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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ranking the Races

This post continues The Great Pennant Race Abstract series started several weeks back and references the races discussed in the book It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book.



Using the definition in the introduction there have been 312 races (counting the four 1981 races twice because of the split season's two halves as well as the Federal League's two races) beginning with the 1901 season. Not all of them, or for that matter a majority of them, have resulted in the kind of drama and excitement discussed in many of the chapters of this book. And it's difficult if not impossible to quantify what makes up a great race but of course that's exactly our task here. I'll kick off this abstract by ranking the top 100 pennant races of all time.

Analyst Jim Albright, who over the years has been the most prolific analyst of Japanese baseball and writes for BaseballGuru.com, once developed a system for ranking the greatest Japanese pennant races. With a few tweaks, that's the system employed here.

Simply put and following Albright's lead, a great pennant race can be defined as one that contains three components; 1) it is close, 2) it is between good teams, and 3) the more teams involved the greater the excitement.

The first component speaks for itself but the second is a bit more controversial. While some may argue that the 2006 NL Central race was a great race, the limping Cardinals losing seven in a row from September 20-26, almost blowing a 7 game lead with 13 to play, and especially winning the division with just 83 wins, starts to take on a more comical look than it does one characterized by great baseball. The Cardinals did go on take the distinction of the team with the fewest wins and winning percentage (.516) to ever win the World Series (the 1987 Twins at 85 wins and a .525 winning percentage were next) but their regular season race just doesn't rise to aesthetic level of a "Great Pennant Race". The same can be said for the 1973 National League East race as discussed in Race #8 where three teams finished within three and half games and another at give game behind the Mets but where none of those teams finished above .500. The 1984 AL West race detailed in Race #9 is yet another that falls into this category and the list goes on.

The third component should also not engender much controversy as it's obvious that a five team scramble as in the 1964 NL race or the four team jostle in the AL in 1950 does much to add to the drama as the number of what if scenarios and outcomes multiplies.

The methodology therefore comprises three simple steps to calculate a "Race Score" where the higher the score the greater the pennant race.

  • First, subtract the number of losses from the number of wins for each team in the race (excluding the winning team). Teams with better records will record higher numbers consistent with our first component mentioned above. Although this technique does not capture the dynamic nature of the race it turns out that the position at which teams end is arguably the best determiner of the "closeness" of the race. Using a more dynamic approach ranks races where teams hung around within striking distance but never really challenged the front-runner more highly but don't do as well with races where a furious August or September comeback brings a team back into contention.


  • Second, raise the number of games behind each team finished to the power of 1.65 and subtract it from the result of the first step. This has the effect of combining our first and second components since teams with better records who finish fewer games behind will receive higher scores. A team like the 2006 Astros who finished 1.5 games behind with a record of 82-80 receives a score of 0.048 while the 1927 Cardinals finishing an equal distance behind but with 92 wins receives a score of 29.05 (Albright originally squared the number of games behind but I found that raising it to slightly lower power allows us to consider more races and be a little more forgiving with regard to the second component).


  • Next, the teams with negative scores are eliminated and the totals summed up for each race.


  • Finally, add a bonus for the number of teams (excluding the winning team) in the race. For one team simply multiply the Race Score by 1, for two teams give a 10% bonus and multiply by 1.1, for three teams its 20% at 1.2, four teams 30%, and so on (Originally Albright gave bonuses in increments of 20%, 40%, 60% etc. but this pushed multi-team races too far to the top for my taste since good races like the 1942 NL race between the Dodgers and Cardinals and the 1993 NL West race between the Dodgers and Giants would otherwise fall precipitously in the rankings).


  • What that leaves us with are 161 of the 312 races or just over 50% that garner a positive Race Score. Without further ado then, here are the top 100 pennant races of all time with those discussed in detail in this book both bolded and italicized.


