Consistently inconsistent

What do we want from our favorite team? Are we hoping for consistent, repeatable performances that give us comfort in knowing how our squad will do year to year? Or do we want the excitement of wild fluctuations in the standings—high highs and low lows?

I suppose that depends greatly on the particular team and what win total it hovers around. If you’re a Yankees fan, consistency is great, because that typically means a big win total and a playoff berth. If you’re one of the few remaining Marlins fans, you have to take the good (1997, 2003) when you can get it, because the bad can be awful.

To get a sense of which teams provide reliable winning percentages and which ones keep us on our toes all the time, I looked at each team’s seasonal winning percentage (WIN%) from 1998 through 2013. I started with the ’98 season because that’s when the last expansion took place, so all 30 teams can be compared on even ground.

The next step was to calculate the WIN% change from one year to the next for all 16 seasons (that’s 15 changes) under study. From there, I looked at the average, minimum and maximum WIN% changes for each team. With all these data collected, it’s time to dig in and see what we can learn.

	                Ave ⌂	Min ⌂	Max ⌂	⌂ range	 Min WIN%   Max WIN%   WIN% range
Baltimore Orioles	0.033	0.004	0.148	 0.144	  0.391	     0.574	 0.183
Pittsburgh Pirates	0.039	0.000	0.092	 0.092	  0.352	     0.580	 0.228
Texas Rangers	        0.039	0.006	0.148	 0.142	  0.438	     0.593	 0.155
Philadelphia Phillies	0.040	0.000	0.130	 0.130	  0.401	     0.630	 0.229
Toronto Blue Jays	0.040	0.006	0.115	 0.109	  0.416	     0.543	 0.127
New York Yankees	0.040	0.000	0.099	 0.099	  0.525	     0.704	 0.179
Atlanta Braves	        0.042	0.008	0.088	 0.080	  0.444	     0.654	 0.210
Oakland A's	        0.042	0.003	0.123	 0.120	  0.457	     0.636	 0.179
Miami Marlins	        0.043	0.000	0.096	 0.096	  0.333	     0.562	 0.229
Boston Red Sox	        0.045	0.000	0.173	 0.173	  0.426	     0.605	 0.179
New York Mets	        0.046	0.000	0.117	 0.117	  0.410	     0.599	 0.189
Tampa Bay Rays	        0.047	0.003	0.192	 0.189	  0.342	     0.599	 0.257
San Francisco Giants	0.048	0.006	0.111	 0.105	  0.438	     0.621	 0.183
Milwaukee Brewers	0.050	0.003	0.118	 0.115	  0.346	     0.593	 0.247
Los Angeles Dodgers	0.050	0.000	0.136	 0.136	  0.438	     0.586	 0.148
St. Louis Cardinals	0.052	0.012	0.123	 0.111	  0.466	     0.648	 0.182
Colorado Rockies	0.052	0.000	0.111	 0.111	  0.395	     0.568	 0.173
Washington Nationals	0.052	0.000	0.108	 0.108	  0.364	     0.605	 0.241
Kansas City Royals	0.055	0.006	0.154	 0.148	  0.346	     0.531	 0.185
Minnesota Twins	        0.055	0.000	0.191	 0.191	  0.389	     0.593	 0.204
Houston Astros	        0.058	0.006	0.155	 0.149	  0.315	     0.630	 0.315
Cincinnati Reds	        0.062	0.013	0.118	 0.105	  0.407	     0.599	 0.192
Los Angeles Angels      0.064	0.018	0.148	 0.130	  0.432	     0.617	 0.185
San Diego Padres	0.064	0.000	0.157	 0.157	  0.389	     0.605	 0.216
Chicago White Sox	0.066	0.012	0.136	 0.124	  0.389	     0.611	 0.222
Detroit Tigers	        0.069	0.006	0.179	 0.173	  0.265	     0.586	 0.321
Cleveland Indians	0.074	0.006	0.148	 0.142	  0.401	     0.599	 0.198
Chicago Cubs	        0.077	0.006	0.142	 0.136	  0.377	     0.602	 0.225
Seattle Mariners	0.087	0.000	0.185	 0.185	  0.377	     0.716	 0.339
Arizona Diamondbacks	0.090	0.000	0.216	 0.216	  0.315	     0.617	 0.302

