A Baseball Blog - Scientific and Speculative Thoughts from Third Base

Monday, November 14, 2016

Prepare Yourself for More Droughts Like the Curse of the Billy Goat

As you may have heard, a certain team recently ended a World Series drought of 108 seasons. In a clash of two historically unfortunate teams, the Chicago Cubs ended their record-setting (across all sports, even) streak of futility. And like I wrote about it at the time, this World Series was a historic meeting that will remain at the top of its category for some time.  It's mathematically guaranteed until 2047, at the very least. And even in just comparing the misfortunes of individual teams, the Cleveland Indians have another four decades until they match where the Cubs just were. Even the second-longest drought of all time, that of the Cubs' crosstown rivals the White Sox, fell two decades short. It seems like such an outlier in all regards, doesn't it?

Yes, it will be sometime before we see another World Series drought in similar length to the Cubs'...but it is almost guaranteed to fall, and probably sooner than you would first believe. Even that record-setting 174 years of combined drought in World Series competitors is probably less safe than it seems like it should be, and could very likely fall within your lifetime. Historic droughts are going to start becoming more common; it's really just a simple question of math.

Just think of the question as a basic algebra question. There are currently 30 teams in Major League Baseball, so let's give them each a given probability of 1/30 for winning it all in any given year, or approximately 3.33% if you prefer it in percentage form. That might seem overly simplistic; you wouldn't give, say, the Cubs and the Braves equal chances in 2017. But if we take a long-term view of things, the odds even out pretty well. We have zero clue what the 2026 versions of either team will look like, so just assigning every team a 1/30 probability is probably a reasonable assumption.

Conversely, that would mean that any team has a 29/30 chance of not winning in a random year, or 96.67%. Now, if we wanted to see the odds of a team not winning in either year one or year two, we'd just multiply the probability of not winning in either year, or 29/30^2. That gets us to a 93.44% chance of a given team not winning in either of two seasons in a row.

So let's extrapolate from there. The chance of a given team not winning for 100 years in a row would be 29/30^100, which works out to about 3.37%. If your first reaction to that might be "that's not so bad", compare that to the initial 1/30 odds. That means there is a (marginally) better than 1-in-30 chance of a team going a century without, which, given that there are currently 30 teams, means that you would expect (on average, if you could set it up like an experiment and run it a bunch of times) at least one to go 100 straight seasons without winning it all.

And that's just using the most simplistic view of the problem. In real life, we have several confounding factors to deal with. For example, not every team is going in to every season with 1/30 teams; a team that gets saddled with below-average management will see even worse odds for some years in that stretch. Additionally, Major League Baseball isn't done expanding just yet. We've been hearing some rumblings of possible new teams for a little bit now, which makes sense given that 1998 (the last season with new teams) to the present represents the longest the league has gone without growing since the initial 1961 expansion. As soon as we hit 32 or 34 or more teams, each individual team's odds will continue to drop.

On top of that, each team isn't starting at the same place. If we had thirty brand new teams in a hypothetical competitor league start this season, we'd (on average) expect one to have a barren century. But not all MLB teams are starting at zero. The Indians, as mentioned, would only need to go four more decades to match the Cubs, which works out to just over a one-in-four chance (25.77%). The Rangers and Astros, at 56 and 55 respective years without a championship, come in at just under one-in-six, and then there's a trio of teams approaching the half-century mark on top of them.

That's not to say that they'll be quite as...extraordinary as the Cubs' streak. After all, the Cubs pulled off half of that in a pre-expansion era of only sixteen teams. A "mere" fifty years of not winning with 1/16 odds (6.25%) is actually roughly as likely as not winning for a hundred years in a thirty-team league, so any future "hundred-year rebuilding plans" won't have been as statistically improbable as the Cubs' recently-ended one unless the new team eclipses their mark in length. Of course, I'm sure that fact will do a lot to comfort whichever team's fans finds themselves on the wrong end of a century of ultimately coming up short.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Best Active Players Without a World Series

Once again, in honor of the World Series, I released a new Sporcle quiz: the Best Active Players Without a World Series Title. I’ve released ones like this before, so I decided to update it for 2016. If you want to play it, just follow that link. I also have some writing on the subject below. There are some spoilers, so only click on the “read more” link when you aren’t as concerned with those. Also, pretty much all of this post was written before the end of the series so that it would be ready to go ASAP, so please excuse any hypotheticals I may have forgotten to edit out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Sporcle Quiz and Other Assorted Trivia for the 2016 World Series

In honor of the World Series starting, I released a new Sporcle Quiz: Can you pick the World Series match-ups? It’s pretty difficult, but also a lot of fun.

