The Most Dominant First-Place Finishes Ever

The 2013 Atlanta Braves have the best record in baseball, at 77-49, and the most commanding lead of any team in the majors. Atlanta leads the second-place Washington Nationals by 15 games, and if both teams maintain their current winning percentages — .611 and .492, respectively — the Braves would finish 99-63 while the Nationals finished 80-82, winning the division by 19 games. That would actually be extraordinarily rare. Since 1901, only 14 teams have ever finished in first by as many as 19 games. Obviously, “on-pace-to” stats don’t mean a whole lot. But still: teams don’t usually finish this far ahead of their rivals. By my count, since 1901, the commonly accepted beginning of baseball’s modern era, there have been 2,342 team-seasons and 350 division-seasons. That is, in the 112 seasons between 1901 and 2012, 2,290 teams competed for first place, and 346 teams have finished first. (From 1901 to 1968 there was effectively one division per league; from 1969 to 1993 there were two divisions per league; and since 1994 there have been three divisions per league. But the bizarre 1981 strike season throws this out of whack, because that year was divided into two half-seasons with a postseason “division series.”Because of that, I’ve simply eliminated the 52 team-seasons and four division-seasons from that year.) Of those 346 first-place finishers, only 14 have won their division by 19 games or more. Only 27 have won it by the Braves’ current margin, 15 games. Here is the list of those 27 teams:

 

Year Division/Lg Team name W L W-L% Div. Lead
1995 AL Central Cleveland Indians 100 44 0.694 30
1902 NL Pittsburgh Pirates 103 36 0.741 27.5
1998 AL East New York Yankees 114 48 0.704 22
1986 NL East New York Mets 108 54 0.667 21.5
1999 AL Central Cleveland Indians 97 65 0.599 21.5
1995 NL East Atlanta Braves 90 54 0.625 21
2008 AL West L.A. Angels of Anaheim 100 62 0.617 21
1906 NL Chicago Cubs 116 36 0.763 20
1975 NL West Cincinnati Reds 108 54 0.667 20
1983 AL West Chicago White Sox 99 63 0.611 20
1936 AL New York Yankees 102 51 0.667 19.5
1927 AL New York Yankees 110 44 0.714 19
1969 AL East Baltimore Orioles 109 53 0.673 19
2002 NL East Atlanta Braves 101 59 0.631 19
1929 AL Philadelphia Athletics 104 46 0.693 18
1943 NL St. Louis Cardinals 105 49 0.682 18
1998 NL East Atlanta Braves 106 56 0.654 18
1907 NL Chicago Cubs 107 45 0.704 17
1939 AL New York Yankees 106 45 0.702 17
1941 AL New York Yankees 101 53 0.656 17
1923 AL New York Yankees 98 54 0.645 16
1971 AL West Oakland Athletics 101 60 0.627 16
2003 NL West San Francisco Giants 100 61 0.621 15.5
1970 AL East Baltimore Orioles 108 54 0.667 15
1984 AL East Detroit Tigers 104 58 0.642 15
1988 NL East New York Mets 100 60 0.625 15
2011 AL Central Detroit Tigers 95 67 0.586 15

A couple of weeks ago, after playing around with a dataset I obtained from baseball-reference.com containing all of the division finishes in baseball history, I presented one possible measure of strength or weakness in a division. This is another look at the same dataset. Speaking of strength, an interesting thing to note is the winning percentages of each of these teams. Amazingly, the 2011 Detroit Tigers were able to finish 15 games ahead of their closest rivals because every other team in the division finished below .500, a group led by an 80-82 Indians team that finished in second place. The Braves’ current .611 winning percentage would tie them for 25th on the list. It’s hard to blow away the other teams in your division by this margin unless you win 100 games or everyone else in your division finishes with a losing record. Or both. Naturally, the correlation between winning percentage and the number of games by which a team wins a division is quite strong:

firstplacelead

Extreme winning percentages are diminishing in frequency. This may be a sign of parity in the league. Here is a graph of the frequency of winning percentages over .650:

firstplacelead

And under .350:

firstplacelead

That isn’t necessarily presented in the best way, but you can still see: Teams that finished above .650 and under .350 are heavily clustered toward the beginning of the past century, and more spread out thereafter. Eighty percent of all teams that finished either .650 or under .350 did so before the beginning of divisional play in 1969. But teams with dominant finishes haven’t trailed off in quite the same way. Of the 27 teams above, there’s almost an even split: 10 between 1901 to 1968, eight between 1969 to 1993, and nine between 1994 to 2012. But that actually isn’t too surprising because there were three times as many first-place teams after 1994 as there were before 1968. As a matter of fact, this is almost exactly in line with each era’s overall share of the total number of division-seasons:

15+ Game Lead Division-seasons
1901-1968 10 37.0% 136 39.3%
1969-1993 8 29.6% 96 27.7%
1994-2012 9 33.3% 114 32.9%
Total 27 346

The Braves may not be a juggernaut in the strictest sense. We hardly ever see those any more — apart from teams like the 1998 Yanks. (It’s amazing that the 2001 Mariners won their division by only 14 games, considering  there wasn’t a single 100-game winner in 2012.) But in the context of their times and Atlanta’s division, they’re titans. Ot’s worth appreciating that. We rarely get to see a team leave its division rivals as thoroughly in the dust as the Braves have done this year.




