Tuesday, October 4, 2005

How Far They Fell

Just last Sunday, September 25, the Playoff Odds Report said that the Cleveland Indians made the playoffs in 96.5% of its million runs.

Yesterday, it came became apparent that we were living in one of those 35,000 worlds where the Indians did not make the playoffs, despite having the advantages of playing at home, with four games left against the two worst teams in the American League, while their chief opponents were going to play each other and hopefully knock each other off. Seven agonizing days later, losing six of seven games by a combined total of seven runs, the Tribe gets to spend a winter in pained remembrance.

Yet they have this consolation: the Odds Report doesn't think they blew the best chance of all time, in terms of having a playoff spot right there and then letting it slip away. Since 1901, there have been 320 races for the Odds Report to analyze: two races every year from 1901 to 1968, four a year from 1969 to 1993, and eight a year since 1995. (I've decided to simply leave 1981 and 1994 out of the discussion.) Given that many races, you'd expect to have somewhere between five and 11 teams who reached the upper 90s and then missed out on the playoffs, and in fact there are seven teams who have fared worse than this year's Indians.

For all of these teams, I ran the historical version of the Playoff Odds report, just as I did for the 1964 Phillies. This means ten thousand computer seasons, not a million, and running every season from August 1 to the end of the year. The infamous seven, in chronological order:

  • Sept. 6, 1934: With 24 days left in the season, the New York Giants held a seven-game lead over the second-place St. Louis Cardinals, 85-47 to their 77-53. Seventeen of their final 21 games were scheduled for the Polo Grounds, while the Cardinals were facing 17 of their final 23 games on the road. That has a lot to do with why the Odds Report gave the Giants a 98.8% chance at winning the pennant. They lost to the Cubs that afternoon, then split a four-game series with the Pirates while the Cardinals were taking four of six from the Phillies. The Cards now trailed by 5 1/2, and they played four against each other. The Cardinals won three of the games to close the gap to 3 1/2. After another week the Giants still held a 2 1/2-game lead, 93-56 to the Cards' 89-57, with just four games left for them to play. They lost those four games, all at home, two to the Phillies (who finished the year 56-93) and two to the Dodgers (who finished 71-81); meanwhile, the Cardinals beat the Cubs, split a pair with the Pirates, then swept the last-place Reds at home. By going 18-5 down the stretch, including a 6-1 final week, they beat the Giants (8-13 after Sept. 6, 0-4 in the last week) by two games.

  • August 15, 1942: The Brooklyn Dodgers are 79-33, 9 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Cardinals. The Odds Report sees the Dodgers and Cardinals as essentially equal teams, giving dem Bums a .635 third-order winning percentage to .625 for the Cardinals; the fact that they were virtually even meant that the Dodgers' lead would be very difficult to overcome: 96.9% in the Dodgers' favor, to be precise. The Dodgers didn't play badly the rest of the season, coming home at 25-17, but the '42 Cardinals had one of the greatest closing kicks ever. They won their next three games over the Reds, took a pair from the Cubs, three of four from the Pirates, three of four from the Dodgers, swept the Phillies and Braves in three apiece, then split a pair with the Giants to wrap up a 19-3 homestand that closed the gap to 4 1/2 games...and the Dodgers, at this point, were still 95.5% favorites. The Cardinals then hit the road and took three from Cincinnati, split a pair in Pittsburgh, beat the Giants once and the Dodgers twice, which pulled them into a tie. But they weren't done, going on to take three of four in Philly, two from Boston and split a pair with the Cubs to finish off a 13-3 road trip. By now they controlled the odds, and they wrapped things up by sweeping pairs of games at home with the Pirates, Reds and Cubs, completing an amazing 38-6 finish to beat the Dodgers by two games.

  • August 13, 1951: The Brooklyn Dodgers are once again in first place, this time holding a 12 1/2-game over the Giants. The Odds Report makes them a 99.7% favorite to go on to win the NL, but it doesn't work out so well. As in 1942, it isn't so much what they didn't do as what their opponents did. The Giants were coming off three straight wins against the Phillies; they proceeded to take three straight from the Dodgers, then three more from the Phils, two from the Reds, one from St. Louis and four from the Cubs to complete a 16-game winning streak. Following a rather pedestrian run in which they went 9-6 (including taking three of four from Brooklyn), it was now September 13, and the Dodgers still had a six-game lead and a 97.6% chance of winning. Until the regular season ended on September 30, though, the Giants lost just one more game, going on a 12-1 tear to force a tie, and a best-of three playoff, with the Dodgers. The Giants won the first game, the Dodgers won the second, and the Giants won it all on Bobby Thomson's three-run, ninth-inning homer in the third game. The Giants win the pennant, indeed.

