You’ll probably be surprised to learn that the Arizona Diamondbacks won more regular-season games in the decade which just finished than the Houston Astros. Yeah, them: the team which has won three straight AL Central titles, reaching the World Series twice and winning it in 2017. But over the decade as a whole, Arizona had four more victories outside the playoffs, 793-789. This is the rabbit-hole down which I wandered over the weekend, when I started looking at team wins for the 2010’s. Who had the most? Who had the fewest? Who did best and worst in the post-season? Let’s take a look.
Firstly, the table below shows you, for each team, their overall regular season W%, the number of wins they had in the playoffs, and the times they reached the post-season.
Probably not too much of a surprise who were the best overall teams this decade. The Yankees (.569) just edge the Dodgers (.567) by a couple of points, with the Cardinals following in at .555. At the other end, the Marlins (.435) are joined by the Padres (.456) and the White Sox (.459). And they haven’t just been bad, they have been consistently bad: none of that trio managed to reach the playoffs last decade. Even the last winning season by any of them was back in 2012, when the White Sox went 85-77. Arizona sits right in the middle of the pack, occupying equal 15th place alongside the Mets, both teams having an overall record of 793-827.
For amusement, I also crunched the numbers for the previous decade, 2000-2009. For Arizona, this included both the delirious highs of the 2001 World Series title, and the painful lows of the 111-defeat campaign, just three years later. Oddly, the D-backs had a slightly better record, twelve games higher at 805-815, but were ranked lower, tied with the Blue Jays for 18th place. This may be a result of an apparent increase in “competitive balance” lately. In the 2010’s, the gap between the best and worst teams was 132 points of win percentage. In the 2000’s the gap between the best (Yankees again, at .597) and worst (Royals, .412) was 185 points.
Back in the decade just completed, I thought I would look at who were the most consistent teams. The chart below plots average win % over the decade against the standard deviation of each year’s win % - that’s a measure of how much variation there is from season to season. The further to the left you are, the more stable your win tally; the further to the right, the bigger the variation. The higher a team is, the better they were over the decade; and the lower they are, the worse they performed from 2010-2019. [A full-scale version of the chart can be seen here, if necessary]
You can see the Astros, way out on the right, a result of the roller-coaster era they enjoyed. There cannot be many decades in baseball history which saw the same team lose a hundred-plus games three years in a row AND also win a hundred-plus games three years in a row! That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win two pennants and a World Series, while having a losing record for the decade as a whole. I also note that the San Francisco Giants, whose three World Series championships this decade was more than any one else [the Red Sox were the only other multiple champs], barely squeaked into positive territory, averaging 82.1 victories per season.
The Giants and Angels had the same regular record. But the even-year bullshit enjoyed by SF stands in sharp relief to the Angels, whose last victory in the post-season happened in 2009. [At least they’re not the Twins, now losers of their last sixteen playoff games in a row] Another sharp contrast, proving when you win can be as important as how much, comes from the Royals and Mariners. Both of them also had the same regular mark, 758-862. Kansas City got two pennants and 22 post-season wins, just one fewer of the latter than Boston in the last decade. On the other hand, Seattle didn’t reach the playoffs at all, and have not done so since 2001 - the longest active drought across the four major sports.
If you’re looking for perpetual contention, move to St. Louis. 2019 marked their twelfth consecutive season finishing within seven games either side of 93 wins. For perpetual sub-mediocrity? San Diego. For the Padres almost did better, save for the outlier in 2010 when they won 90. Since then San Diego has been in the 66-77 win range, nine years in a row. In the NL West, it generally has been feast or famine. Beyond the Giants, the Dodgers are tied with the Yankees for most post-season appearances. But the D-backs, Rockies and hapless Padres can muster only four playoff victories combined across ten seasons - and one of those was the Arizona-Colorado wild-card game in 2017, which someone had to win.
There does generally seem to be a correlation between W% and playoff appearances, which is what you’d expect. But playoff wins? Not so much. Witness the Braves and A’s, both averaging 84 wins a season. They each achieved a post-season berth as often as not in the 2010’s, a number of appearances exceeded only by the NYY/LAD/STL trifecta. But those ten combined playoff campaigns all ended at the first hurdle. For Atlanta, that extended a streak of what is now ten series losses in a row, starting with the 2001 NLCS loss to the Diamondbacks. For the A’s... I guess Billy Beane’s shit continues not to work in the playoffs, even after his elevation above the position of GM in Oakland!
What does this mean for the D-backs, as we head into the 2020’s? You could draw various conclusions. The Astros are perhaps the poster-children for effective tanking. But there are others teams which have sucked, and failed to rebuild subsequently. It does show that consistent success, in terms of a playoff berth, is hard to achieve across a decade, with only three teams there more than half the time. I think I’d be happy if Arizona can surpass their 2010’s tally of two post-season appearances. What happens when they get there... Well, that’s almost entirely in the hands of the baseball gods.