Graphing the Past

We like to graph the pennant races here at The Hardball Times. It’s a lot of fun to watch the ups, downs and sideway slithers of each and every team during the year. Much more fun than a simple table of standings. But I’ve been thinking, why not graph more than a season? Why not graph the all-time races?

Some baseball teams have been around a long time. The history of the National League goes all the way back to 1876. The Cubs and the Reds both began playing that year, in their current cities, with their current team nicknames, 128 years ago. The Cubs won the league title with a record of 52-14, while the Reds were last at 9-56. A lot has changed since then; for instance, pitchers now throw overhand. Players wear baseball gloves. We stretch during the seventh inning break. We sing while we stretch during the seventh inning break.

You might say that modern baseball began in 1900, when the National League settled into eight teams, and 1901, when the American League debuted with its own eight teams. For over half a century, the overall structure of baseball changed little, though the game on the field continued to evolve.

Those original sixteen teams are still with us today, though many of them have moved to different cities. Many of them have had long stretches of success, while others have had very little success in the intervening century. Let’s take a look at the race among the original eight National League teams, presenting total wins above .500 over time (years):

image

Three teams — the Giants, Cubs and Pirates — competed for first in the first two decades. The Pirates and Cubs subsequently fell off the pace, while the Giants continued their winning ways. Notice the most recent swing in the Giants’ record, which analysts call the “Bonds uptick.”

It was right around 1940 that the Cubs’ winning ways changed. In fact, they are the losingest team in baseball since then, which brings to mind many a Steve Goodman song. The early 1940′s also proved to be the Dodgers’ turnaround time, as they went from sixth to second in the league during the next eighty years.

You can see other period standouts on this graph, such as the Big Red Machine in the 1970′s and the phenomenal Braves’ record during the 1990′s. The Braves are leaving the Phillies in the all-time NL cellar. Really, Phillie fans have had very little to cheer about. For the last 104 years. Even the Cubs were once successful.

Now for the American League race, presenting total wins above .500 over time (years):

image

Well, no surprise here, right? The Yankees are good, and have been good for most of the century. Yankee haters can take solace in the years between 1965 and 1976 as well as the early ’90′s. But that’s about it.

There are essentially two other races in the league: the race for second place and the race out of the cellar. The Red Sox just recently inched past the Indians for second place, while the Tigers, who seemed firmly planted in second a mere decade ago, have slipped to fourth.

Meanwhile, in the other race, the Orioles were firmly in the cellar until Earl Weaver pulled them out in the 60′s and 70′s. However, they have recently returned to their losing ways and taken back the bottom rung. Oakland’s recent surge has left the Twins (who spent the first half of the race in Washington) and O’s to fight it out. The A’s line is interesting, by the way. They’ve certainly seen a lot of swings in fortune along the way.

Of course, other teams have joined the race in the last half-century. I could include them in the graph, but they all had the heartache of their startup years and really, the original sixteen teams had a whopping head start.

But there is one thing we can look at: How have the original sixteen teams performed, cumulatively, since the beginning of the expansion era? Have they always beaten up on the newcomers, or what? Here’s a graph of their record since 1960, with expansion events, a couple of lines added, and again, presenting total wins above .500 over time (years):

image

The two dotted lines are meant to separate the original teams’ record into three distinct periods:

  • The first two decades in which they beat up on the expansion teams.
  • A decade in which the original teams basically held their own against the new guys, and
  • Ever since, as the original sixteen have beat up on the expansion teams again.

What happened during the mid 1980′s to the mid 1990′s? Well, this record is partly due to the success of several expansion teams during that time, including the Mets‘ mini-dynasty, the Astros, Blue Jays, Royals, Angels and even a bit of the Padres and Expos. Also, there was a sixteen-year period with no expansion, which gave the new kids time to catch up.

In fact, the 1980′s and early 1990′s were, in retrospect, a blissful period of competitive balance, in which the Padres or Royals were just as likely to win the division as the Yankees or Giants. If you scroll back up, you’ll see that the Giants essentially played .500 ball during this time, and the Yankees were good but not great. Since the mid 90′s, however, the Yankees have been on a steep uphill climb, as have several of the other original teams.

In May the Best Team Win, Andrew Zimbalist’s fine book about baseball economics, the author found that the correlation between payroll and wins started to rise significantly around 1993. Before that time, the R-squared between payroll and wins floated between 0 and .3. Since then, it has floated between .2 and .6. In other words, the ability of teams to buy the pennant has really jumped during the last decade.

Since the original teams tend to be the ones in the major markets, they have been the ones to benefit the most from the returned competitive imbalance of the game. Teams in major markets can afford higher payrolls, and higher payrolls are more likely to lead to wins than in the past.

Zimbalist does a nice job of listing the major events that have led to the return of imbalance. These include the loss of significant revenue from the national television contracts, leading to a greater emphasis on local revenue and the power of the revenue-producing ballpark. Also, the incestuous relationship between media companies and baseball teams has exacerbated revenue disparity between teams, and the leveling effect of the amateur draft and free agency has been undercut by the differences in player development budgets between teams, international free agents and Scott Boras.

So you see, the record of baseball’s original sixteen franchises can be turned into a story of the woes of major league baseball’s business. Woes that still linger, despite the quality of the product on the field.

References & Resources
I totally took the idea for these graphs from this guy’s website.

Also, I botched up some of my historic facts. Instead of correcting them in this article, I’ll just point you to the baseball primer thread in which my mistakes are uncovered. The posters at Baseball Primer are probably the best baseball editors in the country.

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