What’d I miss?by Brandon Isleib
August 06, 2009
A quick look at my author page reveals that I've been away for about a month. A good chunk of that is due to the Alabama bar examiners, who care far more for their test and its difficulty than my desire to write about baseball. Now that I have disposed of their obstacle course, I'm that much closer to my life's dream of becoming a clone of Craig Calcaterra, Esq., except with more hair and less Ohio.
This whole bar exam distraction (plus April's finals and parents visiting and so forth) has made this season a bit of a blur to me. Sure, I'm reasonably competent on the whats and whens, but I haven't really followed this season as much as viewed it in chunks and tried to cohere said chunks. Then again, 2009 will be the first postseason of my fandom without schoolwork, and April won't have the scheduling dilemma that is opening day near finals, so trading this season for a world of freedom relative to the season is a fine exchange.
All of this is to say that the bar exam inspired this article, and not in the painfully slow, takes three days and 15 hours to complete sort of way. This article is about the most boring seasons of all time, i.e. the ones where my being mentally absent would have meant nothing. I went from 1901 forward and totaled standings movement from one year to the next, e.g. a fourth place team moving into third the next year would count as one point just as if it had gone to fifth and so on for all the teams. The leagues and seasons with the least movement are for this article the most boring seasons of all time, as you could have missed most of the action for several months and still guessed the standings based on your last known information. It may be somewhat masochistic to write an article expressly about boring things, but nobody accused me of good sense.
I've taken the three most boring AL, NL, and overall seasons by average movement per team rather than least movement total due to the amount of teams and because it gets a broader section of history. Choosing three from each league means the numbers come out basically the same anyway, for what it's worth. The average standings movement per team per year is right at 1.5 historically, though that number has been exceeded only twice since 1995 (2007 NL and 2008 AL).
In order, the seasons:
1923 NLTotal movement: 5
The Giants were in the middle of winning their umpteenth pennant and everybody else lined up in order. The Cardinals were five and a half games worse this year than 1922, and the Phillies were four games worse than the Braves instead of four games better; this accounts for almost all the movement. In contrast to several of these boring years, this one was more an island in the middle of change than it was a sign of a moribund league.
The NL for several years had been nothing but a Giants-Pirates-Cubs lovefest atop the standings; the Federal League shook things up briefly, after which the league became a Giants-Pirates-Reds lovefest, as it was in 1923. Branch Rickey would have a say in this in a couple of years, but the NL was more exciting overall than it had been in the first part of the century; this season was just an aberration.
1955 MLTotal movement: 6 AL, 6 NL
Like 1923, 1955 is well-known for a first World Series victory (Yankees and Dodgers, respectively). But that Dodgers win is only as exciting as it is because they had dropped the ball on countless occasions. In other words, the leagues of that era were so boring that the Dodgers were bound to win at some point. The excitement of 1955 sprang from the national stage being the same as long as it was, and while that is a brand of excitement, it's not the one that's ideal for league health.
The AL shuffled its bottom three teams and moved one to Kansas City, while the NL shuffled its top teams. The Indians-Giants World Series obscured the fact that league power distribution hadn't changed for five years (nor would it for another few), and the Dodgers victory may have been the only savior of the staid character of the leagues. People seem unsure as to whether there's competitive balance nowadays, but at least there's a debate over whether the body's alive. Here, it was certainly dead, and it took relatively drastic measures of relocation, expansion, and the draft to change it in the '50s. (Full integration helped as well, but integration was by this point in the NL's history a way to keep pace with the Dodgers and Giants, not surpass them. On the other hand, a more integrated AL would have gone a long way to challenging the Yankees.)
1956 ALTotal movement: 4
The most exciting thing that happened was the A's moving from sixth to last. The Senators and Orioles moved up one spot each to accommodate. The first five spots stayed exactly the same, and none of them were even seven games better or worse than in 1955. Sure, there were some good individual performances—Mickey Mantle's Triple Crown was pretty good, the Indians had three 20-game winners, and Rookie of the Year Luis Aparicio was an important figure in upsetting AL balance within a few years—but there's little in this season you couldn't have gotten from 1955. The Yankees were good, the Indians were slightly less so, and the A's, Orioles, and Senators were all really bad. Surprise.