    Rank Year Lg Div Score Teams Winner
    1 1908 NL 90.2 3 Chicago Cubs (99-55)
    2 1950 AL 77.8 4 New York Yankees (98-56)
    3 1948 AL 72.0 3 Cleveland Indians (97-58)
    4 1920 AL 71.2 3 Cleveland Indians (98-56)
    5 1962 NL 70.5 3 San Francisco Giants (103-62)
    6 1964 AL 68.0 3 New York Yankees (99-63)
    7 1964 NL 64.6 4 St. Louis Cardinals (93-69)

    8 1977 AL East 62.6 3 New York Yankees (100-62)
    9 1927 NL 61.5 3 Pittsburgh Pirates (94-60)
    10 1956 NL 59.2 3 Brooklyn Dodgers (93-61)
    11 1967 AL 57.4 4 Boston Red Sox (92-70)
    12 1924 NL 53.8 3 New York Giants (93-60)
    13 1908 AL 52.5 3 Detroit Tigers (90-63)
    14 1928 NL 51.7 3 St. Louis Cardinals (95-59)
    15 1942 NL 50.9 2 St. Louis Cardinals (106-48)
    16 1940 AL 46.0 3 Detroit Tigers (90-64)
    17 1916 NL 44.7 3 Brooklyn Robins (94-60)
    18 1955 AL 43.6 3 New York Yankees (96-58)
    19 1993 NL West 43.0 2 Atlanta Braves (104-58)
    20 1966 NL 42.8 3 Los Angeles Dodgers (95-67)
    21 1915 FL 42.5 3 Chicago Whales (86-66)
    22 1915 AL 41.5 2 Boston Red Sox (101-50)
    23 1988 AL East 41.4 5 Boston Red Sox (89-73)
    24 1978 AL East 39.7 3 New York Yankees (100-63)
    25 1904 AL 39.4 3 Boston Americans (95-59)
    26 1907 AL 38.9 3 Detroit Tigers (92-58)
    27 1928 AL 38.5 2 New York Yankees (101-53)
    28 1906 AL 37.0 3 Chicago White Sox (93-58)
    29 1949 AL 37.0 2 New York Yankees (97-57)
    30 1949 NL 37.0 2 Brooklyn Dodgers (97-57)
    31 1941 NL 36.5 2 Brooklyn Dodgers (100-54)
    32 1951 NL 36.0 2 New York Giants (98-59)
    33 1916 AL 34.1 3 Boston Red Sox (91-63)
    34 1909 NL 33.1 2 Pittsburgh Pirates (110-42)
    35 1946 NL 32.9 2 St. Louis Cardinals (98-58)
    36 2007 NL West 32.7 3 Arizona Diamondbacks (90-72)
    37 1980 AL East 31.9 2 New York Yankees (103-59)
    38 2004 AL West 31.8 3 Anaheim Angels (92-70)
    39 1930 NL 31.5 3 St. Louis Cardinals (92-62)
    40 1922 AL 31.0 2 New York Yankees (94-60)
    41 1980 NL West 30.9 3 Houston Astros (93-70)
    42 2002 NL West 30.0 3 Arizona Diamondbacks (98-64)
    43 1945 NL 29.9 2 Chicago Cubs (98-56)
    44 1934 NL 29.9 2 St. Louis Cardinals (95-58)
    45 1985 AL East 29.9 2 Toronto Blue Jays (99-62)
    46 1909 AL 29.1 2 Detroit Tigers (98-54)
    47 1905 AL 28.9 2 Philadelphia Athletics (92-56)
    48 1952 AL 28.9 2 New York Yankees (95-59)
    49 1987 NL East 28.6 3 St. Louis Cardinals (95-67)
    50 1935 NL 28.2 2 Chicago Cubs (100-54)
    51 2005 AL East 28.0 2 New York Yankees (95-67)
    52 2004 AL East 27.9 2 New York Yankees (101-61)
    53 1985 NL East 27.9 2 St. Louis Cardinals (101-61)
    54 1950 NL 27.1 3 Philadelphia Phillies (91-63)
    55 1999 NL Central 27.0 2 Houston Astros (97-65)
    56 2006 AL Central 27.0 2 Minnesota Twins (96-66)
    57 1997 AL East 26.9 2 Baltimore Orioles (98-64)
    58 1987 AL East 26.9 2 Detroit Tigers (98-64)
    59 1979 NL East 26.9 2 Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64)
    60 2002 AL West 26.2 2 Oakland Athletics (103-59)
    61 1937 NL 25.9 2 New York Giants (95-57)
    62 2000 NL East 25.0 2 Atlanta Braves (95-67)
    63 1982 AL East 25.0 2 Milwaukee Brewers (95-67)
