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Appreciating the Streak

It's over. Seventeen games long, the longest in franchise history, is where the losing streak dies. It's an arresting figure. It grabs you and pushes you down into a chair and forces you to gaze in wonderment. Seventeen games! It's over 10% of the season.

At the same time, for me it became routine all too quickly. This isn't the first epic losing spell I've seen from the Mariners and others have come from teams in far more crucial points of the season and with far more damaging consequences even if they weren't as strung together as this one. The individual losses weren't surprising. The Mariners haven't been hitting since 2007 and they mostly went out on the road against tough AL teams and lost. There weren't any real heart breakers in there either. None registered with me as deeply as some of the blown saves did or the Nationals ninth-inning disaster.

What's impressive is not the manner of the losses, but only their connectedness; only that the team went 17 in a row before finally snapping the skid. I wanted to put that into context somehow so I turned to another place baseball fans routinely count streaks; games with a hit. And I decided to use Ichiro Suzuki as the imaginary catalyst since we're so familiar with him.

To port the odds of a 17 game losing streak onto terms of an Ichiro Suzuki hitting streak I first had to figure out the odds of the Mariners winning. The default answer would be 50%, but that's hardly realistic. The Mariners were facing overly good to great teams and mostly on the road. If I were to hazard a guess at a more appropriate number it would be somewhere around 43%.

The odds of seeing a 43% chance fail 17 times in a row is a little over 14,000:1. Those are very unlikely odds, but as we have seen throughout baseball history, so are long hitting streaks. It would take 2011 Ichiro a 30-game hitting streak to reach the same plane of rarity as we just saw. That might be a letdown of a number because even though we're uncomfortably aware of how poor Ichiro has been this season, we do have a backlog of memories from the ten years prior when he's been almost robotic. So I redid the math substituting in 2001-10 Ichiro instead and there it would take a whopping 48-game hitting streak to surpass 14,000:1 odds. That would be the second longest hitting streak in history.

The math on this is very sensitive. Dealing with such a high exponent makes the initial value extraordinarily important. The odds of a 50% chance failing 17 times in a row are closer to 140 thousand to one as an example. I don't intend to equate these comparisons, only to use them to illustrate the realm of low probability that we just finished witnessing. It did for me.