When the collective “we” of baseball fandom are trying to get our heads around a crazy baseball game (such as Game 7 of the recently ended World Series), win probability charts tend to be the go-to tool. And with good reason: They provide a graphical representation of the gut-wrenching swings, pivots, and triumphs of any given game.
We face a similar sort of problem when it comes to seasons, and perhaps even more so. How can you even begin to grasp what a team went through in not just one nine-inning game, but 162 of them, spread over six months? It’s not easy, but one starting point is the season-long equivalent of a win probability graph: the playoff probability graph, available at FanGraphs.
I did this last year as well, and I’m going to follow a similar script for 2016, separating the teams into various groups based on when and how they peaked. Not all the teams that share a group will have had identical seasons, but this is at least a starting point for analyzing what the 2016 experience must have been like. I won’t include the 10 teams that made the playoffs, since they already are categorized pretty neatly: The Cubs are happier than everyone, Cleveland is happier than everyone but the Cubs, etc.
The Never-Had-a-Chancers – Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, San Diego
We’ll start with the bleakest group of all, the set of five teams that never came close to even a hint of a chance of making the playoffs (no matter what Carson Cistulli predicted). As a result, these seasons are light on heartbreak, since the slow slog through the summer wasn’t surprising to anyone; however, they’re also totally devoid of not only success, but hope. While lots of teams miss the playoffs, only a few never had the chance to even dream of it.
The highest odds of any team in this group came the morning of April 11th, less than two weeks into the season, when Cincinnati was given a 3.0% shot of making the postseason. At that moment, the Reds were 5–1, having swept the Phillies and taken two of three from the division-mate Pirates. Records were never that important to the playoff odds of these teams, however; the Phillies somehow “rocketed” off to a 24–17 start, but the composition of their roster meant that the projections never thought they could come close to sustaining that kind of pace.
The Padres are perhaps the one outlier, since they made noise about competing at the beginning of this season (so much so that I even wrote an article trying to lay out a possible [if not plausible] way they could make the playoffs) (please don’t read that). The projections and resulting playoff odds were not convinced, and if we’re being honest, I don’t think the Padres front office was ever really convinced either. They, like all of these teams, were probably planning from Opening Day to evaluate the success or failure of 2016 based on something other than wins and losses.
The Rapid-Decliners – Minnesota, Colorado, Los Angeles (AL), Arizona, Oakland, Tampa Bay
Every team and fan base that didn’t win the World Series has reasons to feel bad. (That will be a recurring theme of this piece.) These teams, however, especially have reasons to feel bad. They had strong enough rosters that their fan bases had to have felt some hope when the season was beginning, but nonetheless didn’t last long enough to partake in the late-summer part of the playoff race, or even to be active players at the trade deadline.
The Rockies, possibly, don’t truly belong in this group, as indicated by the bumps their odds underwent in August and September. Extremely small bumps, but bumps nonetheless, and bumps that none of their peers in this group got to experience. It’s the long monotony of the second half of the summer that sets this group apart, and especially if you paid more attention to their place in the standings over their place in the projections, the Rockies had much less of that. They still had a lot of that, however, especially once mid-September arrived and the Giants and the Dodgers pulled away.
Conversely, however, the Rockies had the lowest playoff odds of this group on Opening Day, possibly making their decline less crushing to the fan base. The Rays and the Angels started the season with a one-in-four shot at the postseason, per these odds, which is about the point where a team transforms from a long shot to a legitimate contender. In our preseason poll, the Rays got a first place vote, and the Diamondbacks some Wild Card votes. None of these teams were favorites, or even close, but they had a real chance, and watching that chance evaporate in May and June can’t have been fun.
The Hanging-on-for-Dear-Lifers – Pittsburgh, Houston, New York (AL), Miami, Kansas City, Chicago (AL)
Thankfully, we’ve crossed the line from “mostly negative” to “mostly positive” in relation to the feelings about these teams’ seasons. Fans might have had greater expectations than these projections reflect – the Royals were coming off a championship and two consecutive seasons where they defied playoff odds en route to the World Series, so their 15% preseason figure was probably mentally adjusted upward several notches – but for the most part, the failure of these teams to make the playoffs wasn’t shocking. Plus, they were in their respective races for almost the entire season, and were only mathematically eliminated in the last few weeks, all of which makes for a fairly enjoyable season when taken together.
Again, there are some exceptions; the Astros, for example, had much higher odds than the rest of this group but found themselves unable to recover from an abysmal first month, and the thought of what might have been had they played up to their skill level in April likely dogged fans for the entirety of the season that followed. The White Sox’s season was a kind of mirror image of Houston’s; after being pegged to be not particularly good, they got off to a torrid start, then watched it all slip away as they crashed back to earth in the middle of the summer. While I think both teams ultimately fit best in this group, there’s some serious pain in those two seasons that the other teams here might not share.
After all, for some of these clubs, any late-season relevance was pure bonus. The Marlins weren’t really expected to be good, but they hung around the NL Wild Card until almost the bitter end. The Yankees made the hard choice to send away good players at the trade deadline, then found themselves winning tons of games in the last months of the season, led by Gary Sanchez and a cadre of other surprising young players. Pittsburgh also had a rough stretch where their playoff odds fell to nearly zero, but they were able to sufficiently recover such that August and September remained exciting months. For a number of the teams in this group, any chance they had at the postseason was a happy surprise.
The Last-Minute-Heartbreakers – Seattle, Detroit
This final trio of teams illustrates what I’d call the “horseshoe theory” of baseball despair; that the most misery is experienced by fans of the teams that are truly terrible, and the teams that are just barely not good enough to make the playoffs. I’m not totally convinced that theory is correct, but when you look at the turmoil of the final days of these playoff odds graphs, it at least sounds convincing. All three teams were active players in their respective Wild Cards until the very last days of the season (and, for the Cardinals and the Tigers, the literal last day of the season), meaning that they gave their fans reason to hope for nearly as long as one possibly can without actually making the playoffs. More hope is probably good, but it might make the final fall all the more painful.
One reason to think this season wasn’t as unpleasant as the end of these team’s playoff odds lines make it look is where those lines began. Both Detroit and Seattle started the season with playoff odds in the 15%–40% range that so many teams in the AL occupied, and while both had rosters that were easily envisioned making the playoffs, neither seemed like a sure thing. This wasn’t a gut-wrenching collapse like the Red Sox underwent in 2012; this was surprising optimism that lasted longer than most people expected. Still, that’s likely cold comfort to fans of these two teams. As the last few games of the season ticked down, their thoughts were likely not in early April, but in late October, already beginning to dream about the possibilities of the postseason, should only a couple of breaks go their way. Instead, the Orioles and Blue Jays managed to hold on and avoid inclusion in this post, leaving the Mariners and Tigers in their place. Sorry, friends.
But cold comfort is better than none, and that might be what the Cardinals were left with after game 162. St. Louis is a team that has a recent history of consistent playoff success, and they began the season with a stronger roster than either of their peers in this group. They had similar looking playoff odds, due in large part to their unfortunate placement in the same division with the Cubs, but better, and I think the difference between 25% and 40% feels larger than it is, for whatever reason. As a result, I suspect the Cardinals also belong in a sub-group of their own; the fight in the last few days of the season probably felt less like some unearned extra excitement, and more like a losing scrabble for baseball life.
In the end, while playoff odd graphs might be the best tool we have, they’re still too clinical to fully convey the feeling of a season. The joy and pain that imbues even the most inconsequential late-August game with meaning is totally absent from the gradual ticks up and down. Until baseball returns, however, these graphs are basically the best thing we have, so cherish them.
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Henry Druschel is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.