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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 don’t 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 I’ve used to rank the races is simple:  take the year-end records of the teams which didn’t 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 isn’t close, that square will put even a good team’s 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 isn’t 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 team’s score on the  day it was eliminated from the race, so that any results thereafter do not affect the team’s 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 isn’t 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.


Season Score   Champ Scoring Teams
1937 Spring    26.75 Kyojin Tigers  
1946 24.00 Great Ring   Kyojin
1939 20.75 Kyojin Tigers

            I know this period isn’t 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.

The 1950’s

Season Score   Champ Scoring Teams
1956 Pacific 43.75 Lions Hawks
1954 Pacific 41.75 Lions Hawks
1958 Pacific 35.70 Lions Hawks & Braves
1952 Pacific 29.00 Hawks Orions
1952 Central   26.75 Giants   Tigers

The 1950’s had some longer seasons, which helps under this system.  I feel this is fair, because a close race with more games increases the drama by providing more opportunities.  The 1950’s have the 4 best all-time races, all of which occurred in the Pacific League.  More than that, the top 3 races all had the Lions beating the Hawks, though 1958 involved the Braves as well.  The 1952 Central League race will also make the top 10 all time.  The best single season for races in both leagues is clearly 1952.

The 1960’s

Season Score   Champ Scoring Teams
1968 Pacific 27.00 Braves   Hawks
1961 Pacific 24.75 Hawks Flyers
1963 Pacific 23.00 Lions Hawks
1964 Central   21.00 Tigers Whales
1969 Pacific 18.00 Braves Buffaloes

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 1970’s

Season Score   Champ Scoring Teams
1970 Central   24.00 Giants Tigers
1976 Central 23.00 Giants Tigers
1971 Pacific 21.75 Braves Orions
1974 Central 21.00 Dragons   Giants

The split season format used by the Pacific League limited opportunities for their teams to score points in this rating system.  Further, I never considered the first half races, because much of the  drama in a race comes from a win or go home situation, which certainly isn’t present if the loser of the race can still qualify by winning the second half of the season.  This is why there are only 4 qualifying races, and only one comes from the Pacific League.  While the Central League could arguably have had the better races in the 1980’s, this is the only decade in which it is clear that the Central League had the better races than the Pacific League.

The 1980’s

Season Score   Champ Scoring Teams
1989 Pacific 39.30 Buffaloes   Braves & Lions
1986 Central   27.00 Carp Giants
1988 Pacific 22.00 Lions Buffaloes
1982 Central 15.75 Dragons Giants
1984 Central 15.00 Carp Dragons

The Central League’s 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 1950’s.

1990 to present

Season Score   Champ Scoring Teams
1993 Pacific   23.70 Lions    Fighters & Blue Wave

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

Rank Season score
1 1956 Pacific 43.75
2 1954 Pacific 41.75
3 1989 Pacific 39.30
4 1958 Pacific 35.70
5 1952 Pacific 29.00
6 (tie)   1986 Central   27.00
6 (tie) 1968 Pacific 27.00
8 (tie) 1937 Spring 26.75
8 (tie) 1952 Central 26.75
10 1961 Pacific 24.75

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