theknightswhosay

Top 10 MLB pre-playoff chokes

In MLB on September 30, 2011 at 11:39 PM

“7-20 in September. We go 9-18, we’re where we want to be. 9-18 is what, winning a third of your games? The worst teams in baseball win a third of their games.”
–Theo Epstein

First of all, I recommend checking out the timelines of what went on Wednesday. Having three games like that happen at once doesn’t happen in the playoffs, that might be more memorable than anything I have to say about how historic the “collapses” (euphemism for choke) were.

Here are three good timelines:
HuffPo
MLB
ESPN

Obviously the Rays have returned to the playoffs with a vengeance, but the main topic I still want to talk about is how they and the Cardinals got there, and I also wanted to give some historical perspective on those collapses. That’s why I don’t blog about baseball much. By the time you sit down to think about it and research and so forth, something else important is going on. The Yankees/Tigers game was postponed as I was writing this, so that helped me finish without too much distraction.

I mentioned in a couple of places after the Red Sox had the 3-13 stretch (or some approximation thereof) that I couldn’t find another team that had ever done that in September, not even the 1964 Phillies, who had a 10-game losing streak in September. Those Phillies went 4-13 for one stretch, but that was followed by two wins (in the last two games of the season) and preceded by a 3-game winning streak. The Phillies were 2 ½ behind in the second-to-last game but technically were not eliminated until the next day. So that was also less dramatic.

Looking at the full month though, it’s not even closer. The Phillies won 13 games in September ’64, the same number the Angels (a team I follow a good bit) won this September. The Angels gained 6 ½ games against the Red Sox in the month. After the 3-13 stretch by the Red Sox and before the Angels finished with four consecutive losses, the Angels had gained 8 games on the Red Sox for the month.

So if you compare the Septembers of the 2011 Red Sox and 1964 Cardinals, the Red Sox would have lost 13 games against the Cardinals. So that’s about twice as many games as the Phillies lost (the Phillies actually lost 7 games in the standings from the beginning of the month to the end, but that regular season actually ended on October 4; the Phillies lost 6 ½ in the last 28 days of their season, so by that calculation, it is twice as many games).

I did notice the coincidence of the Phillies playing the Braves on Wednesday and helping to send the Cardinals to the post-season yet gain. It’s also a coincidence in that by causing the Braves to lose, that’s arguably another team that passes up their 1964 team in choking.

The Braves’ 9-18 September record ties the Phillies’ (the rest of this discussion will be about the 1964 Phillies of course) worst 27-game stretch. The Braves preceded that with a 2-3 stretch and the Phillies preceded that with a 3-2 stretch, so that’s inconclusive. But the Phillies’ largest September lead was 6 ½ games as compared to the Braves’ largest September wild card lead of 8 ½.

What clinches it for me about Braves’ choke as being worse is the competition. The Braves played only 9 games in the month of September against teams that won 85 games or more on the season. The Phillies played 17 or 18 such games, depending on how you count the last month of the season. If you limit it to just September and eliminate the two October games, it’s still 16. The Phillies’ entire 10-game losing streak was against teams that won 88 games or more on the season. From September 1 on, the Phillies only lost one series against a team than won fewer than that, the Dodgers, who finished 80-82. The Braves’ opponent in their third-toughest series (based on record) was…the Dodgers, who this year finished 82-79, pretty similar (the Braves lost that series as well). The only team the Phillies played in the last month who finished with fewer than 80 wins was Houston, whom they beat 2-1 in a series on the road. The Braves played 11 such games, 6 at home, and went 6-5 in them. Also, the Phillies had two teams chasing them: Cincinnati as well as St. Louis got really hot late. In the last month, the Phillies played the Reds 5 times and the Cardinals 5 times. That alone is more than the 9 games the Braves played against 85+ win teams (actually against any team that won over 82) in the last month.

Highlights of the seven other biggest pre-playoff chokes
(I didn’t bother to rank them, but if you’re so inclined, this is a good starting point: http://baseball.about.com/od/majorleaguehistory/tp/pennantcollapses.htm. These are my next 7 though.)

The 2007 Mets
Those Mets are similar to the ’64 Phillies in that they also had a late lead, 7 games on September 12, but it was down to 1 ½ only 6 days later. But what sealed it for the Mets was ending the season by losing 6 of 7. So they went a total of 4-11 from September 14 through September 28. (Their last off day had been September 13.) It also helped that the ’07 Phillies won 12 games from September 13 to September 28.

The 1995 Angels

This was more of a long-haul choke, as the lead was 11 ½ in August. On the morning of September 1, the lead was already down to 7 ½ and it was never 7 ½ again after that. The Angels had a 9-game losing streak from late August through early September and only won 3 games from August 16 through September 3. It was the second 9-game losing streak (9/13 through 9/23) that was the problem though. That one cost the Angels 8 games, as they went from 6 games ahead to two games behind. The 6-24 stretch is worse than any 30-game stretch of any by the higher-rated teams on this list, but half of that was in August, and the Angels actually rallied at the end of the season, winning 6 out of 7 before losing the one-game playoff to the Mariners. That’s the only reason 4 teams are ahead of them.

