Month: September 2008

American League Dynasties and Doormats

Here are the records of the best American League teams over the years, as measured by centered, nine-year won-lost average (to enlarge, right-click and select “open link in new tab”):

Derived from statistics available at Baseball-Reference.com. The series begins in 1905 (the middle year of the span 1901-1909) and ends with 2004 (the middle year of the span 2000-2008).

Two points: (1) The Yankees have assembled the longest and strongest dynasties, most notably, the one that began in the 1930s and lasted until the 1960s. (2) Only five of the AL’s fifteen franchises* have been strong enough, at one time or another, to have the league’s best record over two or more consecutive nine-year spans.

The “other” teams have mustered leadership for only a single season. Those teams, from left to right on the graph, are the Indians, Tigers, and White Sox (on two occasions, separated by 30 years).

Will a new “dynasty” emerge, or will the Yankees halt their downward slide and reassert their dominance over the American League? Stay tuned.

As for the doormats, here are the records of the worst American League teams over the years, as measured by centered, nine-year won-lost average (to enlarge, right-click and select “open link in new tab”):

Derived from statistics available at Baseball-Reference.com. The series begins in 1905 (the middle year of the span 1901-1909) and ends with 2004 (the middle year of the span 2000-2008).

Two points: (1) Three franchises — the Athletics, Browns/Orioles, and Red Sox have endured long stretches of ignominy and enjoyed long stretches of glory. (2) Ignominy has been spread more evenly than glory: Ten of the AL’s fifteen franchises* have been weak enough, at one time or another, to have the league’s worst record over two or more consecutive nine-year spans.

The “other” teams have served as doormats for only a single season. Those teams, from left to right on the graph, are the White Sox, Angels, and Royals.

THE FOLLOWING PORTION WAS REVISED AND EXTENDED ON 10/04/08

Finally, I have postulated elsewhere (“Has Baseball Become More ‘Competitive’?“) that baseball has become increasingly competitive since the advent of expansion in the 1960s and free agency in the 1970s. I have revised that assessment, in view of the above graphs. In particular, it seems that the gap between best and worst teams had been narrowing (generally, though not monotonically) since the earliest days of the American League until about 1980. That observation caused me to take another look at the third graph in “Has Baseball Become More ‘Competitive’?”:

I now see that the American League had been growing steadily more “competitive” (if not always perceptibly so) from its earliest days until just before the onset of free agency in 1976 and the 1977 expansion round. Since then, there has been (on balance) no perceptible gain, and perhaps a bit of a setback, which may be due to the expansions of the 1990s.
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* The fifteen franchises are the original eight — Baltimore Orioles (previously Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Browns), Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins (previously Washington Senators), New York Yankees (originally Baltimore Orioles), Oakland Athletics (previously in Philadelphia and Kansas City) — and seven expansion franchises –Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles/Anaheim Angels, Milwaukee Brewers (originally Seattle Pilots, now in National League), Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Texas Rangers (previously the expansion Washington Senators), and Toronto Blue Jays. See this post (scroll down) for a detailed recounting of franchise histories.

Post-Season Play: Another Look

UPDATED 09/30/08

The World Series of major-league baseball was initiated in 1903 as a showdown between the best team in each league, the toddling American League (born 1901) and the twenty-something National League (born 1876). So far, so good, but with the advent of two-tiered post-season play in 1969 and three-tiered post-season play in 1995, each league often has not been represented by its best team.

Three-tiered play begins with four teams in each league: the three division leaders and a wild-card team (the team with the best record among the three second-place finishers). As a result, all sorts of distortions are possible. Here’s a list of them, by season (derived from Baseball-Reference.com):

1996, National League: Los Angeles entered post-season play as a wild-card team (thus losing “home field advantage”), even though it had a better record than St. Louis, which had the best record in its division. Moreover, Montreal didn’t gain a playoff berth, even though its record was as good as that of St. Louis.

1997, National League: Houston led its division with the sixth-best record in the league. Florida, with a better record than Houston, was the wild-card team. New York and Los Angeles didn’t make it into the playoffs, even though both had better records than Houston.

1997, American League: Wild-card New York had a better record than division leaders Cleveland and Seattle.

1998, American League: Boston repeated New York’s experience of the prior year, boasting a better record than division leaders Cleveland and Texas. Toronto, with the same record as Texas, missed the playoffs.

