In the age of baseball parity, pitching health rules
Outside of a handful of clubs, every team has a right to be dreaming of October
The team that gets the most starts out of its projected rotation has the best shot
The Phils and Rays enjoyed very good fortune last season in pitching health
As unlikely as it was to have a World Series last year decided between Philadelphia and Tampa Bay (combined playoff series won in the prior 14 years: zero), to see either one of them back in the Fall Classic this year, given recent history, may be almost as unusual. When it comes to the World Series, there is no going back, which is why optimism is more potent than Primobolan this time of year in almost every camp in baseball. Outside of a handful of teams (Pirates, Padres, Nationals, Orioles, Mariners), every team has a right to be dreaming of October. And, er, November.
The Phillies and Rays once again proved baseball's democracy, which makes it all the more difficult for teams to repeat. Of the previous eight teams to win a pennant, every one of them won fewer games the following the season (by an average of between six and seven fewer wins), five of them didn't even make the playoffs and only one of them, the 2008 Red Sox, won even one postseason game the year after winning the pennant. And the past 10 pennant winners, as the folks at Fox know all too well, do not include the Yankees, Mets, Cubs, Angels or Dodgers, traditional big spenders in big markets.
Philadelphia and Tampa Bay remain strong contenders on paper. The Phillies added about $30 million to their payroll to keep the team together, mostly because of arbitration-eligible players. And somewhat curiously, they replaced the right-handed bat of Pat Burrell with the left-handed bat of Raul Ibanez in left field -- a move which ended up costing an extra $12 million. The Rays swapped Edwin Jackson for phenom David Price in their rotation.
But when you look at the depth in their respective divisions and the good fortune they enjoyed last season in pitching health, you begin to understand why repeating is so difficult. The 2008 Phillies and Rays were classic examples of The Schilling Theory: The team that gets the most starts out of its projected rotation has the best shot at winning. Philadelphia's top four starters (Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Brett Myers, Kyle Kendrick) and a hybrid fifth spot (Joe Blanton was acquired in a trade to replace Adam Eaton) started 158 of Philadelphia's 162 games. The Rays' starting five (James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine and Jackson) combined for 153 starts.
Want to see The Schilling Theory at work? Here are the only teams in 2008 to get 30 starts from four starters:
1. Phillies (Won World Series)
Since 2000, 28 teams, or about three per year, were fortunate enough to have four starters make 30 starts. Nineteen of those teams made the playoffs, or 68 percent of them.
Good luck to the Phils and Rays seeing those kinds of numbers again, especially after three rounds of playoff baseball added to the load. Most alarmingly, Hamels threw 79 innings more in 2008 than he did in any other professional season, putting him at great risk of a fallback season. Winning can be costly, and not just as measured by payroll.
One familiar thread of why teams don't repeat has been an attrition factor when it comes to starting pitching. The 2006 White Sox, for instance, allowed 149 more runs than when they won the World Series the previous year, when their starters pitched deep into games through the seventh month of their season. Seven of the past eight defending pennant winners saw a significant increase in runs allowed -- by an average of 84 more runs. The Rays, with their young pitching getting stretched last year, almost certainly will be hit by the same force.
So what you wind up with are not so much teams "on the rise" but more of teams that "pop up" on a one-year basis. (See: 2007 Rockies, 2006 Tigers, 2005 Astros, etc.) Who are those teams this year? One prime guess is the Marlins, whose starting pitching bears the profile of the 2008 Rays. One scout called Josh Johnson "a true ace, one of the best pitchers in the league." (Florida, however, does lack the Rays' defense.) Other surprise candidates: the Indians, chock full of players hitting their prime years; the Rangers, who can accelerate their 2010 arrival if they integrate some young pitching; the Braves, who should be way better than their 90 losses of last season; and even the Royals, who may be one starting pitcher away from contending. The gap between the eight playoff teams and the next eight teams that don't make the playoffs is so small now that many of the spots become interchangeable.
It's easy this time of year, because of the headlines, to think that a steroid cloud hangs over baseball. Alex Rodriguez got around to admitting to being a serial drug cheat. (Interestingly, Peter Gammons told ESPN ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber that, based on conversations with Rodriguez the day before the interview, "I got the impression he was going to say whatever he tested positive for in 2003 was related to prescription drugs he had taken for a back injury in spring training.") Also, Miguel Tejada admitted to lying about steroids in baseball, Kirk Radomski published the manual on supplying drugs to ballplayers, Barry Bonds is headed to trial for lying to a grand jury about steroids, Roger Clemens remains under investigation for his own statements in front of Congress about steroids, the 2003 list of players who tested positive in survey testing may become public and five of the top 12 home run hitters of all time and two-thirds of all MVP awards from 1995-2003 have been linked to performance enhancers. But it's important to remember that what is going on here is the cleanup from that storm, the discovery and cataloging of a dirty era. The headlines do not reflect current events.
Those headlines, however, are important and attention-grabbing enough to divert from the competitive balance at work in today's game. Remember, the top three spenders last season -- the Yankees, Tigers and Mets -- all went home instead of to the playoffs despite spending a combined $485 million.
So baseball in 2009 is not just about steroids or the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. It's about how long Phillies closer Brad Lidge can remain perfect; how long the Pirates can remain losers even in this new democracy; how the first full season with limited instant replay might affect the pennant race (only two of the seven instances last year reversed an umpire's call); how the three best teams in baseball just might be in the same division (the AL East); how Price and Orioles catcher Matt Wieters may be as good as advertised; and how the Mets respond to the ghosts of Septembers past.
On the penultimate day of the 2008 season, the Mets found this message written on their clubhouse whiteboard: "Never let yesterday take up too much of today. It's time to be a MAN. Johan."
Not even Johan Santana, philosopher and left-hander, who pitched a three-hit shutout that day on three days of rest with a knee that would require surgery, could drag the Mets into the playoffs. But his message remains pertinent to the Phillies and Rays. What they accomplished yesterday only makes today a greater challenge.