Sunday, February 18, 2018

Streaks in the City (2): Los Angeles

I occasionally get asked how I got interested in streaks. There's no way to know for sure, but I suspect that growing up in Los Angeles as a basketball fan in the early 1970s was a factor. This era included both an 88-game winning streak by coach John Wooden's UCLA program and a 33-game roll by the L.A. Lakers. These remain as records for men's college basketball and the NBA, respectively.


Following a January 23, 1971 loss to Notre Dame (when I was eight years old), UCLA rattled off 15 straight wins to claim the school's fifth straight NCAA championship. This was not an easy run to the title, as six of the 15 wins were by four points or fewer (see here for UCLA season-by-season logs from that era). The next season, 1971-72, was far easier for the Bruins. Sophomore Bill Walton joined the squad,* leading UCLA to a 30-0 record and another championship. Only two games were closer than 10 points, a five-point win in the NCAA title game vs. Florida State and a six-point conference win at Oregon State. Another 30-0, title season followed in 1972-73. Two six-point conference wins were the Bruins' closest of the season.

With seven straight national championships and 75 straight wins, UCLA entered the 1973-74 season, Walton's senior year. Having survived 65-64 against a talented Maryland squad in the season's second game, UCLA ran its season record to 13-0 and overall streak to 88 games, entering the site of its last lost -- Notre Dame -- on January 19, 1974. Having taken a late 70-59 lead over the Irish (with no three-point shot or shot clock), the Bruins seemed almost certain to extend their streak. However, UCLA inexplicably gave up a 12-0 run to close the game (shown here on YouTube), yielding a 71-70 Notre Dame victory. The Bruins' failure to get a tip-in on a final possession is painful from a UCLA perspective. The Bruins' streak of titles also fell that season, as they couldn't hold a seven-point lead in the second overtime period over NC State in the national semifinals.

(Another championship factory in Westwood was the UCLA men's volleyball program, under coach Al Scates. From 1970, when the sport became sanctioned by the NCAA, to 2006, Scates's teams won 19 national titles, including 11 of the first 15 NCAA tourneys held.)


Partially overlapping UCLA's 88-game basketball winning streak in time was the Lakers' 33-game winning stretch (November 5, 1971- January 7, 1972). In 2007, on the 35th anniversary of the Lakers' streak, I wrote a detailed analysis of it, so I won't do so here. This was an old squad, led by aging superstars Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, so it would not have seemed a likely candidate for such a long winning streak.

The 1971-72 Laker team also won the franchise's first NBA title in Los Angeles (after the Minneapolis Lakers had won championships in 1949, '50, '52, '53, and '54). The Lakers have won several more NBA titles (1979-80, 1981-82, 1984-85, 1986-87, 1987-88, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2001-02, 2008-09, and 2009-10; season-by-season log). The Lakers' 1986-87 and 1987-88 titles (the second of which had been guaranteed by L.A. coach Pat Riley) were the first back-to-back championships by an NBA team since the Boston Celtics won in 1967-68 and 1968-69 (list of NBA champions).

The aforementioned Chamberlain, who played the final five campaigns of his 14-year NBA career with the Lakers, was like a one-man record book (see the chart on page 169 of the league's golden-anniversary volume NBA at 50 for details). What some observers consider most remarkable is that Chamberlain never fouled out of an NBA game.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another legendary NBA center who played roughly the final three-quarters of his career with the Lakers (1975-76 to 1988-89), had a few noteworthy streaks himself. On the advanced analytic metric of Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Abdul-Jabbar led the league nine times in an 11-year span (1970-71 through 1980-81). He also once had a streak of 787 consecutive games with 10 points or more.


Being such a large city, Los Angeles has a large number of professional teams (especially if one counts nearby Anaheim), along with major universities UCLA and USC.


Whereas the Bruins have been a national power in basketball, the Trojans have done likewise in football. From 2003-05, USC won 34 straight on the gridiron, one of the longest winning streaks in college-football history. The Trojans shared the 2003 mythical national championship (i.e., non-playoff determined) and won the mythical championship in 2004 during the streak. It was against Texas in early 2006 (playing for the 2005 mythical title) that USC's winning streak ended. Note that, because of NCAA findings of improper financial assistance to Trojan running back Reggie Bush during this period, some record-keeping organizations have stripped USC of wins and/or titles with which Bush was associated.

(Also, USC won five straight college baseball national championships from 1970-1974; had separate streaks of nine and seven straight NCAA men's track and field titles; and two separate stretches of four straight NCAA men's swimming titles.)


After winning the World Series in 1988, the Dodgers did not return to the Fall Classic until this past autumn, ending the franchise's 28-year drought (1989-2016) without a National League pennant. However, in falling to the Houston Astros in seven games, the Dodgers extended their stretch without a World Series championship to 29 years.

Between 1955, when the Brooklyn Dodgers won the franchise's first world title, and 1988, the team won six World Series (1955, 1959, 1963, 1965, 1981, and 1988), the last five of which in Los Angeles. During this span, there was thus never longer than a 16-year gap between world titles (year-to-year log).

