Historical ups and downs (with pictures)

The other day I posted about the Rangers prospects and compared them to the other AL West teams, and made a graph showing how the Rangers are on an upswing while the rest are heading down. In that graph, I only showed the teams from 1961 onwards, and mentioned how the A’s had been extremely consistent in going up and down about every eight years. I wondered if other teams showed similar periodicity. Here are the results of researching that question. As a reminder, these are 7-year moving averages of each team’s winning percentages. This causes the random fluctuations to smooth out a little and show longer trends in how teams are performing. It’s also important to remember that even though I show these teams in their current divisions, they were not always matched up like this. If I showed them at a league level though, it would be impossible to read the graph.


First, going back to the AL West, I filled in all the way back to 1901, as all the other charts will show. In this case, only the A’s go back that far. They show big swings early on, from extremely good to extremely bad and back, then slowly settle down and get into the pattern mentioned above. The rest of the teams come along and start their own up and down trends, as discussed the other day. Not much new here, just showing the A’s a little further. One thing I didn’t mention the other day is how much time these teams have spent below .500, certainly in the last 60 years or so they have been below much more than above.


The AL Central is a lot more jumbled. Four teams have been here since 1901, and again all four show the same up and down rhythm, this time at varied rates. None of them is particularly noteworthy, they all had times at the top and times at the bottom. In fact I would say what stands out is how even these teams have been at times. It is interesting to note the Tigers and Royals in freefall since the early 80’s, with both appearing to be starting a comeback recently, or at least bottoming out. The other note is Cleveland in the doldrums from about 1960-1990, as shown in the movie Major League. Also, these teams have spent a lot of time both above and below .500.


Over in the AL East, we see the most dominant team, the Yankees. The Evil Empire’s black line gets high right as Babe Ruth arrives, and stays there for forty years until they stumble in the 60s, and then begin the up and down motion of everyone else. I am left with hope that they are at a peak right now, and will start to fall away soon. The Red Sox, who have the storied tradition that is so beloved, are a different matter – they don’t really show much after letting the Babe go. Some will say curse, but really they’ve been just a little above average for most of the time, and a little below at times. The most worthwhile thing is to compare them to the Yankees, and see how much the Yankees have dominated them (like everyone else), and how few times the red line is above the black. The Orioles show a long period of futility, barely above .500 at all until the 60s, then enjoying a good period until falling away. They’re back on an upswing now though. The Blue Jays started well, and then tailed off a little, while the Devil Rays started badly and haven’t gotten better.


The NL West shows two long-time teams, the Giants and Dodgers, who spent much of the last 50 years battling each other. Neither can truly claim dominance, as the Giants had the lead up until the 1940s and the Dodgers a slight lead since, although the Giants are now taking over again. The Padres improved over time after they began, but then seemed to hit a wall around .500. The Rockies fell off ever since they started, as did the Diamondbacks, but the interesting thing to note is how the D-Backs are the only expansion team to have begun their life above .500.


In the NL Central, we see several old established teams with their ups and downs. The Cubs had good times in the early 1900s and again in the 1930s, but have been pretty futile since then. The rest of the teams show fairly typical meanderings up and down, with occasional bursts of excellence by one team mirrored by the ineptitude of another. What is most noteworthy here is the logjam from around the mid 80s to the early 90s, where all the teams are tightly bunched together.


Last but not least is the NL East. Braves and Phillies spend a long time matching each other, then get into the ups and downs. The Mets start horribly (they do not fall off the graph though, their first season is just above .300), but quickly climb then get swinging themselves. Montreal and Florida come along and add not much of anything, really.

So what’s the upshot of all this? I think I showed that teams do swing from good to bad frequently. I think it also shows that good and bad are relative terms: in the last 50 years the Yankees worst seasons have been just under .500, while the Rangers best seasons have been just above .500. Expansion teams tend to start really badly, as expected, but all seem to climb pretty quickly into average territory. There have been a few teams that have been in a cycle where they’ve bounced back and forth between .400 and .500, and suddenly broken out and started bouncing between .500 and .600 (Baltimore would be one example). It would take a bit more study to see what would cause that to happen, if they somehow got something going and then were able to maintain those levels. Looking at the graphs, it’s almost like a team is bouncing up and down, then suddenly skip a down and instead go into an extended up, then back to the same up and down of 100 points. The same also happens the other way of course, continuously good teams suddenly falling off a cliff and becoming bad.

Finally, take a look at the highs and lows. Here’s a list of teams above .600 (rough years, not exact): 1910 and 1930 A’s, 1900 and 1915 Red Sox, the Yankees from about 1920-60 and again from the late 1990’s on, the Orioles of the early 70s, 1910 Giants, 1950 Dodgers, 1908 Cubs and 1990’s Braves. Each of these teams is naturally considered among the best teams ever.

And below .400? 1918 and 1940’s A’s, 1900’s and 1950’s Senators (Twins), early 1930’s White Sox, recent Tigers and Royals, the Red Sox of the late 20’s, the Browns (Orioles) in 1912, 1935 and 1952, 1907 Dodgers, early Cardinals, 30’s Reds, 50’s Pirates, Braves of the 1900’s and 1920’s, Phillies from about 1920-45, and most every expansion team ever. This is where futility sets in. As a Rangers fan, going through all the doom and gloom right now, I can happily say they’re fluctuating about 50 points above this danger zone.

There are a lot more things to see in these graphs, and I’ll try and point them out as I get to them. One thing I want to look at is regression to the mean, and how free agency might have affected things. Many teams appear to be tightening up in the last 25 years, which may be an effect of free agency allowing more player movement, and thus teams bunching closer together. Is this true, or is it just an illusion? If I can figure out how to analyze this, I will post it here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: