Jim Albright / the japanese insider
What Were the Greatest Pennant Races In Japan?
There are two essential elements to a pennant race: the race is 1) close and 2) between good teams. I dont think any explanation is necessary for why the first factor is essential. The need for the race to be between good teams can best be illustrated by the 1973 National League East race in the Major Leagues, in which quite a few teams were very close indeed, but all of them were struggling to get over .500 as well. That race was more slapstick comedy than drama. Great races are built on drama, not comedy. I feel a third factor, the number of teams in the race, adds to the drama. More fans and players are involved in rooting/helping their teams to the title, thereby increasing the impact of the race, and thus its drama as well.
The method Ive used to rank the races is simple: take the year-end records of the teams which didnt win the title, and first subtract their losses from their wins. The better the team, the better this number will be. From that result, you then subtract the square of how many games behind they finished. The games behind is squared to emphasize the closeness of the race. If it isnt close, that square will put even a good teams score near or below zero. Then all teams with scores greater than zero are added up. At this point, we will give a bonus if the race involved more than two teams. We will do this by multiplying the total of the scores of the teams scoring points by 1 if there is only 1 team scoring points (remember that the champ isnt considered), 1.2 if there are 2 teams scoring points, 1.4 if there are 3, 1.6 if there are 4, and so on.
The system would be better if I could do each teams score on the day it was eliminated from the race, so that any results thereafter do not affect the teams score. However, I do not have such detailed information available to me. You may quibble over the multiplier for multiple team races, but it rarely amounts to 10 points, so it isnt as big a deal as it might seem.
I will now list the top five races from each decade (minimum 10 points), and then will list the top 10 all-time races at the end of the article.
I know this period isnt a decade, but since only 3 races from the pre-1950 period qualified, it seemed best to put them together. Given the fact the seasons before 1950 often were less than 130 games (thereby limiting scores by limiting opportunities for wins, which are the only way to get positive points), these are three fine races. Another factor which further limits the scores is the fact Japanese baseball allows tie games by once again limiting opportunities for wins. The system is appropriate because the Japanese have effectively ignored the ties in determining league champions.
When one considers that the Giants were dominating the Central League during this decade, it is unsurprising that almost all of the top races came from the Pacific League.
The Central Leagues best ever race (1986) is still only second in its own decade. The 1989 Pacific race had three teams all finishing within a half a game, and it is the best race since the 1950s.
1990 to present
This is the only race since 1990 to beat the ten point minimum. The dearth of good races for such a long period of time cannot be a good thing for Japanese baseball.
Top 10 Races in NPB History