Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Pythagorean Pennant

The game isn't played on paper. This we all know. But that doesn't stop us from asking whether the results we see were the ones we should have expected.

One concept that has gained popularity over the years in advanced sports analysis is the concept of Pythagorean Won-Lost Record. For those unfamiliar, Pythagorean Won-Lost Record uses a formula to determine the number of wins and losses a team should be expected to have based on the number of runs scored versus runs allowed. Few teams play precisely to their Pythagorean expectations, but most fall within three games of it. There are always, however, teams that wildly exceed or fall short of their expectations, and in a pennant race, those games can be the difference between a trip to the World Series and an early winter break.

Before the divisional play era, only one team from each league made it to the postseason. Based on Pythagorean W-L, how often did we see the World Series matchup that should've been expected? The chart below shows who won the Pythagorean pennant each year during that era. Teams marked with red are different than the actual winners, and boxes marked with blue are ones where tiebreakers would've had to be played to determine the winner.

1903Pittsburg Pirates (86-54)Boston Americans (90-48)
1905New York Giants (105-48)Chicago White Sox (97-55)
1906Chicago Cubs (115-37)Cleveland Naps (98-55)
1907Chicago Cubs (102-50)Detroit Tigers (93-57)
1908New York Giants (101-53)Cleveland Naps (92-62)
1909Chicago Cubs (109-44)Philadelphia Athletics (102-51)
1910Chicago Cubs (101-53)Philadelphia Athletics (103-47)
1911New York Giants (99-54)Philadelphia Athletics (99-52)
1912New York Giants (100-51)Boston Red Sox (102-50)
1913New York Giants (95-57)Philadelphia Athletics (97-56)
1914Boston Braves (89-64)Philadelphia Athletics (99-53)
1915Philadelphia Phillies (92-60)Chicago White Sox (100-54)
1916Brooklyn Robins (92-62)Chicago White Sox (90-64)
1917New York Giants (100-54)Chicago White Sox (101-53)
1918Chicago Cubs (83-46)Boston Red Sox (76-50)
1919Cincinnati Reds (92-48)Chicago White Sox (84-56)
1920Brooklyn Robins/New York Giants (93-61)Cleveland Indians/New York Yankees (97-57)
1921New York Giants (95-58)New York Yankees (96-57)
1922New York Giants (95-59)St. Louis Browns (98-56)
1923New York Giants (92-61)New York Yankees (95-57)
1924New York Giants (96-57)Washington Senators (92-62)
1925Pittsburgh Pirates (93-60)Washington Senators (90-61)
1926St. Louis Cardinals (90-64)Cleveland Indians (90-64)
1927Pittsburgh Pirates (92-62)New York Yankees (109-45)
1928St. Louis Cardinals (94-60)Philadelphia Athletics (97-56)
1929Chicago Cubs (94-58)Philadelphia Athletics (100-50)
1930St. Louis Cardinals (94-60)Washington Senators (95-59)
1931St. Louis Cardinals (97-57)New York Yankees (100-53)
1932Chicago Cubs (86-68)New York Yankees (99-55)
1933Chicago Cubs/New York Giants Washington Senators (93-59)
1934New York Giants (95-58)Detroit Tigers (98-56)
1935Chicago Cubs (101-53)Detroit Tigers (97-54)
1936Chicago Cubs (93-61)New York Yankees (102-51)
1937Chicago Cubs/New York Giants New York Yankees (103-51)
1938Chicago Cubs (88-64)New York Yankees (97-55)
1939Cincinnati Reds (95-59)New York Yankees (111-40)
1940Cincinnati Reds (96-57)Detroit Tigers (92-62)
1941Brooklyn Dodgers (99-55)New York Yankees (96-58)
1942St. Louis Cardinals (107-47)New York Yankees (107-47)
1943St. Louis Cardinals (101-53)New York Yankees (92-62)
1944St. Louis Cardinals (107-47)St. Louis Browns (88-66)
1945Chicago Cubs (99-55)NYY/DET/WSH/SLB
1946St. Louis Cardinals (97-59)Boston Red Sox (97-57)
1947St. Louis Cardinals (91-63)New York Yankees (100-54)
1948Boston Braves (93-60)Cleveland Indians (104-51)
1949Brooklyn Dodgers (98-56)Boston Red Sox (97-57)
1950Brooklyn Dodgers (88-66)New York Yankees (96-58)
1951Brooklyn Dodgers (96-61)New York Yankees (94-60)
1952Brooklyn Dodgers (94-59)New York Yankees (95-59)
1953Brooklyn Dodgers (99-55)New York Yankees (101-50)
1954New York Giants (97-57)Cleveland Indians (104-50)
1955Brooklyn Dodgers (95-58)New York Yankees (97-57)
1956Milwaukee Braves (92-62)New York Yankees (98-56)
1957Milwaukee Braves (93-61)New York Yankees (98-56)
1958Milwaukee Braves (92-62)New York Yankees (96-58)
1959Milwaukee Braves (89-67)Cleveland Indians (87-67)
1960Pittsburgh Pirates (92-62)Chicago White Sox (90-64)
1961San Francisco Giants (89-65)New York Yankees (103-59)
1962San Francisco Giants (100-65)New York Yankees (94-68)
1963St. Louis Cardinals (94-68)New York Yankees (100-61)
1964Cincinnati Reds (92-70)Chicago White Sox (99-63)
1965Cincinnati Reds (93-69)Minnesota Twins (100-62)
1966Los Angeles Dodgers (97-65)Baltimore Orioles (96-64)
1967St. Louis Cardinals (97-64)Boston Red Sox (93-69)
1968St. Louis Cardinals (96-66)Detroit Tigers (103-59)

It's heartening to see that most years the "correct" team wins.There are some long stretches here of black ink.

It's interesting to note that based on this data, several historical teams could be considered overrated or underrated. Connie Mack's Athletics from the "$100,000 Infield" era should've won five of six pennants, rather than the mere four of five they actually won. Their American League successors should've been the Chicago White Sox, if only they hadn't underperformed. The Red Sox of that era would've been the exceptions to two dynasties, rather than one of their own.

Cleveland could've had an additional four American League pennants in their history had their on-field play matched the on-paper expectations. Napoleon Lajoie wouldn't have gone down in history as one of the best players never to reach the postseason, with two World Series appearances during his time leading the "Naps."

The powerhouse Athletics from 1929-31 would've won only one pennant during that span, but they would've had an additional one in 1928, perhaps giving Ty Cobb a World Series title in his final season.

The National League also sees some teams look more dynastic than reality proved them to be. The Cubs might've  potentially won an astounding six pennants in seven years between 1932 and 1938. Those Cubs always came up short in the World Series, but history should remember them much more favorably than it does.

The Brooklyn Dodgers stole the 1947 pennant from their rivals in St. Louis in Jackie Robinson's debut season, but it appears that they, not the Yankees, should've won five straight pennants between 1949 and 1953. While the Red Sox should've captured the 1949 AL flag, we would've had a Yankees-Dodgers matchup four straight seasons to start the 1950s.

And how about those Milwaukee Braves? That immensely talented club should've won four in a row during the 1956-59 seasons, not just the two they did.

The Koufax-era Dodgers also appear to be overrated, winning pennants only in 1955, when he was a benchwarming rookie, and 1966, when he pitched his arm off in his final season. The Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants are the great forgotten teams of the '60s.