Baby Got (Games) Back

The 1978 Yankees made a special run to get back into their pennant race. (via John LaRue)

Each baseball season is unique, each with its own DNA composed of league leaders, memorable games, magic moments, and postseason glory. And if we’re all lucky, we get to witness a team overcoming a seemingly insurmountable deficit in its division or in the Wild Card standings, hoping for October baseball. There have been some epic pennant race rallies in major league history, many teams starting just barely in time, well after the All-Star Game. Still others began after fumbling through the first few months of the season, a slow drip rally beginning as early as May.

This all leads to the question: How far back is too far back in the standings? What are the largest deficits ever overcome?

Before beginning, let’s define some parameters of what we’ll review. Majorl league history has had four distinct routes to the postseason across three eras. The first and most direct is the pre-divisional era. From 1903 through 1968, teams battled their opponents within their own league. The teams with the best record in each league at the end won the pennants and advanced to the World Series. The divisional era (1969-1993) split the leagues into two divisions, and doubled the number of playoff participants by allowing each division winner into the playoffs. The third route to the playoffs was an extension of the divisional era. In 1994, baseball expanded to three divisions in each league and added a Wild Card in each. MLB added a second Wild Card in 2012. Since that’s only five years of data, we’re going to combine the double Wild Card era (2012-present) with the single Wild Card era (1995-2011).

Now that we have manageable categories, let’s further define the info we want. My goal is to know the biggest deficits overcome, relative to the end of the season, for each of our routes to the playoffs. Since every team’s schedule is different from year to year, I’m going to use games remaining — where a team stood after the game it played that day, and how many more games it had to play until its schedule was complete.

When you see the accompanying graphs, you can look at the line graph and know that the data point represented means that “The largest deficit overcome to reach the playoffs with __ games remaining is __ games back in the division (or league or  Wild Card) race.” To use a real example, the largest deficit overcome to reach the playoffs during the pre-divisional era with 20 games remaining is six games, by the 1964 Cardinals, which you can see in the chart below.

Here are the four routes illustrated with the largest deficits overcome by number of games remaining. When applicable, I’ve highlighted teams with significant stretches in which they overcame the largest deficit by games remaining. We’ll discuss many of those teams in greater detail.

Route No. 1: The Pre-Divisional Era

Two teams with legendary comebacks reside in this era — the 1951 Giants, they of the Shot Heard ‘Round the World, and the 1964 Cardinals glorified in David Halberstam’s October 1964. The 1951 Giants own the largest deficit overcome on 32 of the 161 possible gam- remaining totals. The worst situation for them was when they reached 13 games behind Brooklyn with 44 games to play. Even with five and six games remaining, they were three games behind, and 2.5 behind when they had four to play. The 1964 Cardinals claim ownership of the biggest deficit overcome on 20 of the 161 possible remaining game totals, including 34 through 39, 26 through 32, 18 through 22, and even two games remaining when they were one game back (tied with the 1962 Giants, 1949 Yankees, and the Impossible Dream 1967 Red Sox).

The shocker in this category is the 1914 Boston “Miracle Braves,” who own the largest comeback made on 79 of the 161 possible remaining game totals. Of these, 78  were in a row, beginning a mere 10 games into a season that they started with two wins and eight losses. They reached 10 games back in their 13th game and didn’t reduce their deficit to less than that until their 89th game of the season, when a victory pushed their record to 44-45.

From that point forward (on July 31), the Braves went a stunning 50-14. They ended the season a dizzying 10.5 games in front of the second-place Giants, their tormentors for so much of the early season. The low mark for the Braves — in fact, the low mark for the entire category — happened when Boston found itself 15 games back with 87 games left to play.

Two 1930s Cardinals teams, including the famed 1934 Gashouse Gang, make appearances for small stretches. The 1930 team carries the biggest comeback for 48-52 and 54-60 games remaining, plus 30 through 37 (these Cardinals tied with their St. Louis brethren from 1964 at the 30 through 32 and 26 game remaining marks). With 37 games remaining, they were 10  games back. The 1934 Cardinals mostly appear early in the season thanks to a 2-7 start to the season, but they also stood seven games back with 23 and 24 games remaining, both high marks.

Other noteworthy comebacks includes the 1936 Giants, even if they own only six of the 161 games-remaining totals on the list. They were 10.5 games back with 72 and 73 games remaining, and 9.5 back with 61 through 64 games left. The 1942 Cardinals erased a deficit of 10 games with 52 and 53 games remaining — an astounding deficit in its own right because they had a winning percentage over .600 at the time.

The 1949 Yankees own only one mark on this chart, but it comes with two games remaining when they were one game back – another pennant race memorialized in a Halberstam book (Summer of ‘49). The 1962 Giants were three games back with eight and six games to play, plus two back with three to play and even one game back with one to play. It’s perhaps the most underrated rally in the history of the game.

