Do World Series Losers Get Hangovers?

The 2018 Dodgers found a new way to hit rock bottom, losing four straight at home to the Reds, the NL’s worst team. They’ve now lost 14 of 19 and, at 16-24, with Corey Seager out for the season, Justin Turner yet to play and both Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu on the disabled list, they entered Monday just a game ahead of the Padres (16-26) in the NL West. Read that again: a team with a payroll of nearly $200 million, one that lost Game Seven of the World Series, is within spitting distance of a rebuilding club that hasn’t seen a .500 season since 2010.

Through the first 40 games of the season, the Dodgers have fared worse than all but two of the previous 17 teams that lost the World Series — namely, the 2001 Mets and the 2008 Rockies, both of whom stumbled out of the gate at 15-25. Which raises the question: is there a “World Series hangover” for teams that lose the Fall Classic?

Last year, in the wake of the 2016 champion Cubs’ sluggish start, the powers that be at Sports Illustrated asked me to investigate the possible existence of a World Series hangover effect, particularly given that no team had repeated as champion since the Yankees in 1999 and 2000. While conceding that the numerous areas one might examine (such as a year-after effect on pitcher performance and injury, or on hitters and aging) are endless and potentially fascinating, I chose to keep things simple by testing a couple of theories — namely, that (a) the defending champions were more likely to start slowly the following year and that (b) said teams were more likely to finish slowly.

It’s easy to project narratives on either of those theories. In the case of the first, perhaps a shortened offseason left players too little time to rest and recover, or the front office was reluctant to break up a championship team. In the case of the second, perhaps it takes longer for the heavier workload to catch up, or for their luck to finally run out. But instead of falling back on such explanations, I simply decided to see where the data took me.

What I found with respect to the defending champions was that, through the first 20 games of the following season, they posted similar winning percentage as they did in the championship season. They fell off a bit by the 40-game mark but were still very good. It was over the latter portions of the season where they really faded, with a collective record just above .500 over the final 40 games of the year and just below .500 over the final 20. (The addition of last year’s Cubs, with a 15-5 record, to the data set brought the group back above .500 over that final stretch.)

Oddly, teams that lost the World Series have typically been stronger than the winners in the following season, over the course of every increment I checked:

Do World Series Hangovers Exist?
Team Year 0 Year 1 Post% 1st 20 1st 40 Last 40 Last 20
Winners .581 .537 44.4% .571 .536 .516 .512
Losers .581 .569 66.7% .585 .557 .612 .606
Year 0: winning percentage in season of World Series appearance
Year 1: winning percentage in season after World Series appearance
Post%: percentage of teams to reach postseason

The 2000-2016 World Series participants had virtually identical winning percentages in the year they went, separated by exactly one win and one loss over the course of 2,751 games, with the winners going 1,599-1152 and the losers going 1598-1153. The losers had small advantages over the course of the first 20 and 40 games of the next year, and huge advantages — nearly 100 points of winning percentage — over the course of the final 40 and 20 games. The latter gaps are somewhat skewed by the 2017 Indians, who set an AL record with a 22-game winning streak in late August and September, went 34-6 over the final 40 games, and then 16-4 over the final 20. Excluding them, the losers’ collective winning percentage for those increments was .597 and .594, still head and shoulders above the winners.

Overall, in the year after losing the World Series, those losing clubs have posted a 32-point advantage in winning percentage relative to the winning teams, and a substantial edge in terms of the percentage of those teams that made the playoffs. For a baseline, consider that all postseason teams from the 2000-2016 period combined for a .579 winning percentage in the year they made the playoffs and a .546 winning percentage the year after, with 49.5% making the playoffs.

And, of course, while no team has repeated as champion during this period, two winners made it back to the Fall Classic the next year — namely, the 2001 Yankees, who lost to the Diamondbacks, and the 2009 Phillies, who lost to the Yankees. Meanwhile, two World Series losers returned, the 2011 Rangers (who lost) and the 2015 Royals (who won).