The AL Least

The American League East is boring. That’s not a major shock, but it’s still surprising to see all five of this division’s teams among the top 10 least-variable squads. It’s almost like the Yankees are always good, the Red Sox nearly the same, the Orioles usually bad, the Blue Jays typically mediocre, and the Rays made a one-time change from awful to awesome with little in between. It’s almost exactly like that…

Seriously, Baltimore is amazingly monotonous. The Orioles’ average WIN% change of 0.033 is 0.006 lower than the second-place Pirates; that same gap separates Pittsburgh from 10th-place Boston.

And if not for the Orioles’ big surge from 2011 to 2012, when their record reversed from 69-93 to 93-69, their average WIN% change would have been 0.025, meaning Baltimore could be counted on to average a mere four-win change from season to season. And since that win total usually has landed on the wrong side of .500, it’s obviously been a tough decade and a half in Charm City.

Go big or go home

The western part of the county is home to the biggest swingers in the land—and not just because single-season strikeout king Mark Reynolds used to play for Arizona, though it’s actually the Diamondbacks’ roller coaster record changes that inspired this column.

As a newborn franchise in 1998, the D-backs performed as a first-year team always does—they stunk, losing 97 games. However, a significant infusion of talent the following winter—most notably Randy Johnson—and a bench that hit particularly well that year led to a 100-win season, which was a record for the quickest ascension ever to a triple-digit victory total and a playoff berth.

That 35-win increase was following by a 15-win drop, and the team has seen other season-to-season swings of 26, 29 and 33 victories (and losses, of course). Arizona might have been diagnosed with multiple-personality disorder were it not for the last two seasons. In both 2012 and 2013, the Diamondbacks have been as mundane as can be, finishing both campaigns with identical 81-81 records.

The next-biggest yo-yo franchise has been Seattle. However, much of the Mariners’ variation comes from climbing up—and then falling down—one huge hill. From a 76-85 record in ’98, the M’s surged to 116 wins three years later. However, another three-season span saw their record suffer a 53-game drop to 63-99.

There was one other big fluctuation for Seattle. In 2008, the team won 61 games, but the ’09 squad earned 85 victories. Alas, the 2010 Mariners again won only 61 contests. That surge wasn’t climbing a mountain, it was stepping onto and balancing on a razor blade and them slipping and falling on it.

Repetitive redundancy

Nearly half of all teams (13 of 30) have had the same record in back-to-back seasons at some point—including both Arizona and Seattle—though no team has been able to repeat the feat more than once. The squad that came closest to doing so was the Nationals/Expos. In both 2002 and ’03, Montreal went 83-79, and in both 2008 and ’09, Washington won 59 games.

The wrinkle is that the ’08 squad had a rainout that led to the Nats losing “only” 102 games, while the ’09 team played its full 162-game slate and dropped 103. The upside is that, by finishing with the worst record in baseball those two seasons, Washington was able to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

Biggest single-season shifts

Arizona’s 35-game jump is the largest victory shift of any team since 1998. The D-backs also are second with their 33-game dip from ’03 to 04. However, Seattle’s 30-game drop from ’03 to ’04 isn’t next on the list.

Tampa Bay’s 31-game surge in 2008 is tied with Minnesota’s 31-game cliff dive from 2010 to 2011 as the third-largest WIN% swing since the last expansion. Detroit is the fifth-most volatile franchise, with its 29-game climb in 2004 from 2003′s depths of ignominy, moving the team from historically putrid to merely bad.

That 2003-04 offseason sure led to some major shakeups in the standings, accounting for three of the above-mentioned changes.

