April 9, 2003
The Great Slide Backwards
Which Teams Will Lose 20 More Games this Season?I recently wrote an article on teams that have improved by 20 or more Equivalent Wins (EQW) in a single year, EQW being wins adjusted to a 162-game season. In modern non-strike seasons, EQW and wins are generally equivalent, but this simple measure allows us to compare shorter seasons more equitably. If you want to better understand the concept, just read the first few paragraphs of the previous story.
This article will look at the reverse: clubs that have regressed by 20 EQW in a season. To illustrate, let's look at the team that suffered the biggest one-season drop-off ever, with BASE representing listed-year record, and PRIOR for prior-year record:
BASE PRIOR Team Lg Year W-L EQW W-L EQW Loss St. Louis NL 1885 36-72 54 94-19 135 -81
This whole story is rather ridiculous, if you must know. The St. Louis Maroons dominated the 1884 Union Association, a circuit that has as much business claiming major league status as the New York-Penn League. When the association went belly up after one incredibly unsuccessful season, the Maroons talked their way into joining the National League, whereupon they were regularly horsewhipped by a bunch of real teams. For some unknown reason, the Unions are officially considered a major league, allowing them to screw up all sorts of studies like this one.
The 19th century is loaded with clubs surging up and down the standings, many of them benefiting from conditions unique to their time (leagues and teams coming and going, players jumping all over the place). For these reasons, we are going to skip this era entirely, and spend more time on the more recent stories.
There have been 141 teams in history that have declined by 20 EQW in a season, 99 of those since 1900. As in the previous article, we will take a brief chronological look at the phenomenon, highlighting the interesting stories along the way.
Although things settled down a bit once the American and National Leagues made peace in 1903, there was still enough disparity in the quality of the teams that large declines were relatively common. There were 28 teams that regressed by 20 games in this period. Here are the worst dropoffs (using the same template as above):
Philadelphia AL 1915 43-109 46 99-53 106 -60 Baltimore FL 1915 47-107 49 84-70 88 -39 Cleveland AL 1914 51-102 54 86-66 92 -38 Boston AL 1906 49-105 52 78-74 83 -32 Chicago AL 1918 57-67 74 100-54 105 -31
The Philadelphia A's won four pennants and three World Series between 1910 and 1914, before salary pressures from the Federal League caused Connie Mack to scatter his team to the winds. This is by far the largest regression since 1900, and it was no fluke--the 1916 squad fell off seven more wins to the worst record (36-117) of the 20th century.
The 1918 White Sox suffered a one-year downturn because several of their best players were forced into the service or to defense-related jobs, undoubtedly preparing for their date with infamy the next season.
Things got much more stable after World War I, with just 15 big decliners in the next two decades.
Boston NL 1935 38-115 40 78-73 84 -43 Chicago AL 1921 62-92 65 96-58 101 -36 Washington AL 1934 66-86 70 99-53 106 -35 St. Louis NL 1932 72-82 76 101-53 106 -31 Detroit AL 1920 61-93 64 80-60 93 -28 Boston NL 1922 53-100 56 79-74 84 -28
The Braves weren't particularly bad either before or after their disastrous 1935 campaign, so it's hard to know what to make of it. The only major change to the squad was the addition of an aged, portly Babe Ruth, so maybe it's part of some Curse or other.
The 1921 White Sox, rid of all the crooks that had been throwing games, had no difficulty losing them more honestly.
Although the Cardinals won World Series in 1931 and 1934, the teams had little in common. The 1932 squad stumbled as it began the transition between the teams of Chick Hafey, Jim Bottomley and Jesse Haines to the Gas House Gang of Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick and Leo Durocher.
World War II scrambled rosters and league standings for several years, and is responsible for most of the nine big declines of the decade. From here on in, we will list every team chronologically.
