Sox Not Favored to Win? Good!

As the 1998 season opens, most preseason analysts foresee a third-place finish for the Red Sox. Believe it or not, this is good news. Since 1947 the Sox have won six pennants or division titles when picked to finish third or lower, but have lost all five races they were expected to win.

To test the accuracy of preseason predictions, I compared the final standings to the spring poll of several hundred baseball writers conducted for many years by the Sporting News. Over 54 years of preseason picks (1928-29, 1932, 1934-41, 1947-84, 1986, 1988-92), the writers correctly forecast only 57 of 150 pennants and divisional titles, or 38%.

Before divisional play, the writers correctly forecast the AL pennant winner 14 times in 33 years. This is better than the four correct picks expected from random guessing -- but the writers would have been right 22 times if they had simply picked the Yankees every year. Divisional play should have improved the writers’ accuracy, but even with only six or seven teams to choose from, they guessed right just 37% of the time.

The Red Sox have done their part to increase the error rate. After their 1946 title, the writers picked the Sox to win four of the next five pennants. The Yankees won all four. The writers also expected the 1976 Sox to repeat; they finished third, fourteen games behind the Yankees. (Notice a pattern here? Somewhere Harry Frazee is laughing.)

On the brighter side, the 1967 “Impossible Dream” Sox won even though the writers had consigned them to ninth place. None of the 254 respondents thought they’d finish higher than fourth, and only five picked them as high as sixth. The ‘67 Sox are one of four teams -- along with the 1961 Reds, 1969 Mets and the 1991 Twins -- to win the pennant even though no writers had thought they would win. The last two capped their miracle seasons by winning the World Series.

Other recent Sox winners also received little respect in the preseason polls. In 1986, the writers thought the Sox would finish fifth in the AL East, with only six of 210 voters correctly forecasting the division title. The Sox were picked for third in 1975 (seven of 258 first-place votes), 1988 (21 of 204) and 1990 (18 of 184). The Sporting News had discontinued its survey by the time of the Sox’ last pennant in 1995, but that team, too, was expected to finish third or fourth.

So what does this mean? The pennant races are so hard to predict because major league teams are so evenly balanced. In most years the best clubs win about 60% of the time. The worst win about 40%. About once a decade a juggernaut wins two-thirds its games, and even those teams often stumble in the postseason. The 1954 Indians went 111-43 in the regular season, but 0-4 against the New York Giants in the World Series -- and we all remember how close the 1986 Mets (108-54) came to losing that Series.

Compare this balance to the disparity in other team sports. This year in the NBA, only ten of 28 teams have winning percentages within MLB’s normal .400-to.600 range. Six have won more often than any major league team since the 1954 Indians, while five others are worse than the 1962 Mets. The NFL even rigs its schedule to give division winners tougher opponents the following season, but the same teams still dominate. Who can blame fans of the Sacramento Kings or Atlanta Falcons for giving up?

Baseball’s balance provides hope to fans of even the worst teams. Any club is only a few years from contending (remember when the Indians and Mariners were the laughingstocks of the American League?), and if it catches a few breaks, a bad club can become a contender almost overnight. The 1997 Pirates, likened in March to a mediocre AAA club, battled for the NL Central title into the last week of September. If the Sox can come close to the 20-game improvement which propelled the 1967 edition from ninth place into the World Series, October baseball may return to Fenway in 1998.

Copyright © 1998 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the April 1998 issue of Boston Baseball.

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