Over the last 20 years, the Cardinals have been a very good baseball team while the Pittsburgh Pirates generally have not. This once well-known sports fact has sort of faded from consciousness because the Pirates strung together several very good seasons and a few trips to the postseason, but they finished below .500 for 20 straight years from 1993 to 2012, which at the time was the longest such streak in all of the major professional sports. Meanwhile, during this span, the Cardinals won a bunch of division titles, several pennants, and threw a couple of parades downtown.
So maybe it should have been obvious had I thought about it for more than two seconds, but when looking at an old (poorly made) graph for a post I had written I was shocked to see just how long it has been since the Pirates finished ahead of the Cardinals in the NL Central standings. I will share that graph here.
If you start at the far-left side, there’s a spot where the yellow dot lands just above the red dot for the very last time. That year is 1999. And if the 2018 season comes to a close with the Cardinals ahead of the Pirates – and looking at the standings I reckon it will – then that will be 19-straight years with the Pirates looking up to the Cardinals.
Curious if this was the longest such in-division streak in Major League Baseball, I figured the other teams who could likely own a longer streak over a division-mate would be the Yankees or the Dodgers, the only other teams in MLB besides the Cardinals to not have a last place finish during the entire Wild Card era (I like to keep track of this stuff). The Indians only have one last place finish (2009), but they tied for the worst record that season in the AL Central with the Royals. However, it wasn’t that long ago that the Royals won the AL Central (thereby finishing ahead of the Tribe) so we can eliminate Cleveland. The Angels haven’t finished last in the AL West since 1999, but since then every other team in that division has won at least one AL West title so we can eliminate them as well.
So that leaves just the Yankees and the Dodgers. The Yankees seem like the obvious candidate. They’ve been the best team in baseball since 1995, but, to my surprise, every other team in the AL East has finished ahead of them at least once dating back to 2013. The Dodgers share a division with the Rockies, who believe it or not have never won the NL West, but the Rockies finished ahead of the Dodgers in the standings in 2010, the low point of the Frank McCourt reign in Chavez Ravine. The Yankees and Dodgers are out.
And there you go. The Cardinals’ 19-year reign of terror over Pittsburgh is the longest current streak in baseball. And that really is a long, long time. Albert Pujols had zero career home runs the last time the Pirates finished ahead of the Cardinals. The New England Patriots had yet to win a single Super Bowl. I was not yet of legal drinking age but and will turn 40 in about five months. Pretty remarkable.
Speaking of the Patriots, they finished dead-last in their division in 2000. The Cleveland Browns managed to finish with the same record as the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007 (although the Steelers made the playoffs while the Browns stayed home). I bring this up because these are the two possibilities in the NFL where I thought a longer streak could exist although I’m not doing the research to confirm that this is indeed the case. And the NBA and NHL have gone through division realignment too recently (as did the NFL before the 2002 season) to really make this a practical exercise in those leagues. With that said, I feel maybe sort of confident that the Cardinals’ current streak over the Pirates is the longest in the four major professional sports. If anyone is able to prove me wrong, please do so in the comments below.
If I was a Pirates fan I would probably not appreciate the tone of what’s written above. My intent was to express sincere disbelief rather than come off as obnoxious. If I failed – and I probably did – then my apologies. But I only brought it up because the Cardinals welcome the Pirates to Busch Stadium this evening as they try to continue their winning ways in August so it felt relevant.
The Pirates actually lead the all-time series 1,261 to 1,208, although the Cardinals maintain a 642-587 advantage in St. Louis (I have to be the only person who finds all-time series records in baseball interesting). The Cardinals also hold a 188-127 overall edge dating back to 2000, when the aforementioned streak began. This is a big series for the Cardinals if they want to cling to any hope of catching the Cubs. It’s at home and the Pirates come in having lost ten of 13 games. Winning at least two of three is imperative.
Per FanGraphs, here are the projected starters for the three games, along with the Cardinals’ win probability.
Tuesday and Wednesday’s games being at 7:15 pm St. Louis time; Thursday’s game will kick off at 6:15.