October country’s refugees (part 1 of 2)by Chris Jaffe
November 03, 2008
It's a classic barroom conversation — what's the best team to never even make it to the World Series? Fans of every team have their personal favorite. It could be a team that had a great season but blew it, like the 2001 Mariners, or a squad that kept bubbling on the edge without ever pushing itself over, such as the 1969 Cubs. It can even be a team damned by forces beyond its control, like the sad story of the 1994 Expos.
It's one of those conversations that are just plain fun to have. More than that, it would be a real hoot to see if there was some way to find out just which team deserves the title Best to Miss the Fall Classic.
Of course, in the internet's sabermetric community, there's always some sort of way. SG, the operator of the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog, has a computer program set up to run 1,000 season-long simulations using Diamondmind Baseball information for whatever 28 teams from baseball history one wishes. SG has been kind enough to use this mainframe to answer other questions of mine in previous columns here at THT. He's gracious enough to handle this one for me as well.
All I have to do is pick the 28 teams, send him their names, twiddle my thumbs, and get the results. In picking the teams, I had a couple basic guidelines to follow:
- No choice should heavily overlap an actual pennant winner. The 1909 Cubs were a fantastic outfit that won 104 games, but it was the same basic group that won the 1906, 1907, 1908, and 1910 pennants. They don't belong.
- No two choices should overlap each other very much. The 2001 and 2002 A's were both terrific teams, winning 205 games between them. They also both had Miguel Tejeda, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Eric Chavez. Only one belongs.
- Let's try to balance it out over the years. Ideally, have a few representatives from each decade, without tons of nominees from one or two. This is tricky because between expansion and multiple rounds of the playoffs, there are far more potential candidates nowadays then ever before. As a result, it's tougher for more recent teams to get in. Some might wish this rule wasn't in effect, but it's not a big deal. The most important teams from each decade show up—only the filler is affected.
- I'm wary of including any really recent team. Hey, someone's got to play in the 2009 World Series. Maybe it's a team with plenty of overlap with one of the recent squads that haven't quite made it.
- If possible, avoid one-year wonders. A team that's good for a prolonged period of time is more impressive from a blink-and-you-missed-it club.
Those are the standards. I should note, while many consider 1900 to be the turning point from prehistoric to modern baseball, I prefer 1893 as the breakpoint. That's when they got rid of the pitcher's box and pushed, beginning a modern pitching distance. Any team from then on who missed October Country is eligible.
Well, now for the fun parts. Here are the 28 semi-randomly chosen teams based on the criteria above, listed in chronological order:
1895 Phillies: 78-53 (.595). The Phillies had a great run in the early-to-mid-1890s. They're most famous for the 1894 outfield where all three hit .400 (and a fourth broke .390—when that many men are getting hits, you can have a quartet qualify for the batting title). They had their best season in 1895, and Sam Thompson, Billy Hamilton, and Ed Delahanty were all there.
1895 Spiders: 84-46 (.646). This franchise is most famous for its 134-loss season in 1899. That year, the owners had moved all their best players to St. Louis. They had been one of the best teams in baseball in the previous years, though they never quite broke through. Behind ace Cy Young, this was one of Cleveland's three second-place finishes that decade.
1898 Reds: 92-60 (.605). They were never the most talented team, but they had a terrific stretch in the second half of the decade. They had an extremely solid ball club.
1912 Senators: 91-61 (.599). There are no really good candidates from the first decade as the dominant teams traded pennants amongst each other. This is a fun team to include because you have Walter Johnson at his peak, going 33-12 with a 1.39 ERA.
1922 Browns: 93-61 (.604). Saying a team is the best squad in the history of the St. Louis Browns sounds like a backhanded compliment, but this team was loaded. They lost the pennant by one game to Ruth's Yankees—and New York had to win a tight late-season contest to do that. Among other things, this squad was the subject of a SABR presentation last year that I missed but am informed was excellent.
1924 Tigers: 86-68 (.558). As manager, Ty Cobb made a heckuva hitting coach. They led the league in runs, hits, doubles, walks, batting average, OBP and OPS+. This was the best Tigers team of the 1920s, a decade when they routinely fielded quality squads.
1930 Robins (AKA Dodgers): 86-68 (.558). You might not think of quality baseball and 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers in the same sentence, but they had a nice little spell in he early 1930s. Behind Dazzy Vance, their 1930 roster may have had the NL's best pitching staff of the decade.
1938 Pirates: 86-64 (.573). They should've won the pennant. They blew a big lead late in the season and Gabby Hartnett's "Homer in the Gloamin'" finished them off. Instead, if was their fifth time in seven years they came within 10 games of first without collecting a pennant.
1940 Indians: 89-65 (.578). They're (in)famous as the Cleveland Crybabies—a squad that demanded the team fire the manager because he was mean. The club refused, embarrassing the players. It was their seventh straight winning season, and they missed the pennant by only one game.
1948 A's: 84-70 (.545). Look, I wanted a second team from the 1940s that wasn't tainted by WWII. This was the best to be had. There might be better squads, but there are always those debates at the margins. Despite having the best record of an A's team between 1932 and 1970, they have the lowest mark in this bunch.
