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September 8, 2006

Prospectus Hit List

A Brief History

by Jay Jaffe

You can start by thanking the Cleveland Indians. Or blaming them.

The 2005 edition of the Tribe capped the Hit List's inaugural season with a dubious honor, finishing atop the final rankings but narrowly missing the playoffs after a collapse in the final week. This year, the Indians have been falling short again (must be drinking from the Cuyahoga). When Jim Baker analyzed them in a New York Sun piece a few weeks back, they were more than 12 games off of their third-order win projection, and they're still in double digits.

That feat prompted Jim to ask the same question that I and several readers had asked at the end of last season: "How often does this happen?" Given the short history of the Adjusted Standings, which Clay Davenport introduced on May 1, 2003--making an example of the Indians, no less--nobody knew. Until now.

Clay got down to the dirty business of crunching the numbers needed to answer Jim's query (only 18 teams have underperformed by more than 10 games over the course of a full season, and just a dozen have overperformed by 10), and as a byproduct, created Adjusted Standings data that goes all the way back to 1882, data which should hopefully make its way to our stats section in due time. Since the Adjusted Standings are the raw stuff of the Hit List, I've been able to create seasonal Hit List rankings going back to 1901, when the American League came into being (before then is too disorderly for my tastes, what with teams and leagues folding approximately every hour and rule changes happening every eleven minutes), and I can now answer many of the questions that readers have had about the list, and even some of my own. What follows here is something of an FAQ about those historical Hit Lists. If you need to brush up on the list's methodology, see here; for this week's list, see here.

Who's finished #1 most often?

Not surprisingly, the answer is the same as "Who's won the most World Series?" The New York Yankees have topped the historical Hit List 22 times, as compared to their 26 World Championships. Interestingly enough, they've topped the list only once during the Joe Torre era, in 1998, when they won an astounding 114 games. They've been in the Top Five every year but one during Torre's tenure.

Team         #1  Notes
Yankees      22  Last time was '98
Athletics    10  Philadelphia 7, Oakland 3
Cardinals     7  Three straight during WWII
Dodgers       7  Brooklyn 4, LA 3 (including strike-torn '81)
Giants        7  New York 5, SF 2
Orioles       7  Baltimore 6, St. Louis Browns 1
Pirates       7  3x from 1901-1909, 3x since 1925
Indians       6  Three times in Jacobs Field era
Cubs          5  Not since 1945
Red Sox       4  Not since 1946
Braves        3  All in Atlanta
White Sox     3  Not since 1983
Reds          3  .658 HLF in 1975
Tigers        3  As expected: '34, '68, '84
Brewers       2  1992, missed postseason
Twins         2  Minnesota 1, Washington 1
Angels        1  2002
Diamondbacks  1  1999, not 2001
Expos         1  Yes, 1994
Mets          1  1986, of course
Phillies      1  Spirit of '76
Mariners      1  2001
Blue Jays     1  1987, not 1992 or '93
What's the record for most consecutive #1s?

The record is four straight, and it's been done three times. Two of those are by Yankee dynasties that should be familiar; the 1936-1939 edition, which went 16-3 in World Series play while marking the transition from the Lou Gehrig era to the Joe DiMaggio one, and the 1950-1953 one, which was part of Casey Stengel's five straight World Championships. The missing team from that run was the '49 squad, which placed third on the Hit List behind the Brooklyn Dodgers (whom they beat in the World Series) and the Boston Red Sox, who battled them until the season's final day, as chronicled in David Halberstam's Summer of '49.

The third team to win four straight is the 1928-1931 Philadelphia A's. Those teams met various fates; while the 1929 and 1930 squads won the World Series, the 1928 team didn't even win the pennant, finishing three games behind the #2-ranked Yankees, who finished 7.7 games above their third-order winning percentage. The 1931 team lost the World Series to the #3-ranked Cardinals.

Four teams finished #1 three straight times: the 1969-1971 Orioles, the 1956-1958 Yankees, the 1988-1990 A's, and the 1942-1944 St. Louis Cardinals. The O's under Earl Weaver finished first again in 1973, tallying a remarkable four firsts in five years; there's a reason we revere Weaver around here. And they also won in 1966 under Hank Bauer, so that's five out of eight years. Meanwhile, the Cards' accomplishment, which occurred during World War II, is considerably less impressive given how many stars around the league were serving in the military.