Steady as she goes

Some teams prefer to stay the course, year after monotonous year. Looking at the largest year-to-year WIN% changes for each team, Atlanta comes in at the back of the pack with nothing more than a 14-game swing (’08 to ’09) from one season to the next.

There also was a 13.5-game swing from 2001 to 2002—owing to a tie in the latter season—and a 12-game drop from 2007 to ’08. Overall, this has been good new for Braves fans, since their team has hit the playoffs 11 of the past 16 seasons.

Next on this list of smallest largest changes (?!?!?) are the Pirates (UGH!), Yankees (YAY!), and Marlins (!@#$%^&*).

Highest of highs and lowest of lows

This one is as expected, but it’s closer than you might think. The team that has had the greatest variation in WIN% over the course of the last 16 seasons is Seattle, which has won between 61 and 116 games, a 55-game swing. And while it took seven seasons to drop to 61 victories, it took only three years to plummet to a measly 63 wins.

Close behind is Detroit, with a 52-game jump from 43 to 95 wins, which also took only three seasons to accomplish. It’s probably more impressive to add 52 wins in such a short time period than it is to misplace that many.

Third on this list is Houston, which has won as many as 102 games (way back in 1998) and as few as half that total, finishing 51-111 this past year. The last three seasons have seen 50-something wins for the Astros, a streak the team and it fans doubtlessly want to see end.

The only other team to have WIN% marks varying by more than 0.300 is Arizona, and its peaks and valleys already have been chronicled.

The big takeaway

I’m not sure there is one. Lots of things can happen over 16 seasons. All 30 teams have ebbed and flowed up and down the competitive cycle, some on small ripples, others on giant waves. I imagine someone could examine—and possibly has—the correlation between these results and payroll, market size, and even per capita peanut butter consumption. (Mine is zero, BTW. Peanut butter … yuck!)

There may be more meaning that can be teased out of these numbers. If you extract additional insights, be sure to share them in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. David said...

    Winning percentage, in and of itself, doesn’t tell the whole story.  Games ahead or behind would put it in context how you fare against the rest of your division.  But then, that’s only looking at the final standings.  Can we somehow credit a team that stays in the hunt for 5 months, then falters in September to finish 10 games back?  At least that’s more fun than never being in the hunt at all.

  2. gdc said...

    David’s idea could be summed up (literally) as the GB column for each day plus some factor of the place #, e.g. if you are tied for 2nd, 13 games back on a certain date it could be 2.5(x factor) + 13, etc.  if you are in first, 2 games up on another day it would be 1 (x factor) -2.  Of course, not all divisions have the same # teams.

  3. dennis Bedard said...

    Very interesting.  You should do an analysis for previous time periods.  I recall the Giants from 61-68 seemed to have a monopoly on second place.

  4. David Brandt said...

    I wonder what the change would look like in terms of run differential. I almost felt run differential was more telling of a team, however, I have absolutely no evidence backing up my hunch.

  5. fenderbelly said...

    Nice piece, Greg. As someone that makes tables and graphs everyday for a living, I’d like to offer one bit of constructive criticism. Sort that table by something other than division, preferably sorted by your take-home point.

    Very interesting overall, thanks for your work.

  6. Greg Simons said...

    @ David & gdc – This would be interesting to look at to get a sense of how competitive a team is whtin each season, but for this analysis I was just looking at how teams varied year to year.  If someone wants to take up the reins and look at your idea, I’d be all for seeing the results.

    @ dennis Bedard – I’ll consider doing this for other periods, maybe pre-expansion and during the expansion era up to 1998.  We’ll see if and when I can get to this.

    @ Prof – I suppose that’s a matter of taste.

    @ David Brandt – I could do run differential, using Pythag to get an estimated win-loss record.  I’m not sure what the exact exponent would be (~1.8, IIRC instead of 2), and I know it varies slightly with the run-scoring environment.  Still, it could change the story somewhat.  That’s another we’ll see…

    @fenderbelly – Actually, I sorted the table by Ave ⌂ – the main point of the article – not division.

    Thanks for the comments/feedback, everyone.

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