1950 Tigers: 95-59 (.617). I would've bet anything the 1950s would be an easy decade to draw teams from because a handful of teams won almost all the pennants. Well, turns out they also dominated the second and third slots in their leagues, and had really rosters to boot. Thus the 1950 Tigers are the sole team worth adding in from that decade.
1961 Orioles: 95-67 (.586). In the early 1960s, the Orioles had one of the greatest spurts of pitcher development of all time. Though they almost all blew their arms out, for a brief while the O's looked like a potential team of the decade. Four of their main five starters were 22-23 years old.
1964 Phillies: 92-70 (.568). They're famous for their late-season flop, in which they let two teams surmount a seemingly insurmountable lead. They never came close to any other pennants, earning their introduction here.
1964 White Sox: 98-64 (.580). The White Sox had a winning record every year from 1951 to 1967. Though it was only five years removed from their pennant, this squad had less in common with the 1959 Go-Go Sox than the early 1950s teams did as Billy Pierce, Early Wynn, Luis Aparacio, and Nellie Fox had all skedaddled.
1969 Cubs: 92-70 (.568). I'm a Cubs fan, so this bunch had more to do with inspiring this quest than any other. The Cubs had a winning season every year from 1967 to 1972. Otherwise, they had no consecutive winning seasons between 1946 and 2003. Ouch.
1970 Yankees: 93-69 (.574). Yankee fans like to claim their late '60 and early '70s clubs were among the worst in baseball history. Bull. Their worst record in the 1970s was 80-82. This was their best season, as a dynamite bullpen would've had them in contention, except the Orioles had a historically fantastic roster at that time.
1979 Expos: 95-65 (.594). In the 1960s, the Dallas Cowboys were nicknamed "Next Year's Champions" in the NFL because they couldn't get over that hump. That was the Dick Williams era Expos. When I was a kid they seemed like a dangerous team every year, but things never quite came together for one season.
1982 Braves: 89-73 (.549). Though largely forgotten, the Braves had an impressive youth movement in the early 1980s. Six of their starting hitters were 26 or younger, and a seventh was 27. They had back-to-back impressive seasons before players like Rafael Ramirez began unexpectedly early declines.
1985 Yankees: 97-64 (.602). The 1980s Yanks were always certain to win around 90 games. This was their highpoint. There is some overlap with the 1981 pennant winners, but not enough to disqualify them.
1985 Blue Jays: 99-62 (.615). The Blue Jays rivaled the Expos for unfulfilled promise in the 1980s. They won 89 games in 1983, came in second in 1984, had this big year in 1985, posted 86 more wins in 1986, blew a division title in heartrending fashion in 1987, and stayed competitive for several more years. They finally won a pennant in the early 1990s, but by then most of this crew had gone.
1986 Astros: 96-66 (.593). The '86 Astros were barely more than a one-year wonder, and . . . well, I sent the list to SG a couple weeks ago and I really don't know why this squad made the cut and another team didn't. They had an amazing season and nearly won the pennant. About 10-15 teams are necessary, and the rest of the slots have to be filled in. You choose your filler, I'll choose mine.
1986 Angels: 92-70 (.568). The Angels had their ups and downs in the early-to-mid 1980s, but they had a couple really good seasons in the process. This was the team that came ever so close to October but couldn't quite get in.
1991 Pirates: 98-64 (.605). This is one of the obvious entries. They won three straight division titles from 1990-2, with MLB's best overall record in those years. Twice they pushed their NLCS opponents to seven games, but they lost both times. At 98 wins, this was their best season.
1994 Expos: 74-40 (.649). One of the great what-might-have-beens in baseball. Their young roster was firing on all cylinders that year. When the strike hit, they had already assured themselves of at least a wild card. Instead, free agency scattered their roster away.
1994 White Sox: 67-46 (.593). They were the strike's other great what-if. Chicago had a great pitching staff featuring Jack McDowell, Alex Fernandez, Jason Bere, and Wilson Alvarez. No one realized it at the time, but their arms were all being ground to powder that season. When the strike ended, they were never as good, and Chicago's window was closed.
1999 Rangers: 95-67 (.586). Wait—the Rangers won 95 games in a season once? How can that happen? Ah well, that's what I get for not paying much attention to baseball in the late 1990s. The Rangers had a good stretch, but had the nasty habit of playing nail to the Yankees' hammer in the AL playoffs.
2001 Mariners: 116-46 (.716). Well, duh.
2002 A's: 103-59 (.636). The Moneyball team. The most impressive of eight straight Oakland teams to win at least 87 games in a season.
On to part 2!
Well, those are the entries. To find out how they did, check back next time.
I'll tell you this much—a lot of you can probably guess which team will score best in the simulations, but I highly doubt any of you will figure out which squad had the second best performance. There was only a 1.4 win difference between the two clubs, too.
References and Resources
Useless comment: The phrase "October Country" is an inside joke/reference for my family. When my dad was in Colorado for army training in the 1960s, he heard a song called "October Country" by a band called October Country on the radio a lot. He though it was great. Then he came back to Chicago, and no one had ever heard of it.
Fast forward 20 years later, he's in a record store looking for a birthday present for me, when he came across a Nuggets album of oldies that included "October Country." Boy, was he ever stoked!
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.