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The Cubs win the pennant (and again and again)

by on May 3, 2013

There’s been a little bit of chatter about Joe Posnanski’s piece about rewarding regular season success in baseball, given the “crapshoot” nature of the playoffs. Basically, Posnanski arrives at a proposal that the NL and AL award their “pennants” to the teams in each league with the best regular season records, while still allowing the playoffs and World Series to continue unaltered. In other words, there would be League Pennant Winners potentially different than the League Champions who meet to determine the World Series Champion.

This proposal has received some endorsements (and I like it), but Alex Remington at FanGraphs dissents:

“But I just don’t think that sports works that way in America […] A team that wins the most regular season games should feel proud of its accomplishments, but I don’t think that it is likely to be independently lionized for them.”

I think this misses the point a little.

I kind of suspect Remington is reading too much into Posnanski’s discussion of EPL Football, whose lack of a playoff serves as a jumping-off point, but bears little resemblance to the eventual proposal.

The thing is, we do already something almost exactly like the Posnanski proposal in North American sport: The NHL’s President’s Trophy is awarded to the team with the best regular season record (highest points total). And, as any hockey fan will tell you, the President’s Trophy is a cool thing to win, but is not nearly as cool as the Stanley Cup. There’s no reason to expect any fan would rather see their team win the Pennant than win the World Series, so what’s the harm in adding a consolation prize (or bonus prize – only five teams since 1994 would have won both a Pennant and World Series under this system)?

I suppose this begs the question, “well then why even bother?” The answer is actually what makes this relevant to our little Cubs blog here: it would provide a tangible measure of success that can contextualize success or failure a team. Had this system been in place, the Cubs would have NL Pennants from 1984, 1989, and 2008. This would help put the Cubs’ historical futility into context that even smart people sometimes lose sight of: namely, that while the Cubs have failed to win (or reach) the World Series, they have not failed to put together very, very good teams.

So yeah, maybe it’s because I selfishly want to be able to say the Cubs have won the pennant. Maybe it’s because I’m a hockey fan. Either way, I like this idea a lot.

I do feel obligated to add that this is not some perfect – or even “more perfect” – way to measure the best team in baseball. The unbalanced schedule and interleague play still means comparing teams in different divisions is problematic. But that’s also a feature with the whole wild card system (and – ugh – even with divisional standings; interleague “rivalry” games need to disappear now), and my diatribe against interleague play is a manifesto for another day. For now, I’ll just say, yeah let’s award pennants this way because why the hell not.

Anyway, here’s a list of the teams with the best record in each league, dating back to the 1994 realignment (WS winners in bold; WS losers in italics):

year AL Pennant NL Pennant
2012 New York Yankees Washington Nationals
2011 New York Yankees Philadelphia Phillies
2010 Tampa Bay Rays Philadelphia Phillies
2009 New York Yankees Los Angeles Dodgers
2008 Los Angeles Angels Chicago Cubs
2007 Boston Red Sox / Arizona Diamondbacks
Cleveland Indians
2006 New York Yankees New York Mets
2005 Chicago White Sox St. Louis Cardinals
2004 New York Yankees St. Louis Cardinals
2003 New York Yankees Atlanta Braves
2002 New York Yankees Atlanta Braves
2001 Seattle Mariners Houston Astros
2000 Chicago White Sox San Francisco Giants
1999 New York Yankees Atlanta Braves
1998 New York Yankees Atlanta Braves
1997 Baltimore Orioles Atlanta Braves
1996 Cleveland Indians Atlanta Braves
1995 Cleveland Indians Atlanta Braves
1994 New York Yankees Montreal Expos

And back to the start of division play:

year AL Pennant NL Pennant
1993 Toronto Blue Jays Atlanta Braves
1992 Oakland Athletics / Atlanta Braves
Toronto Blue Jays
1991 Minnesota Twins Pittsburgh Pirates
1990 Oakland Athletics Pittsburgh Pirates
1989 Oakland Athletics Chicago Cubs
1988 Oakland Athletics New York Mets
1987 Detroit Tigers St. Louis Cardinals
1986 Boston Red Sox New York Mets
1985 Toronto Blue Jays St. Louis Cardinals
1984 Detroit Tigers Chicago Cubs
1983 Chicago White Sox Los Angeles Dodgers
1982 Milwaukee Brewers St. Louis Cardinals
1981 Oakland Athletics Cincinnati Reds
1980 New York Yankees Houston Astros
1979 Baltimore Orioles Pittsburgh Pirates
1978 New York Yankees Los Angeles Dodgers
1977 Kansas City Royals Philadelphia Phillies
1976 New York Yankees Cincinnati Reds
1975 Oakland Athletics Cincinnati Reds
1974 Baltimore Orioles Los Angeles Dodgers
1973 Baltimore Orioles Cincinnati Reds
1972 Oakland Athletics Pittsburgh Pirates
1971 Baltimore Orioles Pittsburgh Pirates
1970 Baltimore Orioles Cincinnati Reds
1969 Baltimore Orioles New York Mets

It goes without saying that there would have to be a way to break ties (as would have occurred in 1992 and 2007), and it’s not exactly fair that the 1971 Orioles beat out the A’s by virtue of playing three fewer games, but whatever.

And I’ll leave you with some fun, if not particularly notable points:

  • During the first three years of divisional play, both hypothetical Pennant winners would have met in the World Series. After 1971, however, the two Pennant winners meet only eight times, including only twice since the introduction of the wild card (Braves/Indians in 1995 and Braves/Yankees in 1999).
  • The Yankees and Expos (and hell, baseball) would have something to show for 1994.
  • The Braves would have a lot more to show for their incredible stretch of dominance during the ’90s and early ’00s.
  • Like the Cubs, the Mariners and the Expos/Nats have something to hang their hats on despite never appearing in a World Series.
  • Maybe most ironically, while Posnanski’s proposal seems to come from a spitballing session with Billy Beane, Beane’s A’s would still not have anything to show for their success.

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