How often does the #1 team win the World Series?

The #1 team has won the World Series just under half the time, 48 out of 101 times. The #2 team has won it 23 times, meaning that the first or second-ranked team has won over 70 percent of the time. The #3 and #4 teams have won a combined 17 times, and all others have combined for 13. Here's the breakdown:

Rk  Champs
 1   48
 2   23
 3    9
 4    8
 5    5
 6    5
 9    1
10    1
13    1
Who's the lowest-ranked team to win a World Series?

The 1987 Minnesota Twins are the lucky #13 on the list above. Not only did they win just 85 games, fewest of any Series winner, their Hit List Factor--the average of their actual, first-, second- and third-order winning percentages--wasn't even above .500, just a mere .497! They were outscored by 10 runs overall and finished 5.9 wins above their third-order winning percentage, but they offed Whitey Herzog's Cardinals in seven games.

Taking the brown paper bags off the heads of the other low-ranked teams above, the 2000 Yankees are the #10 team; they won just 87 games on the year, but their low ranking is distorted by a hellaciously bad 3-15 finish in which they were outscored 148-59, a level of futility that invoked Cleveland Spiders comparisons at the time. Prior to that they'd won at a .587 clip, which would have been good for a #2 ranking had it held up across the other adjusted winning percentages; at worst they were probably a top-five team. The #9 winners are the 2003 Florida Marlins, a Wild Card team that slipped through.

Speaking of Wild Cards, what kind of rankings did the others who won a World Series end up with?

Two of the three other Wild-Cards-turned-champs were as legit as about two-thirds of the other winners. The 2002 Anaheim Angels of Joe Torre's Nightmares finished Numero Uno, while those slayers of the Bambino's ghost, the 2004 Red Sox, finished #2. The third, the first Marlins team to win, finished with a #6 ranking.

Has any #1 missed the playoffs like the Indians did last year?

It's happened before, but only five other times. That's about once every 17 years on average, but there was a 59-year gap between two such occurrences:

1908 New York Giants
1922 St. Louis Browns
1928 Philadelphia A's
1987 Toronto Blue Jays
1992 Milwaukee Brewers
Here we've got a couple of famous teams who ended up on the short ends of down-to-the-wire finishes. The 1908 Giants lost a thrilling race to the Cubs thanks to the legendary Merkle's Boner, where a 19-year-old rookie failed to advance a base on an apparent game-winning hit; chaos ensued, forcing a tie game that had to be made up, and things didn't go the Giants' way. More recently, Jimy Williams' 1987 Blue Jays tanked during the season's final week, losing their last seven games, four of them by a single run and none by more than three; the Tigers took the AL East title with three straight one-run victories over the Jays in the season's final weekend.

In a rare burst of competence, the 1922 St. Louis Browns, led by .420-hitting George Sisler, lost the AL race by a single game to the Yankees. The '92 Brewers got off to a 12-16 start, then clawed their way back into the race, but ultimately came up short as the Jays won.

What would the all-time Hit List look like?

Here's the top 40, representing less than the top two percent of the 2,132 teams post-1900 (O-Rk is overall rank, Rk is rank that season):

