Big Game Pitchers, Part VIII

January 27, 2014

                Q.  What is the most Big Games ever played by a team in a season? 

                A.   53, by the Dodgers in 1962.

                Q.   What is the fewest?

                A.   There are several teams every season which play no big games at all.   Teams that are out of the pennant race by the first of August just never play Big Games, as this system defines a Big Game.

                Q.   Were there any such teams in 2013?

                A.   There were 12 of them—which is very unusual.   There are always some teams that don’t play any big games, but 12 is a high number.

                Q.   What were those teams?

                A.   The Astros, White Sox, Twins, Angels, and Blue Jays in the American League, and the Giants, Padres, Cubs, Brewers, Mets, Phillies and Marlins in the National League.  The unusual one is the Angels, because the Angels finished 78-84, and a team that close to .500 usually gets to a few Big Games before they are wiped out.   But the Angels were 16 games under .500 in mid-August, then rallied toward respectability after the race was already over. 

                Q.   Who played the most?

                A.   In 2013?

                Q.  Yes.

                A.   The Cardinals.   40.

                Q.   What is a normal average?

                A.   12, 13 per team per season.

                Q.   Has that changed over time?

                A.  It’s gone up a little because of the increased number of teams and games, which just increases all of the numbers.   We’ve gone from 16 teams to 30 and from 154 games to 162; of course that increases the number of Big Games that turn up.

                Q.   What is the most ever played in a league?

                A.   337, by the National League in 2007.   Down-to-the-wire pennant races in all three divisions.   The Phillies beat the Mets by one game in the East, with Atlanta staying in the race until the third week of September.   The Cubs beat the Brewers by two games in the Central, and the Diamondbacks finished just one game ahead of both the Rockies and the Giants in the NL West.   The Diamondbacks and Giants thus tied for the Wild Card, necessitating a playoff before the playoffs.   No team in the entire league finished 20 games behind the first-place team—whereas in 2013, five teams in each league finished more than 20 games out.   And when you finish 20 games out, generally speaking, you don’t play any Big Games.

                Q.   What other leagues had a large numbers of Big Games?

                A.   National League in 2001, 297.   Again, close races in all three divisions. 

                Q.  What is the highest total for a single pennant race?

                A.   220, for the American League in 1967, followed by 201, for the National League in 1965.   Followed by the National League in 1966, 1963, and 1964.   Wonderful pennant races every season.

                Q.  What is the lowest total, for a league?

                A.   Well. . .the strike seasons.

                Q.   Other than the strike seasons?

                A.  The American League in 1958 had only 35 Big Games all year, all eight teams.    The Yankees won by ten games, but that’s misleading because the Yankees were under .500 from August first to the end of the season.   The race was over by early August; the Yankees just coasted in.

                Q.  The numbers have gone up, over time?

                A.   Up and down.    In the 1960s there were, in retrospect, a series of quite remarkable pennant races.

                The American League in 1964 and the National League in 1965 and 1966 had terrific pennant races, but the narrative of those races is undermined by a predictable outcome.   If you take the names off of the teams, the American League in 1964 had an amazing race, with three teams finishing with 99, 98 and 97 wins.   But the Yankees won it, which transforms the whole thing into a yawner, whereas if the White Sox had won it, it would be a classic.   The National League in 1965, even more so; the Braves finished in fifth place, at 86-76, and the Braves were in the race with two weeks to go.   The Phillies finished only a half-game behind the Braves.    Half the league was in the pennant race and there were a lot of odd and interesting things that happened, but the Dodgers won it, so it became just another season, just another Dodger pennant.

                I was young then, and I just assumed that this was the way baseball was; there were great pennant races every year.    Never thought about it.  In the 1960s the average team played just over 14 Big Games per season, but this number dropped sharply in the 1970s.   In retrospect, the 1969 split into divisions markedly reduced the number of Big Games, and drained the excitement out of the pennant races.   What tended to happen, more years than not, was that there would be two good teams in the league, but one would be in the East and the other would be in the West, so there would be no pennant race.    With two six-team divisions, you just absolutely did not get those wonderful three- and four-team pennant races that we had in the 1960s.

                The 1980s were about like the 1970s, with an average of about 11 Big Games per team per season. . .lower because of the 1981 strike, but slightly higher if you throw out the 1981 strike.

                Q.   So did the Wild Card solve that problem?

                A.   It did.   It took me a long time to understand this, and I never understood it fully until I did this study, but the Wild Card system did increase the number of Big Games per team back to about what it had been before the split into divisions in 1969.   This came at a cost, because what often happens is that the best teams in the league sew up their divisions early and play few Big Games, but the second- and third-place teams continue to play Big Games until the last couple of days of the season.   It might be better to have the BEST teams playing Big Games, but that’s not the way it is.

