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The Jays Playoff Drought: A Rendezvous with History?

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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, the Royals will attempt to continue their improbable run through the playoffs, as the World Series gets underway. But, just be in position to do that, the Royals had to end an even more improbable streak, missing the playoffs for 28 straight years and 27 seasons from 1986-2013, which they ended by clinching a wild card* in the last week of the season. With the Royals ending what was the longest active playoff drought in MLB, that ignominious title now falls to our Blue Jays, who have missed the playoffs for 20 straight seasons. Obviously, that run is not as bad as the Royals, but I was curious about just how bad a drought it was in historical context - after all, there have been some really woeful franchises over the past 110 years in which MLB has had the playoffs.

(*Esoteric Aside #1: In my opinion, a wild card team should not be considered as having made the playoffs unless they win the sudden death game and advance to a series. I see it as analogous to when teams tie for a division title and play a sudden game game to advance, the loser has never been considered as a playoff team despite playing past the end of the regular season. I realize that this is a minority view so this article proceeds on the basis that winning a wild card is considered making the playoffs).

Surprisingly, Wikipedia's page of various MLB postseason droughts was silent on this question, so I put together my own list of franchise postseason droughts. Former franchise cities during a streak are noted in brackets, and note that 1904 (no World Series) and 1994 (World Series cancelled) are not included in the year counts:

Current Franchise Drought Years
T1 Baltimore (STL) 1903-43 39
T1 Cleveland 1955-94 39
T1 Chicago (AL) 1920-58 39
T1 Minnesota (WS1) 1926-64 39
T1 Oakland (PHI/KC) 1932-70 39
6 Chicago (NL) 1946-83 38
T7 Texas (WS2) 1961-94 34
T7 Philadelphia 1916-49 34
9 Atlanta (BOS) 1915-47 33
10 Pittsburgh 1928-59 32
T11 Washington (MON) 1982-2011 29
T11 Cincinnati 1941-69 29
T13 Boston 1919-45 27
T13 Cleveland 1921-47 27
T13 Kansas City 1986-2013 27
16 Philadelphia 1951-75 25
T17 Detroit 1910-33 24
T17 Milwaukee 1983-2007 24
19 Chicago (AL) 1960-82 23
20 Detroit 1946-67 22
T21 Baltimore (STL) 1945-65 21
T21 St. Louis 1903-25 21
T23 Boston 1947-66 20
T23 L.A. (NL) (BRO) 1921-40 20
T23 Toronto 1994-2014 20

WS1 = original Washington Senators (moved to Minnesota for 1961 season); WS2 = expansion Washington Senators (inaugural season 1961, moved to Texas for 1972 season)

What's really interesting to me is that, five times in MLB history, a franchise has missed the playoffs for 39 straight years, but never a 40th year. The longest streaks are almost double the Jays' current streak, which ranks only tied for 23rd longest in MLB history. In that sense, the Jays' current streak of futility pales in comparison to the sadsack St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators of the early 20th century, the Chicago teams of the mid-20th century, and more recently the Cleveland teams whose futility formed the basis for and was immortalized in the Major League movies.

Another thing that struck me is that a lot of the longest franchise droughts happened to teams who moved cities during the streak. From the perspective of fan agony, carrying over the streak probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense. When the original Washington Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961, after having not made the playoffs for 35 seasons, I doubt that fact carried much emotional resonance for Minnesota fans, especially since the Twins went to the World Series in their 5th year in Minnesota. So below, I've replicated the same charts, only considering droughts for the same team in the same city.

City/Team Drought Years
T1 St. Louis (AL) 1903-43 39
T1 Cleveland 1955-94 39
T1 Chicago (AL) 1920-58 39
4 Chicago (NL) 1946-83 38
5 Washington (AL) 1926-60 35
6 Philadelphia (NL) 1916-49 34
7 Boston (NL) 1915-47 33
8 Pittsburgh 1928-59 32
9 Cincinnati 1941-69 29
T10 Boston (AL) 1919-45 27
T10 Cleveland 1921-47 27
T10 Kansas City 1986-2013 27
13 Philadelphia (NL) 1951-75 25
T14 Detroit 1910-33 24
T14 Milwaukee 1983-2007 24
T16 Philadelphia (AL) 1932-54 23
T16 Texas 1972-95 23
T16 Chicago (AL) 1960-82 23
T19 Montreal 1982-2004 22
T19 Detroit 1946-67 22
T21 St. Louis 1903-25 21
T22 Boston 1947-66 20
T22 Brooklyn 1921-40 20
T22 Toronto 1994-2014 20

A few droughts are shortened and a few drop off the list of 20+ year droughts. Broadly speaking the historical context for the Jays is the same. It's not good company to be keeping, but it's not nearly as bad as other fanbases have had it.

