The Curse of .500

“Tanking” has become a dirty little open secret in professional sports over the last decade or so – perhaps now as much in the NBA as in baseball – with last winter’s lack of proceedings becoming a frequent discussion point between teams, players, fans, and pundits.

The origins of mainstream modern tanking lie with the reigning World Champions, which likely means the strategy is going to be around for quite some time. In 2010, the Houston Astros were a bad-not-terrible team, sporting a 76-86 record and coming off a very similar 2009 season. In fact, they were on quite the little run of mediocrity, having finished within 10 games of .500 each of the last five years and failing to make the playoffs each time.

It was the Curse of .500, we said. The worst thing you can be. Not good enough to make the postseason, where if the bounces go your way you get a parade, and not good enough to get the assets that would get you there. The teams picking in the 20s in the draft are the ones that are happy now. The teams picking in the single-digits are the ones that will be happy later. The teams picking in the teens are Sisyphus. So the Astros left the boulder at the bottom of Tal’s Hill and basically forfeit.

With a farm system bereft of talent thanks to failed attempts to win now, soon-to-be-deposed GM Ed Wade presided over a 106-loss team that met all its goals; specifically, to obtain the #1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. And who could blame the Astros? In 2009 and 2010, the Nationals held the first overall pick and selected two of the greatest draft prospects in history, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper (though Mike Trout lurked in ‘09). As the 2011 Astros lost 106 games, the Nationals went 80-81 as a prelude to the call-up of Harper (for a 98-64 NL East championship in 2012) and Bud Selig stepping to the podium to announce the Astros number one pick. The Nats’ proof-of-concept gave way to the most earnest tank job anyone’s ever seen.

The Astros slightly reached by taking Carlos Correa first overall, giving them the bonus pool money to give an overslot deal to Lance McCullers. Correa and McCullers were key members of the team that just won the World Series and might be in line for a few more rings. Open auditions during the rough years led to players like future MVP Jose Altuve getting long looks. From back here, it certainly looks like three straight seasons of some of the worst baseball in MLB history was worth it.

If that wasn’t enough, the Cubs’ 2016 championship – modeled very much after the Astros’ rebuild process – came together so well and so quickly that it’s frankly no surprise most MLB teams have no interest in free agents. Young players win games. Young players are cheap. Young players can only be acquired with early draft picks and big international bonus pool allotments, gifted as recompense for losing seasons. This was always where we were headed.

And yet…the Yankees. Were the Yankees ever really bad? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. And now they’ve got this young, cost-controlled core of top prospects, some of whom have hardware already. How’d that happen?

Maybe the Curse of .500 is a lie. Sure, the Yanks have big-market muscles and an incredible front office, but so do the Cubs, and they still tanked. Like the Cubs, the Yankees had legitimate MLB assets they could move for premium players (a complete lack of inventory really delayed the Astros’ plans at least a couple of years). Still, they never sniffed 100 losses. They never even hit 90! They never finished below .500.

In fact, they were mired in dreaded purgatory for four years, with 84 to 87 wins from 2013-2016. They picked 16th, 18th, and 16th again. You might have noticed that’s one too few – well, signing Brian McCann and the mission-critical Jacoby Ellsbury after the disappointing 2013 season left them without a first-rounder in 2014. Not only are they picking in the late teens, they’re not even keeping all their selections!

Are the Yankees an outlier or is this real? If you can have your cake and eat it too, why not hang around and be okay while you’re building the next big thing?

Let’s look at two comparisons, comparing both franchise records and season records to see if there’s something to this whole curse. The first is a check against longer-term competition and whether losing actually does lead to winning. Looking at the period 2003-2012 (because ten is a round number) compared to the 2013-17 seasons (because five is also a round number), can we say that teams that lost a lot of games ended up coming out all right?

Worst Teams, 2003-2012

Team 2003-12 W 2013-17 W

Per-162 Change

Royals

678 431 18.4
Pirates 686 433

18

Orioles

722 426 13
Mariners 740 398

5.6

Nationals

740 457 17.4
Rockies 761 370

-2.1

Diamondbacks

770 386 0.2
Astros 770 392

1.4

Indians

778 454 13
Rays 785 397

0.9

Oh. Oh yes, they did. Of the five worst teams in our random-ish sample, four of them improved their per-162 win total by double digits. Parity is alive and well, all hail parity! The Rays aren’t even driving this result, considering it includes both their winning and losing phases, and the Pirates and Nationals are actually two of the five best teams from 2013-17. With the Indians at #9, three of the top five teams by wins over the last five years were in the bottom 10 from 2003-12.

This implies – but does not necessitate – that winning also leads to losing. It’s slightly possible that this isn’t true; if the bad teams are becoming just decent (which is certainly the case for some) and the decent teams are becoming bad, then the elite can hold their position while the middle and bottom tiers trade places.