                But anyway, the number of Big Games per team per season is back now to a bigger number, with the Wild Card, and since the number of teams is larger, the number of Big Games is larger.   By my count there have been 4,738 regular season Big Games in the last ten years, whereas in the 1970s and the 1980s there were less than 2800 per decade.

                Q.  Could it be too big?

                A.   It could be too big, yes.   There is a "size of the human mind" problem at some point.   If you have four teams focused in a single pennant race, like the American League in 1967, your mind can handle that, whereas if you have eight teams competing in three different pennant races, like the National League in 2007, you can’t wrap your head around all of the details, so it loses significance.   We lose the sense of these being mythic events, Yastrzemski’s hot streak, Mauch starting Bunning on short rest, etc.   Roy Oswalt can pitch like Bob Gibson, but he doesn’t become Bob Gibson because people don’t have a clear, uncluttered view of what is happening.

                Q.  How many Big Games did the Kansas City A’s play?

                A.   None.   By my system, the A’s in their thirteen years in Kansas City never played a Big Game.   Whereas the Dodgers, from 1953 through 1962, played 330 Big Games in a ten-year span.


COMMENTS (20 Comments, most recent shown first)

David, you've lost me. I was born in December 1943. The first LCS were in October 1969. I was 25 years and 10 months old.

Is there some other piece of arithmetic in there that I'm missing?

Anyway my point stands: the present playoff system has not left me oversaturated with high-stakes baseball--and, unlike the other professional leagues, it has also not taken the steam out of the regular season. Quite an accomplishment.
12:00 PM Jan 28th
Life is all about trade-offs. My youth was spent during the era of two eight-team leagues; I was 25 when the first LCS was played. There have been wonderful pennant races under all of the various systems, some better than others. I don't remember ever being bored.

But only the system in place at the time could have given us the breathtaking finish of 2011 (sorry, Bill, for bringing up the painful memory).

And only the system in place now starts us off with the equivalent of two seventh games.

And you young whippersnappers, hear this from a 70-year-old: I'm nowhere near the saturation point for big games. September and October are the best months of the year.​
9:09 PM Jan 27th
BTW, I don't mean to diss Paul Foytack. In today's game he'd be worth $10 million a year.
8:01 PM Jan 27th
Let me take a swing at that:
First of all, Hall of Fame is NEVER a thing of "between 2 candidates." Sometimes people sort of cast it that way, as in "If Blyleven is in, then (say) Paul Foytack sure as heil belongs." :-)

And I think we can be pretty sure that Bill (and most of us) would feel that this thing is just an additional thing maybe to take into account in deciding what we think of a pitcher, and that in terms of the HOF, it could only come into play in borderline cases. Having a so-so "big game" record would never keep out a clear HOF'er, and having an Oswalt-type record wouldn't put Paul Foytack in.
7:59 PM Jan 27th
HeyBill (habit). So, I am assuming that this is a new angle of Hall of Fame discussions. What about guys like Matt Harvey, who will go their whole careers without playing in a Big Game? (sorry, Mets fan jokje). But in the big picture, would you look at that and think "a great pitcher would have carried his team into September sometimes" or just say "hey, he never got the chances, but he was a great pitcher?" I realize it is a grey area, but, loosely, how much weight would you give it between two fairly even candidates?
7:26 PM Jan 27th
Rgregory: I agree.
All I meant in those last posts is that the reason Bill gave doesn't really seem to apply.
7:22 PM Jan 27th

Marisfan, I bet the biggest reason for the spike in number of Big Games per team isn't the slightly longer season or more teams. It's more likely to be parity. In the 1920s, 24 team played better than .600 ball and 25 played below .400. In the 1950s, it was more of the same, 24 teams were above .600 and 23 were below .400. And it wasn't that much different in the 2000s, 21 above .600, 25 below .400. Except that, in the '20s and '50s, there were 160 team-seasons; in the 2000s there were 300. There are just a lot more teams and more of them playing meaningful games, because of the expanded playoffs, late in the year.
6:55 PM Jan 27th
Bill, I'm not sure I understand what "editorializing over the facts" or "editorial BS" means, which makes it difficult to understand the answer, but I THINK I got the answer to my question, so THANK YOU.​
6:46 PM Jan 27th
It seems from these comments that the discussion of "Big Game Pitchers" has turned into another "ain't it awful how our wonderful game has been diluted". If you are a fan of the original 16, maybe I can understand you, but I assure you there are a bunch fans in places like Minneapolis, Houston, Atlanta. Kansas City, and Toronto who have much enjoyed being included in the pennant races.
6:28 PM Jan 27th
(I mean except for the slight increase as of '61/'62 when 154 became 162)
5:05 PM Jan 27th
Bill: I think you have something there that doesn't really work:

Q. What is a normal average? [of big games per team per season)
A. 12, 13 per team per season.
Q. Has that changed over time?
A. It’s gone up a little because of the increased number of teams and games, which just increases all of the numbers.