Another takeaway is that none of the streaks that have lasted longer than 30 years have happened since the wild card era began in 1994 creating four more playoff spots. More playoff spots means a better chance of making the playoff, which in turn means a lower chance of having a long playoff drought. While the number of franchises has also expanded, the growth of playoff spots over time has far outstripped the growth in franchises over time:

Today, one in three teams (33%) make the playoff. Until expansion in the 1960s, it was just one of eight teams (13%) in each league. Given this disparity in the likelihood of making the playoffs (and therefore missing the playoffs), comparing droughts across time in terms of raw number of years is highly misleading. Modern teams are much less likely to have long droughts, and therefore a shorter drought for a modern team can represent more futility than a longer drought by an early 20th century franchise.

Fortunately, some basic math can help us adjust for this differential. If a team has a 1/3 of making the playoffs, they have a 2/3 chance of missing the playoffs. For two years, the chance of missing both years is 2/3 squared, or about 44% (conversely, the chance of making it both years is 1/3^2, or about 11%). And the chance of missing it three straight years is 2/3 cubed, or about 30%. And so on, the streak becomes more and more improbable in each successive year according to the ratio of teams and playoff spots.

So for example, the odds that the St. Louis Browns would miss the playoffs for 39 straight years until 1944 were (7/8)^39, roughly 0.5%. How many years would a modern team have to miss the playoffs in a row to get the same odds? Setting 0.5% = (2/3)^x, and solving for x gives 12.8, so 13 years. The implications of that are sort of stunning: mathematically, missing the playoffs for the next 13 straight years would be as bad as missing them for 40 straight years a century ago.

I've crunched the numbers for every playoff drought in history, to compile a list of the franchises that most defied the odds. These are the most futile teams at making the playoffs. As above, I've done list for both franchises, and for teams in different cities. What I've also done is rather than showing the odds as small percentages, I've inverted them so that the bigger the number, the longer the odds (so 1,000 instead of 0.001, essentially this means 1000:1 odds)

Current Franchise Drought Odds log City/Team Drought Odds log
1 Kansas City 1986-2013 2442 3.39 1 Kansas City 1986-2013 2442 3.39
2 Washington (MON) 1982-2011 1402 3.15 2 Toronto 1994-2014 1067 3.03
3 Toronto 1994-2014 1067 3.03 3 Milwaukee 1983-2007 370 2.57
4 Milwaukee 1983-2007 370 2.57 4 Cleveland 1955-94 367 2.56
5 Cleveland 1955-94 367 2.56 5 Chicago (NL) 1926-60 351 2.55
6 Chicago (NL) 1946-83 351 2.55 6 Pittsburgh 1916-49 274 2.44
7 Pittsburgh 1993-2012 274 2.44 7 St. Louis (AL) 1903-43 209 2.32
8 Texas (WS2) 1961-94 231 2.36 8 Montreal 1982-2004 187 2.27
9 Baltimore (STL) 1903-43 209 2.32 9 Chicago (AL) 1920-58 183 2.26
10 Chicago (AL) 1920-58 183 2.26 10 Baltimore 1998-2011 111 2.05
11 Minnesota (WS1) 1926-64 163 2.21 11 Washington (AL) 1926-60 107 2.03
12 Oakland (PHI/KC) 1932-70 161 2.21 12 Detroit 1988-2005 102 2.01
13 Baltimore 1998-2011 111 2.05 13 Seattle 2002-14 101 2.01
14 Detroit 1988-2005 102 2.01
15 Seattle 2002-14 101 2.01

In this context, the Jays' recent drought is much worse...in fact, it's the second or third worst EVER, short of only Kansas City's recent run of futility, and Montreal/Washington's recent run, if you take them together (again, I doubt many Expos fans really cared what happened to Washington after 2004, and vice versa).

