September 27, 2007
Lies, Damned Lies
Today's article represents an update of Clay Davenport's piece from two years ago that described the biggest collapses in playoff chase history (spoiler alert!), as defined by the teams that had the highest percentage chance to reach the playoffs at some point during the regular season who then failed to do so. I have a comprehensive set of playoff odds reports that Clay prepared for us in connection with It Ain't Over, and was therefore able to identify a couple of races that Clay had missed during his spot-checking. In addition, I will be looking all the way back to the start of the season, rather than limiting things to August 1st as Clay did; it's surprisingly easy for teams to establish a stranglehold on a playoff spot relatively early in the season in the Wild Card era, and if they're a bit less dramatic as narratives go, those collapses still deserve discussion. In addition, Clay has made some improvements to his methodology since the time his article was originally published, so all of that goodness is incorporated herein.
Thirteen is an appropriately unlucky number, so let's count down that many of the worst collapses in baseball history.
13. 1921 Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates' hitting completely fell apart, as they averaged just 2.75 runs per game from August 23rd onward in a league that scored about as many runs as are scored today. It was a five-game series against the Giants from August 24-27 that marked the beginning of the end-the Pirates were swept, scoring six runs over the five games, and their playoff probability dropped from 93.9 percent to 72.9 in the process. Although the Giants played exceptionally well-they managed to put together eight- and 10-game winning streaks within a stretch of about three weeks-this one was probably attributable to true talent levels coming to the forefront, as the Giants would go on to win the pennant four years running. In Bill Simmons' terminology, it was a Princeton Principle collapse.
12. 1908 New York Giants
This was the "Merkle's Boner" team, as beautifully chronicled by Steve Goldman in It Ain't Over. Unlike many teams on this list, the Giants' peak was not sustained for a particularly long time. This was the season that all three of the nineteen-hundred-and- aught dynasties were on a collision course, as the Giants traded places with the Pirates and the Cubs all season long; their September 18th peak date marked the end of a stretch in which they'd won 18 games in 19 tries. They looked to be in good shape heading into the final couple weeks of the season, as 17 of their remaining 21 games were to be played at home, whereas the Cubs were in the midst of a period of 24 consecutive road games, but nevertheless managed to finish out the season at 14-2 to overtake the John McGraw's club. Of some note is the sheer number of games that the Giants played during this stretch-during the period of September 18-October 1, just 14 days on the calendar, the Giants played in 18 baseball games, including six doubleheaders.
11. 2002 Boston Red Sox
It might seem odd that a team can establish this much of a probability of reaching the playoffs so early in the season, but consider the mechanics of the Wild Card. What it does is to effectively eliminate the 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers scenario, which is when a team plays fairly good baseball but is overtaken by a team that plays really great baseball. Nowadays, when that happens both teams still make the playoffs, one of them as the Wild Card. At their peak, for example, the Red Sox were projected to win their division less than 70 percent of the time, but the Wild Card made up most of the difference and provided them with a huge landing pad. The 2000 Red Sox (93.36% playoff probability at peak) and 2001 Red Sox (92.50%) also nearly made this list, which might help everyone outside of New England understand if it seems that Sox fans are a little paranoid.
10. 1964 Philadelphia Phillies
This collapse is particularly famous because of just how badly the Phillies played down the stretch, and just how poorly Gene Mauch managed his pitching staff. However, it was not quite as bad as it might seem at first glance because of the disparity in the schedules. From September 18th onward, the Phillies played teams with an average winning percentage of .548, as opposed to .470 for the Cardinals, which was enough to wipe the equivalent of a game or two off of their lead.
9. 1983 Atlanta Braves
The Braves nearly blew this big a lead a year earlier, in 1982. That club had a 90.9 percent chance to reach the playoffs as of July 29th, and then proceeded to lose 15 of their next 16 ballgames; at one point, their playoff probability was down to less than five percent before they recovered. This time around, they were not so fortunate. A huge part of the problem was losing Bob Horner for the season to injury on August 15th. Whereas Horner was hitting .303/.383/.528 at the time he went down, his replacements at the position, Jerry Royster and Randy "Not the Pitcher" Johnson, combined to hit just .202/.269/.225 the rest of the way out; that batting line represents a total of two extra-base hits in 193 total plate appearances.
8. 2005 Cleveland Indians
The neat trick that the Indians pulled off was to fall behind both the Red Sox and the Yankees when those teams had to play one another in the final series of the season. The Indians, meanwhile, were set to finish their series against the Royals before going home to face Tampa Bay. They did have to conclude their season against the White Sox, but at that point the White Sox had already clinched.
7. 1978 Boston Red Sox
The '78 Red Sox had a couple of points that might have represented their peak; they were still as high as 95.5 percent to win their division on August 28th. However, that Yankees team played exceptionally well, finishing out their season at 35-13, and although that season is remembered for the blowouts of the Boston Massacre, it was the Yankees' play in closer contests that counted, as they went 14-4 from August 12th onward in games decided by two runs or less.
6. 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers
Although the National League's star talent was relatively intact in 1942 in spite of the increasing migration of players into the armed services, it was nevertheless a boom-or-bust league with a very weak bottom; the Phillies went 42-109 that year. So it was like the Dodgers were engaged in a leisurely carriage race, and then suddenly saw Secretariat coming around the bend. The Cardinals finished their season at 38-6, which according to David Smith at Retrosheet is tied for the second-best record over a 44-game stretch in baseball history.
