The occasion for this post is the end of the 2019 World Series, which was unique in one way: It is the only Series in which the road team won every game. I begin with a discussion of pennant droughts — the number of years that the 30 teams in MLB have gone without winning a league championship or a World Series. Next is a dissection of post-season play, which has devolved into something like a game of chance rather than a contest between the best teams of each league. I close with a recounting and analysis of the classic World Series — the 38 that have gone to seven games.
Everyone in the universe knows that when the Chicago Cubs won the National League championship in 2016, that feat ended what had been the longest pennant drought of the 16 old-line franchises in the National and American Leagues. The mini-bears had gone 71 years since winning the NL championship in 1945. The Cubs went on to win the 2016 World Series; their previous win had occurred 108 years earlier, in 1908.
Here are the most recent league championships and World Series wins by the other old-line National League teams: Atlanta (formerly Boston and Milwaukee) Braves — 1999, 1995; Cincinnati Reds — 1990, 1990; Los Angeles (formerly Brooklyn) Dodgers — 2018, 1988; Philadelphia Phillies — 2009, 2008; Pittsburgh Pirates — 1979, 1979; San Francisco (formerly New York) Giants — 2014, 2014; and St. Louis Cardinals — 2013, 2011.
The American League lineup looks like this: Baltimore Orioles (formerly Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Browns) — 1983, 1983; Boston Red Sox — 2018, 2018; Chicago White Sox — 2005, 2005; Cleveland Indians — 2016 (previously 1997), 1948; Detroit Tigers — 2012, 1984; Minnesota Twins (formerly Washington Senators) — 1991, 1991; New York Yankees — 2009, 2009; and Oakland (formerly Philadelphia and Kansas City) Athletics — 1990, 1989.
What about the expansion franchises, of which there are 14? I won’t separate them by league because two of them (Milwaukee and Houston) have switched leagues since their inception. Here they are, in this format: Team (year of creation) — year of last league championship, year of last WS victory:
Arizona Diamondbacks (1998) — 2001, 2001
Colorado Rockies (1993) — 2007, never
Houston Astros (1962) — 2019, 2017
Kansas City Royals (1969) — 2015, 2015
Los Angeles Angels (1961) –2002, 2002
Miami Marlins (1993) — 2003, 2003
Milwaukee Brewers (1969, as Seattle Pilots) –1982, never
New York Mets (1962) — 2015, 1986
San Diego Padres (1969) — 1998, never
Seattle Mariners (1977) — never, never
Tampa Bay Rays (1998) — 2008, never
Texas Rangers (1961, as expansion Washington Senators) — 2011, never
Toronto Blue Jays (1977) — 1993, 1993
Washington Nationals (1969, as Montreal Expos) — 2019, 2019
POST-SEASON PLAY — OR, MAY THE BEST TEAM LOSE
The first 65 World Series (1903 and 1905-1968) were contests between the best teams in the National and American Leagues. The winner of a season-ending Series was therefore widely regarded as the best team in baseball for that season (except by the fans of the losing team and other soreheads).
The advent of divisional play in 1969 meant that the Series could include a team that wasn’t the best in its league. From 1969 through 1993, when participation in the Series was decided by a single postseason playoff between division winners (1981 excepted), the leagues’ best teams met in only 10 of 24 series.
The advent of three-tiered postseason play in 1995 and four-tiered postseason play in 2012 has only made matters worse.
By the numbers:
- Postseason play originally consisted of a World Series (period) involving 1/8 of major-league teams — the best in each league. Postseason play now involves 1/3 of major-league teams and 7 postseason playoffs (3 in each league plus the inter-league World Series).
- Only 4 of the 25 Series from 1995 through 2019 featured the best teams of both leagues, as measured by W-L record.
- Of the 25 Series from 1995 through 2019, only 9 were won by the best team in a league.
- Of the same 25 Series, 12 (48 percent) were won by the better of the two teams, as measured by W-L record. Of the 65 Series played before 1969, 35 were won by the team with the better W-L record and 2 involved teams with the same W-L record. So before 1969 the team with the better W-L record won 35/63 of the time for an overall average of 56 percent. That’s not significantly different from the result for the 25 Series played in 1995-2019, but the teams in the earlier era were always their league’s best, which is no longer true. . .
- From 1995 through 2019, a league’s best team (based on W-L record) appeared in a Series only 18 of 50 possible times — 7 times for the NL, 11 times for the AL. A random draw among teams qualifying for post-season play would have resulted in the selection of each league’s best team about 9 times.
- Division winners opposed each other in just over half (13/25) of the Series from 1995 through 2019.
- Wild-card teams appeared in 11 of those Series, with all-wild-card Series in 2002 and 2014.
- Wild-card teams occupied almost 1/4 of the slots in the 1995-2019 Series — 12 out of 50.
The winner of the World Series used to be its league’s best team over the course of the entire season, and the winner had to beat the best team in the other league. Now, the winner of the World Series usually can claim nothing more than having won the most postseason games. Why not eliminate the 162-game regular season, select the postseason contestants at random, and go straight to postseason play?