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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

30 Responses to “The Most Dominant First-Place Finishes Ever”

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  1. TKDC says:

    Worth also noting that since there are more teams now, there are many more chances to finish above .650 or below .350, but it rarely happens now. When you hear stories about some of the teams in the beginning of “modern” baseball, it’s not that surprising, though.

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  2. Nathan Richardson says:

    Gaahhh…label your axes.

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  3. Ben Thompson says:

    I find it interesting to see the extended breakdown into the playoffs

    Pre 1969 teams that demolished division were 7-2 in the World Series, with the 1902 Pirates not having one to win.

    From 1969-1993 in 4 division play, massive division leads led to a 4-1 record in the World Series w/ 3 teams eliminated in LCS play.

    In the 6 division format we’re now in (1994-2013), 2-1 in the World Series with 6 early postseason exits.

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  4. Too Many Uptons says:

    The 2001 Mariners won 116 games and didn’t make this list, finishing “only” 14 games ahead of the A’s. Then the Yankees went and beat them both in the playoffs.

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  5. You're no Jack Kennedy says:

    Awesome that the Braves made the list (and high up in it) with only 90 wins. No one else won 70 games that year.

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  6. olethros says:

    What the holy hell happened to the AL Central in ’95? That was right in the middle of my late teens/early twenties attempts to drink, smoke, and fuck everything in sight and I didn’t have much time for baseball during those years.

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    • Anthony says:

      The really funny thing is that no other team in the league finished more than 30 games out of first that year (the Blue Jays finished exactly 30 games behind the Red Sox).

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      Same issue as noted for the 95 Braves, only 144 games that season suppresses what would have been a 110+ win Indian team. When you have a .700 win team in a division its not so surprising that 2nd place was hovering around .500.

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      • Miranda says:

        I don’t think a mediocre second place team necessarily follows from a strong first place team. The 2001 Athletics posted a very fine 102-60 (.630) record. That’ll win you a division most of the time. Heck, a .630 winning percentage would be best in baseball right now.

        But, the A’s had the misfortune to be in the same division as the 116-46 (.716) Mariners. Ah, that was a good summer to be an M’s fan. :)

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  7. Fastpiece says:

    Cool story bro

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  8. Danny Salazar says:

    I didn’t realize that the strike affected both the ’94 and ’95 seasons. The poor Expos aren’t even able to get a mention on lists like this one…they dominated the Braves and everyone else in ’94. Then they traded Marquis Grissom TO THE BRAVES, John Wetteland to the Yankees, Roberto Kelly (whom they received for Grissom) to the Dodgers, and let Larry Walker walk for nothing.

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  9. Chummy Z says:

    Even funnier is that the 2013 Braves have been pretty much a .500 team if you ignore their early season 12-1 run and their recent 15 or so game winning streak. That’s 27-1 right there.

    Obvious cheery picking right there, and not meant to discredit the Braves, but the point is to show how short periods of dominance can really have a powerful impact on overall record.

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    • fast at last says:

      Take away any team’s best two ~15 game stretches and see how they look. It’s nearly a fifth of the season.

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    • D says:

      Take away the Dodger’s 48-9 run, and they’re below .500!
      And also the 35-5 start for the 1984 Tigers… remove that and they don’t make the playoffs!

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    • Tommy says:

      Take away either one of the Braves 2 best stretches and they still have a higher winning percentage than anybody else in their division.

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    • Marcus Tullius Cicero says:

      Cheery picking sounds like a fun activity.

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  10. JKB says:

    Great article. Your first graph shows the .550 winning percentage threshold I have been looking at quite a bit this year. With two wild card teams now, .550 is the number that should get your team into the first round of the playoffs.

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    • Jason B says:

      I don’t think every team that hits the .550 mark will get in; that’s only 89 wins.

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      • Matt says:

        I actually buy into this belief. If you look at the current standings, there are only 5 teams in each leage with a .550 or better. Last year, Tampa was the only team to finish with 90 wins and miss the playoffs, and they were at exactly 90. And in 2011, every team with 89 wins would have made the playoffs if the 2nd wildcard existed. Obviously this isn’t going to be true 100% of the time, but think of it like the NFL. Everyone always says you shoot for 10-6, because that will almost always get you a spot. But in 2008 the Patriots went 11-5 and missed out.

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  11. Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

    It’d be cool if the ’98 Braves could be remembered for what they were. The ’98 Yankees could arguably have been the greatest team in baseball, ever. And the ’98 Braves may have been #2. Just their luck. But hey, no one remembers second place.

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  12. matt w says:

    What on earth is that dot in the lower left corner of the first scatterplot?

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  13. Joe says:

    Just curious, why was Alex Remington’s previous article, re: Muslims in baseball, not allowed to have comments?

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    • Comments were enabled when the piece first went up. But during the first few hours, hundreds of comments were posted, and many of them were extremely offensive. As a result, an editorial decision was made by the higher-ups to disable all comments.

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