I was chatting with my neighbor after the Cubs lost yesterday, and said something to the effect that if the Cubs blow this to Milwaukee, this might really be the one that proves the existence of the curse. He quickly reminded me that 2007 would be at most a low-magnitude star in the constellation of Cubs agony, well behind 2003, 1969, and 1984 (probably in that order). What was remarkable about the 1969 team was that they not only lost a substantial lead, but that they wound up getting absolutely thrashed in the process, finishing eight full games behind the Mets at the end of the season, a 17-game swing over about six weeks worth of competition.
Who was most responsible for the Cubs' collapse? There was plenty of blame to go around (see table below), but most of the damage was done by the pitching staff, or by players like Randy Hundley and Don Kessinger that played premium defensive positions. That would tend to validate the hypothesis that the Cubs were just exhausted, since those are the positions that take the most wear-and-tear during the season.
Player Pre-Peak Post-Peak Don Kessinger, SS .291/.350/.385 .207/.268/.297 Glenn Beckert, 2B .298/.330/.347 .272/.313/.325 Billy Williams, LF .301/.368/.469 .269/.314/.488 Ron Santo, 3B .300/.394/.519 .250/.354/.371 Ernie Banks, 1B .257/.315/.406 .243/.290/.444 Randy Hundley, C .284/.361/.441 .153/.237/.220 Jim Hickman, RF .229/.312/.433 .248/.348/.518 Don Young, CF .230/.342/.348 .286/.348/.500 --- Fergie Jenkins, SP 17-10, 2.72 ERA 4-5, 4.91 ERA Bill Hands, SP 15-9, 2.46 ERA 5-5, 2.57 ERA Ken Holtzman, SP 14-7, 3.12 ERA 3-6, 4.84 ERA Dick Selma, SP 12-4, 3.12 ERA 0-6, 6.17 ERA Phil Regan, RP 12-5, 3.00 ERA 1-1, 6.98 ERA
4. 2003 Seattle Mariners
Whenever you produce a list of the best or worst of something, those Mariner teams from 1995-2003 have a habit of showing up. This team got off to nearly as good a start as the 2001 club, who achieved 90 percent playoff probability as early as May 3, but finally surrendered their lead to the A's on August 25th . Worth nothing is that this had become a pretty old team-the average age of the positional regulars was 32.2-so fatigue might once again have been the decisive factor.
3. 1993 San Francisco Giants
The last truly great two-team pennant race somewhat mirrored the 1942 season, because although these Giants were incredibly streaky, they didn't exactly play badly. It's just that the Braves played better, winning 39 of their final 50 games. As Clay pointed out two years ago, this Giants team was particularly heartbreaking because they had something of a second wind-after seeing their playoff probability fall to 6.4 percent on September 16th, they reeled off 14 wins in 16 games to tie the Braves in the division, only to succumb to the Dodgers on the last day of the season.
2. 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers
As Roger Kahn wrote, and as Kevin Baker quoted in It Ain't Over, "Summarizing the 1951 race is akin to summarizing King Lear. Before anything else, your effort will diminish majesty." Kevin succeeded in proving Kahn wrong in 19 pages; I'm not going to attempt the same in a paragraph. The only thing I'll point out is how the odds against a collapse have increased exponentially from the previous teams on this list. While 99.74 percent doesn't sound all that different from 98.25, but the former represents a 56-to-1 shot, and the latter is a much more unlikely 384-to-1 shot.
1. 1995 California Angels
I posed this in the form of a trivia question to our internal mailing list: Which team had the worst playoff chase collapse of all-time? I got one guess for the 1964 Phillies, one for the 1978 Red Sox, one for the 1962 Dodgers (who rank 17th), and three for the 1951 Dodgers. Only Rany suggested the 1995 Angels, and that is because he has the best memory of anyone in our group (Christina Kahrl being a close second) and recalled Clay's original article.
But in fact the answer isn't even close. The 1951 Dodgers' odds were 384-to-1 against missing the playoffs, while the Angels were more than 8000-to-1 against. In fact, even if you ignore the Wild Card possibility, and looked only at the divisional race, this would still rank as the worst collapse of all time. With 38 games left to play, the Angels a combined 24.5 games ahead of the Mariners and Yankees, the two teams that would eventually pass them in making the playoffs. It took a perfect storm of events to knock the Halos out of the race-two distinct losing streaks of nine games apiece, plus the Yankees and Mariners each winning two-thirds of their games-and even then they still had the chance to redeem themselves in a one-game playoff against the Mariners. It's interesting to also note that if the Mariners had blown that playoff game, because the Angels played so badly that the M's opened up a three-game lead at one point, the '95 Mariners would rank 13th on this list.
A Quick Note on This Year's Collapses
The Tigers (93.51% on July 20th), who only a few days ago looked like they would certainly own the worst collapse of the season, presently rank 16th on the all-time list after having "clinched" their elimination yesterday.
Naturally, most of the action is now in the National League. There are five NL teams that have at some point during this regular season have had at least an 80 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, and there are only four playoff spots to be had, so at least one and possibly as many as three teams are going to wind up with a place on this list of all-time infamy:
It's easier to make this list in the Wild Card era, simply because there are more playoff spots available, and the number of teams that reach a certain threshold of probability and miss the playoffs is directly proportionate to the number that make it. However, the notion that this year's playoff races have turned into something very special is absolutely correct.