O-Rk  YEAR   RK   TM    W     L    HLF
--------------------------------------
 1.   1906   1   CHN   115   36   .742
 2.   1902   1   PIT   102   36   .733
 3.   1939   1   NYA   106   45   .725
 4.   1927   1   NYA   110   44   .712
 5.   1909   1   PIT   111   42   .693
 6.   1909   2   CHN   104   49   .688
 7.   1904   1   NY1   106   46   .687
 8.   2001   1   SEA   116   46   .687
 9.   1944   1   SLN   105   49   .687
10.   1942   1   SLN   106   48   .687
11.   1942   2   NYA   103   51   .686
12.   1905   1   NY1   105   47   .683
13.   1998   1   NYA   114   48   .682
14.   1954   1   CLE   111   43   .677
15.   1929   1   PHA   104   46   .676
16.   1969   1   BAL   109   53   .673
17.   1910   1   PHA   102   48   .673
18.   1936   1   NYA   102   51   .671
19.   1912   1   BOS   105   47   .671
20.   1937   1   NYA   103   52   .667
21.   1907   1   CHN   108   44   .665
22.   1912   2   NY1   103   48   .663
23.   1932   1   NYA   108   47   .661
24.   1953   1   NYA    99   52   .661
25.   1942   3   BRO   104   50   .660
26.   1948   1   CLE    97   58   .659
27.   1931   1   PHA   107   45   .658
28.   1995   1   CLE   100   44   .658
29.   1975   1   CIN   108   54   .658
30.   1901   1   PIT    90   49   .658
31.   1911   1   PHA   101   50   .658
32.   1910   2   CHN   104   50   .656
33.   1954   2   NYA   103   51   .655
34.   1943   1   SLN   105   49   .655
35.   1919   1   CIN    96   44   .655
36.   1998   2   ATL   106   56   .655
37.   1953   2   BRO   105   49   .655
38.   1935   1   CHN   100   54   .651
39.   1905   2   CHN    92   61   .650
40.   1903   1   BOS    91   47   .649
And here's the dregs of society:
O-Rk  YEAR   RK   TM     W     L    HLF
---------------------------------------
 1.   1916   16   PHA   36   117   .267
 2.   1942   16   PHI   42   109   .274
 3.   1904   16   WS1   38   113   .278
 4.   1909   16   WS1   42   110   .286
 5.   1919   16   PHA   36   104   .287
 6.   1915   16   PHA   43   109   .290
 7.   1932   16   BOS   43   111   .291
 8.   2003   30   DET   43   119   .292
 9.   1962   20   NYN   40   120   .296
10.   1910   16   SLA   47   107   .301
11.   1941   16   PHI   43   111   .302
12.   1945   16   PHI   46   108   .304
13.   1908   16   SLN   49   105   .305
14.   1954   16   PHA   51   103   .305
15.   1905   16   BRO   48   104   .307
16.   1952   16   PIT   42   112   .307
17.   1939   16   PHI   45   106   .307
18.   1903   16   SLN   43    94   .308
19.   1935   16   BSN   38   115   .309
20.   1903   15   WS1   43    94   .312
21.   1969   24   SDN   52   110   .313
22.   1909   15   BSN   45   108   .313
23.   1938   16   PHI   45   105   .313
24.   1911   16   BSN   44   107   .318
25.   1906   16   BSN   49   102   .318
26.   1963   20   NYN   51   111   .319
27.   1905   15   BSN   51   103   .319
28.   1928   16   PHI   43   109   .320
29.   1926   16   BOS   46   107   .322
30.   1965   20   NYN   50   112   .322
31.   1920   16   PHA   48   106   .324
32.   1908   15   NYA   51   103   .325
33.   1939   15   SLA   43   111   .325
34.   1906   15   BOS   49   105   .326
35.   1924   16   BSN   53   100   .326
36.   1940   16   PHI   50   103   .326
37.   2002   30   DET   55   106   .326
38.   1937   16   SLA   46   108   .326
39.   1954   15   PIT   53   101   .327
40.   1979   26   OAK   54   108   .327
41.   1921   16   PHI   51   103   .327
42.   2004   30   ARI   51   111   .327
Yeesh, I didn't ask for your life story; I can barely remember what I had for breakfast, let alone 1909. What if we limit the best and worst to post-World War II?

Some interesting teams pop up here. Note the presence of three Cleveland clubs in the top seven--it's definitely the water--the back-to-back Big Red Machine of 1975-1976, the aforementioned Weaver mini-dynasty of 1969-1971, the presence of three of Bobby Cox's Braves teams and three teams from the fabled 1998 season:

