As the Houston Astros learned, there’s plenty of truth behind the canard that the toughest task is repeating
The failure of the Houston Astros to repeat as World Series champions came as no surprise to those who have followed the game’s recent history. Houston’s elimination by the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series means 2018 will conclude as the 18th consecutive season without a repeat winner, easily the longest stretch in the history of Major League Baseball.
Not since the New York Yankees defeated the Mets to win their third straight World Series title in 2000 has any team succeeded in defending its championship. In fact only one team since 2001 has even had a chance, the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies, who lost to the Yankees.
Statistically, the Astros did well to advance as far as they did. Since MLB went to its three-division setup in 1994 — incorporating a divisional series into the post-season agenda — the most common result for reigning World series champions has been “did not qualify for post-season play.” Ten of the 23 defending champions failed to do so. Four saw their bids end in the division round, and four others went out in the LCS. The 2009 Phillies, 2001 Yankees and 1996 Atlanta Braves were the only ones – aside from the 1999 and 200 Yanks – to return to the World Series.
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Go back further and the odds are even longer against defending champs. For the four decades since 1979, there have been 38 World Series champions. But only three repeated, while 22 failed to even qualify to defend their titles in post-season play.
It’s not only difficult to win the World Series twice in succession, it’s a major challenge even to play in two straight. Of the 45 World Series combatants since 1995, only eight – including the 2017-18 Dodgers — played in consecutive World Series.
By contrast, 16 teams since 1995 followed up their World Series appearance by failing to reach post-season play at all. The 2017, the Royals and Mets, World Series contestants the previous season, both missed out. The Royals in fact were the fourth consecutive World Series champion to fail to return to the post-season, joining the 2015 Giants, 2014 Red Sox, and 2013 Giants.
The longest previous string of seasons without a repeat World Series champion was 1979 through 1992, the Toronto Blue Jays ending that run by repeating their 1992 title in 1993. During that 14-seasons stretch, a dozen different franchises won World Series titles, only Los Angeles (1981, 1988) and Minnesota (1987, 1991) taking two. That matches the total of World Series championship franchises since 2001.
Perhaps amazingly, between 1982 and 1989 the defending World Series champion never once managed to qualify for post-season play. And the streak would have gone back three years farther but for the strike-inspired 1981 post-season in which the two 1980 World Series contestants, the Phillies and Royals, both qualified despite having the third and fourth best overall records in their divisions.
This diversity at the top is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the first quarter-century of World Series play, four teams won two straight Series, with nine doing so between 1928 and the game’s first expansion in 1961. In fact the Yankees won four straight championships in the 1930s and five straight in the 1940s-50s. Meanwhile, through 1961 an additional eight defending World Series champions returned to the World Series before losing their bids, four of them taking that bid to a decisive seventh game.
Between 1962 and 1978, five repeat champions were crowned: the 1962 Yankees, the 1973 and 1974 Athletics, the 1976 Reds and the 1978 Yankees.
In the intervening 40 seasons since 1978, only the Blue Jays and Yankees have been able to repeat.
The baffling aspect is that this has taken place when Major League Baseball arguably has made it easier for champions to defend. From 1969 through 1995, only two teams from each league advanced to the post-season. The pool was expanded to four teams from each league that season, and to five in 2012.
That means every season one-third of teams play at least one post-season game. Yet since 1979, 51 percent of teams reaching the World Series failed to even qualify for post-season play just one year later.
Looking forward to 2019, that might be dire news indeed for the Red Sox and/or Dodgers.