Also, as a follow-up on my 2016 Drought Report: it’s been a pretty good year. We got one of the sixteen possible World Series match-ups that had never occurred before, but that's just the start of it. The Cubs and Indians (1908 and 1948, in case you need a refresher) represent not just the two longest active championship droughts in the playoffs this year, but in baseball overall. In fact, in all of the North American sports leagues, the only way you could construct a longer combined title drought right now is if the Cubs somehow faced off against the Arizona Cardinals (naturally; who else would the Cubs face but a Cardinals team?) in what I only presume would be the World Championship of Calvinball.

With a combined 174 years of drought between them, the 2016 World Series’ record is guaranteed to stand for a little while, because one of the two longest droughts is guaranteed to end. The Cubs (as of right now) by themselves automatically make any potential match-up third on this list. If they go, we’re going to need to wait for the Brewers, Padres, or Nationals to catch up. Each of those three is yet to win it all since being founded in 1969, tying them for second longest championshipless streak in the National League. If the Indians and one of those three were to not win until their combined droughts topped 174 years, we’d be waiting until the 2047 season.

But even if the Indians triumph and leave us the Cubs’ drought, we’ll still have a few years with the record at minimum. The next possible match-up to top 174 years would be a 2023 Cubs-Rangers World Series, with a Cubs-Astros series tying the record (those 1960s expansion teams have had it rough, overall).

And again, that’s assuming not only that we get those very specific matchups, but also that none of those three teams win in the interim; they all seem poised to be strong for some time, and as we’ve seen, any team can get hot in October. And it wouldn’t be unheard of for one or both of these teams to have a sustained run of success after this season. Just look at the runner-up matches on that list: the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Giants all appear, and have combined for seven of the past twelve titles.

All signs seem to point to this not only being a unique occurrence in baseball history, but also to it staying that way for quite a while.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Droughts, Expansion Team Series, and Other Trivia on the 2016 Playoffs

Two years ago, I wrote about all of the teams with World Series droughts that would be going to the postseason. I didn’t intend to make it a regular feature back then, but then the very next season, wouldn’t you know it, there was yet another batch of teams looking to bust their drought! (And that postseason actually ended with a drought getting busted, unlike 2014!)

Two years of looking at this aspect of the playoffs was enough to inspire me to look again, and it wound up being yet another interesting set of teams, so it looks like I have a new tradition on my hands here. How does it stack up to years past? Well enough, actually. In fact, once again, the Blue Jays are the third-shortest championship drought in the whole thing, despite last year marking their first postseason appearance in 22 seasons.

Giants: 2014
Red Sox: 2013
Blue Jays: 1993
Dodgers: 1988
Mets: 1986
Orioles: 1983
Nationals: Never (team founded in 1969)
Rangers: Never (team founded in 1961)
Indians: 1948
Cubs: 1908

Comparing that to last year, we lose a little bit at the top (since the Yankees and Cardinals were the most recent winners from last year’s set, with 2009 and 2011 wins, respectively), but the addition of the second-longest active title drought in the Indians more than makes up for that. We once again have two 1960s expansion teams that have never won, although the Nationals are a little younger than the Astros.

How does that look in the larger context of the wild card era?

Yep, once again, this year’s set of playoff teams are some of the longest suffering. With a 39.9 year average drought and a 31.5 median, they stand above every year other than 1998, which was a murderer’s row of suffering teams, between the Cubs, Indians, pre-2004 Red Sox, and the championshipless Astros, Rangers, and Padres…but wound up with the Yankees on top anyway.

Another interesting way to look at this year’s set of teams: throughout baseball history, only 25 times has a World Series drought lasted more than 30 seasons. Eleven of those droughts are active, and for the second season in a row, five of thoes eleven teams are playing in October.

Relatedly, the ten teams left have combined for only 33 titles, which is interesting in its own right. That’s the fewest combined titles for a playoff set since the league expanded to a ten-team finale. Heck, even going back to when only eight teams made it, that’s still the second-lowest combined total ever; the only year with less decaorated teams (both in sum and in average) was 2008, with the Phillies, Cubs, Dodgers, Brewers, Rays, White Sox, Angels, and Red Sox combining for only 20 wins. Granted, this number is a little misleading. The Yankees alone are nearly enough to put any year above this*, with their 27 titles. But it’s interesting trivia all the same.

