Thursday, May 28, 2009

Teams in Contention

A lifetime ago, I posted one of my first pieces here at wezen-ball about the Dodgers long run of non-crappy baseball (i.e., how the Dodgers have been good enough just about every year for the past 30 years to be at least be a reasonable choice to finish near the top of the division). In the comments of that post, Paul wrote this:
I made a similar point to one of my friends recently. The Dodgers haven't won the division or gone to the playoffs every year of my lifetime, but it seems like even on the years they don't go to the playoffs they're still in the race up until the last week or even the last weekend of the season. Most teams can't say that. It would be interesting (I'm too lazy to do it) to find out which teams have been still mathematically alive the for the longest number of games on average over the last 25 years. I'll bet the Dodgers will be in the top 3. My guess: Braves, Yankees, Dodgers.
It was an intriguing question, and one that I really wanted to find the answer to. At the time, though, I didn't have the means to calculate it. Even when I did get the proper databases installed on my computer, I still couldn't come up with a simple way to get it done. The idea was always in the back of my mind, though, so, this past weekend, I finally bit the bullet and did the necessary work to find the answers.

Honestly, I expected that, after spending a few hours on Saturday setting everything up, I would have all of the data to play with that night and all day Sunday. Boy, was I wrong. For whatever reason, the process that I set up was incredibly slow, requiring about 40 minutes just to process the last two months of a given season. And since I was running the data for all Retrosheet seasons (more than 50 years of data), it ended up taking a while. But, I let the computer do its thing while I was sleeping, at work, and at the ballpark, and eventually it was done. None of this matters, I know. I just wanted to point out the amount of work that it took ;-)

You can find a spreadsheet of the Average Elimination Game Number for Non-Division Winners over here. The spreadsheet is divided into eras (since 1969, 1969-1992, since 1998, etc.) and also includes the number of first place finishes each team had during that time span (since, as a division winner, they were never "eliminated"). The "Overall Game" column includes both the average elimination game of non-first place seasons and the first-place seasons (using game #162). That should give you the best representation of just how far into the season the team stays in contention during that era. It's important to note that none of the eras include any of the strike shortened seasons (1972, 1981, 1994, 1995) since they would drag down the averages.

For the most recent era (all 30 teams, since 1998), the teams that have stayed in contention the longest have been:
Team.................Avg. Elim. Game
New York Yankees..........161.2
Atlanta Braves............158.5
San Francisco Giants......156.3
St Louis Cardinals........155.9
Boston Red Sox............155.8
In this list, "contention" means "in contention for the division crown." It does not account for the Wild Card yet. Still, it's pretty surprising. In the last 11 seasons, the Giants have finished in first place only twice, but have, on average, been in contention for the division crown into the last week of the season. The Dodgers, on the other hand, sit in tenth place on this list, with an average elimination game at #153.7 (including their two division titles).

On the bottom of the list, we get:
Team.................Avg. Elim. Game
Tampa Bay Rays............137.3
Kansas City Royals........139.7
Pittsburgh Pirates........140.9
Baltimore Orioles.........141.0
And that even includes Tampa's first place finish last year. They obviously had some rough years at the start of their existence. The Pirates, Orioles, Royals, and Expos/Nats do not have that excuse, though.

Let's take a quick look at the last 25 years, as Paul suggested originally. Considering the two strike years in the '90s, the last 25 full seasons begin in 1982. From there, the best five teams have been:
Team.................Avg. Elim. Game
New York Yankees..........156.3
Atlanta Braves............154.9
St Louis Cardinals........154.6
Los Angeles Dodgers.......154.1
San Francisco Giants......153.8
Paul was pretty close. The Dodgers finish in 4th, only half a game, on average, worse than the Cardinals. Definitely nothing to sneeze at.

A few other interesting things to note:
  • The Rockies, Marlins, and Expos/Nationals have never finished in first place in a non-strike year (makes that 1994 Expos season even sadder).
  • The 26-team era, from 1969-1992, is the most unique of the eras showcased here. The Reds finish on top, with the Dodgers, Orioles, and Pirates close behind. The Yankees drop down to ninth on this list and storied franchises like the Braves, White Sox and Indians find themselves near the bottom (with Cleveland in the basement).
  • The Diamondbacks have done pretty well for themselves in their short history. On the full list (1969 and on), they finish 6th overall. Of course, if they had 40 years of history like the Royals or Padres, they might drop down a little further.
I'm sure there are more. I'll keep looking, and maybe post a few more observations once I get the Wild Card data calculated as well. In the meantime, let me know if you see anything I may have missed.


tHeMARksMiTh said...

Cool stuff

Anonymous said...

You can infer from your data that there has been no closer division in the last 25 years than the NL West. The Dodgers and Giants (and Braves until 1994) have given NL West fans the tightest division in baseball.