any more predictive of overall team quality than home success. If we take teams' combined road records from the 1996-2012 period (excluding 1995 due to the strike), the top 10 produced 61 division titles, 17 wild-card berths (counting 2012 berths as 1/2 apiece) and 15 championships, while the best 10 home teams won 60 division titles, 18 1/2 wild-card berths and 14 championships; the lack of separation comes because eight teams are common to both lists. If we go year by year and consider the upper third of each group as a tier, the road group produced 83 division titles, 23 1/2 wild card berths and 14 championships, the home group produced 83 division titles, 28 wild card berths and 15 championships. It all comes out in the wash — a win is a win.
That said, there's still something irresistibly eye-catching about streaks, mainly due to their precariousness and lack of margin for error; one off day (or night) and it's over. In order for the Dodgers to set the single-season record for consecutive road wins, they'll have to run the table for the remainder of their four-game series at Busch Stadium, a tall order given that the Cardinals have a .640 winning percentage at home this year (off a 32-18 record), the majors' sixth-highest, not to mention the fourth-best home winning percentage in the majors since the third edition of Busch Stadium opened in 2006 (.589). The good news for the Dodgers is that they've got ace Clayton Kershaw going up against Joe Kelly tonight, and Hyun-Jin Ryu against Jake Westbrook on Thursday night. It's the middle match, pairing L.A.'s Ricky Nolasco and St. Louis' Shelby Miller, that may be the Dodgers' downfall. Even so, if they have to settle for the longest road winning streak in the NL since 1916, that's still a remarkable accomplishment, one that bodes well for their NL West aspirations if nothing more.