That’s not really what’s happening, though:

Best Teams, 2003-2012

Team

2003-12 W 2013-17 W Per-162 Change

Yankees

967 431 -10.5
Red Sox 908 432

-4.4

Angels 899 415

-6.9

Phillies

899 346 -20.7
Cardinals 892 456

2

Braves

882 382 -11.8
White Sox 850 357

-13.6

Dodgers

846 473 10
Giants 845 399

-4.7

Athletics

843 396

-5.1

The Cardinals got a bit better, the Dodgers got much better, everyone else got worse, to varying degrees. The Phillies, Braves, and White Sox, in particular, had mini-dynasties come to an end.

Instead of looking at individual franchises, let’s expand the scope a little bit and start bucketing. There are five “states” that seem to be readily identifiable from the last fifteen years of baseball:

  1. Top 3 (under 67 wins, 43 seasons): A bit of a misnomer if you’re of a particular bent, these are the teams which end up in the range where they would expect a top 3 pick in the draft. No team with more than 69 wins finished with one of the bottom three records in the league over those fifteen seasons, leaving 43 team-seasons in 15 years, or just about three per year.
  2. Top 10 (67-75 wins, 111 seasons): Teams that would generally finish with a top 10 pick. This is significant not only because again, round number, but also because draft pick forfeiture applies to teams past the 10th pick.
  3. Cursed (76-85 wins, 105 seasons): The real problem area. You’re outside the top 10, so no qualified free agents for you. But you probably didn’t make the playoffs, either. Sad times.
  4. Semi-Contenders (86-91 wins, 101 seasons): Primarily to break up the otherwise large number of “contender” seasons, this also separates fluke years from lasting or legitimately talented teams. Most of the time, you’re going to the playoffs if you’re in this range, but not always.
  5. Contenders (92+ wins, 90 seasons): Don’t make any plans for October.

With teams grouped together, we can average the number of wins each saw in subsequent seasons. The following graph includes each bucket in their +1, +2, etc. years:

 

nullThis leads us to the ultimate conclusion of this article:

Regression is everything. It is coming for you, and it cannot be stopped. You and everything you know will be regressed until the universe is naught but a bowl of bland gray oatmeal, weep if you must.

Before we embrace the void, however, it’s pretty hard to escape the suggestion above that the Curse of .500 is not real. Teams that finish in the Top 3 position take their sweet time, not crossing the 81-win barrier until the third year after their Top 3 season. That means the 2011 Astros should have taken until 2014 to go over .500, which…is exactly what they did. A curious thing happened after that, though: they’ve stayed good. They have become the best. By Year 5, the former top 3 teams have the highest average win total among the five groups.

The most interesting thing, though, is that it’s not like everyone switches places, as the above tables would imply. The best teams, who finished with an average of 95 wins and above, are still averaging 81 wins five years on. They’re the second-best group, likely because if you have that much talent it takes more than five years to rid yourself of it completely.

The Top 10 teams and the Semi-Contenders merge into each other, meanwhile, leaving the .500 teams at .500. They don’t get worse, really, they just don’t get any better. For those who prefer their data in tabular format:

Year 0 Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Count

Top3

62 71 76 81 82 82 43
Top10 71 77 77 79 80 81

111

Cursed

80 81 80 80 80 80 105
SemiContender 88 84 84 83 81 81

101

Contender 96 88 86 83 83 82

90

You can see the Top 3 and Top 10 getting better every year. You can see the Contenders getting worse each year. By the end, it’s a lesson in trying to predict the future; you can’t really tell what a team is going to look like even three years from now, much less four or five.

But wait! Doesn’t that work in both directions? If teams generally head towards .500 baseball no matter where they start, we can’t say the Contenders didn’t start out Cursed. That is the one grain of hope fans of perpetually mediocre franchises can consume, except:

(Semi)Contender Seasons, Years 3-5

Bottom 10 Cursed Contender

Top3

32.4% 24.5% 43.1%
Top10 37.8% 26.1%

36.1%

Cursed

37.1% 25.8% 37.1%
SemiContenders 32.2% 29.1%

38.7%

Contenders 31.2% 22.6%

46.2%

There’s a real separation between being a Top 3 pick or having just started your dynasty. If you want to have a contending team three years from now, you should either be very, very bad or very, very good, and there isn’t a ton of wiggle room.

So it would seem the Curse of .500 is real after all. If anything, there should actually be an expansion in the name. Teams that finish in any of the 15 positions from 11th place to 25th in the overall MLB standings have a significantly lower chance of becoming a long-term contender. Meanwhile, teams in the 5th-10th positions tend to be slightly better than their lower-seeded competition, and, though the playoffs are a reward unto themselves, these teams are generally destined only for slightly more than abject failure, not any kind of lasting greatness. That’s reserved for the teams that started out great.

And finally, we land on the truest of conclusions, that baseball is the American sport. Where the poorest can achieve their wildest dreams, and mediocrity is the worst insult. The surest path to success is to have already succeeded.