O-Rk  YEAR   RK   TM    W     L    HLF
--------------------------------------
 1.   2001   1   SEA   116   46   .687
 2.   1998   1   NYA   114   48   .682
 3.   1954   1   CLE   111   43   .677
 4.   1969   1   BAL   109   53   .673
 5.   1953   1   NYA    99   52   .661
 6.   1948   1   CLE    97   58   .659
 7.   1995   1   CLE   100   44   .658
 8.   1975   1   CIN   108   54   .658
 9.   1954   2   NYA   103   51   .655
10.   1998   2   ATL   106   56   .655
11.   1953   2   BRO   105   49   .655
12.   1970   1   BAL   108   54   .647
13.   1998   3   HOU   102   60   .646
14.   1974   1   LAN   102   60   .645
15.   1971   1   BAL   101   57   .642
16.   2001   2   OAK   102   60   .642
17.   1961   1   NYA   109   53   .642
18.   1947   1   NYA    97   57   .642
19.   1986   1   NYN   108   54   .640
20.   1993   1   ATL   104   58   .638
21.   1946   1   BOS   104   50   .638
22.   1976   1   PHI   101   61   .635
23.   1956   1   NYA    97   57   .634
24.   1976   2   CIN   102   60   .633
25.   1949   1   BRO    97   57   .633
26.   1997   1   ATL   101   61   .633
27.   1999   1   ARI   100   62   .631
28.   1949   2   BOS    96   58   .630
29.   1968   1   DET   103   59   .630
30.   1957   1   NYA    96   58   .630
As for the bottom dwellers, while the Tigers may have shed the top spot this week, it's still pretty incredible to think of how far they've come in less than three full seasons:
O-Rk  YEAR   RK   TM     W     L    HLF
---------------------------------------
 1.   2003   30   DET   43   119   .292
 2.   1962   20   NYN   40   120   .296
 3.   1954   16   PHA   51   103   .305
 4.   1952   16   PIT   42   112   .307
 5.   1969   24   SDN   52   110   .313
 6.   1963   20   NYN   51   111   .319
 7.   1965   20   NYN   50   112   .322
 8.   2002   30   DET   55   106   .326
 9.   1954   15   PIT   53   101   .327
10.   1979   26   OAK   54   108   .327
11.   2004   30   ARI   51   111   .327
12.   1949   16   WS1   50   104   .328
13.   1974   24   SDN   60   102   .333
14.   1996   28   DET   53   109   .335
15.   1953   16   PIT   50   104   .337
16.   1951   16   SLA   52   102   .339
17.   1948   16   CHA   51   101   .339
18.   1988   26   BAL   54   107   .342
19.   1979   25   TOR   53   109   .344
20.   1998   30   FLO   54   108   .349
21.   1961   18   PHI   47   107   .350
22.   1963   19   WS2   56   106   .352
23.   1953   15   SLA   54   100   .354
24.   1981   26   TOR   37    69   .354
25.   1956   16   WS1   59    95   .355
26.   1950   16   PHA   52   102   .355
27.   1949   15   SLA   53   101   .356
28.   1969   23   MON   52   110   .356
29.   1964   20   NYN   53   109   .356
30.   2002   29   TBA   55   106   .357
What about an all-time franchise ranking?

Hearkening back to an era when a triumvirate of New York teams ruled the baseball world, the all-time franchise rankings have the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers atop the list. Again, those pesky Indians are near the top, and even the Pirates manage to overcome their recent poor performance. On the other hand, relatively successful teams like the Orioles, A's and Braves are weighted down by long stretches of poor performance in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Kansas City and Boston. Meanwhile at the bottom, the Devil Rays are hell and gone from any other team in terms of futility, but the Phillies, with over a century of baseball under their belts, really ought to know better.

RK    TM     HLF
----------------
 1.   NYA   .563
 2.   SFN   .538
 3.   LAN   .519
 4.   SLN   .517
 5.   PIT   .515
 6.   BOS   .514
 7.   CLE   .509
 8.   CHA   .507
 9.   CHN   .506
10.   DET   .505
11.   ARI   .503
12.   HOU   .501
13.   CIN   .501
14.   TOR   .496
15.   KCA   .490
16.   ANA   .489
17.   OAK   .484
18.   ATL   .483
19.   WAS   .483
20.   NYN   .482
21.   MIN   .481
22.   BAL   .478
23.   MIL   .478
24.   SEA   .476
25.   TEX   .470
26.   FLO   .469
27.   COL   .467
28.   PHI   .462
29.   SDN   .459
30.   TBA   .407
I hope you enjoyed this little look at Hit List history as much as I did; we might have to dig this out come wintertime when there are no new Hit Lists to file. Again, a special thanks to Clay Davenport for taking the time to crunch all of the numbers necessary to create the Adjusted Standings and thus the Hit Lists.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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