August 16, 2015
The final weeks of the 2015 MLB regular season will offer some fascinating races and storylines:
- Will the Toronto Blue Jays qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1993 (and end the longest active playoff drought in North American professional sports), or will the New York Yankees qualify for the playoffs for the 18th time in the same span? Or both?
- Will the Houston Astros win the AL West to become one of the most improbable division champions in recent memory, or will the Los Angeles Angels or Texas Rangers storm past them?
- Will the New York Mets ride their young pitching staff to the NL East title, or will the Washington Nationals realize preseason expectations and overtake them?
- Will all three of the NL Central powerhouses (St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Chicago Cubs) march straight into the postseason?
- Will the Los Angeles Dodgers or their archrival San Francisco Giants claim the NL West crown?
- Will the Milwaukee Brewers or Cincinnati Reds finish in last place in the NL Central?
Wait…what was that? That’s right. While a division’s cellar wouldn’t seem a likely focus of late-season interest, the Reds’ current streak of avoiding a last-place division finish is in serious jeopardy. The Reds most recently brought up the rear in 1983, when Mario Soto’s best season, Johnny Bench’s final season, and Russ Nixon’s only full season as Cincinnati’s manager culminated in a 74-88 finish (respectable by last-place standards), 17 games behind the NL West Champion Dodgers and five games behind the fifth-place Giants.
Cincinnati seized the claim of longest-active-streak-without-finishing-in-last-place at the end of the 1996 season (when the Kansas City Royals, in their 28th season of existence, finished in last place for the first time), and the Reds have held on ever since. A 69-93 campaign was nearly (but not quite) lousy enough to finish below the Milwaukee Brewers in 2003, but this was the closest the Reds have come to surrendering their streak…until, perhaps, 2015.
Not only is the Reds’ streak the longest such active streak in Major League Baseball, it is the longest such active streak by far. Take a look at the most recent last-place finish for each MLB team:
1990: Braves, Cardinals, Yankees
2007: Giants, Rays (then Devil Rays)
2009: Athletics, Indians*
2010: Nationals, Pirates, Royals
2011: Orioles, Padres
2013: Astros, Blue Jays, Marlins, Rockies, White Sox
2014: Cubs, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Red Sox, Twins
* finished in tie for last place
Of course, the Reds have enjoyed a certain degree of last-place protection by playing in big divisions (in other words, there’s been an increased likelihood that someone else – anyone else! – would finish in last place instead). But how much protection, exactly?
Due to expansion and realignment, division size has fluctuated significantly since the Reds’ most recent last-place finish. Only two teams (Arizona and Tampa Bay) have never experienced a change in division size, each joining their respective five-team divisions in their inaugural 1998 season and remaining there ever since. Other teams have ridden a division-size roller coaster – particularly the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati, Houston, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, who each played in a six-team division through 1992, a seven-team division in 1993, a five-team division 1994-1997, a six-team division 1998-2012, and a five-team division since 2013, for a weighted average division size of 5.84 teams during the 31 seasons from 1984-2014.
The following table puts much of this last-place lore into context. All data pertains to the 1984-2014 seasons:
- FULL SEASONS: Number of seasons the team played; most MLB teams have been operating for all 31 seasons, but Colorado, Miami, Arizona, and Tampa Bay joined the league along the way
- AVERAGE DIVISION SIZE: Accounts for fluctuations in division size as described in the paragraph above
- EXPECTED LAST-PLACE FINISHES: Found by dividing Full Seasons by Division Size; teams that have played in smaller divisions would be expected to finish last more often than teams that have played in larger divisions
- ACTUAL LAST-PLACE FINISHES: Number of last-place finishes over this span; *indicates that total includes exactly one last-place tie
- QUOTIENT: The measure ultimately used here to determine how well each team has avoided last place during this span, found by dividing Actual Last-Place Finishes by Expected Last-Place Finishes; teams with Quotient less than 1 have been better than expected at avoiding last-place finishes; teams with Quotient greater than 1 have been worse than expected at avoiding last-place finishes
|Rank||Team||Full Seasons||Average Division Size||Expected Last-Place Finishes||Actual Last-Place Finishes||Quotient|
Any way you slice it, the Reds have been the kings of not-that-bad during this span. Only time will tell if a generation of Reds fans will witness their first basement placement in 2015.
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