    64 1965 NL 24.9 2 Los Angeles Dodgers (97-65)
    65 1974 NL West 24.2 2 Los Angeles Dodgers (102-60)
    66 1982 NL West 24.0 3 Atlanta Braves (89-73)
    67 2001 NL Central 24.0 2 Houston Astros (93-69)
    68 1991 NL West 23.0 2 Atlanta Braves (94-68)
    69 1935 AL 22.9 2 Detroit Tigers (93-58)
    70 1924 AL 22.9 2 Washington Senators (92-62)
    71 2007 AL East 22.9 2 Boston Red Sox (96-66)
    72 1938 NL 22.7 3 Chicago Cubs (89-63)
    73 1918 AL 22.7 3 Boston Red Sox (75-51)
    74 1914 FL 22.1 3 Indianapolis Hoosiers (88-65)
    75 1921 AL 22.0 2 New York Yankees (98-55)
    76 1926 NL 21.9 3 St. Louis Cardinals (89-65)
    77 1919 AL 21.1 2 Chicago White Sox (88-52)
    78 1973 NL West 21.1 2 Cincinnati Reds (99-63)
    79 1954 AL 21.1 2 Cleveland Indians (111-43)
    80 1944 AL 21.0 2 St. Louis Browns (89-65)
    81 1993 NL East 19.9 2 Philadelphia Phillies (97-65)
    82 1969 NL West 19.8 3 Atlanta Braves (93-69)
    83 2000 AL West 19.7 2 Oakland Athletics (91-70)
    84 1939 NL 19.0 2 Cincinnati Reds (97-57)
    85 1978 NL West 18.5 2 Los Angeles Dodgers (95-67)
    86 1945 AL 18.0 2 Detroit Tigers (88-65)
    87 1952 NL 18.0 2 Brooklyn Dodgers (96-57)
    88 2003 AL West 17.9 2 Oakland Athletics (96-66)
    89 1951 AL 17.8 2 New York Yankees (98-56)
    90 1921 NL 17.2 2 New York Giants (94-59)
    91 1980 NL East 17.0 2 Philadelphia Phillies (91-71)
    92 1985 AL West 17.0 2 Kansas City Royals (91-71)
    93 1996 NL West 17.0 2 San Diego Padres (91-71)
    94 2004 NL West 16.9 2 Los Angeles Dodgers (93-69)
    95 1959 NL 16.5 3 Los Angeles Dodgers (88-68)
    96 1999 AL East 16.2 2 New York Yankees (98-64)
    97 1923 NL 16.0 2 New York Giants (95-58)
    98 1926 AL 15.9 2 New York Yankees (91-63)
    99 1954 NL 15.8 2 New York Giants (97-57)
    100 1977 NL East 15.8 2 Philadelphia Phillies (101-61)


    Nine of the thirteen races discussed in this book make the top 100 with the 1908 race (Race #4) taking the top spot by a fairly wide margin and three others finishing in the top eleven. The 1972 AL East (Race #7) finished 103rd, the 2003 NL Central (Race #6) placed 104th. That leaves only the 1973 NL East and 1984 AL West completely out of the 157 races that finished with positive Race Scores. In case you're wondering, the 2006 NL Central captured the 161st and final spot with a Race Score that rounds to 0.0.

    Some of you will no doubt quibble with this list and indeed some may detect a chronological bias which will be discussed later. Regardless of the methodology no list would be perfect and this list is offered more as a secondary look than as a definitive ranking. Arguing passionately about the minutiae of the game is one of the many aspects of baseball that we love as fans. Let the debate begin.

    16 comments:

    Anonymous said...

    Why not use the actual team name ex. 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers

    Dan Agonistes said...

    Yeah, that was mistake in my query. So now all the team names are updated correctly as are the number of teams in the race and I've added the bolding that the text calls out. Sorry.

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