As part of SB Nation United, you’re going to be seeing some new voices at Lone Star Ball, SBN “Designated Columnists” writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community. We’re beginning this week with Bill Parker, better known as one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage.
Hey, remember how much fun things were for the Rangers in April? And June? As ridiculously early as April 25, approximately 12 percent into the season, Baseball Prospectus gave the Rangers a rounded-up 100 percent chance of making the postseason. Even after most of a somewhat rocky May (on May 22, a bit more than a quarter through the season) the odds stayed at 100 percent, and the Rangers’ odds of winning the A.L. West sat at a remarkable 98.4 percent. The projection system saw the Rangers ending up with an average of 99 wins, a full ten games more than anyone else in the division.
Well, they are going to the playoffs, and their odds have rarely, if ever, dropped below 97 percent, so in a sense, I guess BPro had it right all those months ago. But the ride’s been quite a bit rockier than that bold, early projection suggested it would be. The team looked unstoppable again in June, and then the second half was...rough. The month-by-month records don’t quite tell a clean “tale of two halves” sort of story -- they were 14-14 in May, 19-10 in August -- but all in all, the team was 50-29 (.633) from April through June, and with two games left to play, they’re 43-38 (.531) from July to present. That’s a huge difference: a 103-win pace over the first (approximate) half, down to an 86-win pace over the second. The Rangers’ record from July 1st on has been the seventh-best of the 14 AL teams, their meager +8 run differential ranking way back at ninth.
Adam has been over (more than once, I’m guessing) the fool’s errand that is trying to find reasons on which to pin the Rangers’ disappointments this season. And anyway, at the end of it all, the Rangers will be in the postseason (and, if they can win one of the final two games, will even get to stay there for more than a day). What I’m wondering is: from a historical perspective, might their second-half slowdown tell us anything about their chances once they get there? We know that a bad final month doesn’t tell us much about the postseason, but what about a disappointing three preceding months? Virtually all postseason questions are fraught with sample size problems, no matter how far you go back, but I thought a quick look would be interesting nonetheless.
Here’s a table I put together showing the pre- and post-July 1 performances of the World Series winner every year since the inception of Divisional Play v1.0 in 1969, skipping the strike years of 1981 and 1994. The data appears more or less random, as you would expect. It started out looking like it might mean something -- 12 of the 14 winners from 1969 to 1983 improved their records in the latter three months, and by an average of 12 games per 162 -- but that’s sort of how randomness works. In all, 23 of the 41 champions did better in the second half than the first half, one stayed exactly the same, and the remaining 17 did less well. Those that improved their records did so by an average of 11 wins per 162 games; those that lost ground lost an average of 11 wins per 162. Two teams actually played sub-.500 ball from July 1 on and went on to win the World Series -- the 1987 Twins and 2006 Cardinals (also quite possibly the least talented world champs ever) -- with one at exactly .500. The Rangers’ 17-games-per-162 drop from the first three-month period to the second would be tied for the seventh-worst decline of any Series winner since 1969.
So it’s been a little unusual for a team to slow down over the second half and go on to win the Series, but not that unusual. Plenty of teams have done it, and there’s no reason the Rangers can’t. Here are what I see as the three best comps among the Series winners of the past 43 seasons:
1. The 2005 White Sox: Ozzie’s guys were even better than this year’s Rangers from April through June (53-24, .688, an 111-win pace), but similarly underwhelming from then on (46-39, .529, 86). They’d built up a 10.5 game lead on a very weak division entering July, though, so one can assume they coasted just a bit (in September, Cleveland closed to within 1.5 games before tanking in the final week and finishing six out). It’s hard to see why they fell back, except that they may not have been particularly great to begin with, with only one regular hitter (Paul Konerko) with an OPS+ above 120. They had great top-to-bottom pitching, though, and that (plus some A.J. Pierzynski shenanigans) carried them through their three playoff series with only one loss in the bunch.
2. The 1990 Reds: They’re known for going wire-to-wire without ever relinquishing the division lead, but it wasn’t entirely the Reds’ doing. After a brilliant 13-3 April and 17-9 May, the remaining months went 16-14, 14-15, 15-14, 14-15, and 2-1, leaving the Reds with just 91 wins -- very catchable in most years and most divisions (especially in the old two-division setup). The NL West was dreadful that year, so the Reds got in, and they made the most of it, surprising the Pirates in six games and then absolutely shocking the powerhouse A’s in four.
3. The 1984 Tigers: The Alan Trammell/Lou Whitaker/Kirk Gibson/Jack Morris Tigers of ‘84 were another wire-to-wire team, riding a 9-0 and 16-1 start to put the rest of the A.L. East six games behind them by the end of April. Each of the next four months tailed off just a touch from the last, though; 18-2 (.900) in April, 19-7 (.731) in May, 18-12 (.600) in June, 16-12 (.571) in July, and 16-15 (.516) in August, before bouncing back with a 17-10 (.630) September. The Tigers were playing at a crazy 117-win pace through June, and then at only a 92-win pace thereafter, a difference of 15 wins that dwarfs the Rangers’ fall-off. Of course, they still wound up with 104 wins and were never seriously challenged for the division, two things these Rangers certainly won’t be able to say...but, hey, it doesn’t hurt to dream a bit.
As a Rangers fan, then, you’d certainly prefer to have been playing better over these last three months as a whole -- I know I’d feel a lot better at it -- but at least in the realm of World Series winners, it’s hard to find any suggestion that the late-summer slowdown is a bad sign for the Rangers’ chances in the postseason.
It also helps, of course, that the Rangers are relatively very healthy and, whatever has happened with this regular season, sure look for all the world (to me) like the most talented team in the American League, if not in all of baseball. There’s a pretty good chance that this October is even more fun for Rangers fans than April was.