Route No. 2: The Divisional Era

The city of New York, especially in the 1970s, dominated the miraculous versions of this route to the playoffs. The B.F. Dent Yankees in 1978 are likely the best-known. They collapsed to a whopping 14 games back of the Red Sox with 72 and 73 games remaining, and 13 games back with 74 and 71 games remaining. They also own the most games overcome for games-remaining totals of 36-41, 30-32, and 27-28. It was a feverish chase for them throughout the final two months of the season.

The 1973 Mets own the most games of the 161 possible in this category, staking claim to 61 of them — more than twice as much as the team with the second most. The low-water mark at Shea that year was 12.5 games back with 81-83 and 85 games remaining. That was in the middle of a 25-game stretch in which they either hold the most games back record or are tied for it. They also hold or tie the record for biggest deficit overcome with 57-63, 51-55, 42-44, 31, 28-29, 16-26, 13-14, and 11 games remaining.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Despite overcoming their deficits to win the division and falling one win shy of a World Series title, the 1973 Mets benefitted from a weak division. Someone was going to win, even if they shouldn’t. And so it was for the 82-79 Mets, the only team in the division to finish above .500.

Four years earlier was a different story at Shea, when the Miracle Mets had to overcome the eventual 92-win Cubs. Those Cubs spent most of the season on pace to pass 100 wins, which left the Mets 10 games back with 49 to play. They own the highest mark on 18 of our measured games remaining, including 47-49, 114-122, 124, and 128.

The surprise in this category is the 1987 Tigers, who have the highest mark on the second-most games in the group (28 of the 161). That’s mostly thanks to a slow start paired with the rival Blue Jays sprinting out of the gates, leaving Detroit a whopping 11 games back with 139 to play. Then, as the season approached the end, the Tigers found themselves in a seemingly insurmountable hole once again — bouncing between 1.5 and 3.5 games back with four to nine games remaining — before righting the ship.

The 1974 Pirates claim 20 data points of their own — 154-157, 149-151, 122-127, 111-114, and 109 games remaining. Most of their damage was done before the All-Star Game. The 1993 Braves, who used the acquisition of Fred McGriff to springboard their season past the Giants, boast the biggest deficit overcome on 14 of the 161 possibles. However, they don’t claim more than three games in a row at any point. Most notably, the Braves overcame a 7.5 game deficit with 37 through 39 games remaining and 10 games back with 65 to play.

The 1988 Red Sox crested on the wings of Morgan Magic to erase the largest deficits with 101-106, 109 (tied with the 1974 Pirates), and 111 games remaining (also tied with the Pirates). The lowest point came at 10 games back with 104 to play. Lastly, the 1974 Orioles managed to erase an eight-game deficit with 33-35 games left and even seven games back with 32 to play, implying that Oriole Magic should have been created a few years sooner than it was.

Route No. 3: Wild Cards

Two seasons account for 60 percent of the 161 possible games remaining totals in the Wild Card era. The years 2007 and especially 2011 were fertile ground in terms of deficits overcome to reach the playoffs, with the 2007 Rockies earning a pennant in the group and the 2011 Cardinals Freeseing their way to a championship. Technically, the Rockies claim  ownership of  only 10 of these 161 games remaining totals, but they all came very late in the season. The Rockies performed a high-wire act, erasing a 4.5 game Wild Card deficit with nine through 11, 13, and 14 games remaining. More impressively, they also erased a two-game deficit with two games to go, and a one-game deficit with one to go. The other large rally participant from 2007 is the Yankees, who overcame the largest deficit on 15 of the 161 possible games remaining (79 through 83, 72 to 77, 70, and 65 to 68).

As for the 2011 Cardinals, they overcame the largest (or tied for the largest) deficit on 29 of the 161 games remaining totals. With 31 through 33 games remaining, they sat 10.5 games out of the Wild Card. They were even three games back with five to play, and two with four to play. The Cardinals claim the 13 through 22 games remaining marks, 26 through 37, 63, 65-66, 11, and four through six, all en route to an equally unlikely World Series championship.

Of course, the Cardinals could shine only because their 2011 wild card brethren failed to advance past the ALDS. The 2011 Rays hold the largest rally (or are tied) in the Wild Card race for any team with 37 through 63 games remaining, 23 through 26, plus six, seven, and 12. They even got in on the action early in the season, with the largest deficit with 153 through 158 games remaining. In all, their 43 of 161 highest games back totals are the second most in the Wild Card era.

The 2001 A’s own the most dates in this category, recovering from the largest number of games back on 53 of the possible 161. Almost all of them occurred in the first half of the season. The smallest number of games remaining owned by the 2001 A’s is 78. They also have 81-82, 84-88, 90-94, 96, 101-108, 122-141, 143-152, and 154, with several ties in that mix (including the 2011 Rays at the 154 mark).

