What the last 50 years of history tells us
The Diamondbacks have had a tough year. Heading into play Tuesday night they had a 47-97 record, .326 W% . Since the trade deadline the team has played primarily younger pre arbitration eligible position players, giving well over 70% of the at bats to those players. They’ve auditioned record setting numbers of young pitchers and rookies in the rotation and bullpen as well.
Through July 31st the team was 33-72, .314 W%. Since then they’ve had marginal improvement playing the kids, going 14-25, .358 W%. Unfortunately their next 15 games on the schedule are all against playoff bound teams before they finally face the Rockies for the final 3 games of the season at home. If they somehow managed to go 9-9 over these final 18 games that would see them finish at 56-106, .346 W%. That would seem to be the upper limit of where they might finish. So for the purpose of this article, I am focusing on teams over the last 52 years that finished with a W%. under .350, and how quickly they rebounded to competitiveness, i.e. above .500
This is split up into two parts. The divisional era, from 1969-1994, and the Wild Card era from 1995 to present day. (Going any further back than that isn’t very relevant) Lets get straight to the point then, shall we ?
During the first 25 years of the divisional era there were 11 teams to finish with a sub .350 W%. (See red text link above for list of teams) The last time any organization finished with a sub .350 W% and had an above .500 record the very next season were the 1988-89 Baltimore Orioles. They’re an amazing story. They began the season in 1988 with a record losing streak of 21 straight losses! Just 6 games into the year Manager Cal Ripken Sr. was fired and replaced by Frank Robinson. The turn around wasn’t immediate. They lost 15 more straight before finally winning their first game of the year on April 29th. They managed to go 54-86 after the losing streak but never had a winning month. Then in 1989 they shocked the baseball world. Starting off the year 12-12 in April, they got hot as the weather warmed and catapulted themselves into the pennant race. They went into to Toronto the final weekend of the season just ONE game back of the Blue Jays for the divisional title, needing to win the series to pull off the unthinkable. Alas they lost the first two games of the series and Toronto clinched. But the Orioles finished 87-75 for one of the biggest one year turnarounds in the history of the game. You can read some great first person accounts of that year HERE, or if you have the time, there is a long documentary about that season on Youtube here
Sadly, it wasn’t sustainable. They fell below .500 in 1990, and 37 games into the 1991 season they fired Robinson when the team started off 13-24. What have you done for me lately, right ?
10 years prior to that the 1980 Oakland A’s , lead by fiery manager Billy Martin, pulled off an 83-79 season just one year after going 54-108. They actually were in 1st place as late as May 17th but fell off the pace quickly after that and eventually finished 14 games back of the Royals. In the 2nd year after their 1979 debacle, the 1981 strike shortened season, they went 64-45. They made it all the way to the ALCS before bowing out to the Yankees in three straight. They finished below .500 in 1982 and Martin was fired.
These are the only two teams in the last 52 years, since the divisional era to finish above .500 and threaten to make the playoffs in year one after such a bad season
Also notable from the list linked above are the 1970-1972 White Sox. After a dismal 1970 season they improved to 79-83 in 1971, and then lead by Dick Allen’s historic MVP season went 87-67 in 1972, finishing 5.5 games back of the A’s. That was it though as they wouldn’t finish above .500 again until 1976
The other 8 teams on the list all floundered in subsequent seasons, failing to reach .500 for years afterward.
WILDCARD ERA 1995-2021 Original Baseball Reference Table
From 1995-2020 there were 15 teams who had seasons with sub .350 W%, and of course the Diamondbacks and Orioles are joining this undesirable club in 2021. You will see the same organizations repeated here in some instances.
- In “Year 1” after “Year 0”, 12 of the 15 teams saw their Win% improve, while three of them actually got worse. None of them finished at or above .500 The average W% increase was .066. However the 2002-2003 Tigers and 2011-2012-2013 Astros showed that it CAN get worse before it gets better.
- In “Year 2” after “Year 0” we see one team out of 14 turned in a winning record, the 2015 Astros. They made the playoffs via the Wild Card that year with an 86-76 record. In reality it took from 4 years from 2011 to 2014 to get it turned around, and that was with a hard tank/rebuild process. 12 of the 14 teams increased their win % compared to Year 0 while two saw a decrease. The average increase was .107 W% points, but still well below .500 at just .430
- In Year 3 after Year 0, two teams other than the rebuilt Astros were over .500, both making the playoffs, the 2006 Detroit Tigers and the 2007 Diamondbacks. (Albeit with a Pythag 11 games worse !). The 2005 Brewers made it exactly to .500 . The average increase was .149 points.
It’s been over 30 years since a team turned in a winning season the year after being very bad, and it hasn’t happened at all in the Wild Card era since 1995. There is only one example of a team rebounding by year 2, and that team is the Astros after struggling for 4 years. By year 3 just two more teams are added to the list. The much more common occurrence is for teams to continue to struggle 2-3 years out from their “debacle” season.
While this is not intended to be a projection and miracles do happen from time to time, precedent indicates the odds are quite long. Never say never, but as we discuss and project the development of our prospects and dissect future trades and free agent signings, we might want to temper expectations for how long it might take for the Diamondbacks to return to competitive, playoff bound baseball.