Nothing seemed to work. The Los Angeles Angels changed their lineups. They changed their walk-up music. They even changed managers. But the team kept on losing. Battling for first place for the first month and a half of the season, suddenly the Angels couldn’t buy a win, losing 14 straight games.
About a month earlier, the New York Yankees had the opposite situation. They just couldn’t lose. Give up seven runs? No problem, the batters will score 15. Manage just one run? The pitchers will throw a shutout. New York was able to build some breathing room in the American League East on the strength of an 11-game winning streak.
Baseball is a game of streaks. There are times when even the worst team will seem unbeatable. The last-place Cincinnati Reds won four straight at the end of May. And there are times when the top teams will hit the skids. The Dodgers have had three losing streaks since the end of May, and we’re not halfway through June.
A team on a streak—hot or cold—creates an interesting dilemma for a gambler. How long will it last? Is it better to ride the streak until it ends, or should you reason that it won’t last forever, and try to pick the best time to fade it?
It Happens to Everyone
So far this season, there have been 98 winning streaks of at least three games. That’s an average of a little more than three winning streaks per team. There have also been 97 losing streaks of at least three games—so an average of three per team on that side as well.
Every team has had at least one. The Braves had been the exception, going into June without a winning or losing streak longer than two games. They then promptly produced the longest winning streak in MLB this season—12 games and counting.
Better teams have more winning streaks and fewer losing streaks. They’re also more likely to run off a long winning streak, while lousy teams are more likely to produce prolonged losing skids. But it happens to every team, eventually.
Four and Out?
A three-game streak—in either direction—is a good bet to continue, at least for one more day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a winning streak or a losing streak. The numbers are nearly identical.
Teams that have won three games in a row have a 55-43 record in game four. That’s a .561 winning percentage. Another way to look at that is: The streak ends after three games just 43.9 percent of the time and continues 56.1 percent of the time. So riding it is the better strategy.
Teams that have lost three in a row have a 43-54 record in game four, or .443 winning percentage. In other words, the streak continues 55.7 percent of the time and ends 44.3 percent of the time. So riding that is the better strategy as well.
Once a team hits four in a row, however, the momentum seems to slow considerably. Teams on a four-game winning streak this year have a 26-27 record for a .491 winning percentage. In other words, a team that has won four straight is more likely to lose in game five. That’s the worst winning percentage for any length winning streak.
It’s not quite as stark on the losing side, but four games
Only 26 of the 98 winning streaks made it to five games, as did 29 of the 97 losing streaks.
Once a streak hits five games, things level off. Teams that have won at least five straight games have a .570 winning percentage in their next game, regardless of whether the winning streak is at five in a row or nine. In other words, riding the hot streak is the best play.
Teams that have lost at least five straight have a winning percentage of .418 in their next game, regardless of whether they’ve dropped five or 11 in a row. So riding the losing streak will pay off at a 58.2 percent rate.
As they say in Bull Durham, “Respect the streak.” Yes, it’s going to end eventually, but don’t miss out on the chance to cash in while it’s going on. Often, in gambling, riding the streak is the best bet of the day.