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October 2, 2007

In Good Company

Baseball's Quickest Meltdowns

by Clay Davenport

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Yesterday, I ran some numbers for Carl Bialik, the Numbers Guy at wallstreetjournal.com. The gist of what I was working on was that there were 32 teams, going back to 1873 and the National Association, where a team had reached a 90 percent probability of reaching the postseason, and then failed to do so. What I was looking at for Carl was, specifically, how fast they were able to blow it, and go from 90 to nothing. The record evolved like this:

In 1873, the Philadelphia club was 34-10 in a 60-game season. They went 2-7 the rest of the way, while a Boston club (essentially today's Braves franchise) that started three games behind them went 12-3 to bury them. That Philadelphia team took 20 days to go from 90 percent to elimination.

In the 1891 National League, Chicago--our Cubs, although they were the "Colts" back then, the young animal apparently changing through some sort of veterinary miracle--had a 91 percent chance to win with seven games to go, leading Boston by three games. Boston's remaining opponents were a combined .517, while Chicago's were .400. However, Boston was in a remarkable streak that exceeded this year's Rockies' stretch drive, winning 18 straight games before losing on the final day of the season. The Cubs only won one of their last seven, with another apparently called by darkness, which resulted in a tie. The Colts had watched a 90 percent chance drop to zero in seven days.

The 1934 Giants had a 91 percent chance to win the NL pennant on Sept. 23, leading the Cardinals by 2 games; they had four left, while the Cards had seven. Both would end with four home games against a cream-puff opponent--the Giants would face the 52-93 Phillies, the Cardinals had the 52-95 Reds--but the Birds had to get through a game at Chicago (who finished at 86-65) and two with Pittsburgh (74-76) as well. St Louis won all but one of their remaining games, while New York was swept; like the '91 Chicagos, the Giants had lost it all in seven days.

That speed record--seven days--stood up for more than 60 years. It took the '51 Dodgers 12 days to blow a lead to the Giants, and in '62 it took 11 days to do the same thing, although now it was Los Angeles and San Francisco instead of Brooklyn and New York. The 1987 Blue Jays, losers of their last seven games, took eight days to blow their lead over the Tigers.

On September 28, 1999, the Reds were a game ahead of Houston for the NL Central title, and 2 up on the Mets for the wild card. They and the Astros had four games left apiece, while the Mets had five. The Reds then lost three of four while Houston won three of four to pass them, while the Mets won four of five to tie them. The Mets won the tiebreaker game 5-0, so the Reds wound up going from 90 to nothing in six days, setting a new record.

The 2000 Red Sox set the opposite record, getting out to a 90 percent probability by the end of May. Then their lead was slowly whittled away, until they were finally eliminated with a week to go, 121 days since the last time they were over 90.

So, the record stood at six, right up until this year's Mets did the job in five days. However, they held that record for all of about 33 hours, because when Tim McClelland called Matt Holliday safe last night, he also zeroed out a Padre team that had been at 90 percent just three days earlier. You could quibble with whether they should have been rated at 90 percent on Saturday morning--the simulator did not take into account the intricacies of the tiebreaker formats, such as having to go on the road to Colorado--but there is no doubt that if I had been doing in-game updates with win probabilities for the games underway, their win probability in the ninth inning Saturday afternoon would have taken the playoff odds well into the high-90s.

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