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It has been a repetitive few weeks in the AL East. The New York Yankees have won 11 in a row — the star-studded franchise’s longest streak since 1985 — while the moribund Baltimore Orioles just snapped a 19-game losing streak that came dangerously close to the modern record of 23 consecutive defeats set by the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies.
The Yankees’ accomplishment feels particularly sweet considering they stopped the Atlanta Braves’ nine-game winning streak to do it. And yes, that was a different Orioles losing streak than the 14-game skid from May, and a different dubious record than the Arizona Diamondbacks set with a 24-game road losing streak (which was partially encompassed by a 17-game run of overall failure).
If you feel like the fortunes of MLB teams have been snowballing — for better or worse — more often in 2021, you’re not wrong. This season has produced five different winning streaks of 10 or more games, the most since 2017 had six. It has also produced a mind-boggling nine losing streaks of 10 games or more, already the most of any season since at least integration in 1947.
There has rarely been a moment this season when someone wasn’t working on a double-digit run of excellence or, more commonly, futility. Why? Is this a case of a coin landing on tails over and over by chance, or are undercurrents in the sport creating the conditions for these epic streaks?
MLB’s bad teams are worse than ever
The Orioles’ intentional incompetence has stirred discussion about the effects of tanking in baseball. Helmed by former Houston Astros executive Mike Elias, Baltimore is barreling toward its third 100-loss season in four seasons (and it wasn’t possible to lose 100 in 2020).
Elias helped the Astros ride an extreme rebuild to the top, and the Cubs did the same. But baseball has increasingly been confronted with the possibility that it won’t pay off, and with questions about whether this degree of despair is worth it, even if it does.
The Orioles are also tanking in a division that is otherwise universally competitive. The fourth-place Toronto Blue Jays are 66-59 and sporting the AL’s fourth-best run differential. So the Orioles — a mix of fledgling rookies, a breakout star and washouts thrown on board by the front office as space-eating, loss-column-filling sandbags — have played 61 of their games against teams that currently have a .550 winning percentage or better (an 89-win pace). They have gone 16-45.
But, while they have played against good teams the most, the Orioles have not fared the worst. The aforementioned Diamondbacks are running a 5-35 clip against those teams, having been outscored by 136 runs in 40 tries.
This is where the narrative gets complicated. Arizona did not enter the season as a tanking team. Everything just went terribly wrong simultaneously. Arizona's good players have been hurt. Most of their usually OK players have been bad. The fill-ins — which could double as a moniker for their pitching staff — have been an abject disaster outside of one sparkling performance.
There’s no way to legislate a Very Bad Year out of baseball, but it’s noteworthy that the bad years seem to be going worse than ever in 2021. Now, Arizona has a similar problem to Baltimore — two of the best teams in baseball play in the NL West, along with a third good team we thought might be great — but the leaguewide numbers support the theory that bad teams are even more ill-equipped than usual.
These, to wit, are the teams that have run up the record nine double-digit losing streaks:
Chicago Cubs, 2 (one before, one after trade deadline fire sale)
Texas Rangers, 1
Kansas City Royals, 1
Pittsburgh Pirates, 1
In those double-digit winning streaks that are also more common than usual this year, four of the five have involved games against the Orioles or Diamondbacks. The season-best 13-game streak the Oakland A's went on in April involved both.
Teams over .500 are actually less dominant than they have been in any of the previous four seasons — a sign that more middle class teams are throwing punches. But teams playing opponents with winning percentages of .425 or worse are coming out victorious at .648 clip in 2021 — a 105-win pace that would be the highest of the expansion era that began in 1961. Notably, it would be exceeding a mark from 2019.
How did we get here?
Ultimately, that paints a picture of a league where the talent is not spread as evenly as it used to be. That doesn’t just mean the stars. In fact, it mostly means the depth players who can plug a major-league gap for a couple weeks without sinking the ship.
That could be springing from a couple things. One, the herky-jerky 2020 season may have created more injuries and thinned out top-level talent more than usual for some teams. That’s a possibility we won’t fully grasp until after the season or beyond. Two, the pool of teams aiming for losses is smaller than it has been, which actually creates even more dire situations for their performance.
The bad teams are doing worse, but there may be fewer tanking teams than we have begrudgingly become accustomed to. The 2021 season is on pace for fewer games featuring terrible teams than 2019. Some non-contending teams have graduated from awful to merely lackluster, and other teams hitting the skids did so only after trade deadline fire sales.
So the market for serviceable talent was actually fairly competitive when it was on the table.
Except for the handful of teams — smaller than in recent seasons — that actively chose to bail on 2021. Where the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Cole Hamels as a potential back of the rotation fill-in — paying him $1 million for what turned out to be zero innings — the Orioles will pay only one pitcher $1 million this season: Matt Harvey, who has coughed up a 6.27 ERA.
This is how you get teams falling into the dire straits of losing streak infamy. A mix of bad luck and bad faith has created a cluster of organizations that don’t have as many capable major leaguers as it takes to get through a 162-game season. And for some of them, it's because they just won’t invest in any lipstick to put on the pig.