The Great Comeback

Nothing is more exciting than seeing a team, over the course of a number of days or weeks, slowly close the gap between them and the team leading their respective division. As we near the end of June, the number “14” once again edges into our consciousness.
Fourteen teams in MLB history have overcome a 10+ game deficit at the end of the month of June to go on and win their division or league crown. Exactly how difficult is it to overcome such a deficit? To put such comebacks in perspective, I turn to a statistic devised by Mike Murphy, on-air host and baseball guru at 670 AM in Chicago. Murphy posits that the true perspective of a divisional deficit is not how many games a team trails the division leader, but the sum total of the games behind each of the teams in front of a squad. For example, the White Sox currently trail division leader Cleveland by 11 1/2 games in the AL Central. However, with three teams in front of the White Sox, the Aggregate Deficit (as we’ll call the statistic) is 29 games. This is a staggering number!
This number becomes useful when divisional rivals play each other. For example, let’s take the aforementioned AL Central. If Cleveland, Detroit, and Minnesota were all to lose, and the White Sox were to win, the Sox would gain three games in the AD tally. However, if Cleveland and Detroit were to play each other, as well as Chicago and Minnesota, a Chicago win could net them only two games in the AD tally, and a Chicago loss would dock them two games in the AD tally.
What does this mean for a team that trails multiple teams in the same division? It becomes far harder to overcome divisional deficits over multiple teams. Assuming that only one team of the three teams in front of Chicago loses each day, it would take the White Sox a minimum of twenty-nine games to overcome such a deficit, and likely many more than that.
Let us apply this statistic to some of the aforementioned comebacks previously seen in Major League history.

  • 1914 – The Boston Braves stand in last place at the start of play on July 6th. They are 26-40, 15 games behind the league-leading New York Giants. Their league AD is 52, and they finally catch the Giants on August 23rd, 52 games later.
  • 1930 – The St. Louis Cardinals are in fourth place in the National League. They are 53-52, 12 games behind the league-leading Brooklyn Robins. Their league AD is 27, and they catch the NL leading Robins on September 13th, 33 games later.
  • 1978 – The New York Yankees are in fourth place in the AL East. At 48-42, they trail the division-leading Red Sox by 14 games and sport a divisional AD of 18.5. The Yankees reach first place in the division for the first time on September 10th, 52 games later.
  • 1989 – The Toronto Blue Jays stand in sixth place in the AL East. They are 38-45, 10 games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles, and with a divisional AD of 19. They spring into the lead for the first time on August 31st, 51 games later.\

These examples sport a very obvious trend – as the leagues have expanded, it has become more and more difficult to overcome large deficits, and, more to the point, multiple-team deficits. As teams dig their holes deeper and deeper, it is exponentially more difficult to crawl out of said holes. The era of the pennant-chase comeback has not ended, but it is certainly disappearing more with every passing season.

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One Response to The Great Comeback

  1. Chris says:

    Do you mind posting every team ever to overcome a 10+ game deficit? Thanks.

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