Sure, it increases most of "the numbers," but it shouldn't increase the average number per team per season, should it?

5:03 PM Jan 27th
Hey, Bill . . . I'm loving the series too, but you have an NL West misidentification about 2007. The one-game playoff was between the Rockies and Padres, not the Giants. As a Giants' fan, I well remember that they finished tied for the second-worst record in the league.
2:37 PM Jan 27th
Responding to Lozado. ..You have editorialized over the facts in saying that all a team is fighting for is the home field advantage. When you pile editorial BS on top of the facts it makes the question more difficult to see clearly, and thus more difficult to answer, but I THINK the answer is "Yes"; if a team is trying to win the DIVISION but has already secured the Wild Card, yes, it is still a Big Game.
1:10 PM Jan 27th
to abigoof: the last time the two best teams in a league had to fight until the last day for entry into postseason was NL West 1993, Giants (who had led most of the season) and Braves. After that, that became impossible. When the two best teams are in the same division, one becomes a WC.
12:10 PM Jan 27th
To llozada--there's been a huge change since 2010. With two wild cards, the wild card only earns you a 50% chance at going forward, instead of a 100% chance. That puts a much higher premium on winning the division.
12:08 PM Jan 27th
I wish I had seen some of those pre-1969 races for context. I imagine it must have seemed hopeless most years to the Philadelphia teams for decades, and for expansion teams before the Miracle Mets. But to actually be able to grasp the races and the key players without a doctorate? To know that the teams competing are only the best and the prize is clear? American League East fans had a lot to enjoy in the 1980s, and I'm glad I was one at the time, and I suspect that's not too far off from the late 1960s races. But today's mess, where half the teams playing for something lose every day not because of who they are playing but because they are actually .500 teams, is a shame.
11:51 AM Jan 27th
Hello Bill, fantastic series. One question. The 2010 Yankees conceded the AL East to Tampa Bay and Cashman famously said: "The only difference between being a WC and the Division is a T-shirt" (they'd be playing the Twins, so there's that!). Under the current format it is in the best interest of teams to win the Division and secure field-home advantage. So the question, is it a Big Games if you are only trying to secure home-field advantage?
11:37 AM Jan 27th
Following on that, yes, Bill in this last post has gotten to a key feature of present-day baseball. It does not encourage great teams and it makes great pennant races, in the pre-1969 or even pre-1994 sense, impossible. For one thing, with three rounds of playoffs it has become impossible to build a team strong enough to guarantee entry into the World Series in any case. For another thing, superteams are simply too expensive, unless some organization gets very lucky and produces 3 superstars at once, which is not likely. (It will be interesting to see what happens to the Pirates now, though.)

So, yes, we have more teams in contention later in the season than ever, but the prize for which they are competing--entry into three or even four rounds of playoffs--isn't that big a prize. 1965 NL and 1967 AL were indeed amazing--so in different ways were 1962 NL and 1964 NL, as well as 1964 AL. There was, I am convinced, a reason for all that, but that's for another time.

I just saw the latest results of a poll identifying the most popular spectator sports in the US. The poll was first taken in 1985, and at that point the NFL and MBL were essentially tied. Now the NFL is way ahead. I suspect that if baseball had fewer rounds of playoffs, so that a pennant race could become the focus of national attention again, that might be different. But we don't live in an age of greatness, but in an age of marketing.

10:42 AM Jan 27th
The pennant races used to "what's for dinner?" Now they are a trip to Golden Corral.
8:57 AM Jan 27th
Steven Goldleaf
It seems at first like an old man's comment, "if you have eight teams competing in three different pennant races, like the National League in 2007, you can’t wrap your head around all of the details, so it loses significance. We lose the sense of these being mythic events, Yastrzemski’s hot streak, Mauch starting Bunning on short rest, etc. ," sort of get-off-my-lawn, but it also seems on the money to this old man. If you give me three great movies to watch at the same time, I'm going to fail to appreciate their greatness. In expanding the number of teams, of games, of possible pennant races, baseball has made the beauty of the game less easy to enjoy, not more.
6:37 AM Jan 27th
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