Luck of the Drawl
In the summer of 1990, I was working on a project which required me to spend long stretches of time in Atlanta. That entire summer working with my native Georgian colleagues over lunches at the Varsity, I predicted that their Braves would be the team of the future, what with their great pitching prospects. But the local yokels only saw a team peopled by Andres Thomasi and Oddibe "Young" McDowells. It's odd given the spoiled, playoff-weary, "we don't even bother to chop until the second round of the playoffs" types the fans have become.
I remember one game I attended with eight thousand hearty souls in which Dale Murphy, Ron Gant, and Pittsburgh's Bobby Bonilla all homered twice. Barry Bonds went deep just once, the slacker. And the Pirates came back from a 13-7 deficit to score four in the top of the ninth, but came up short as pinch-hitter John Cangelosi led off and ended the inning with a strikeout (the other out being a rare K for Bonds). The scant few fans in the upper deck section in which I was seated went crazy and bonded in that impersonal yet connected way that sportsfans do.
However, despite the presence of youngsters Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Pete Smith, Derek Lilliquist, and Kent Mercker on the pitching staff-all under 25 and all getting amble innings-the Braves finished last for the third straight year in 1990. They did, though, make one very important move, hiring back Bobby Cox two-thirds of the way through the season.
Of course, since 1990 the Braves have won thirteen division titles. They have not missed the playoffs since the last Bush presidency (I am ignoring the playoff-less 1994 season in all of this analysis). They have 15 in total since divisional play started in 1969. That's two more division titles than the next team (the Yankees and A's both have 13).
Their 13 straight playoff appearances is the longest such streak in baseball history. The Yankees current streak of ten is their longest (five-year streaks: 1949-53 and 1960-64; 4-year: 1936-39 and 1955-58). The Indians had a five-year streak in the mid-Nineties (1995-99). The Giants had a four-year streak back in John McGraw's day (1921-24). The A's had a four-year streak broken last year and had a five-year streak in the days of Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue (1971-75).
And that's it. No other team has won more than three straight (unless you count Charlie Comiskey's St. Louis Browns of the American Association in the 1880s, before they were known as the Cardinals). And even though one could argue that with an extra round of playoffs added in 1994 it's easier than ever to make the playoffs, the Braves have done it by winning their division, not by using the wild card backdoor. The Yankees have two wild card appearances in their current streak (1995 and 1997), and the A's had one wild card in the middle of their four-year streak (2000-2003).
The Braves have had more playoff appearances during their current streak than six of the original sixteen teams have in their entire histories.
They are discussing having their names permanently etched in the top spot of the NL East for all posterity. Few seem to remember that when the "streak" started they were in the NL's Western Division (a remnant of the Gussie Bush and Phil Wrigley era), there were no wildcards, and there were just two rounds of playoffs.
The odd thing is that with all that success, the Braves have just one World Series ring to show for it (1995) and only five National League pennants, the last coming in 1999. They have not been able to get out of the first round of the playoffs in seven of the last eight years. Since the Braves won their last World Series title, the Marlins (1997 and 2003) and the Mets (2000) -- both division rivals -- have gone to the fall classic via the wild card and the former has two rings to show for it.
A lot of that has to do with how Atlanta constructs and employs a roster for the regular season, the long haul, in such a way that does not lend itself well to the micro-season that is a playoff series. And a lot has to do with some rather odd in-game decisions by Monsieur Cox that I won't go into right now. However, one has to wonder how bad their streak of luck in the playoffs has been, from an historical standpoint, and if another such streak can be found on this side of the Buffalo Bills.
First, let's take a look at the Braves record and determine if it truly is that much worse than anyone else's. As I mentioned earlier, the Braves have won 15 division titles since divisional play began. They have five National League pennants and one World Series crown to show for it.
The Orioles have the same number of league pennants and one more World Series title but did it with just eight division titles. Ditto for the Reds, except they have three World Series wins. The Dodgers have five pennants and two World Series rings to go with their nine division championships. The Yankees have ten pennants and six World Series championships resulting from 13 division crowns. The A's have six pennants, four Series rings, and 13 division titles. Even the Marlins have two rings without ever winning a division title. (Note: these numbers reflect just the divisional play era.)
The bottom line is that the Braves have converted less than 7% of their division titles into World Series rings. Of teams with more than three division crowns, the only team with a worse conversion ratio is Houston (0-for-7). Also, the overall expectation for any given division champ to win the World Series is 19%, based on the results so far.
But how many rings would one expect the Braves to have won? Given that there are eight teams that make the playoffs, let's assume that each has a one-in-eight chance to reach the promised land of champagne showers and Bud Selig-presenting trophies. In the days before the wild card, each team had a one-in-four chance (i.e., 1969-2003, excluding the strike year of 1981 in which eight teams made the playoffs). In the days before division play, let's assume that each playoff team had a one-in-two chance. (Yes, this may be simplistic, but given that weighing factors home-field advantage, series length, series procedures, and regular-season win differential would produce odds that are better predictors but given the limited sample size and the number of various factors, I don't think anything conclusive can be derived.)
One would expect the fifteen Braves division titles to translate into 2.5 World Series crowns, so they have come up 1.5 short. Given the odds, here are the teams that underachieved and overachieved the most in the era of divisional play.
Those lists should not be a surprise. The Braves are the worst of the group. Before we put this into an historical context, let's look at Atlanta's record in converting division crowns into pennants. The Braves have five pennants from their 15 division titles. That's 33%. The average conversion ratio for a division winner has been slightly higher at 39%. Here are the underachievers/overachievers for league titles:
OK, now let's put the Braves' World Series underachieving in a more historical context. Combining the data from before and after division play was instituted, are there bigger underachievers than the Braves?
The Yankees leading the overachievers list is no surprise given that they have 26 rings and all. However, the Red Sox appearance may be a surprise given their infamous 86-year drought that was ended last year, but the Red Sox have a history that parallels the results the Braves have witnessed during their current streak: early success followed by a long period of failure.
Also, you might notice that the underachieving by the Braves in recent years is not even in the class of the Cubs and the Giants over their entire franchise histories. One thing should be kept in mind, however. Given that there are four times as many teams in the playoffs today, it takes four times as long to reach the same level of underachieving.
For instance, the Braves have been in the playoffs without winning the World Series in each of the last nine years. Given that they have a presumed one-in-eight chance of winning a ring, they have just underachieved by slightly over one World Series win during this span. From 1911 to 1913 McGraw's Giants lost three straight World Series. The expected number of World Series for them during this span is 1.5. Therefore, the Giants' underachieving was much more efficient than the Braves'.
So where does this leave us? Yes, the Braves have come up very short during their division-title streak, but how badly they have underachieved may have more to do with the era in which they play than with any "choking" by the team. Who's to say they would have even made the playoffs throughout the current streak had baseball never expanded to three divisions? They had an inferior record to the NL West winner in two of the seasons of the streak, and their NL East opponents were very weak in a number of the others.
Mike Carminati is the proprietor and author of Mike's Baseball Rants.