Lessons from Brewers and D-backs, two latest turnaround teams
Milwaukee and Arizona are both playoff-bound after losing seasons in 2010
New managers Ron Roenicke and Kirk Gibson have played major roles
Both teams will have tough first-round match-ups and magic may not last in '12
Go ahead and put Milwaukee and Arizona into the playoffs, given their sizeable first place leads and lack of a strong contender to challenge them. And when they do play in October, they will continue an amazing run in the Wild Card Era that speaks to the sport's parity.
The Brewers, who lost 85 games last year, and the Diamondbacks, who lost 97, will make it six straight years and 16 out of 17 that at least one team made the playoffs the year after a losing season. In wild card format history, nearly one out of every four playoff teams had a losing record the previous year (33 of 136, or 24 percent).
How did Milwaukee and Arizona do it? It wasn't by spending great gobs of money. Both teams actually cut their payroll this year. What they have in common are shrewd trades that addressed core needs (starting pitching in Milwaukee; bullpen and cutting down on strikeouts in the lineup in Arizona) and the addition of high-character role players. GMs Doug Melvin in Milwaukee and Kevin Towers in Arizona were aggressive in adding players through trades and low-profile signings.
What can the Brewers and Diamondbacks tell us about turnaround teams? Did they follow the road map of the 31 turnaround teams before them? Is there a preferred way for such fast improvement?
To find the answers we have to search for clues in all 33 turnaround teams in the Wild Card Era, Milwaukee and Arizona included. Once we follow those tracks, we can get a glimpse at what is ahead for the Brewers and Diamondbacks this October -- and beyond. Let's examine nine key questions about the art of the turnaround:
1. Did the turnaround team have a new manager?
The analysis: Forget the overall numbers for a minute. Managerial changes have had a big impact in recent years. Of the 15 turnaround teams since 2003, eight of them had a new manager -- either a manager who joined the team midseason or was in his first full season with that club. That's a strong indicator, and the Brewers and D-backs are more proof of the power of putting the right man in charge. There should be no doubt that Ron Roenicke of Milwaukee and Kirk Gibson of Arizona, who is in his first full season with the D-backs, are major reasons why their teams improved so much.
2. Did the turnaround team improve its offense?
The analysis: Offense can be overrated. The Brewers, like the 2008 Rays and 2007 Indians and 2007 Diamondbacks, are proof that you can go from a losing record to the playoffs by scoring fewer runs. Milwaukee scored more runs per game last year than it has this year. (The Diamondbacks are only marginally better on offense this year.)
How many turnaround teams improved significantly on offense? Here's one answer: 14 teams improved by more than half a run per game -- less than half of our sample group.
3. Did the turnaround team improve its pitching?
The analysis: It's no surprise that pitching is an even stronger indicator for a turnaround team. The three turnaround teams that actually allowed more runs per game did so a long time ago, when you could slug your way into the postseason: the 1996 Orioles, the 1998 Rangers and the 1998 Cubs.
Using the same half-run per game barometer for pitching as we did for hitting, 15 teams turned around with significantly better pitching. The Brewers (-0.97 runs per game) and Diamondbacks (-1.00 runs per game) took huge steps forward with their pitching.
4. Did the turnaround team improve its defense?
The analysis: Here is another strong indictor, as measured by league ranking for Defensive Efficiency, a measurement of how often a team turns batted balls into outs. And this is another indicator that has grown stronger in recent years. Only two of the past 20 turnaround teams over the past 12 years fell in Defensive Efficiency (2006 Dodgers and 2004 Angels).
Both Milwaukee (15 to 8) and Arizona (9 to 6) jumped from the bottom half of the league to the top half.
5. Did the turnaround team (past five years only) spend big bucks on free agents?
The analysis: Only two of the past 10 turnaround teams made the playoffs immediately after signing one of the 10 biggest free agents that applicable winter (ranked by total dollars of the contract): the 2010 Reds, who signed Aroldis Chapman, and the 2007 Cubs, who signed Alfonso Soriano.
Arizona (18th) and Milwaukee (26th) ranked nowhere near the biggest free agent spenders last winter. The Diamondbacks' biggest purchase was closer J.J. Putz, who took a below-market deal to pitch in Arizona ($10 million for two years). Towers chose to spread small sums around veteran role players with "character" who could improve the clubhouse ethos: Henry Blanco, Xavier Nady, Willie Bloomquist, Geoff Blum, Melvin Mora and Aaron Heilman.
Melvin spent only $5.6 million on the free agent market and shopped for veterans with a similar profile as did Towers: Craig Counsell, Sean Green, Mark Kotsay, Will Nieves and Takashi Saito.
6. Did the turnaround team get out of the first round of the playoffs?
The analysis: Results are underwhelming. The magic doesn't last long. Turnaround teams are 25-28 in postseason series play and 107-127 in postseason games. But three turnaround teams did win it all: the 2002 Angels and the 1997 and 2003 Marlins.
7. Did the turnaround team get back to the postseason the next year?
The analysis: Turnaround teams tend to be one-year wonders. The only turnaround teams to consolidate their surprise playoff appearance with a follow-up are the 1998 Rangers and Red Sox, the 2004 Angels and the 2007 Cubs.
8. Is there something else at work here besides offense, pitching and defense?
The analysis: Sometimes it's just your year. Line up all 30 teams in baseball according to their record in one-run games. Who's number one? Milwaukee (28-16). Who's number three? Arizona (23-14). Last year they ranked ninth (26-23) and 23rd (19-23), respectively.
Now consider the health of starting pitchers. Seven teams reached Labor Day with three starters making all their starts -- a minimum of 28 starts. All but one of those teams (the Dodgers) had a winning record. And two of those seven teams who ran out three starters all year without interruption? The Brewers and Diamondbacks.
9. So what does the future hold for the Brewers and Diamondbacks?
Not much. Both teams are likely to be underdogs in the National League Division Series -- Arizona against a Philadelphia team that hasn't lost three out of five games since July 29, and Milwaukee against an Atlanta team against which it is 3-5 while scoring only 17 runs in eight games.
And next year? Milwaukee could lose Prince Fielder to free agency while the Diamondbacks don't face any key losses. But look what happened to the Reds this year. They were baseball's turnaround gift to the postseason last year, but even with virtually the same team back this year they flopped. The fact that 87 percent of turnaround teams don't make it back to the playoffs the next year will weigh against the Brewers and D-backs. Sometimes it's just your year -- and no more. Enjoy the fun while it lasts.