New York AL 1940 88-66 93 106-45 114 -21 Boston AL 1943 68-84 72 93-59 99 -27 Brooklyn NL 1943 81-72 86 104-50 109 -24 New York NL 1943 55-98 58 85-67 91 -32 Washington AL 1944 64-90 67 84-69 89 -22 Philadelphia AL 1945 52-98 56 72-82 76 -20 Cincinnati NL 1945 61-93 64 89-65 94 -29 Pittsburgh NL 1946 63-91 66 82-72 86 -20 Boston AL 1947 83-71 87 104-50 109 -22
Despite the Yankees' huge regression in 1940, the team still finished two games out of first. Had they pulled out this race, New York could have won eight pennants in a row, 1936-43.
The late 1940s Red Sox were their best squad since the 1910s, with 1947 being the one off year. After the season they gave a truckload of cash to the Browns for Vern Stephens, Ellis Kinder and Jack Kramer, and they were right back in contention.
The 1950s was the most stable decade in the study, both for advancers and decliners.
Philadelphia AL 1950 52-102 55 81-73 85 -31 Detroit AL 1951 73-81 77 95-59 100 -23 Detroit AL 1952 50-104 53 73-81 77 -24 Pittsburgh NL 1952 42-112 44 64-90 67 -23 Philadelphia AL 1953 59-95 62 79-75 83 -21 New York NL 1953 70-84 74 92-62 97 -23
The Tigers were the only team in the 20th century to repeat, to lose 20 EQW in two consecutive seasons, and each time they did it with room to spare. Red Rolfe managed the Bengals to two excellent seasons in 1949-50, winning the Manager of the Year award in the latter campaign. By 1952, they were the worst team in the major leagues and Rolfe was gone, never to manage again.
The 1953 Giants must have had some terrible luck, as they actually outscored their opponents by 19 runs. Bolstered by the acquisition of Johnny Antonelli, and Willie Mays' return from the army, they rebounded just fine, and won the 1954 World Series.
The 1960s are famous for its three "miracle" pennants, but they also saw a few dramatic slides.
Pittsburgh NL 1961 75-79 79 95-59 100 -21 Pittsburgh NL 1963 74-88 74 93-68 94 -20 New York AL 1965 77-85 77 99-63 99 -22 Baltimore AL 1967 76-85 76 97-63 98 -22 Los Angeles NL 1967 73-89 73 95-67 95 -22 Chicago AL 1968 67-95 67 89-73 89 -22 Cleveland AL 1969 62-99 62 86-75 87 -24
The biggest story here was the collapse of the New York Yankees after 39 consecutive winning seasons. Although their aging core led many people to foresee the Yankees' ultimate demise, no one envisioned such a sudden exit from contention. Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Elston Howard simultaneously got hurt and/or lost effectiveness, and Jim Bouton suffered an arm injury from which he never recovered. Johnny Keane, the manager of the 1964 World Champion Cardinals, took over the Yankee ship in 1965, a move akin to a man leaving the Gemini space program to skipper the S.S. Minnow. By May 1966, Keane was out of a job, and by the following January he was dead of a heart attack.
Both 1966 league champions fell into the second division the next season. The Orioles were beset with a string of devastating injuries to the likes of Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer, and some extraordinary bad luck turning runs into wins temporarily derailing their great team. The Birds would be back with a vengeance soon enough. On the other hand, the Dodgers could not overcome the retirement of Sandy Koufax, dropping from contention until after they rebuilt around a new core in the 1970s.
In the era of big hair and loud uniforms, there weren't a lot of big collapses, but a few were quite interesting.
Minnesota AL 1971 74-86 75 98-64 98 -23 Cincinnati NL 1971 79-83 79 102-60 102 -23 Pittsburgh NL 1973 80-82 80 96-59 100 -20 Atlanta NL 1975 67-94 67 88-74 88 -21 Montreal NL 1976 55-107 55 75-87 75 -20 Oakland AL 1977 63-98 63 87-74 88 -24 New York NL 1977 64-98 64 86-76 86 -22
The drop-off of the Big Red Machine was temporary, of course, as help (via the swindle of Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, and Jack Billingham from the Astros) was on its way. The decline of the Tony Oliva/Harmon Killebrew Twins proved more lasting.