1958 ALTotal movement: 4
Detecting a pattern here? The Indians' collapse in 1957 provided a power shift the league hadn't seen in forever, but their moving up to fourth in 1958 was the only excitement here. (Both years, Cleveland provided the only significant change in standings in the AL.) Chicago became the new Cleveland, with momentum that would carry them to a pennant in 1959, while the Orioles were by now tangibly more competent than the A's or Senators, especially as Brooks Robinson and Milt Pappas became full-timers this year. That still doesn't mean 1958 was exciting, coming as it did on the heels of several other boring years, but it could have been a lot worse. 1960s' average movement in the AL was 2.25 per team, as the Senators were about to parlay their talent into some exciting years in Minnesota and the Orioles became legitimate competitors.
1977 NLTotal movement: 6
This season is important in hindsight, as the Big Red Machine met its end, but on paper it looks like the Phillies winning again (can't say that often) and the Reds having a down year in pitching in the same year the Dodgers found an offense, without anything else happening. That and the Mets' collapse, but their offense was nothing without Dave Kingman, and the Mets shipped him off mid-'77 when he slumped.
1978 NLTotal movement: 6
And this year solidified the boredom. Really, the more I look at these teams, the more it's clear how few of the teams in the era had a clue. The Phillies and Pirates were competent, with the Expos coming on strong behind them. The Dodgers were going up, the Reds going down, and the Astros were gaining a core of talent. Beyond that, it was pretty bad. What makes it worse is that the burgeoning phenomenon of free agency opened the doors for teams to improve simply via money, and until after the strike few teams wanted to take advantage of it (and most of them were in the AL). There should not have been as many inept teams in the NL as there were, but since few had any game plan, it was business as usual in '78.
2003 AL and MLTotal movement: 4 AL, 16 NL
Average: 0.29 AL, 0.67 ML
Although I remember the 2003 season as fun enough up until game seven of the ALCS, not a lot was going on. The standings in the AL changed as follows:
- The Indians and Royals swapped places
- The Angels and Mariners swapped places
This affected the wild card, of course, but that's it. There was a little bit of in-season fun with the early Royals winning streak and everything, but overall it came to nothing except the Royals taking themselves a bit more seriously and falling on their face in '04. The NL actually was pretty interesting—the Marlins' wild card, the Cubs going from last to first—but the AL was so predictable that this season shows up twice.
2005 MLTotal movement: 8 AL, 17 NL
Same story, different verse. In the NL, two last-place teams (Diamondbacks and Brewers) became respectable and not just temporarily, while the Dodgers, who lost Jose Lima to free agency, fell to fourth place. (I didn't claim causality.) In the AL, the only relevant movement was the Twins opening up the Central for the White Sox and Indians to fight over; the rest of the movement primarily was from the Blue Jays returning to their predestined third place after an awful 2004. Like with many of these years, the postseason results were meaningful, at least to White Sox fans, but the season itself gave comparatively little surprise.
PrognosisAs I write this, the AL's average movement is exactly 1.0 and the NL's average 0.75. The combined movement of 26 points is just one over 2005's boredom, although with the NL shakeup of 2007 and the Rays being the story of 2008, the faces have changed a little bit. But the standings game remains the same, and as boring seasons seem to come in clumps, we may be in an historical trough. In short, this was as good a year as any to take the bar exam. Okay, no year's a good year to take the bar exam, but if I'm going to have to miss some baseball to take it, it might as well have been 2009.
References and Resources
B-ref. Also, thanks to the Alabama bar exam for serving the nobler purpose of baseball.
Brandon Isleib is a lawyer and writes about stuff sometimes. He can be reached via the electronic mails.