  • August 7, 1969: Two-and-a-half weeks after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the Chicago Cubs were mooning over the NL East, holding a nine-game lead over the second-place Mets. At 71-41, they had the best record in the National league, although the Orioles were better in the AL. They won the league 98.0% of the time in the simulations, but objective computer simulations, by their very nature, know nothing about Miracles. The Mets got hot and the Cubs went cold, so much so after the Mets swept a doubleheader from the Expos on Sept. 10 they took over the division lead both in record (84-57 to 84-59) and in chances (51.6%-47.8%). The Mets stayed hot, finishing the year on a 41-15 run that left the Cubs eight games behind at season's end. As the Braves and Orioles were to find out, the Mets' hot streak didn't end with the regular season.

  • August 10, 1983: The Atlanta Braves hold a 6 1/2-game lead over the Dodgers in the National League West. At 69-45, they had the best record in baseball, and at .589, the best third-order winning percentage. The simulator made them the winner 96.6% of the time. They couldn't hold the lead until the end of the month, much less the end of the season, going 7-12 over the remainder of August while the Dodgers went a resounding 16-5. The Dodgers took the odds lead on Sept. 2, gave it back for a day on the sixth, but thereafter ran away from the Braves, who went 12-17 in September.

  • August 7, 1993: Ten years later, it was the Braves' turn to be the spoiler. The San Francisco Giants were 9 1/2 games ahead of Atlanta, and the odds report reached 98.1% in their favor, but the Braves were bout to make a dazzling run. Starting with a win over the Expos on the eighth, the Braves won nine straight games, then lost a pair before running off five more wins in a row, three of them against the Giants. That closed the gap to 4 1/2, but the Giants were still 84% favorites. The Braves reeled off another 15-4 stretch while the Giants collapsed, going 6-12, so that by Sept. 16 it was the Braves who had a four-game lead and were 93% favorites. But the Giants weren't done, to their credit, and they rallied themselves over the next two weeks to get back into a tie with three games to go. The Braves had three games at home with Rockies; the Giants were in Los Angeles. They both won on Friday. They both won on Saturday. After the Braves won on Sunday, though, the Giants couldn't keep pace, losing to the Dodgers in a 12-1 rout that completed their collapse.

  • August 24, 1995: The California Angels were 56-33 on August 2 and had the seond-best record in baseball, trailing only the Cleveland Indians. By August 24, after three weeks of .500 ball, their record was 67-44, still good enough to hold an 8 1/2-game lead on the Rangers for the AL West title, and an 11-game bulge over the Brewers, the best of the wild-card contenders outside the West. In the simulator, the Angels went on to win the division 99.6% of the time; 0.3% of the time, they made the wild card, giving them a 99.9% chance at the playoffs. From there until the 13th of September, the Angels went just 5-13; but such was their prior lead that they still held a five-game edge in their divison (over the Mariners, now) and a 5 1/2 game lead over the next possible wild-card team, the Yankees. They still showed a 99% chance of making the playoffs, as there were just 15 games left in the season. They didn't have to right the ship, not completely; the odds were against both the Yankees and Mariners getting hot, right?

    Well, the odds may have been against it, but it happened anyway. The Yankees went 13-3 the rest of the way, and the Mariners went 12-4. The Angels wound up losing nine games in a row, but came back to win six of their last seven to force a tie with the Mariners. In the playoff game, Randy Johnson and Mark Langston staged a classic pitchers' duel for six innings, with Johnson and the M's holding a 1-0 lead, before Langston tired in the seventh. The Mariners scored four in the seventh and added four more in the eighth, Johnson wound up with a three-hit, 12-K gem, and Seattle ran away with a 9-1 victory to make the '95 Angels the team closest to the 100% mark to spend October watching the postseason on TV.

Clay Davenport is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Clay by clicking here or click here to see Clay's other articles.