2000, American League: New York entered post-season play as a division titlist but with the fifth-best record in the league. Seattle (the wild-card team) had a better record than New York, as did Cleveland, which didn’t get into the playoffs.

2001, National League: Atlanta entered post-season play as a division titlist but with the fifth-best record in the league. St. Louis (the wild-card team) had a better record than that of Atlanta, as did San Francisco, which didn’t get into the playoffs.

2001, American League: Oakland, the wild-card team, had a better record than division titlists New York and Cleveland.

2002, American League: Anaheim, the wild-card team, had a better record than Minnesota, which entered the playoffs as a division leader.

2003, National League: Ditto for Florida vs. Chicago.

2003, American League: Minnesota led its division with the league’s fifth-best record, relegating third-best Boston to wild-card status and denying fourth-best Seattle a playoff spot.

2004, American League: Boston had to settle for the wild-card slot with a better record than Minnesota and Anaheim, division leaders both.

2005, National League: San Diego entered post-season play as a division winner, despite having a worse record than Houston (the wild-card team) and three teams that missed the playoffs (Philadelphia, Florida, New York).

2006, National League: St. Louis entered the playoffs as a division titlist, denying Philadelphia a slot with its fourth-best record and relegating third-place Los Angeles to the wild-card spot.

2006, American League: Wild-card Detroit had a better record than division-leading Oakland.

2007, National League: Chicago led its division with the sixth-best record in the league. Second-best Colorado took the wild-card spot despite having a better record than both Chicago and Philadelphia (another division leader). New York and San Diego, both with better records than Chicago, missed the playoffs.

2008, National League: Los Angeles enters post-season play as a division winner, with the league’s eighth-best record.

2008, American League: Chicago enters post-season play as a division winner, with the league’s fifth-best record.

Here’s my solution to this mess. Realign the leagues so that each has 15 teams, spread evenly among three divisions: 1, 2, and 3. The teams in division 1 would be the 5 teams with the best W-L records in the preceding season; division 2 would comprise the middle 5 teams; division 3, the worst 5 teams. To eliminate the biasing effects on W-L records of unbalanced schedules (which have been the norm for decades), each team would play the same number of games (home and away) against each of the other teams in its league. There would be no interleague play during the regular season.

These arrangements would make for more competitive divisions. The teams in division 1 would vie to finish first in order to advance to the World Series. The World Series would be a best-of-nine affair to mitigate (somewhat) the role of luck and the ability of a team to “recycle” its best pitchers more often than in the regular season.

Division 1 teams also would strive to remain in division 1, and thus in contention for World Series slots. The teams in divisions 2 and 3 would strive for the honor of division leadership and foradvancement to higher divisions — and, through advancement to division 1, a shot at participating in the World Series.

It’s time to make the regular-season meaningful and, therefore, to end the practice of giving mediocre teams a shot at the World Series. It’s time to make the World Series what it was for 64 seasons: a showdown between the best of the AL and the best of the NL. My proposal would accomplish all of that.

Big Losers

The Pittsburgh Pirates of major-league baseball will have a losing season this year, thus extending the team’s string of losing seasons to 16 (1993-2008) and tying the dubious record of the Philadelphia Phillies (1933-1948).

The leading consecutive-season losers in other major sports are, as far as I can determine, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of pro football (15 seasons, 1982-1996), the Kansas City/Sacramento Kings of pro basketball (16 seasons, 1983-84 through 1998-99), and the Vancouver Canucks of pro hockey (15 seasons, 1976-77 through 1990-91).

The Pirates seem destined to set a new record for consecutive losing seasons among major sports teams.

The all-time major-league record for losing is held by the San Diego Padres. The Padres have compiled an overall W-L record of .462 since the team’s inception in 1969 — the worst record of any franchise formed before 1978. The Padres nevertheless have managed to win five division titles, and have twice gone on to win league championships.

The expansion Washington Senators/Texas Rangers — a 1961-vintage franchise — have an overall W-L record of .468. That is the second-worst record among franchises formed before 1978. The Rangers “boast” but three division titles and not a single league championship.

In spite of the “accomplishments” of the Padres and Rangers, I must grant the Worst Franchise Award to the above-mentioned Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies, who are now in their 126th season of major-league play, have compiled a W-L record of only .470. During the 31-season span of 1918-1948 the Phillies eked out only one (barely) winning season, going 78-76 in 1932. (The Pirates have an overall record of .505, in spite of a long losing tradition, one that dates back to the second season of their 127-year history.)

