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Drilling down into the dumbness of divisional bridesmaiding

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If Jerry Reinsdorf really does shoot for second place, he’s doing a helluva job

Oakland Athletics v Chicago White Sox
The man with seven rings: Much has been made of Jerry Reinsdorf’s did-he-or-didn’t-he comments to disgraced Marlins exec David Samson. But what to the numbers bear out?
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Before this gets rolling, let me out myself.

At least until this decade, my point of pride as a White Sox fan was that the team was, more or less, “always” competitive, year after year.

In other words, my pride dovetailed with Jerry Reinsdorf’s now-infamous maybe-quote, delivered via dirtybaggy ex-Marlins president David Samson:

Now, this is where me and JR’s faith split, because I felt a competitive team kept me engaged, not “teased” or left wanting, as this very disingenuous sorta-possibly-actually-said thing from Reinsdorf would lead you to believe. After all, the idea that a team should come close to winning but never actually get there, for fan interest ($$$$$$$$) reasons is cynical beyond belief.

To his credit, Reinsdorf sort of disavowed the philosophy in a White Sox statement issued after this “podcast controversy.”


But for argument’s sake, let’s take this all as 100% true, and Jerry Reinsdorf thinks the smartest sports strategy has been to finish in second place.

Has he been any good at finishing there?

Baseball-Reference
Baseball-Reference

Yeah, actually, he has.

In Reinsdorf’s tenure, the White Sox have finished in second place 11 times (27.5% of the time). The White Sox have finished in first six times (15%), meaning the club has been “in it” (I know that’s not a perfect definition, the White Sox were certainly “in it” winning 90 games in 2006 while finishing in third, but anyway) 42.5% of the time in Reinsdorf’s tenure.

Now, Reinsdorf’s 40 seasons include 13 in the old two-division, seven-team format. In the category of “what have you done for me lately,” let’s just look at the White Sox record in the 27 years of three-division, five-team play. Given the 2010s, it has to be worse, right?

Wrong.

In more recent times, the White Sox have won four divisions (15%) and finished second nine times (33%). So nearly half the time, the White Sox have been a first- or second-place team.

Obviously, the law of averages would say that a team should finish in each spot in a five-team division 20% of the time. And, somewhat true to a “middling” approach by the White Sox, extremes are not a characteristic of a Jerry Reinsdorf team:

First Place 15%
Second Place 33%
Third Place 26%
Fourth Place 22%
Fifth Place 4%

The White Sox don’t win as many division titles as averaging says they should, but they also never finish in last. Only twice in Reinsdorf’s 40 seasons helming the White Sox has the team finished dead last, and just once in the past 27 seasons. That’s impressive.

With recent trends, and the 2010s just being putrid for the White Sox, I went into this thinking it could be a gotcha piece ... see, you can’t even pull off what you (may or may not have) aimed to do each season, finishing in second place!

But if second place (or better) is truly Reinsdorf’s philosophy, he’s pulling it off. A third of the time — not a fifth — the White Sox are a second-place team.

That’s sort of uncanny. Almost as if it’s ... a franchise philosophy.