Tough Stretches and Soft Patches

July 29, 2013

                On July 30, 1954, the Chicago White Sox White Sox played a four-game series against the Philadelphia A’s.   The A’s were not a good team; they lost 103 games that year (51-103), and July was their worst month (7-23).    After the four games against the A’s, the White Sox played four games against the Red Sox (69-85 in 1954), and then three games against the Senators (66-88).    After the Senators the White Sox played two games against the Baltimore Orioles (54-100), and four against the Tigers (68-86), and then four more against the Orioles (54-100).     And here’s the kicker:  of those 21 games, the first 17 games were at home.  

                In that stretch of 21 games the White Sox went 17-4, outscored their opponents 96-54 and had a 2.47 ERA from their starting pitchers.   In the 60 years of data that I have to study, that is the "softest" part of a schedule that any team has ever had.

                One of the teams in our division recently has had a ridiculously soft part of their schedule, during which they have been kicking Astros and taking names, so I got interested in identifying the softest (and toughest) stretches of games that any team has played.     The first thing I had to do, of course, was to create a method to study the issue.

                Here’s the method.   First, I figured for each team their won-lost record in their last 100 games, and in their last 62 games.    Last year’s games count; if your team went 57-105 last year, odds are you are not in first place this year, either.    I added the 100-game and 62-game records together to form a 162-game won-lost record for each team, and figured winning percentages.    Then I grouped teams in this way:

                A .570 of better won-lost record (93-69 or better) is a Level 4 opponent, or a "post season quality" opponent,

                A .500 to .56999 won-lost record (81-81 to 92-70) is a Level 3 opponent, or a ".500+" opponent,

                A .430 to .49999 won-lost record (70-92 to 80-82) is a Level 2 opponent or a "sub .500" opponent, and

                A sub-.430 opponent (69-93 or worse) is a Level 1 opponent or a "weak" or "bad" opposition team.  

                To these 1-4 levels, I added 1 point if it was a road game, so that each game had a "toughness level" of 1 to 5, one being the softest opponent and 5 the toughest.

                The 1954 White Sox had the softest stretch of 20 games. ..I was looking for 20-game stretches of games, although the White Sox run was actually 21 games.   The American League in 1954 is peculiar, in that there are five pretty bad teams in an eight-team league.   The Indians went 111-43 that year and the Yankees went 103-51, so the rest of the league was 110 games under .500.   The Red Sox finished in the first division with a record of 69-85.

                On the other side of that. ..the toughest stretch of 20 games that any team ever had (in the last 60 years) was the Milwaukee Brewers in April of 1978.     The Brewers in April of 1978 played exactly 20 games.   They played the Orioles, the Yankees, the Orioles again, the Red Sox, the Yankees again, the Red Sox again, and the Royals.   Those were the four best teams in the American League at that time, whether you use their 1977 records to tell you that or their 1978 records, and 13 of the 20 games were on the road.    The starting pitchers the Brewers faced in the first 20 games of 1978 were Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, Scott McGregor, Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, Dennis Martinez again, Jim Palmer, Nelson Briles, Scott McGregor again, Mike Torrez, Dennis Eckersley, Bill Lee, Ed Figueroa, Dick Tidrow, Catfish Hunter again, Bill Lee again, Mike Torrez again, Steve Busby, Dennis Leonard and Rich Gale.  For those of you younger than 50, those were good pitchers.

                The Brewers had lost 95 games in 1977.  In 1978, despite this challenging April schedule, they managed to go 9-11, which set the stage for a terrific season in which the Brewers won 93 games and emerged as the fourth powerhouse in the American League East.

                Other teams which have had extremely soft 20-game stretches. . .the Angels in May of 1966 had a 25-game stretch of games in which they played only the four worst teams in the American League (the Yankees, Red Sox, A’s and Senators.)     From April 30 through May 25 they played eight games against the Senators, seven against the Red Sox, five against the A’s and five against the Yankees.    They went just 13-12 in those 25 games, missing their chance to set themselves up for a better season.

                In 1978, while the Brewers were playing all of the league’s toughest teams, the A’s (in the same time frame) were playing all of the league’s worst teams—that is, all of them except themselves.   The A’s, who finished 69-93 in 1978, actually started the season 18-5.   They started the season 18-5 in part because they played 23 straight games against teams that had finished under .500 in 1977 and would do so again in 1978.  During those 23 games the A’s starting pitchers had an ERA of 1.66.   The world got even with them, though, in June of that year, when they had to play a stretch of 34 consecutive games against teams that won 87 or more games that year (May 29 through July 2.)   That team had one of the easiest and one of the toughest stretches of games of any team on record.

                The Mariners from April 21 through May 31, 1979, played 37 consecutive games against teams that would finish the season with a winning record.   Of course, I didn’t mark games as "easy" or "tough" based on final-season won-lost records; I’m just using the final-season won-lost records as an easy reference point.    34 of the 37 games were marked "4" or "5".   Their "easiest" series in that stretch was a series against the Red Sox.  The Red Sox "recent won-lost record" coming into the series was 92-70, but 92-70 is Group 3, and the series was at home for the Mariners, so that’s a "3".   All of the other games were "4" or "5".

