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October 3, 2000

Stumblin' In

Are the Yankees Doomed?

by Tom Ruane

The Yankees spent the last three weeks of the regular season trying to give the AL East to anyone who would take it from them. Fortunately for them, they were not being pursued by the A's or Indians, but by a pair of teams who were just as generous, the Red Sox and Blue Jays. New York was able to slip into the postseason with 87 wins, their lowest total since the strike-shortened 1994 season.

Even though they're still playing baseball, the Yankee collapse has to be of some concern. They lost their last seven games and 15 of their last 18, getting blown out in a number of them. Here are the worst 18-game September stretches I could find for playoff teams since 1901 (the birth of baseball's middle ages):

Year     Team     W   L   RS  RA  RS-RA    And then...

2000 NY-A 3 15 59 148 -89 1944 STL-N 5 13 53 86 -33 4-2 1968 STL-N 5 13 53 76 -23 3-4 1971 SF-N 5 13 52 71 -19 1-3 1980 KC-A 5 13 70 96 -26 5-4

The numbers on the right are the team's postseason record. Of the teams above, only the 1944 Cardinals won the World Series. So prior this year's Yankees, no playoff team since 1901 had lost 15 of 18 games in September.

Here are the worst stretches among playoff teams at any point during the year:

Year    Team     W   L   RS  RA  RS-RA

1982 ATL-N 2 16 64 108 -44 1996 SD-N 2 16 54 113 -59 1930 STL-N 3 15 87 116 -29 1995 NY-A 3 15 67 114 -47 2000 NY-A 3 15 59 148 -89

But what about the worst 18-game run differentials?

Year    Team     W   L   RS  RA  RS-RA

2000 NY-A 3 15 59 148 -89 1996 SD-N 2 16 54 113 -59 1996 BAL-A 5 13 98 147 -49 1986 BOS-A 5 13 53 101 -48 1995 NY-A 3 15 67 114 -47 1982 MIL-A 5 13 62 109 -47

That's quite a gap between this year's Yankees and all of the rest of the teams on the list.

And the playoff teams that allowed the most runs over a 18-game period:

Year    Team     W   L   RS  RA  RS-RA

1996 BAL-A 6 12 107 148 -41 2000 NY-A 3 15 59 148 -89 1930 PHI-A 10 8 123 144 -21 1994 TEX-A 8 10 111 135 -24 1995 COL-N 6 12 112 132 -20

I wonder what drastic changes would have been made to this year's squad if they had started, rather than finished, the season 3-15, especially if they'd done it while giving up an average of five more runs a game than they scored.

How meaningful is all this information? The Yankees played poorly down the stretch, but they were never really challenged for the division title and they do have all that magical postseason experience? Does a bad stretch drive bode ill for October?

Since the introduction of the wild card in 1995, there have been 20 Division Series. Here are the records of the teams that won and lost these series over the final ten games of their regular season:

             Total        AL        NL
             W   L     W   L     W   L

Winners: 111 89 55 45 56 44 Losers: 122 78 64 36 58 42

In the series in which the two teams did not have the same record over the final ten games, the colder team coming in won 7 of 10 series in the AL and 5 of 8 in the NL.

Here are the same statistics on the last 30 League Championship Series (back to 1984):

             Total        AL        NL
             W   L     W   L     W   L

Winners: 168 132 85 65 83 67 Losers: 177 123 77 73 100 50

In the series where the two teams did not have the same record over their final ten games, the colder team won 8 of 11 series in the NL and split ten series in the AL.

And the data on the last 15 World Series:

             W   L
Winners:    84  66
Losers:     84  66

The team that had been colder over the final ten regular-season games won eight of 12 championships. Of course, as the playoffs drag on, a team's performance during those last ten days in September becomes less and less important.

Here are the teams losing seven or more of their last 10 games, along with their record in the playoffs:

                       --- Post-Season ---
             Last 10     Games      Series
              W   L      W   L       W   L
1998 CLE-A    3   7      5   5       1   1
1998 SD-N     3   7      7   7       2   1    Lost World Series
1997 FLA-N    3   7     11   5       3   0    Won World Series
1988 BOS-A    3   7      0   4       0   1
1987 MIN-A    3   7      8   4       2   0    Won World Series
1986 CAL-A    3   7      3   4       0   1
                        34  29       8   4

Of course, the Yankees didn't only go 3-7, they went 3-15, but as far as I can tell, the teams that stumbled at the finish as often as not were able to turn it around once the playoffs started.

Tom Ruane's work has appeared in The Baseball Research Journal, The Big Bad Baseball Annual and NINE. He lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he is a liability to his recreational softball team. He can be reached at truane@bestweb.net.

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