The 1973 Pirates had to try to put aside the death of Roberto Clemente, their beloved star and leader, and the results were understandably mixed. Bill Virdon attempted to "replace" Clemente by moving All-Star catcher Manny Sanguillen to right field, for no other apparent reason than that Manny wanted to honor his fallen friend. After 59 games Sanguillen was back behind the dish. After the arrivals of better solutions--Dave Parker and Richie Zisk--the Bucs were an excellent team for the remainder of the decade.
Charlie Finley's great Athletics, seldom beaten on the field, were ultimately taken down by the one-two punch of the Messersmith decision and Bowie Kuhn. The former meant that Finley could no longer retain his players, since they all hated his guts. Finley's one avenue of escape was to sell his pending free agents and rebuild with the profits, but Commissioner Kuhn, who took a back seat to no man in his hatred of Finley, sensed the opportunity to crush his nemesis and arbitrarily tied Finley's hands. Thus ended one of baseball's most entertaining and interesting teams.
The 1980s were a time of several cute short-term success stories, many of which met a rather sudden end.
Oakland AL 1982 68-94 68 64-45 95 -27 Texas AL 1982 64-98 64 57-48 88 -24 Cincinnati NL 1982 61-101 61 66-42 99 -38 Chicago AL 1984 74-88 74 99-63 99 -25 Milwaukee AL 1984 67-94 67 87-75 87 -20 Los Angeles NL 1986 73-89 73 95-67 95 -22 St. Louis NL 1986 79-82 79 101-61 101 -22 Cleveland AL 1987 61-101 61 84-78 84 -23 Houston NL 1987 76-86 76 96-66 96 -20 Detroit AL 1989 59-103 59 88-74 88 -29
The chickens came home to roost for Billy Martin's A's in 1982, tossing him back to the Yankee college of coaches for the remainder of his baseball career. The 1984 White Sox proved that losing with the likes of Greg Luzinski and Ron Kittle was a good deal uglier than winning with them had been.
The 1982 Reds suffered the greatest collapse since the 1930s, an event somewhat obscured by the 1981 strike. Cincinnati had the majors' best record in 1981, though they did not take part in the makeshift post-season. The Big Red Machine had been slowly disintegrating, losing one cog at a time and filling in with temporary solutions, before finally driving off the cliff in 1982.
Sports Illustrated was so taken with the up-and-coming Cleveland Indians that they put Joe Carter and Cory Snyder on the cover of their 1987 season preview issue, dubbing the Tribe the best team in the American League. In similar news that very year, Steve Guttenberg failed to garner his anticipated Oscar for his leading role in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol.
The 1990s began to see a bit more action, with the greatest number of big decliners since the 1910s.
Cleveland AL 1991 57-105 57 77-85 77 -20 Los Angeles NL 1992 63-99 63 93-69 93 -30 Milwaukee AL 1993 69-93 69 92-70 92 -23 Oakland AL 1993 68-94 68 96-66 96 -28 Pittsburgh NL 1993 75-87 75 96-66 96 -21 San Diego NL 1993 61-101 61 82-80 82 -21 Philadelphia NL 1994 54-61 76 97-65 97 -21 San Francisco NL 1994 55-60 77 103-59 103 -26 Chicago AL 1995 68-76 77 67-46 96 -20 Montreal NL 1995 66-78 74 74-40 105 -31 Florida NL 1998 54-108 54 92-70 92 -38 Chicago NL 1999 67-95 67 90-73 89 -22 San Diego NL 1999 74-88 74 98-64 98 -24
The Dodgers went 87 years between last-place finishes before the 1992 crew staked out the cellar. This all transpired despite the efforts of their lone All-Star representative, utility infielder Mike Sharperson.
The 1993 Padres, apparently on the verge of a nice run of contention, collapsed after owner Tom Werner's fire sale jettisoned the likes of Tony Fernandez, Fred McGriff, and Gary Sheffield. Of their promising core, only Tony Gwynn was forced to endure the inevitable implosion.
