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Orwellian: Shades of '84, 1884
2002-09-29 13:00
by Mike Carminati

Orwellian: Shades of '84, 1884 that is

With one day left in the season a lot of things are finally set. The Giants secured the final playoff spot with a 5-2 win against Houston yesterday, but found out that an Arizona drubbing of San Diego (17-8) denied them any chance at the NL West division title. The first round will be, in the NL, San Francisco vs. Atlanta and St. Louis vs. Arizona. In the AL Anaheim plays New York and Minnesota plays Oakland. The top seed in the AL is still up for grabs between the Yankees and the A's. Should the Yankees finish one-half game behind the A's (if the A's win today and the Yanks lose), they will be required to play a make-up game against the Devil Rays and a win will clinch home-field throughout the playoffs. The second seed in the NL is still to be decided between Arizona and St. Louis with the D-Backs one game in front. Should they end in a tie (i.e., D-Back loss and Cardinal win today), the Cardinals will get home-field advantage in their series.

Looking at the standings, I still marvel at the polarization of the team records. There will be three teams with at least 105 losses (Detroit, Tampa Bay, and Milwaukee). That has never happened before. The previous most was two (in 1909, '11,'15, '39, '63, '64, '69, '79, and '88) and only twice before (1969 & '79) were there two 105+ losers in the same league (the AL has Detroit and Tampa Bay). However, by using wins and loses as the media do, we limit ourselves to mostly teams playing with an 162-game schedule. If instead we use the .352 percent cutoff (i.e., highest possible winning percentage with 105 losses), then we see that the 3-league year of 1884 weighs in with the highest total, 12 teams. Next are two National Association years with six (1872 and '75), and finally three years with 4 (1873-NA, 1890-three leagues, 1893-12-team NL).

There are also a great deal of teams doing very well in 2002. There are three teams (Atlanta, New York Yankees, and Oakland) who will end the year with 100 wins. That has only occurred three other times 1942 (first WWII year), 1977 (expansion year), and 1998 (ditto). Again if we remove the 162-game bias from the investigation and instead use a .617 winning percentage as our lower threshold, we find that 1884 had 10 teams qualify. There was one year with 5 (1886), and five years with 4.

2002 has a good number of teams winning 90 games (11), in fact so many that three will not make the playoffs. Those three teams with 90+ wins (Los Angeles, Boston, and Seattle) that will not make the playoffs have garnered a good deal of the press that ranges from an isn't-that-odd slant to claims that the agreed-upon Collective Barganing Agreement did not go far enough to right baseball's ship. The previous high was 9 in 1977 and '99. Next were 1978, 2000, and 2001 with 8. Removing the 162-game bias (i.e., instead use .555 win percent as cutoff), returns two 3-league years as the leaders, 1884 (with 15) and 1890 (with 11). Also, the strike-shortened 1994 season had 9 teams fit the criterion.

This year has seven teams with 90 losses. That is not the highest total. 1999 had 9. There were eight 90-loss teams in 1969, '72, '78, '93, 2000, and 2001. Checking without the 162-game bias (using .445 upper threshold), returns 1884 with 15.

So what's the deal with 1884 you ask? Well, in 1884 there were three leagues: today's National League, the 1882-91 American Association, and the one-year Union Association. The Union Association is widely acknowledged to be the weakest major league since the National Association. The Union Association had 12 teams according to official standings, but many of those teams were short-lived and the league never had more than 8 clubs at one time. The league finally expired as its best team and the only one to complete its entire schedule, the St. Louis Maroons, joined the NL for 1885.

One would expect that the adding in the loosely organized UA is what would cause such a polarized season in 1884. The 12-team UA had 3 of its teams finish with what would translate into 100 wins in 162 games (and therefore three 90 wins). They also had 6 with 90 losses and five with 105. They also had three with .451, .532, and .552 winning percentages. However, the two existing leagues were even more polarized than the UA. The AA's entire roster either won the equivalent of 90 games (7) or lost 90 (6). 5 had 100-win comparable season, and 4 had 105-loss seasons. The senior circuit faired only slightly better: all of its teams had either 90-win (5) or 90-loss (3) equivalent seasons. Two NL clubs had a 100-win equivalent season and 3 had a 105-loss equivalent one. The UA, as uneven as its talent was, was the only one of the three leagues to field mediocre (between 72 and 90 equivalent wins).

In 1885, the UA folded, the NL had only 2 of 8 teams in the 90-win-equivalent category but 4 in the 80-loss. The AA's equanimity was more easily re-established: only 2 90-win-equivalent teams and no 90-loss-equivalent ones.

With all of the comparisons between 2002 and the highly polarized 2002 season, it makes one wonder if the doom-and-gloom predictions of the owners have any validity. Then when the fact that 1884 was the only year with 30+ teams (33) and that there have only been a handful of 30-team years (1998 to 2002), it is apparent that there is too little data to draw any conclusion. Clearly the probability of having more 90-win or 90-loss teams increases as the number of teams increases, but whether this highly polarized season was due to dumb luck or some endemic competitive balance problem in MLB remains to be seen.

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