The 1978 Red Sox

This was actually the only 3-14 stretch I noticed. So not even this year’s Red Sox did that. The problem was this one started August 30. These Red Sox were at one time up 9 games, but after their last August game (on the 30th), they were 6 ½ ahead. But they had already lost the lead for good on September 13. They had an even better finish than the ’95 Angels, winning 12 of 14 to force a one-game playoff against the Yankees (which they lost). The end-of-season tie was the first since losing the lead.

The 2009 Tigers
I mostly remembered the microscopic choke at the end. They lost 3 games in a 4-game period. Their magic number was 2 after they beat the second-place Twins on September 30 and they played those same Twins the next day, but the only decrease to the magic number would come on October 4, the last day of the regular season. This also required a one-game playoff, which the Tigers lost. There was a prior 3-10 stretch from September 8 to 19 that cost Detroit 5 games. The Tigers’ lead had peaked at 7 games after the games of September 6.

The 1951 Dodgers
This one gets a lot of fanfare because there were two New York teams battling for the pennant, and New York does tend to create attention for itself. 13 ½ games on August 11 is substantial of course. But rightly, the Giants get more credit than the Dodgers get blame. Brooklyn went 26-22 to end the season. That would normally be more than enough (see the Epstein quote), but the Giants won a ridiculous 37 of 44 to end the season, not counting the 3-game playoff. The Dodgers did have a 4-8 stretch from 9/17 to 9/28 that dropped them into a tie from being up by 4 games. The Dodgers were also up 4 ½ as late as September 21 pre-game (the last originally scheduled game was 9/30).

The 1969 Cubs
Back to the New York/East Coast bias topic, you don’t ever hear about the team that lost the race to the Mets in 1969. The Cubs also didn’t have enough of a lead to start out with for a really high-quality choke. Although they once led by 9 games, their largest September lead was 5. After they lost 11 of the next 12, they were already 4 ½ games behind and, despite playing 10 of the final 13 at home, never challenged again, finishing 8 games behind. Also, the 5-game September peak only came after a 5-game winning streak. Before that winning streak, the Cubs were only up 2 ½. If the Cubs’ 8-18 stretch (which included the 5-game winning streak) had been to finish the year, they would have an argument for the top 5. For the record, they were up 8 games before that stretch began with a loss on August 20 and 4 ½ behind when it concluded on September 15.

The 1993 Giants
I’m going to share my own story about this. This is the first one I remember and although I grew up in Louisiana and the first team I really supported was across the bay in Oakland, I never disliked the Giants. Also, I never liked the Braves. I would either watch one of the Chicago teams or whatever big game the networks saw fit to show instead. I don’t know what it was about that team, but I just did not like to watch them. I was also annoyed that they were on so much. The Cubs were at least competitive in the late ’80s, and the White Sox were pretty good around this time, so that didn’t bother me as much. I eventually started to dislike the Cubs too, because I didn’t like that so many people just went along with the herd and followed the Braves or the Cubs because they were on TV so much. Anyway, my anti-Braves sentiment was furthered by fervently cheering against them when they played the Pirates (twice…I liked skinny Barry Bonds), the Twins, and the Blue Jays. Three of those series went to 7 games. Even if you start out only marginally liking one team more, usually a 7-game series will make it more intense. I probably would have cheered for the Iraqi national team to beat the Braves in the 1992 World Series and in the 1993 regular season. By the way, skinny Barry Bonds had moved on to the Giants.

This was in part another matter of timing for why they aren’t a more prominent example. The Giants slipped 11 games in the standings from the start of play on August 23 to the end of play on September 15, but the reason this one is even farther down the list is they won 6 games during this period. The end of that stretch was an 8-game losing streak (which was followed by a day off for the Giants, when the Braves increased their lead to 4 games), but that was followed by 14 wins in 16 games. Both teams were tied before their respective last games of the season. Neither game was very interesting, but the Giants lost 12-1 to the Dodgers to miss the playoffs despite 103 wins. The wild card began the next season (although the wild card would not be awarded until 1995 because of the strike). Of course, I was happy that the Braves didn’t make the World Series that year, so I wasn’t that upset in the long term, but I wasn’t happy that the Braves won something that came down to the last game again (although they had lost to the Twins in that situation).

Honorable mention?
I also considered the 1987 Blue Jays and the 1962 Dodgers for this list, but they were both examples where a team had a really good stretch and then a not-so-good stretch, but over the last 20 games in each case, the team was .500 or better. The Dodgers finished 40 games above .500 before the playoff games, and the Blue Jays finished 30 games above .500. The Dodgers maxed out at 5 ½ ahead for the season in early August (4 in September), and the Blue Jays were only a high of 3 ½ ahead, albeit with 7 games to play (but with 10 games to play, the Blue Jays were only ½ ahead).

The other teams listed by about.com didn’t seem to really choke at all, the other team in contention just seemed to do really well. There weren’t any meaningful September losing streaks or bad stretches to elaborate on. One of them had a 1-9 stretch in August, one of them lost 6 of the last 7 after barely being in playoff position, but those aren’t chokes to me. To me a choke is when you have it right in your grasp and you blow it, not when you have a somewhat decent chance and you don’t do much with it.

NOTE: It’s still nothing like my TSN numbers, but last month more than doubled my previous best month on this site (I got just under 500 views), so thanks to whoever is out there reading this.

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