The 1994 Expos had the best record in baseball at the time that the player strike hit in August, following up a 94-68 record in 1993 under skipper Felipe Alou. As one sign of the club's quality, several of the key players on the team (Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Rondell White, Pedro Martinez, and Kirk Rueter) are still playing important roles on teams today. When the long player strike was settled in April 1995, owner Claude Brochu ordered the immediate trades of anyone making any serious money. By Opening Day, Grissom and Walker, along with Ken Hill and John Wetteland, had left town, in what soon became an annual blood-letting in Quebec.
The most memorable recent decline was pulled off by the Florida Marlins, the 1997 World Series Champions but the worst team in baseball by Opening Day the following year. H. Wayne Huizenga, the teams' owner/executioner, announced in June 1997 his plans to dismantle the team after the season, thereby turning the Marlins' valiant post-season run into a maudlin soap opera.
Remarkably, the very next NL champion, the San Diego Padres, were similarly gutted following their big year. In the Pads' case, they lost Kevin Brown, Greg Vaughn, Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley before the start of the next season, and the club has yet to recover.
2000-2002 and beyond
Though things have been much calmer in the past few years, we have continued to see a team or two per season that declines by 20 wins or more.
Texas AL 2000 71-91 71 95-67 95 -24 Houston NL 2000 72-90 72 97-65 97 -25 Seattle AL 2002 93-69 93 116-46 116 -23 Chicago NL 2002 67-95 67 88-74 88 -21
As in the article on advancing teams, we now ask the question: Which teams are vulnerable to a 20-game collapse in 2003? To state the obvious, it is most likely to happen to a good team--the last below-average squad to fall 20 more games was the 1990-91 Cleveland Indians. Older teams are more vulnerable, as well as teams that had an unexpected advance last year, perhaps playing over their heads. We should also be on the lookout for a team that might want to shed payroll at the first sign of falling from contention.
Once again, I polled some of Baseball Prospectus' authors. While there were no unanimous suggestions (as the Cubs had been as an advancer), both Anaheim and Atlanta were mentioned by a majority of the respondents.
The two teams' cases differ. With the Angels the concern is simply whether their 2002 improvement (24 games) was for real. It is certainly not difficult to envision a regression in both their starting pitching, with no real star to count on, and their bullpen, where a cast of unknowns became the team's big edge all last season. The team's health may not hold up this year as well as it did during the Angels' extraordinarily healthy 2002 either. This is not to say that the Angels are likely to collapse, only that it does not take a lot of imagination to see how it could happen.
Atlanta is in the midst of the best non-Yankee run of greatness in history. Over the past 12 seasons, the Braves have won 61% of their games, finished with the best record in the National League eight times, and won five league pennants. Their 58-52 record in the post-season points out how difficult it is to win three post-season series, and the Braves have captured "only" one World Series title.
The end seems to be drawing near. Last season's 101 wins were miraculous, as the team's typically lousy bench was bolstered by several holes in the everyday lineup, often including the likes of Vinny Castilla, Keith Lockhart, and the declining Javy Lopez. In the off-season, the team lost its two 18-game winners--Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood--and did little to improve the offense. As Rob Neyer and others have said, if the Braves have good pitching this year, we all ought to storm the gates to get Leo Mazzone into the Hall of Fame.
Another possible decliner, not mentioned by the respondents, is Arizona. In the interest of full disclosure, I picked the Diamondbacks to win 96 games and reach the World Series. On the other hand, Arizona is an extraordinarily old team, and a decline or injury by either Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling, coupled with one or two offensive disappointments, is all this team needs to blow up.
Needless to say, baseball fans spend more time thinking of ways their favorite team can take the big leap forward than envisioning the possibilities of a collapse. This is supposed to be fun, after all, so why focus on those monsters under the bed. Nonetheless, it is likely that at least one team's fans will have to live through a big drop-off this season.
Mark Armour is the co-author (with Dan Levitt) of Paths To Glory, the stories of the building of several interesting baseball teams, to be published this Spring by Brasseys, Inc., and the director of SABR's Biography Project. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.