(If you’re wondering how the 2018 Astros fit into this, they were 24-16 at the 40-game mark, tied for fifth among the winners, two games behind the pack-leading 2006 White Sox.)

I have to admit, the relative success of World Series losers relative to the champions isn’t a result I was expecting, not by a longshot. Nonetheless, I’m struck by the consistency of the pattern. Excluding the 2017 participants, just two of the past seven World Series winners returned to the playoffs the following year, whereas the last eight losers have. Four of the winners finished below .500 the following year, and one right at that mark, whereas just one losing team finished below .500, the aforementioned Rockies. The 2001 Mets saved face by going 28-12 over their final 40 games — matching the second-best record of the group — en route to an 82-80 record.

As to the “why,” just as it’s tempting to map narratives onto the winners, so too for the losers: “Far from being crushed by their World Series defeat, they stayed hungry and kept the band together/reloaded/upgraded to get another shot…” Lacking the time to undertake such a study today, I’ll avoid those assertions.

[Update: After the 2014 World Series, Ben Lindbergh, then at Grantland, ran a study for the 1995-2013 period whose results showed that World Series winners tended to have less turnover the following season — as measured by plate appearances for position players and batters faced for pitchers — than the losers. That doesn’t entirely answer the why, but it appears that in this context, changing it up is a good thing.]

As to what this means for the Dodgers, specifically, we already knew they weren’t living up to expectations, but woof, they really stick out like a sore thumb here. Their current winning percentage is 242 points below last year’s; no loser has fallen off by more than 95 points (the 2008 Rockies went from .552 to .457) and only three winners have fallen by over 100 points, with the 2014 Red Sox (from .599 to .438) representing the “champs.”

That said, the Dodgers are not as bad a team as their 16-24 record suggests. They’re four wins below their Pythagenpat record, based on actual runs scored and allowed (they’ve been outscored by just one run), and three games below their BaseRuns record, based on estimated runs scored and allowed. Even with this dreadful start, they project to win 84 games and, according to our Playoff Odds, still have a 33.0% chance at winning the division and a 44.7% chance at making the playoffs.

The reason the Dodgers still have a fighting chance, in part, is that they’re getting Turner back from his broken left wrist. He’s been out since late March, but both he and Logan Forsythe, out since April 14 with shoulder inflammation, are scheduled to be activated on Tuesday. The four players the Dodgers have used at third base (Forsythe, Kyle Farmer, Kiké Hernandez, and Max Muncy) have combined to hit .209/.291/.374 for an 80 wRC+ in that capacity, the majors’ second-worst production at the hot corner, whereas Turner produced a 151 wRC+ last year and is projected for a 124 wRC+ for the remainder of this one.

The team’s second basemen, meanwhile — a collection of Forsythe, Hernandez, Austin Barnes, Chris Taylor, and Chase Utley — have been even weaker with the stick, combining to hit .181/296/.261 for a 61 wRC+. They’ll need someone from among that group to step up, and elsewhere, they need Matt Kemp (.317/.357/.500, 137 wRC+) to keep saving the day, and Yasiel Puig (.204/.252/.282, 48 wRC+) to shake out of his funk. They need Kershaw to return sooner rather than later from his bout of biceps tendinitis (he’s at least throwing on flat ground), and Rich Hill to stop getting blisters, and a bunch of guys to step up in the bullpen, and…

Yes, it’s a lot, but the Dodgers won 104 games in 2017 despite going 16-24 for two overlapping stretches towards the end of the season, both of which included their infamous, unsightly 1-16 skid. The Diamondbacks, whom they’re chasing, have lost six in a row and nine out of 12 to fall to 24-17. Not only do they have some rotation issues of their own with which to contend, but they lost A.J. Pollock to a sprained thumb on Monday night. The Rockies (23-19 entering Monday) have lost four out of six since surging above .500, while the Giants (21-21 entering Monday) had lost six in a row after climbing above .500. The NL West race isn’t over, but the Dodgers need to get themselves together to join it.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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5 years ago

If it is helpful I know I had the worst hang over after we lost our slo-pitch quarter-final. I can only imagine if it was the championship.