Tamed Tigers

The 2006 season began brightly for the Detroit Tigers, a team that had posted a losing record in each of its preceding twelve seasons. The Tigers went 76-36 (.679) in the the first 112 games of the 2006 season, running up a ten-game lead in their division. The Detroiters then went cold and played 29-31 (.483) the rest of the way. As a result, they finished second in their division. Nevertheless, as a wild-card entry in post-season play, the Tigers managed to win the American League championship and advance to the World Series — a feat the underscores the vagaries of short, post-season series, which often see inferior teams come out on top.

But I digress. The tale of the 2006 Tigers (pun intended) has been retold, with embellishments, by the 2007 and 2008 teams. The 2007 team started 60-40 (.600), but finished 28-34 (.452) and wound up eight games behind the division leader (and, mercifully, out of the playoffs). The 2008 Tigers managed briefly to eke out a winning record — peaking at 52-49 (.515) — but have since played 19-31 (.380). If they don’t finish last in their division it will be thanks to the perennially abysmal Kansas City Royals.

So much for the Tigers’ (partial) season of glory, or sic transit gloria mundi.

UPDATE (09/24/08): The Tigers have lost six in a row, are a game behind KC, and face a season-ending four-game series with the Tampa Bay Rays. Even though the Tigers may manage to escape the cellar by a whisker (another pun intended), there can be no doubt that they have reverted to their perennially abysmal ways. Since their last division championship, 21 seasons ago, they have had only five winning seasons. Toothless.

Two Tenors

Compare the legendary John McCormack (1884-1945), an Irish tenor whose career spanned five decades, and Brooklyn-born Franklyn Baur (1904-1950), whose career lasted less than ten years.

Both singers recorded many popular songs of the 1920s (McCormack samples here and here; Baur samples here). McCormack’s influence on Baur (among others) is unmistakable, most notably in Irving Berlin’s “You Forgot to Remember.” Baur masked his native accent more successfully than did McCormack. But that is no criticism of McCormack, whose distinctive, lilting voice was supported by exemplary vocalism.

Baur, the original first tenor of The Revelers, was the engine of that group’s originality and success. (Aural evidence of Baur’s influence can be heard on Breezin’ Along with The Revelers, where the group’s innovative, jazzy sound turns more traditional — even “barbershoppy” — following Baur’s departure.) Had it not been for the influence of The Revelers, as they were in Baur’s time, the Comedian Harmonists — an even better ensemble — might not have been formed. (If you’ve never heard of the Comedian Harmonists, you must see Comedian Harmonists, a 1997 dramatization of the group’s history that is both toe-tapping and touching.) And without McCormack, the world might not have come to embrace Irish tenors.

We are fortunate that so many examples of McCormack’s and Baur’s art survive them.

Perspective on the Stock Market

Yes, we are in a bear market, as I foresaw here and confirmed here. But let’s put the downturn in perspective:

Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 Composite Index
(12,184.44, as of 4:46 p.m. ET today)

(c) BigCharts.com

Even with today’s significant drop (4.55 percent), the market is high by historical standards. (For example, the Wilshire 5000 Full-Cap Index, a broad measure of U.S. stock prices, is still higher than it was at any time before the “bubble” of the late 1990s, even after the index is adjusted for inflation.) Moreover, the decline from March 2000 to October 2002 — which somehow seems to be a distant memory for today’s headline writers — was far steeper and deeper than the slide that began last October. There may be a time to panic, but it hasn’t yet arrived.

Some of My Favorite Cars

The classic era of American automobile design began in the 1920s and lasted through the late 1930s. Here are some of my favorites:

1927 Kissel 8-75 Speedster

1929 Jordan Speedboy G

1929 Duesenberg J 350 Willoughby

1930 Pierce Arrow Roadster

1932 Cadillac 355B Sport Phaeton

1932 Pierce Arrow Model 54 7-Passenger Touring Car

1934 Packard Eleventh Series Eight 1101 Convertible Sedan

1935 Auburn 8-851 Cabriolet

1937 Cord Model 812C Phaeton

1938 Lincoln Zephyr Convertible Coupe

Many collections of classic-car photos and specs are available online. Conceptcarz.com is the best that I have found. The collection there spans the late 1800s to the present. See also the excellent Crawford Collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society.