As fans in New England and the south are so painfully aware, 2011 produced two of the greatest collapses in baseball history. The question on the minds of Red Sox and Braves supporters at the dawn of the 2012 season is this: What happens to teams that have suffered historic collapses? Do they recover? Do they curl up in a ball and let their opponents kick them in the ribs? Or is the follow-up to a collapse season no different than any other season?
Using this chart created by coolstandings.com as a guide to the very worst collapses (or is it greatest collapses?) of all time, I checked to see what those teams did in the year immediately following. In baseball history, there have been 30 teams with a close-to-90-percent-or-better chance of making the postseason only to not. Two of those are the 2011 editions of the Red Sox and Braves who rank third and fifth, respectively, in the collapsing queue. I used the other 28 teams in the study.
Overall, those teams declined by nine wins in the year following their debacle (using a 162-game standard, adjusting for 154-game schedules and strike years). In the season of their collapse, they averaged a .579 winning percentage and followed that with .523. Only six of the teams posted a better record the following season, and none of them won more than seven additional games.
For a control group, I looked at five teams that were comparable to each of the 28 Great Collapsers (GCs), in terms of won-loss records, to see how they fared the next year. For the comp group I tried to use teams within three games from the same season or within one season up or down chronologically. Whenever possible, I used teams from the same league.
The control group won an average of 4.7 fewer games the following season, not as bad as the GCs, but still not very good. Of the 140 comp teams, 47 improved their record the following year, 7 stayed the same and 86 got worse. A lot of this can be attributed to the Law of Competitive Balance at work, as good teams tend to regress and all the teams in both the comp group and the GCs finished with records over .500, sometimes greatly so.
These GC teams leaned toward the extremes in their follow-up season:
The Success Stories
1951 Dodgers, 1962 Dodgers, 1973 Dodgers, 1982 Dodgers
This is wild. Once a decade, like clockwork, the Dodgers blew a pennant, only to come back strong enough the next year to make the postseason.
The '51 team famously torched a 13-game lead and lost a three-game playoff to the Giants and The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. In 1952, they were up on the Giants by 9½ games in late August. Three weeks later, their lead was just three. This time, though, they hung on as the Giants went 4-5 down the stretch to Brooklyn's 5-3. As was custom at the time, they fell to the Yankees in the World Series.
The '62 team also lost to the Giants in a best-of-three playoff, but maintained quality the next year, winning 99. This time, they swept the Yankees out of the Series, holding them to just four runs. They are the patron saint team of collapsers everywhere.
The '73 entry came on strong in May and had built up an 8½-game lead around the All-Star break only to get brushed aside by the rampaging Reds. In 1974, the Dodgers improved by 6½ games, the most ever by one of the GCs, and took the National League West and NLCS before running afoul of the A's in the World Series.
In 1982, the Dodgers heroically erased a 10-game deficit in less than two weeks, only to blow a 3½-game lead of their own late in the season. The next year they improved by three games (the second-best post-collapse mark ever) and won the National League West before dropping the NLCS to the Phillies.
The Carryover Club
2003 Mariners, 1993 Giants, 2007 Padres, 1942 Dodgers, 2010 Padres, 2008 Mets, 1938 Pirates
While vast improvements for any of these teams were unlikely since they started on the good side of the ledger, many of them had nowhere to go but down. Most of the GCs declined by one to ten games, but this group really took a powder after blowing their main chance the year before.
For the first half of 2003, the Mariners looked like the second coming of the 2001 team that won 116 games. By June 18, they had a 96-percent chance of making the playoffs. They played about even after that while Boston and Oakland, their rivals for the wild card and division respectively, posted the second- and third-best records in the league from that point. In 2004, they scored 100 fewer runs and their pitching went to ruin, surrendering nearly 200 more scores than the year before. Their 30-game drop is the worst among the GCs.
The '93 Giants are used as an exhibit by both sides in the postseason debate. Fans of old school pennant races point to their 103-win, second-place finish and sigh longingly for the day when that was possible. Devotees of expanded playoffs argue that it wasn't fair they didn't make the postseason. Either way, they had a 95.5-percent chance of getting to there as late as August 7, but couldn't close the deal. They didn't make it to .500 in the strike-shortened 1994 season.
Both the 2007 and 2010 San Diego entries make the list of worst follow-ups to a great collapse as San Diego continues to be perhaps baseball's most bi-polar franchise. The '07 team had the wild card wrapped tight with just two games to go and still had a shot at the division title. Instead, they lost both and the tiebreaker with Colorado. They fell by 26 games in 2008. Two years later, they were back in the hunt with a 6½-game lead on the second-place Giants on August 25. A 10-game losing streak followed and that was the beginning of the end. They fell 19 games last year.
The '42 Dodgers saw a 10-game, early August lead vanish to a Cardinals team that went 43-9 the rest of the way (while Brooklyn "only" went 30-20). In 1943, the team's ERA+ fell from 116 to 87 and with that they declined by 22½ games. The '38 Pirates did a lot more than lose the famous Homer in the Gloamin' game en route to frittering away a 92.7-percent chance of winning the pennant with 10 days to go in the season. They won just three of their final 10 games as the Cubs blew past them and then dropped by 18½ games in 1939.
They liked doing it so much, they did it again. Nothing has gone right for the Mets since Adam Wainright caught Carlos Beltran looking to end the 2006 NLCS - unless you consider the fact that the 2007 team is one of the very few GCs to improve its record the following year. The 2008 Mets won one more game, but it didn't matter as they still managed to fritter away a 90-percent chance to win the division by going 7-10 down the stretch. It wasn't the calamity of the previous year, when their chances were a seemingly bombproof 99.5 percent, but it still rates. In 2009, they fell by 19 games and joined the Carryover Club, above.
So, where will the Red Sox and Braves place on the follow-up table of the Great Collapsers? Since both are solid franchises with track records of throwing resources after problems, and have combined for only three losing records in the last 14 seasons, it seems most unlikely they're going to become members of the Carryover Club. On the other hand, both teams play in divisions with formidable opponents who could well keep them from the top even if they should manage to defy GC history and improve slightly.
The most likely scenario? Both teams post similar records to last year and battle for the newly minted second Wild Cards.