Other teams with noteworthy comebacks include the 2005 Astros (107-112, 115-122, 96-100, and 94); the 2003 Marlins, who were 11.5 games in the hole on May 22 and have the most games back recovered (or tied or the most) on 12 dates; the 1995 Yankees on games remaining totals for 92-95 and 70-73; and the 1999 Mets, who appear only  once but it’s a doozy — two games back with three to play.

Route No. 4: Division Winners in the Wild Card Era

Much of this category is dominated by the 2006 Twins, who found themselves with enormous deficits for most of the early season to two different teams (the Tigers and White Sox alternated turns in first place). In all, the Twins own or tie for the largest deficit overcome on 70 of the 161 possible games remaining totals, including two large swaths from 60 through 79 and 85 through 118. For good measure, they also own 121-122 and 128-137. They bounced back and forth between 9 and 12.5 games back throughout May, June and July. What gets lost in all of this, and what makes this particular route unique, is that the 2006 Twins likely would have still made the playoffs as a Wild Card had they not won the division.

That’s not true in the case of the 1995 Mariners, who had to win their division to make the playoffs. The M’s have the second largest number of games owned in this category — 38. The Mariners were 13 games back with 55 to play, 12.5 out with 38 to play, and even six back with 21 to play. Their rally was the highest with 27 through 59 games remaining, as well as 23-24 and 19-21.

In 2007, the Phillies crafted the largest comeback with 14 through 22 games remaining, and also dug themselves in large enough of a hole at the beginning of the year that they own the 159-160, 153-155, and 149 games remaining totals. The 1996 Padres own only two games-remaining totals, but they’re significant. With three games remaining, they were 2.5 games back, and they were still one game back with two remaining, but they found a way to overcome it. The Twins struck again in 2009. While they have the largest comeback on only six games remaining totals (two, four, and 23-26), it includes a dizzying rally from seven back with 26 to play and 5.5 back with 23 to play. For the 2007 Phillies and the 2009 Twins, failure to erase their deficits would have meant missing the playoffs.

Last, but not least of the noteworthy divisional rallies, is the 2012 A’s, though they would have made the playoffs as a Wild Card if their rally had fallen just shy. The A’s mad dash to October that year included unraveling a four-game deficit with 12 to play, and five games back with nine to play. Their games overcome ranks highest from five through 13 games remaining, as well as 80 through 85.

References & Resources

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John LaRue is a graphic designer, former minor league baseball media relations director, and data visualization enthusiast. His work has been featured in The Best American Infographics 2013 and I Love Charts: The Book. Follow him on Twitter @tdylf.
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Wow, Awesoem guys.

Cuban X Senators
Cuban X Senators
“How far back is too far back in the standings? What are the largest deficits ever overcome?” I’ve written this before with other such articles, but if these are the questions and you don’t include teams who erased huge deficits, got back to even or a lead and then lost the pennant, you’re missing some interesting stories — and not really finding the answers to what you’re after. I have no idea how many, but I’d like to challenge readers to find these stealth comebacks that are overlooked in articles like this one. By looking at the teams cited and… Read more »

Some good points, Cuban.

This is good research, but it doesn’t seem to tell a story. Perhaps isolating just one season at a time, showing the entire span, highlighting certain events such as firing the manager, line-up changes, trades, head-to-head series with the first place team, include odds of winning?

Cuban X Senators
Cuban X Senators

I love the question — and what baseball fan hasn’t lived through a disappointing start, 1st half or an absolute train wreck & thought “when does this become impossible?”

I didn’t mean to imply this research isn’t valuable or good. I just think if you’re looking to known history (& not a simulator) for that absolute extreme from which a season is irretrievable, you’ve gotta include the recoveries that later collapsed.

(Or show, if one can, that there is a cost to getting back in that weakens teams for the stretch run, I guess)

Mike Easler
Mike Easler

The 1973 Mets did not have a strong regular season record, but it’s important they upset Cincinnati in the NLCS, and pushed the Oakland A’s to the limit in the World Series. The Pirates would have been the heavy favorites to win their fourth straight division title in ’73, but two unexpected events torpedoed their season. The loss of legendary rightfielder Roberto Clemente in the plane crash, and then the inexplicable meltdown of Steve Blass.

Manage Bill Virdon also made a mistake by moving Clemente’s close friend Manny Sanguillen to right field, it weakened the Pirates in two positions.

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I’ve written this before with other such articles, but if these are the questions and you don’t include teams who erased huge deficits, got back to even or a lead and then lost the pennant, you’re missing some interesting stories — and not really finding the answers to what you’re after.


The team trailed by the following deficits:
6.5 with 151 games to go,
8 with 128, 127 & 125 to go,
4 games with 9 to go,
3 games with 6 to go,
4 games with 5 to go,
3 games with 4 to go, and
2 games with 3 to go.



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