Here are the World Series pairings for 1995-2019 (National League teams listed first; + indicates winner of World Series):
Atlanta Braves (division winner; .625 W-L, best record in NL)+
Cleveland Indians (division winner; .694 W-L, best record in AL)
Atlanta Braves (division winner; .593, best in NL)
New York Yankees (division winner; .568, 2nd-best in AL)+
Florida Marlins (wild-card team; .568, 2nd-best in NL)+
Cleveland Indians (division winner; .534, 4th-best in AL)
San Diego Padres (division winner; .605 3rd-best in NL)
New York Yankees (division winner, .704, best in AL)+
Atlanta Braves (division winner; .636, best in NL)
New York Yankees (division winner; .605, best in AL)+
New York Mets (wild-card team; .580, 4th-best in NL)
New York Yankees (division winner; .540, 5th-best in AL)+
Arizona Diamondbacks (division winner; .568, 4th-best in NL)+
New York Yankees (division winner; .594, 3rd-best in AL)
San Francisco Giants (wild-card team; .590, 4th-best in NL)
Anaheim Angels (wild-card team; .611, 3rd-best in AL)+
Florida Marlins (wild-card team; .562, 3rd-best in NL)+
New York Yankees (division winner; .623, best in AL)
St. Louis Cardinals (division winner; .648, best in NL)
Boston Red Sox (wild-card team; .605, 2nd-best in AL)+
Houston Astros (wild-card team; .549, 3rd-best in NL)
Chicago White Sox (division winner; .611, best in AL)*
St. Louis Cardinals (division winner; .516, 5th-best in NL)+
Detroit Tigers (wild-card team; .586, 3rd-best in AL)
Colorado Rockies (wild-card team; .552, 2nd-best in NL)
Boston Red Sox (division winner; .593, tied for best in AL)+
Philadelphia Phillies (division winner; .568, 2nd-best in NL)+
Tampa Bay Rays (division winner; .599, 2nd-best in AL)
Philadelphia Phillies (division winner; .574, 2nd-best in NL)
New York Yankees (division winner; .636, best in AL)+
San Francisco Giants (division winner; .568, 2nd-best in NL)+
Texas Rangers (division winner; .556, 4th-best in AL)
St. Louis Cardinals (wild-card team; .556, 4th-best in NL)+
Texas Rangers (division winner; .593, 2nd-best in AL)
San Francisco Giants (division winner; .580, 3rd-best in AL)+
Detroit Tigers (division winner; .543, 7th-best in AL)
St. Louis Cardinals (division winner; .599, best in NL)
Boston Red Sox (division winner; .599, best in AL)+
San Francisco Giants (wild-card team; .543, 4th-best in NL)+
Kansas City Royals (wild-card team; .549, 4th-best in AL)
New York Mets (division winner; .556, 5th-best in NL)
Kansas City Royals (division winner; .586, best in AL)+
Chicago Cubs (division winner; .640, best in NL)+
Cleveland Indians (division winner; .584, 2nd-best in AL)
Los Angeles Dodgers (division winner; .642, best in NL)
Houston Astros (division winner; .623, best in AL)+
Los Angeles Dodgers (division winner; .564, 3rd-best in NL)
Boston Red Sox (division winner; .667, best in AL)+
Washington Nationals (wild-card team; .574, 3rd-best in NL)+
Houston Astros (divison winner; .660, best in AL)
THE SEVEN-GAME WORLD SERIES
The seven-game World Series holds the promise of high drama. That promise is fulfilled if the Series stretches to a seventh game and that game goes down to the wire. Courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, here are the scores of the deciding games of every seven-game Series:
1912 – Boston (AL) 3 – New York (NL) 2 (10 innings)
1924 – Washington (AL) 4 – New York (NL) 3 (12 innings)
1960 – Pittsburgh (NL) 10 – New York (AL) 9 (decided by Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom of the 9th)
1997 – Florida (NL) 3 – Cleveland (AL) 2 (11 innings)
2001 – Arizona (NL) 3 – New York (AL) 2 (decided in the bottom of the 9th)
2016 – Chicago (NL) 8 – Cleveland (AL) 7 (10 innings)
34 percent (38) of 112 Series have gone to the limit of seven games (another four Series were in a best-of-nine format, but none went to nine games).
20 of the 38 Series were decided by 1 or 2 runs.
14 of those Series were decided by 1 run (7 times in extra innings or the winning team’s last at-bat).
20 of the 38 Series were won by the team that was behind after five games
6 of the 38 Series were won by the team that was behind after four games.
There were 4 consecutive seven-game Series 1955-58, all involving the New York Yankees (almost 1/5 of the Yankees’ Series — 8 of 41 — went to seven games).
Does the World Series deliver high drama? If a seven-game Series is high drama, the World Series has delivered about 1/3 of the time. If high drama means a seven-game Series in which the final game was decided by 1 run, the World Series has delivered about 1/8 of the time. If high drama means a seven-game series where the final game was decided by only 1 run in extra innings or the winning team’s final at-bat, the World Series has delivered only 1/16 percent of the time.
The rest of the time the World Series is merely an excuse to fill seats and sell advertising, inasmuch as it’s seldom a contest between the best team in each league.