                The Reds in 1966 opened the season playing a very difficult stretch of games, but there is a little-known effect here which is kind of skewing our data.    As the season goes on, there is a tendency of the leagues to pull apart.   .600 teams tend to play .630 baseball in September, whereas .400 teams tend to play .370 baseball.    It doesn’t color the stats a whole lot, but when you search for the MOST difficult or the MOST easy stretches of games, based on how the opposition has played in the last 100 games and the last 62 games, you tend to get a lot of April games, because the hottest and coldest stretches tend (to a very small degree) to be in September, and, when you look at a very large number of games, the extremes will tend to concentrate in the periods most favorable to extremes, even though you’re dealing with a pretty small effect.

                So when I looked for the toughest and softest parts of the schedule in the 21st century, I excluded stretches of games in April and May, and looked only at stretches ending no earlier than June 1.  Since 2000 the toughest stretch of games that any team has had was by the Oakland A’s in 2009, a 21-game stretch from July 6 through July 30.   Here again I’ll give you their opponents end-of-season won-lost records, although that wasn’t what I used to identify the toughest stretches:   The A’s in 2009 played the Red Sox (95-67), the Rays (84-78, but playing much better at that time), the Angels (97-65, Western Division champions), the Twins (87-76, Central Division Champions), the Yankees (103-59) and the Red Sox again.     Fifteen of the 21 games were on the road, and they had to fly across the country twice.

That ties as the toughest stretch of games that any team has had in the 21st century with a string of games that the Blue Jays had in September of 2008.   Actually beginning on August 16, the Jays played 28 consecutive games against the Red Sox (95-67), the Rays (97-65), the Yankees (89-73), the Twins (88-75) and the White Sox (89-74).    16 of the 28 games were on the road, and 15 of the 28 were against the Red Sox and the Rays (95-67 and 97-65).  

As to the easiest stretches of games. . .the Yankees in 2002 didn’t play anybody good after September 4th.    From September 5 to the end of the season in 2002 (24 games) the Yankees played the Tigers (55-106), Orioles (67-95), White Sox, Devil Rays (55-106), Tigers (55-106), Devil Rays (55-106) and Orioles (67-95).   The White Sox were 81-81, but not playing particularly well at that point of the schedule.   The Yankees, eight and a half games ahead when they began that stretch of games, cruised into the post-season on auto-pilot.

The Red Sox had an almost equally soft schedule at the end of the 2001 season.   The Red Sox’ last series before the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center was against the Yankees.    They were off on Monday (9-10), and then on 9-11 they were supposed to play the Rays.   That series was delayed for a week while the country struggled to get back on our feet, and then the Red Sox played the D Rays (62-99), Tigers (66-95), Orioles (63-98), and then the Tigers, Rays and Orioles again.   The Red Sox failed to take advantage of the opportunity, going just 10-10 in those 20 games, and failing to qualify for the post-season.


COMMENTS (4 Comments, most recent shown first)

Very interesting. Do you think a full point for home/away is appropriate? I seem to remember a number like .465 winning for road teams in your writings? I'd also ponder the inclusion of the previous year. I understand that in order to get any findings at all you have to get a decent sample, but obviously there can be ridiculous swings when a team has a FA sell off or buying splurge or huge derp in personnel based on injuries (September 2012 Yankees vs. June 2013 Yankees). Maybe there is a number to be found to weight down the previous year based on some sort of historic swing (which may have/probably accelerated in the free agent era).
1:01 PM Aug 19th
Back in 1916, The New York Giants won 26 games in a row. An old fan wrote to Fred Lieb and asked how this happened. The Giants were 4th that year with a record of 86-66. The NL had four good teams (Dodgers, Phillies, Braves and Giants) and four teams who won 67 games or less (Cubs, Pirates, Reds and Cardinals). Fred Lieb told the man that the Giants played those four bad teams in consecutive series, but they gained no ground. The three other good teams where also playing the bad teams. I checked Retrosheet and the Giants did win 26 games in a row, with one tie. The streak began on September 7th and ended on September 30, when they lost the second game of a double header.

For several seasons in the AL, from 1950 through around 1955, there were the haves and the have nots. The top four teams would be well over .500 and the bottom teams would be well under.

Take Care,
Tom Nahigian
1:59 PM Aug 2nd
The Blue Jays, who 62-60 when the sun came up on Aug 16 2008, went 18-10 in that 28 game stretch. Not bad.
12:54 AM Aug 1st
The final scores of the 1978 Brewers-Orioles opening series were 11-3, 16-3, and 13-5; prompting Earl Weaver's famous "What's a start?" response to a sportswriter's question about the Oriole's bad one.

1954 was the Orioles first season in Baltimore and the A's last in Philadelphia. The three teams in the mid-Atlantic finished an average 54 games out of first.
8:54 AM Jul 29th
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