Who will be the next Rays?
Since 1995, 29 teams have made the postseason the year after a losing season
No team has ever made the playoffs the year after losing more than 97 games
For turnaround teams, run prevention is more important than run production
Pitchers and catchers.
There, how does that sound as some of you scrape your windshield this morning in a football-less world? Warmth, at least a vicarious kind, is just around the corner. Pitchers and catchers (the words alone can soothe nearly as much as the distinctive popping sound of their collaborative work) start rolling into big league camps next week. Our body clocks reset, and so do the hopes of 30 teams.
The fonts of optimism overflow, especially this particular spring, for one reason: the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, one of the greatest turnaround stories in baseball history. The Rays morphed not only from 96 losses to the World Series, but also from a franchise history without so much as one winning season. The optimism is grounded in truth: Almost every team has a shot at the playoffs this year.
While the Rays' story may be an extreme one, they share a plot line with the 2007 Rockies, the 2006 Tigers and the many other teams in the wild-card, revenue-sharing era that made the playoffs the year after posting a losing record. Since 1995, when the expanded playoff format began, 29 of the 112 playoff teams reached the postseason in the year immediately after a losing season. That's 26 percent of the postseason teams, an average of two turnaround teams every year. Only once in those 14 years, in 2005, has a team failed to make the postseason the year after it had a losing record.
So the question this spring is not so much, Is there a 2009 version of the 2008 Rays out there? It is this: Who will be the next Rays? Thirteen teams suffered through losing seasons last year. There is a good chance that one or two of those 13 teams will make the playoffs this year. Who will it be?
First we have to search for clues in the traits of turnaround teams. Some generalities emerge about teams that jump from losing records to the playoffs:
1. Run prevention is more important than run production. The Rays actually scored slightly fewer runs in 2008 than they did in '07. Their improvement in runs allowed, however, was staggering (-273). While four of the 16 turnaround teams this decade made the turnaround while scoring fewer runs, none of them did so without improving their run prevention. And 10 of the 16 teams showed a greater improvement in run prevention than run production. What does that mean? Maybe Derek Lowe makes for a more impactful signing than Adam Dunn.
2. Turnaround teams were not as bad off as they appeared. Eleven of the past 13 turnaround teams underperformed in their losing season, as measured by the Bill James Pythagorean formula. Those 11 teams won, on average, five fewer games than they could have been expected to win.
3. Hope only goes so far. No team made the playoffs the year after losing more than 97 games, which is how far Arizona traveled from 1998 to '99.
So what happens when we apply these loose rules of thumb to this year's 13 hopeful Cinderellas? Forget about Seattle, Washington and San Diego, all of whom lost at least 99 games. Set aside (but don't completely rule out) Kansas City, Texas, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Colorado and San Francisco, all of which met or exceeded Pythagorean expectations last year. Now you're down to four teams who fit the loose profile of the next Rays. I'll rank them from most likely to least.
1. Detroit Tigers. The most expensive last-place team in history ($137 million) is bound to be better. The Tigers ranked 12th in the AL in runs allowed last season. Starting pitchers Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman gave them 21 wins, 441 innings and a 5.33 ERA, vastly worse than the 38 wins, 553 2/3 innings and 4.44 they provided the previous season. Detroit's defense didn't help, either. Only the Rangers, Mariners and Yankees were worse among AL teams at turning batted balls into outs as manager Jim Leyland desperately sought the right combination of players in the right spots. Stellar defensive shortstop Adam Everett, the Tigers' version of Jason Bartlett, will help, as should the return of Brandon Inge to third base and Gerald Laird taking over the catching spot. Still, the season will turn on the rotation, and whether Verlander and Bonderman can return to form and whether Armando Galarraga and former Ray Edwin Jackson can build on their 2008 breakouts. With an improved defense and healthier starters, the Tigers will make a huge jump in run prevention.
2. Atlanta Braves. It's hard to believe that the Braves sunk to 12th in runs allowed, their worst showing in 18 seasons. But they've done something about it. They added three starting pitchers: Lowe, the enigmatic Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami. Jair Jurrjens and Jorge Campillo are fine at the back end of the rotation. Are the Braves short on offense? Perhaps, but they did rank sixth in the league in runs last year, so if the run prevention improves as expected, they still should have enough offense to at least be a contender again.
3. Oakland Athletics. Oakland may be only slightly better at run prevention, if only because they ranked a solid fifth last year and they enter this season without a starting pitcher who has logged 180 innings in a season. Healthy versions of Mark Ellis and Eric Chavez would help the defense. But Oakland may be the turnaround team that defies the conventional profile. The A's figure to make a gigantic leap on the offensive side while needing only a marginal improvement in run prevention. They could very well resemble the 2004 Angels, a turnaround team that improved its run production by 100 with the addition of Vladimir Guerrero, while its run prevention improved by only nine. Matt Holliday and Jason Giambi are the keys to providing a Vlad-like effect for Oakland.
4. Baltimore Orioles. Realistically, they have no shot at the playoffs, not in the AL East. But Baltimore actually has an honest-to-goodness shortstop now, Cesar Izturis, and under Andy MacPhail has a deep collection of young arms that will audition throughout the season. Only the Rangers allowed more runs than the 869 yielded by Baltimore pitchers last season, so improved run prevention should not be too difficult. With an exciting young outfield (Felix Pie, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis) and the next great catching prospect (Matt Wieters), the Orioles at last are on the right track.