It gets worse: while Kansas City looks like it's really far out ahead of the Jays with Drought Odds of 2,442 versus 1,067 for the Jays, it's really not that big a difference at all. That's because the scale of multiplicative. Currently, if a team misses the playoffs for a 8th straight season, their Drought Odds increase 50% from 17 to 25. If a team misses for the 18th straight time, the Drought Odds increase 50% from 986 to 1,478. To make the scale more easy to interpret, I've included the log of the Drought Score, which puts the Drought odds on a linear scale. As a result, the Jays' score of 3.03 is a lot closer to Kansas City's 3.38.

(Esoteric Aside #2: Technically, the Jays' score is somewhat lower than 1,067. The odds are calculated with generic league playoff odds, not accounting for divisional imbalances. So for 1998-2011, the odds were 4/14 = 28.6%, but the Jays chances were actually lower. They had a 1/5 shot at winning the division, and then 1/11 chance of the wild card if they didn't win the division. Mathematically, this is 1/5+(4/5)*(1/11) = 27.3% chance. It's a small difference, but it compounds some over time, such that using the exact odds reduced the Drought Odds from 1,067 to 772 (or 0.0013 to 0.00094. Happily, Kansas City would have the same adjustment for the same time period, so it affects them the same way. Using the exact odds would be very complicated to implement, and I'm satisfied it's not material so I've used the generic odds only)

So, if the Jays miss the playoffs next year, their score will go 1,601. That will pass Montreal/Washington for second all-time regardless of how one counts. And if they fail in 2016, it will go to 2,401...mere inches behind Kansas City. And if they miss in 2017, they will be the kings of defying playoffs odds, to my way of thinking the worst team for missing the playoffs consecutively in MLB history. Think about that for a second. And this makes sense intuitively: Kansas City's drought started 7 years earlier, but in those years only two teams made the playoffs, so there was an 86% chance of missing the playoffs. In the next couple seasons, it will be only 67%.

To show in another way how bad the current drought is, I've taken all drought lengths in MLB history, and sorted them according to the log of the Drought Odds in bins.

Odds Bin log Count
0-10 0-1 203
10-100 1-2 37
100-1000 2-3 18
1000+ 3+ 3
Total 261

MLB franchises have totaled 261 distinct playoff droughts. The Jays are basically in the worst 1% of playoff droughts when it comes to the odds.

There's one final wrinkle to all this, and that's the unique history of baseball in Washington. The original Washington Senators were a charter franchise of the American League; they were also a laughingstock who inspired the "Washington: first in war, first in peace, last in the American League" quip. After consecutive World Series appearances in 1925-1926, they didn't the make it back for the next 35 years before moving to Minnesota after 1960. Washington was then awarded an expansion franchise for 1961, also the Senators. They missed the playoffs for 11 straights before packing up for Texas. After 30 years of baseball absence, Washington got the Nationals in 2005 who missed the playoffs for 7 straight seasons. Taken together, that's 53 straight years of missing the playoffs, and Drought Odds of 3,220. Both of those would be also be the record. Interestingly, another 3 years of missing the playoffs through 2017 would bring the Jays' odds to 3,602 and also pass Washington's combined futility.

So in terms of playoff years, the Jays' current run of postseason futility pales to the likes of the St. Louis Browns, the original Washington Senators (or the various Washington teams taken together), the hapless Athletics across three cities, post-Black Sox Chicago, or Cleveland of the late 20th century. If the Jays don't make the playoffs in the next three seasons, they will become the franchise whose streak of consecutively missing the postseason most defied the odds in MLB history. They'll overtake Washington in terms of the cities whose collective baseball teams were most futile by the same measure (Toronto: first in cries, first in sighs, since our baseball team is never first?)

Let's hope the Jays can find a way to avoid this particular rendezvous with history.

Addendum

The fun thing about drought odds is that not only can we compare across time, but across sports as well. In the NFL, the Bills current drought of 14 seasons works out to 721. Not quite as bad as the Jays (though much closer of the true odds were used for the Jays), but if when they miss the playoffs this year they'll balloon to 1,153.

In the NHL, per Wikipedia, the longest ever playoff drought is Florida's 10 seasons, which works out to Drought Odds of 2,041. The Leafs streak of 7 straight missed seasons, which ended a few years back, worked out to 207, so we can't even say the Jays are less pathetic than the Leafs.