It's one of the nastiest words in sports, and now the Texas Rangers are confronting the possibility it will forever label their 2013 season: choke. No athlete wants to admit the pressure of a game or a pennant race adversely affected his performance. Better to write off such failure as bad luck or the proverbial "tip my cap" to the opponent. But what is happening to the Rangers this month is taking on the look of a tight team approaching something historically ugly.
Indeed, manager Ron Washington said after a sixth straight loss on Sunday "I've never seen anything like it" -- and that was before his team tacked on consecutive loss number seven in Tampa Bay on Monday. In these seven straight losses Texas has not had a lead, has not hit a home run and has whiffed 66 times.
Just 16 games ago the Rangers held a 6 ½ game lead on a playoff spot with 29 to play. They are 3-13 since. Their lead is down to one-half game with 13 games remaining.
Remember, this is the same franchise that held leads in Game 6 and Game 7 of the 2011 World Series and lost them both, and last year blew a five-game lead with nine games to play by going 2-7 -- though the cushion of a wild card spot softened that blow somewhat. Texas promptly lost the wild card game to Baltimore. Starting with that epic Game 6 loss to St. Louis (the Rangers twice were one strike away from their first title), Texas is 17-31 (.354) in September and October.
If you think such epic collapses seem to be happening with regularity these days, you would be right. What was once rare has become an annual occurrence -- and sometimes in multiples (see the twin failures of the 2011 Red Sox and Braves). Since 2007, at least one team has blown a significant lead down the stretch every year.
Take a look at the following year-by-year collapses. I pulled the largest lead (over a playoff spot, including the wild card), how many games were left with that lead, the team's record and winning percentage in those remaining games, and something I call the Choke Factor. It's admittedly low-tech, but it's an attempt to measure the size of the collapses: take the lead divided by games left and divide that by the winning percentage in those games.
This list includes only teams that didn't make the playoffs, which excludes the 2012 Rangers. I will also include the Tampa Bay Rays, who despite winning four of their past five games, aren't out of danger just yet.
That's a lot of collapses. (The website coolstandings.com, by the way, has their own but high-tech version of a choke factor among these teams through 2011, and also ranked the 2011 Red Sox, 2007 Mets and 2011 Braves 1-2-3, but slipped the 2010 Padres ahead of the 2009 Tigers) Why are good teams going bad so often these days? Are we getting more collapses because with six divisions and four wild cards there are more playoff spots to give away? That sounds logical, but you also could argue the two wild cards in each league offer a safety net, as happened for Texas last year.
I have been arguing that the distribution of talent is more equal today than ever before. Competitive balance no longer is a problem. It's extremely hard to win 100 games. The Red Sox need to finish 8-3 to reach 100 wins. If they don't, it will mean that in the past eight seasons only three teams have won 100 games, half as many as in the eight seasons prior.
The aforementioned coolstansdings.com studied the biggest collapses in baseball from 1903-2011, and ranked them according to the highest playoff probability of teams that did not make the playoffs. (The 1995 Angels, which blew a 10 ½-game lead with 44 games to go and then lost a one-game tiebreaker for the AL West title, topped the list, failing to reach the postseason after holding a maximum of a 99.9 percentage chance of making it.) When you look at the list, you can't help but notice how much more frequent the choke has become. Check out when the 12 biggest collapses occurred:
1903-2002 (100 seasons): 6
2003-2011 (9 seasons): 6
In less than a decade we get as many epic collapses as what took a century to produce. Weird. Now it's the 2013 Rangers' turn to try to avoid infamy. This is a team that is hanging around the race only by the grace of the Houston Astros. Texas is 14-2 vs. Houston and 67-65 against everybody else. Since the Fourth of July the Rangers are 9-23 against winning teams. Top starters Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Garza are 1-10 in their 18 starts since Aug. 13.
Texas plays three more games at Tampa Bay this week followed by three in Kansas City. They come home to finish with three more against Houston and three against the Angels.
Right now the Rangers look every bit the tight team. Last night they held a players-only meeting before the game, but once the game started Ian Kinsler made two baserunning blunders, manager Ron Washington bunted his hottest hitter, Elvis Andrus, in the fourth inning, and the team's hitters continually chased pitches out of the strike zone. The Rangers lost to the Rays, 6-2. For a team that remains in playoff position, albeit by the thinnest of threads, Texas is fighting infamy as well as itself.