January 10, 2012
What Happens When the Big Ones Get Away?
We finished last with you, and we can finish last without you.—Branch Rickey to Ralph Kiner, 1953
Let’s say your team made the playoffs last season.* Maybe it went all the way to the World Series and played well enough to earn an awkward audience with Bud Selig after the final out. That’s good news. But your team’s best player, the man most responsible for its on-field success—let’s call him, I don’t know, “Albert Pujols”—won’t be back next season. Maybe he left for another team. Maybe he got hurt. Maybe he retired to fulfill his boyhood dream of becoming a philatelist. Regardless of why he’s gone, he's gone. And that’s bad news.
*Pirates fans can play along, too. All it takes is a little imagination.
But how bad is it? After all, in baseball, there’s a limit to the impact any one player can have. The best player in any given season, let alone on any given team, is rarely more than 10 wins better than the fringiest guy on the border of the big leagues. Not only that, but any prominent departure can be offset by promotions from the farm, free agents, or players returning from injury—let’s call them, I don’t know, “Carlos Beltran,” “Rafael Furcal,” and “Adam Wainwright.” (Remember, we’re not talking about any particular team here—this is a purely hypothetical exercise.)
If we want to find out whether playoff teams that lose their best player are at a particular disadvantage, the first thing we need to know is how often playoff teams repeat overall. Generally speaking, a team that makes the playoffs one year is a fairly safe bet to make it back the next. Since the 1994 strike season, 136 teams have made the playoffs. Of those 136, 65 (47.8 percent) had been there the season before. That explains why pre-season playoff predictions tend to resemble the previous season’s final standings.*
*If there’s one thing I learned from reading Future Babble, it’s that even experts—and in some cases, especially experts—might as well flip a coin as make a prediction. If I learned a second thing, it’s that if you have to make a prediction, predict that things won’t change.
Over the same span—which I (very cleverly!) chose because it conveniently encapsulated the eight-playoff-spot era–14 teams lost their best players after making the playoffs. Here they are:
Of those 14 teams, five (35.7 percent) returned to the playoffs the following season. Since 35.7 percent is lower than 47.8 percent and our sample size is unassailably large,* what we have here is Completely Conclusive Proof** that losing one’s best player makes it more difficult to return to the playoffs.
* What? You try telling the men who played for those 14 teams that they’re "not significant."
But what about the teams that shrugged off the loss of their best players and went on to make the playoffs anyway? Did they know something the others didn’t? Let’s take them one by one:
Without Belle, the ’97 Indians floundered, but since they’d won 99 games in 1996, their floundering only took them down to 86, which was enough to win the AL Central. Sometimes, surviving a star’s departure comes down to having a big enough cushion to shed several wins and remain competitive. Letting Belle walk ultimately worked out well for Cleveland; some say that on particularly dark nights, he still appears on the Orioles’ payroll.
The Mariners were particularly well-positioned to survive the loss of their star. Carlos Guillen, who up to that point had bounced around the infield in two cups of coffee and half a season as a starter, was ready for work as a full-time shortstop, though he wouldn’t peak until after he’d left Seattle. John Olerud and Mike Cameron were poised to continue their quiet excellence, and Edgar Martinez had another monster season left in him at age 38. Bret Boone was about to go crazy,* and Ichiro was set to debut as the team’s new superstar. Also, Al Martin was on that team, which is largely irrelevant. I just wanted to mention it.
*Do you know how many RBI Bret Boone had in 2001? I know, I know—you don’t care, RBI totals are context-dependent, and he was hitting fifth in a great lineup. Don’t worry, I’m not about to make a Boone-for-MVP case or anything. But still—Boone led the AL with 141 RBI. Do you know how many other second basemen have had more than 128 RBI in a season? One: Rogers Hornsby, who did it three times.
Boone’s wasn’t even the most anomalous 2001 season by a middle infielder. Even more unlikely than Boone’s 37-homer season: Rich Aurilia’s 37-homer season, which was worth 0.1 WARP more than Boone’s. I submitted Aurilia’s 2001 season to Twitter, and the responses fell into two categories: 1) He was taking steroids, and 2) He was hitting in front of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent. Neither explanation seems satisfactory, given that PED tests still weren’t administered and Bonds and Kent were still hitting behind him in 2002, when he went back to being the mild-mannered Aurilia he’d been before. Maybe Rich Aurilia’s 2001 season is one of those baseball mysteries we’re not meant to understand.
*Francoeur’s famous rookie year cover proclaimed, “Atlanta Rookie Jeff Francoeur is off to an impossibly hot start,” then asked, “Can anyone be this good?” SI answered its own question with its adverb choice. Francoeur hit .351/.377/.655 in 154 plate appearances before the cover came out and .229/.283/.404 in 120 plate appearances thereafter. Whether you call it a cover jinx or regression to the mean, that’s a particularly severe correction. On the plus side, it may have mentally prepared a few Braves fans for what was to come in 2008-2009.
In conclusion, here’s what we (may) have learned from this exercise:
*The controversial finding that it’s good to have good players may take some time to digest. If we were to rank BP pieces by how groundbreaking they were, the list would go something like: Voros McCracken's article on BABIP; Mike Fast’s article on catcher framing; this.
So yes, the Cardinals lost their best player. (And yes, I was talking about the Cardinals in those first few paragraphs, though I hid it well.) If there’s any consolation for St. Louis, it’s that Pujols was worth only 5.7 WARP last season, a down year by his standards and a lesser loss than all but one of the five successful teams above overcame. Full seasons from Furcal, Beltran, and Wainwright—or however close to full seasons that fragile trio can come—would help, and it won’t hurt that the rival Brewers will be without a slugging first baseman of their own (not to mention 50 games of Ryan Braun, unless his appeal succeeds). That said, the most recent incarnation of the Cardinals wasn’t a powerhouse even with Pujols, so they may not have much margin for error. If only they’d lost A-Rod instead.