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March 24, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Up the Down Elevator

by Jim Baker

Remember back when they were telling us the following things would have come to pass by now?

*Books as we know them would be on their way out.
*Our offices would become paperless.
*The brick and mortar banks of olden times would be gone.

Just today, though, I tripped on a big pile of papers on my way out the door to the bank to get some money for a stop at the bookstore. Oh well, so they were wrong. Those all seemed like perfectly reasonable predictions at the time. Over the course of the next week, you're going to hear a lot of predictions that will also seem like perfectly reasonable assumptions about the upcoming baseball season only to have them turn out to be considerably off the mark. It's all in good fun, though. While it is difficult to know the future in the specific, there are some things we can get a more general feeling for, such as how teams move up and down as opposed to the previous season.

Up the down elevator
This chart shows how the 266 teams from 1996-97 to 2004-05 have fared in the following season. As you can see, 17--or 6 percent--of them improved by at least 20 games with a nearly equal number heading downward at the same rate. (Note: For our purposes today, we're concerned with win counts only. That means the odd rainout and the sole tiebreaker and their minor effects on winning percentage have been ignored.)

Fate                    #      Pct.
Gain 20 or more         17      6%
Gain 10 to 19           39     15%
Gain 1 to 9             66     25%
Stay the same           13      5%
Decrease by 1 to 9      83     31%
Decrease by 10 to 19    35     13%
Decrease by 20 or more  13      5%
On the extremes then, about one in nine will have a major up- or downheaval, the latter of which I'm pretty sure isn't even a word. As you would expect, most teams live in the calmer middle ground. About 60 percent keep their changes in single figures. More than a quarter of all teams (73) have lived in the very middle of the middle, moving up or down by three games or less from year-to-year.

A year out of balance
In 2005, 20 teams got worse, nine improved and one stayed the same. This is fairly out of line with most previous years where, as you can imagine, there is usually quite a bit of balance. Going back to 1996-97, we see that this has not been typical:

            up      same      down
2005         9        1        20
2004        15        2        13
2003        14        3        13
2002        15        1        14
2001        12        1        17
2000        14        1        15
1999        14        1        15
1998        16        2        10
1997        14        1        13
While 2001 and 1998 were a tad skewed, no other season in the recent past has broken quite like last year. Can we expect some sort of correcting action in 2006? Yes, but my guess is that it will not show itself in the number of teams going back the other way but will, instead, be reflected in the amounts. While we won't see a reversal that reads 20 up and 10 down, we may well see a couple extra teams more than normal making big increases.

Staying the course
Which teams are the most stable? What follows are the 20 percent of the clubs that have experienced the least amount of fluctuation since 1996-97. The number shown is the average change in either direction from year to year, which is calculated by totaling the number of games by which they improved or fell off and dividing it by the number of seasons they played. For purposes of this count only, a plus-four and a negative four count the same.

4.22: Colorado
5.43: Tampa Bay
5.67: Milwaukee
5.78: Atlanta
6.00: Boston
6.33: Philadelphia

As you can see, this can be both a good and a bad thing: lofty perch or permanent rut. Colorado and Milwaukee have been the most consistent teams but it's been to their detriment. Obviously, they'd trade this sort of consistency for one nice 23-game upward spike. Atlanta and Boston have explored the flipside of stability, winning within a fairly narrow range of games for nearly a decade. In some ways, the Phillies are the most intriguing team in this group in that they have earned their way on here by breaking the past decade into two sections. In the first, they were consistently bad and in the second, they've been consistently passable. That leaves only one transition season (2000-2001) to drive their average upwards. Without that year, in which they improved by 21 games, the Phillies would be right there with the Rockies in terms of consistency.

The largest movement the Rockies have seen in either direction since 1996 is a 10-game increase from 1999 to 2000. The Pirates, who rank seventh, have a similar largest movement. Conversely, though, they also have the highest minimum movement. Every team except Pittsburgh has at least one season in this time period in which they either moved just one, two or zero games. The Pirates' low is three. Pittsburgh has one of the lowest ranges of movement, going from their largest drop of 10 games to an increase of 10. The clubs operating on the narrowest band:

15: Tampa Bay (-7 to +8)
19: Colorado (-9 to +10)
20: Pittsburgh (-10 to +10)
21: Atlanta (-8 to +13)
23: Boston (-9 to +14)
26: Oakland, Minnesota, Milwaukee

The mood swingers
The team that has had the greatest mood swings in the past decade is the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks. They've crammed a lot of living into their early childhood. The Cubs have also taken their fans on a roller coaster ride over the past decade without ever quite getting to the top. No team of recent times has managed the bipolarity of the Baby Bruins. They had a seven-year run unmatched in its volatility:

1997: down 8
1998: up 22
1999: down 23
2000: down 2
2001: up 23
2002: down 21
2003: up 21

Here are most capricious 20 percent based on average number of win fluctuation:

18.3: Arizona
14.6: Chicago Cubs
13.3: Detroit
13.1: Seattle
12.6: Anaheim
12.1: San Diego

Detroit and Seattle's presence on this list is, obviously, driven by their pushing the envelope in opposite directions in recent years. Getting to and adjusting from those forays into the depths and heights has skewed their numbers considerably. Anaheim appears to be heading into a period of stability much like the Red Sox have enjoyed. With a host of new talent waiting in the green room and an owner willing to fill gaps with top free agents, we can anticipate a team that should have no trouble ranging in the 85- to 95-win category for the foreseeable future.

What fascinates about the Padres is that they've ridden these peaks and valleys on the back of the same manager. What follows are the teams that have moved within the broadest band. Every club on this Tumultuous Team list other than San Diego has changed managers at least twice during these uncertain times.

69: Arizona (-34 to +35)
55: Seattle (-30 to +25)
53: Florida (-38 to +15)
47: San Diego (-24 to +23)
46: Anaheim, Kansas City, Houston, Chicago Cubs

The Marlins find themselves on here because of events that happened nearly a decade ago (but which may well be coming back around again in 2006). Without The Great Dump of 1998 they would be nowhere near making this list. After a period of relative record stability, history may be about to repeat itself for Florida.

Practical application?
The Marlins are anticipated to have the largest movement of any team in either direction this year, with their over/under line in the 64 range, nearly 20 wins off last year's total.

The next-highest is that of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that was, until 2005, among the most stable in baseball. A fast recovery from their 22-game drop is anticipated by one and all. This is in keeping with Dodger tradition. They never get truly terrible and they always recover fast from downturns. Since their "is-Brooklyn-still-in-the-league?" days of the 1930s, they've had a remarkable run of self-correction. Only twice in that time have they had back-to-back losing seasons: 1967-68 and 1986-87. They are a good bet to push the 20-game improvement extreme this year.

Perusing the over/under lines for 2006, we find that the line for most teams is fairly close to the number of games they won last year. A few are six, seven or eight games away but only the two mentioned above, Florida and Los Angeles, have lines set in double figures away from their 2005 win total.

As we know from the chart at the top of this column, this does not reflect baseball reality. In a given year, approximately 40 percent of all teams will win or lose at least 10 games more than they did the year before. Is that opportunity knocking or just the crooked finger of gambling doom, beckoning you to your demise?

Related Content:  Managers Of The Year

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