*Fun fact: the lowest total number of previous World Series titles you can construct for a ten-team postseason set that features the Yankees is 30.

Also, if you’re interested in World Series match-ups as much as I am, this is a pretty good set of teams. With 25 possible combinations available, only 9 of them have previously occurred, and 6 of those haven’t occurred in five decades or more. The nine World Series that have occurred before from this set of teams includes:

Cubs-Red Sox (1918)
Dodgers-Indians (1920)
Dodgers-Orioles (1966)
Dodgers-Red Sox (1916)
Giants-Red Sox (1912)
Giants-Indians (1954)
Giants-Rangers (2010)
Mets-Orioles (1969)
Mets-Red Sox (1986)

So yeah, there’s a greater-than-80 percent chance we see a matchup we haven’t seen since 1920. Whatever happens will more than likely be something that we’ve never seen personally before. It’s also worth noting that five of those pairings involving the Giants or Mets, one of whom will be knocked out after Wednesday, while six involve either the Red Sox or Indians, who are facing off in the ALDS, making the probabilities of repeats slightly less likely.

And lastly, I have to cover the All-Expansion-Team angle, as has also become something of a tradition here. Just because we got our first example last year doesn’t mean I’m going to stop just like that. And while we don’t have five expansion teams playing on like last year (which was a record), we did get pretty close, with four.

Assuming each series has 50/50 odds (which isn’t too far off, to be honest), the AL has a roughly 37.5% chance of being represented by an expansion club (the Blue Jays in the Wild Card game and the Rangers set to face of against the Wild Card game winner). Meanwhile, the NL has similar odds (with the Nationals in the NLDS and the Mets in the Wild Card game), although their set-up is different, meaning that we might either end up with an all-expansion NLCS or no expansion teams moving on.  Put together, that’s a 14.1% chance of our second all-expansion team World Series, or just under 1-in-6. That doesn’t sound great, but it’s not much worse than what we had last year, so it could happen.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

MLB Trying to Push Legislation to Get Around Paying Minimum Wage to Minor Leaguers

I'm going to take a moment here to share some short thoughts about baseball and legislation in the news. 

For those who may not know, minor league baseball players don’t make very much on average. Like, below-minimum-wage, bordering onfederal-poverty-line salaries. And since most minor leaguers, statistically speaking, do not reach the majors, this is a large number of people.

Several minor leaguers have sued Major League Baseball for violating minimum wage and overtime pay laws. So far, makes sense. They have a decent chance of winning, too. Which brings us to last week: two Representatives introduced the deceptively-named “Save Our Pastime” act (HR 5580), to the endorsement of Minor League Baseball. The law would essentially explicitly exempt Minor League Baseball from minimum wage and overtime pay laws, circumventing their upcoming lawsuit.

It’s also worth noting that the bill’s bipartisan sponsors, Brett Guthrie (R-KY) and Cheri Bustos (D-IL), both received money from Major League Baseball’s PAC, and that Guthrie is the son of the PAC’s former head lobbyist.

The law is framed in such a way that it makes the price of paying minor leaguers sound like an onerous burden on teams that might bankrupt minor league teams. In actuality, the Major League teams are the ones footing the bill for minor leaguers’ salaries, and minor league teams would be unaffected. On top of that, MLB is a multi-billion dollar industry that regularly gets absurd handouts for things like publically-financed stadiums, and each team could pay it’s entire minor league system even as much as $50,000 per year (roughly the US median household income) and the total cost (~$7.5 million) still wouldn’t be far off from the average Major League player’s salary ($4.4 million).

I’m worried this bill could pass because it sounds so innocuous, and sports leagues regularly get more ridiculous legislation passed. In reality, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry asking Congress to help bail it out from a lawsuit it brought upon itself for not paying it’s workers fair wages, and I’m even more worried of the precedent it might set for other industries. The group that’s supposed to represent these players (the MLB Player’s Association) has issued no statements, and has regularly ignored issues affecting minor leaguers if it hasn’t helped those at the highest level, so I’m not sure what counterbalance there is. If you’re the type of person who writes to your representatives, maybe consider dropping them a line to let them know.