The Red Sox Have A Formidable Competitor In The Race To .500

The Red Sox button-mashed their way to a 9-3 victory Sunday night because they discovered an exploit in the Yankees’ defense: If Marcus Stroman is bad at preventing base stealers, and Jose Trevino is bad at throwing out base stealers, the resulting pitcher-catcher combination must be really bad at throwing out base stealers. Jarren Durran stole two bases; David Hamilton stole four. Even slow-footed first baseman Dominic Smith snagged one. The strategy paid off as Boston closed out a series win against the best team in the majors.

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But in taking two of three from the Yankees, the Red Sox failed in what should be their one true goal: reaching a pure .500 record. So far this season, the Red Sox have been 1-1, 2-2, 7-7, 9-9, 10-10, 19-19, 22-22, 24-24, 26-26, 27-27, 28-28, 29-29, 30-30, 31-31, 32-32, 33-33, 34-34, and 35-35. It’s as if they want to be known not as overachievers or underachievers, but simply achievers. The team could’ve kept the streak alive with 36-36, but instead they played too well and are 37-35 as of Monday afternoon.

While it’s trivial to pinpoint historical team success and failure, the Red Sox have offered us a metric through which to determine historical mediocrity: the percentage of games in a season that a team spent at exactly .500. Call it the intermediate value theorem of baseball: If, at any point, a team goes from having a winning record to a losing record, or vice versa, they must pass through a .500 record to get there. Because every team either starts 1-0 or 0-1, this means it is possible to go an entire season without crossing the .500 mark at all. Roughly 11 percent of all teams’ MLB seasons since 1947 have ended this way.

Conversely, it is not true that when a team touches .500, they are necessarily switching from a full winning record to a losing record, or vice versa. A team can go from 10-9 to 10-10, then back up to 11-10, in which case the .500 mark serves as a local minimum. In those instances, repeatedly returning to the .500 mark means to repeatedly oscillate between winning and losing. If a baseball team goes 35-0 and then 0-35 to get to 35-35, they have given their fans both too much hope and too much devastation to be truly mediocre. For the truly mediocre, there is no catharsis. There is only .500.

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At the time of writing, the Red Sox have played 72 games and finished with a .500 record in 18 of them, for a .500 percentage of exactly 25 percent. In order to calculate where this leaves them historically, I looked at all seasons since 1947—mostly to provide a modern cutoff, but also partially because I was making too many calls to the Baseball-Reference schedules and results pages and they kept restricting me—and excluded 2020 for sample-size reasons. The full results, 2020 included, can be found here. Here are the top 11 teams, with in-progress seasons italicized:

Most Mediocre MLB Teams since 1947, minus 2020 (as of June 17, 2024)
1. San Diego Padres, 2024 – 30.7 percent, 23 games
2. Boston Red Sox, 2024 – 25.0 percent, 18 games
3. Chicago Cubs, 1959 – 22.7 percent, 35 games
4. Minnesota Twins, 2009 – 20.9 percent, 34 games
5. Atlanta Braves, 1981 – 20.6 percent, 22 games
T-6. Oakland Athletics, 2010 – 20.4 percent, 33 games
T-6. Toronto Blue Jays, 2011 – 20.4 percent, 33 games
8. Chicago Cubs, 1993 – 20.2 percent, 33 games
9. Pittsburgh Pirates, 1999 – 19.9 percent, 32 games
10. Detroit Tigers, 1957 – 19.5 percent, 30 games
11. Tampa Bay Rays, 2024 – 19.4 percent, 14 games

Padres jump scare! This is a devastating win for the small-market, anti-East Coast crowd. The Red Sox would be on pace for the most mediocre season since 1947 if not for the Padres, who have ended an eye-watering 30.7 percent of their games with a .500 record. They haven’t quite managed the same streak as the Red Sox, but they’ve accomplished it five more times, thanks to putting in more early-season work. The Padres have been 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 8-8, 9-9, 11-11, 12-12, 13-13, 14-14, 18-18, 19-19, 20-20, 21-21, 22-22, 24-24, 25-25, 26-26, 27-27, 28-28, 32-32, 34-34, 35-35, and 37-37. The Red Sox are even slacking at slacking.

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On Sunday the Padres lost to the New York Mets, placing them at 37-38. Will they get back to 38-38? They play Monday night against the Phillies, who are 47-24 but have two consecutive series losses to the Red Sox and Orioles. Even with this intense display of mediocrity, the Padres are second in the NL West—just ahead of the Diamondbacks and Giants—and currently occupy the third NL Wild Card slot with their proud sub-.500 record.

Can either the Padres or the Red Sox beat the 1959 Cubs’ record? The Cubs sat at .500 in 35 games, though they only played 154 or 155 games total, depending on how you’re counting. That year, the Cubs faced the Phillies in an August double-header—the second game ran over four hours and then had to be called off due to curfew, as “under Pennsylvania law no inning may begin after 12:50 a.m.” The game was replayed, but all individual statistics in the game counted toward the players, which meant that Ernie Banks played 155 games that year, though his 0-3 night probably didn’t help so much with his NL MVP award that season. Baseball-Reference saves the game as a tie, so the Cubs’ .500 percentage is either 22.7 or 22.6 percent, which caused a minor headache when doing sanity checks on this data. The individual statistics from that game are preserved, and so Baseball-Reference saves all of them under the game, even though it had no bearing on the standings at all. How could I be so foolish as to forget the corner case in which a game is subject to arcane Pennsylvania laws?

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In order to beat either 22.7 or 22.6 percent this season, a team would have to end 37 games at .500. It’s hard to maintain pace over the course of a full season—this is why three teams from the shortened 2020 season would make the all-time top 10 if they were included—but the Padres have set themselves up well for the remainder of the year. San Diego would only have to end 14 more games at .500, for a mere .161 rate through the rest of the season.

The same cannot be said for the Red Sox, who will have to buckle down and roughly keep pace for the rest of the season to rack up the 19 additional games they need. If they’re going to insist on being a stolidly mediocre team, they should at least do so in a record-breaking manner. Why are they stealing so much against the Yankees? Give up your material ambitions! It’s time to make history!

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