Individual Dodger players have had a few interesting streaks during the franchise's L.A. years. Many baseball fans (at least those of a certain age) will be familiar with how Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser set the MLB record of 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988, passing another Dodger, Don Drysdale, who had thrown 58 straight shutout innings 20 years earlier. What I hadn't realized is that yet another Dodger, Zack Greinke, moved into fourth place on the all-time list in 2015 with 45 and 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings (St. Louis's Bob Gibson is in third place with 47 in 1968).

Another set of streaks, reflecting the Dodgers' perennially strong farm system, involves consecutive Rookie of the Year winners in the National League. L.A. players won five straight from 1992-1996 (Eric Karros, Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi, Hideo Nomo, and Todd Hollandsworth) and four straight from 1979-1982 (Rick Sutcliffe, Steve Howe, Fernando Valenzuela, and Steve Sax). Talking about Valenzuela, his "Fernandomania" 1981 season featured a lot of hot pitching. I wrote about Fernandomania on its 30th anniversary in 2011.

Finally, continuing on the theme of great Dodger pitchers, Clayton Kershaw led the National League in low Earned Run Average four straight years (2011-2014), whereas Sandy Koufax did so five straight years (1962-1966).


If one wants to take literally the name Los Angeles Angels, even though the team plays in Anaheim, then I would include two players' individual streaks in the present essay.

Mike Trout has recorded at least 7 offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR) for each of the last six seasons. In order to find streaks matching or exceeding Trout's, you need to look at players such as Willie Mays (nine straight years, 1957-1965), Babe Ruth (seven straight, 1926-1932), and Ted Williams (six straight, 1941-1942, 1946-1949, interrupted by military service).

In terms of Angel pitching, it would be hard to top Nolan Ryan's eight years with the club (1972-1979). Ryan had a stretch of five years out of six with 300-plus strikeouts per year (1972, '73, '74, '76, and '77). He also had some career milestones in 1975, but suffered through elbow pain that year and eventually had surgery. Only Ryan and Randy Johnson (each with six) have more than three career 300-plus strikeout seasons. Johnson had a streak of five straight 300-plus strikeout seasons (1998-2002; be sure to look at the 1998 TOTAL line in his season-by-season log, as he pitched for two teams that year).


Pro football has had an inconsistent history in the L.A. area, with the Rams (1946-1994**; 2016-present) now in their second stint there, the Chargers (1960, 2017) likewise in their second (brief) stint in L.A., and the Raiders a resident from 1982-1994. Given the Rams' longest history in L.A., I focus on them.

The L.A. Rams won the 1951 (pre-Super Bowl) NFL championship, amidst a string of four straight divisional titles (1949-1952). Several years later, however, the franchise entered a tailspin, with the Rams finishing either fifth, sixth, or seventh in their division for seven straight seasons  (1959-1965). Things turned around again in 1973, with the Rams winning their division seven straight years (1973-1979), culminating in the franchise's only Super Bowl appearance as the L.A. Rams, a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on January 20, 1980. From 1991-1994, it was another slide for the Rams, as they finished last in their four-team division for four straight years. With that, the team was off for St. Louis.

Two L. A. Ram stalwarts, in terms of longevity, were defensive tackle Merlin Olsen with 198 consecutive starts (1962-1976) and defensive end Jack Youngblood with 184 (1972-1984).


The L.A. Kings entered the NHL in the 1967-68 western expansion. An interesting piece of Kings trivia is that the franchise has won more Stanley Cups (two, 2011-12 and 2013-14) than divisional titles (one, 1990-91).

The best-known player in franchise history would have to be Wayne Gretzky, who played all or part of eight seasons with the Kings (1988-89 through 1995-96). With "The Great One," the Kings made one Stanley Cup final, losing in 1993 to Montreal. By at least one statistical metric, however, Gretzky was not as effective with the Kings as during his previous seasons with the Edmonton Oilers. Whereas Gretzky's annual Offensive Point Shares value ranged from 14.9-17.4 for six straight years with Edmonton (1981-82 through 1986-87), his OPS never exceeded 13.2 with the Kings.***

The Anaheim Ducks (originally known as the Mighty Ducks) won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and lost in the finals in 2003. Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere was part of both teams, but was a truly dominant, hot goalie in 2003, at one point amassing three straight shutouts in one playoff series. In more recent years, the Ducks have faced nothing but playoff frustration, getting eliminated in decisive seventh games four straight years (2013, '14, '15, and '16). It is probably small consolation that their 2017 playoff ouster came in a six-game series.


The L.A. Galaxy has been among the most successful franchises in Major League Soccer, winning five championships total, and three in a four-year span (2011, 2012, and 2014).


*Walton was a freshman in 1970-71, but first-year players were not eligible to play varsity sports until 1972-73.

**The Rams moved from the Los Angeles Coliseum to the previously baseball-only Anaheim Stadium in 1980 and played there through 1994. To increase seating capacity for the Rams, Anaheim added double-decker stands in the baseball outfield area. After the Rams' departure to St. Louis, the outfield seats were removed, giving the Angels' ballpark a more traditional baseball feel once again.

***Don't get me wrong -- a lot of great players would love to have a 13.2 OPS for a season. It's just low relative to Gretzky's previous numbers.