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Bad Teams May Be Posing As Good Teams In A 60-Game Baseball Season

From COVID-19 outbreaks within the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals clubhouses to rescheduled games, nomadic teams, impossible occurrences and almost every team still hunting for a playoff spot, the 2020 Major League Baseball season is already off to a pretty chaotic start.

Just as weird, though, could be the things we’ll never even know about this season. Although we noted that a 60-game season wouldn’t offer much less certainty than a 162-game campaign usually does, it’s also true that a sample of 60 games can be unrepresentative of how good a team actually is. In fact, there are plenty of cases from throughout history in which 60 games were highly unrepresentative of how a team played over its other 102 games — 102 games that, this season, we’ll never actually get to see.

For instance, in 1977 the Chicago Cubs had a 60-game stretch in which they went 43-17, a record that will probably resemble what the best team in baseball produces this season. Based on this, you might think they had a strong season — after all, even if they just played .500 ball over their other 102 games, that’s a 94-win season. But no: They went 38-64 in those other games, landing their full-season record at just 81-81 despite the scorching 60-game stretch. That differential in winning percentage — more than 34 points between their best 60 games and the rest of the schedule — is the largest gap in MLB history:1

Baseball’s all-time Jekyll-and-Hyde teams, Part I

All-time MLB teams with the largest positive difference in winning percentage between their best 60-game stretch and all other games

Best 60 Games Other Games
Year Team Games W L Win% W L Win% Diff
1977 Cubs 10-69 43 17 71.7% 38 64 37.3% +34.4
2013 Dodgers 69-128 47 13 78.3 45 57 44.1 +34.2
1997 Phillies 103-162 38 22 63.3 30 72 29.4 +33.9
2017 Dodgers 61-120 51 9 85.0 53 49 52.0 +33.0
2005 Athletics 50-109 45 15 75.0 43 59 42.2 +32.8
2011 Twins 47-106 35 25 58.3 28 74 27.5 +30.9
1988 Angels 55-114 39 21 65.0 36 66 35.3 +29.7
1973 Cardinals 32-91 41 19 68.3 40 62 39.2 +29.1
2012 Pirates 45-104 40 20 66.7 39 63 38.2 +28.4
2019 Rockies 15-74 37 23 61.7 34 68 33.3 +28.3
2010 Orioles 102-161 35 25 58.3 31 71 30.4 +27.9
2000 Astros 94-153 37 23 61.7 35 67 34.3 +27.4
2017 Indians 94-153 48 12 80.0 54 48 52.9 +27.1
2001 Athletics 103-162 48 12 80.0 54 48 52.9 +27.1
2018 Reds 36-95 35 25 58.3 32 70 31.4 +27.0
2004 Devil Rays 33-92 36 24 60.0 34 67 33.7 +26.3
1987 Padres 54-113 34 26 56.7 31 71 30.4 +26.3
2016 Giants 18-77 42 18 70.0 45 57 44.1 +25.9
1983 Brewers 64-123 42 18 70.0 45 57 44.1 +25.9
1979 Dodgers 94-153 39 21 65.0 40 62 39.2 +25.8
2011 Red Sox 38-97 43 17 71.7 47 55 46.1 +25.6
2005 Orioles 6-65 37 23 61.7 37 65 36.3 +25.4
2003 Mariners 11-70 44 16 73.3 49 53 48.0 +25.3
2005 Indians 96-155 44 16 73.3 49 53 48.0 +25.3
1993 Orioles 52-111 41 19 68.3 44 58 43.1 +25.2

Minimum of 100 games played outside of a team’s best 60-game stretch.

Sources: FanGraphs, Retrosheet

More recently, a couple of Los Angeles Dodger teams have wrapped scorching 60-game runs inside of otherwise mediocre years. In 2013, L.A. was 45-57 (on pace for a paltry 71 wins over 162 games) outside of its best 60 games … but it went 47-13 during that hot streak, allowing it to finish with 92 wins despite subpar play for the majority of the season. It happened again four years later, when the Dodgers went an unbelievable 51-9 in their best 60 games — the third-greatest 60-game stretch in the history of baseball, in fact2 — but were barely better than .500 (53-49) in their other 102 games.

And just last year, the Rockies had 37 wins in a stretch of 60 early season contests, which helped them climb to six games over .500 after a dreadful 3-12 start. But from that point onward they went 31-57, eventually finishing a distant fourth in the NL West with a 71-91 record. Outside of the 37-23 run, the Rockies went 34-68 — a difference worth 28 points of winning percentage.

