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July 12, 2000

Doctoring the Numbers

Houston's Historic Collapse

by Rany Jazayerli

After winning the NL Central three straight years, the Houston Astros limped into the All-Star break with a 30-57 record, the worst in baseball by five games. Only three teams in history have gone from first to last in one season:

Year  Team                 Year 1     Year 2

1914 Philadelphia (AL) 99-53 43-109 1986 California 92-70 75-87 1992 Oakland 96-66 68-94

The 1981 Reds and 1994 Expos went from first to last, but neither one made the postseason in their successful season, the Reds because of the ridiculous split-season format and the Expos because there was no postseason.

The 1914 A's are the only team to have a lower winning percentage than the Astros' current .345 a year after finishing in first place. And the A's weren't trying to win in 1915, having sold off all their stars in the First Great Fire Sale.

Surprisingly, of the 43 teams in major-league history to finish in first place three straight seasons, four of them finished under .500 in year 4:

Year  Team                Year 1   Year 2   Year 3   Year 4

1990 Pittsburgh 95-67 98-64 96-66 75-87 1962 New York (AL) 96-66 104-57 99-63 77-85 1991 Toronto 91-71 96-66 95-67 55-60 1970 Pittsburgh 89-73 97-65 96-59 80-82

None of these four teams would make the playoffs in the five years following the seasons they collapsed, which is not a good sign for the Astros.

This has been no ordinary collapse in south Texas. The Astros are 30-57, but that breaks down as 3-19 in one-run games, 27-38 in all other affairs. That 3-19 record in one-run contests is unfathomable. Last year, the Kansas City Royals became just the fourth team to play under .260 ball in one-run games:

Year  Team                W    L    Pct.

2000 Houston 3 19 .136 1935 Boston (NL) 7 31 .184 1937 St. Louis (AL) 10 31 .244 1916 Philadelphia (AL) 11 32 .256 1999 Kansas City 11 32 .256

There is, as you might suspect, a strong correlation between records in one-run games and whether a team outperforms or underperforms their Pythagorean projection. The Astros have scored 456 runs and allowed 510. Using the standard Pythagorean formula (Runs^2/(Runs^2+Runs Allowed^2)), the Astros should have a .444 winning percentage and be 39-48. They have underperformed their projection by a whopping 8.7 games.

The greatest underperformers of all time, along with their record the following season (expected records and differences have been rounded):

Year  Team             Actual   Expected    Diff.   Next Year

1905 Chicago (NL) 92-61 106-47 -14 116-36 1993 New York (NL) 59-103 73-89 -14 55-58 1911 Pittsburgh 85-69 99-55 -14 93-58 1986 Pittsburgh 64-98 77-85 -13 80-82 1984 Pittsburgh 75-87 88-74 -13 57-104

The unluckiest team ever was the 1905 Chicago Cubs, who managed to win 92 games despite falling short of their projection by 14 games. The following year, they simply had the greatest single-season record of all time. Four of the five teams improved the following season, and those four all improved by at least 8 1/2 games. We have no rational explanation for why the Pittsburgh Pirates made the list twice in a three-year span. And in 1985, the year in between, Pirates pitcher Jose DeLeon went 2-19, despite having more strikeouts (149) than hits allowed (138).

The Astros are currently 8.7 games behind their projection; however, if they continue to underperform at the same pace all season, they would finish 16 games below expectation, which would shatter the record.

By comparison, the five greatest overachievers ever:

Year  Team             Actual   Expected    Diff.   Next Year

1905 Detroit 79-74 64-89 +15 71-78 1955 Kansas City 63-91 51-103 +12 52-102 1972 New York 83-73 71-85 +12 82-79 1943 Boston (NL) 68-85 56-97 +12 65-89 1984 New York (NL) 90-72 78-84 +12 98-64

The 1984 Mets, featuring rookies Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez under rookie manager Davey Johnson, had an amazing record in one-run games behind the performances of Jesse Orosco and Doug Sisk. The Mets were 15-5 when tied after eight innings that year. But instead of collapsing the following season, the Mets traded for Gary Carter and rode Gooden's best season to within three games of the Cardinals; they would win it in 1986.

But the other four teams all played at least two games worse the following season, even though two of them were well under .500 to begin with. In their first season in Kansas City, the A's had the second-luckiest season of all time...and still went 63-91. In English Literature, that's what they call an "omen."

Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at ranyj@baseballprospectus.com.

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

Related Content:  Pittsburgh

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