The 2017 Dodgers ended up nearly winning the World Series, so it’s safe to say their hot 60 games were pretty representative of how good they could actually be. But all of this also illustrates how streaky baseball can be, how much luck 2020’s teams will need in order to be in top form when the games are actually played — and how, even if a team has a good 60 games, we’ll never really know whether that would have carried over to the rest of the season.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are teams that had terrible 60-game stretches totally uncharacteristic of the rest of their season. Consider the case of the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers; they started the season on a 20-3 streak only to go 21-39 over the next 60 games before ending the season with a 50-29 run. That seesaw season still gave the Brewers 91 wins in total, but their bad 60-game stretch — with a winning percentage 34 points below what they had in their other games — ultimately cost them a playoff spot. It did, though, earn them a place in baseball history:

Baseball’s all-time Jekyll-and-Hyde teams, Part II

All-time MLB teams with the largest negative difference in winning percentage between their worst 60-game stretch and all other games

Worst 60 Games Other Games
Year Team Games W L Win% W L Win% Diff
1987 Brewers 24-83 21 39 35.0% 70 32 68.6% -33.6
1982 Twins 5-64 11 49 18.3 49 53 48.0 -29.7
1997 Phillies 42-101 14 46 23.3 54 48 52.9 -29.6
1986 Athletics 29-88 17 43 28.3 59 43 57.8 -29.5
2013 Dodgers 10-69 23 37 38.3 69 33 67.6 -29.3
1988 Indians 58-117 18 42 30.0 60 42 58.8 -28.8
2015 Braves 85-144 14 46 23.3 53 49 52.0 -28.6
1973 Cubs 79-138 18 42 30.0 59 42 58.4 -28.4
2018 Mets 20-79 18 42 30.0 59 43 57.8 -27.8
2012 Astros 73-132 10 50 16.7 45 57 44.1 -27.5
2019 Rockies 84-143 16 44 26.7 55 47 53.9 -27.3
2016 Giants 91-150 22 38 36.7 65 37 63.7 -27.1
2012 Indians 87-146 15 45 25.0 53 49 52.0 -27.0
1975 Brewers 97-156 15 45 25.0 53 49 52.0 -27.0
2004 Astros 33-92 24 36 40.0 68 34 66.7 -26.7
1962 Colt .45’s 69-128 14 46 23.3 50 50 50.0 -26.7
1986 Orioles 103-162 17 43 28.3 56 46 54.9 -26.6
1977 Cubs 103-162 20 40 33.3 61 41 59.8 -26.5
2005 Astros 5-64 23 37 38.3 66 36 64.7 -26.4
2009 Reds 47-106 19 41 31.7 59 43 57.8 -26.2
2014 Rangers 69-128 15 45 25.0 52 50 51.0 -26.0
1977 Royals 4-63 28 32 46.7 74 28 72.5 -25.9
1991 Mets 92-151 19 41 31.7 58 43 57.4 -25.8
1962 Indians 66-125 20 40 33.3 60 42 58.8 -25.5
2001 Red Sox 97-156 21 39 35.0 61 40 60.4 -25.4

Minimum of 100 games played outside of a team’s best 60-game stretch.

Sources: FanGraphs, Retrosheet

By definition, there’s some overlap with our earlier list — but this one can also be more tragic, filled with stories of teams that were better over larger samples of games but whose hopes were undone by a couple of cold months.

The 2018 New York Mets are a good recent example. When they started the year 14-5, hopes were high the team could reclaim its World Series form of just a few seasons earlier. Instead, they promptly rattled off an 18-42 stretch over the next 60 games,3 falling well out of the NL East race before a 45-38 finish brought their final record within a few games of .500. Take out the bad 60 games, replace them with just about anything else, and the Mets might have won the division.

But some of these teams also survived bad 60-game stretches to make some noise in the playoffs. Speaking of the Mets, the 2016 San Francisco Giants beat New York at Citi Field in the playoffs after weathering a terrible 22-38 sequence down the stretch of the regular season. The 2004 Houston Astros overcame a 24-36 record in their worst 60 games to finish 92-70, won a playoff series over the Atlanta Braves and took the St. Louis Cardinals to seven games in the NLCS. Then, the very next year, Houston did it again! The Astros powered through a rough 23-37 stretch early in the season, returned to the postseason and even made the World Series.

So if a team wins only 23 games this year, who knows? It might be hiding World Series talent that would have come out if only the season had been longer. Certainly, history tells us that plenty of storylines will materialize — or be lost forever — depending on which section of 60 games happens to be the 60 that get played this year. But in the end, those will be the only data points we have on each of 2020’s teams (assuming some teams even play that much). Whatever else remains will be left to baseball’s department of what-ifs, an office that’s sure to be busier than ever in this strange, strange season.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

CORRECTION (Aug. 7, 2020, 4:10 p.m.): An earlier version of this article described a 51-9 record over 60 games by the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers as the best 60-game stretch in MLB history. It was the third-greatest behind the 1906 Chicago Cubs and the 1912 New York Giants, who each went 52-8 in 60 games.

Footnotes

  1. For seasons when teams played at least 100 games outside of their best 60-game stretch.

  2. Of stretches that don’t overlap with any other 60-game stretches in a team’s schedule.

  3. A stretch that included an embarrassing loss to the Cincinnati Reds in which the Mets batted out of order.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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