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October 4, 2009

It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

Oops, They Did it Again?

by Christina Kahrl

Given the peril the Tigers' season is in, it seems appropriate for us to bring this back to provide a sense of the history of epic collapses. This was the new chapter that was supposed to go into the paperback edition of It Ain't Over, but for reasons only the publisher can adequately explain, it didn't get inserted. Given that we've got a great race in play once again, here's what you missed.

---

Last year we did a book on the subject of the best pennant races, in which we revisited some of the game's great stories and its most celebrated seasons. But as Francis Fukuyama learned, perhaps to his regret, history is not dead, but instead has a way of being made again year after year. No sooner did we publish the first edition of this book than we found ourselves enjoying not simply one really entertaining race, but a full spread of exciting possibilities for all four playoff spots in the 2007 National League. When the dust cleared, not only did the senior circuit deliver an entirely different slate of playoff teams from the year before, but all four races-the division races and the Wild Card-involved their own dramatic reversals of fortune and well-timed bursts of excellence. If, in sabermetric circles, "clutch" is not a skill, it certainly remains an appropriate adjective to describe how so many teams fought for their shot at October glory.

Perhaps the least dramatic but still compelling race was in the National League Central, where the Cubs passed by the Brewers in August, and then fought to hold onto that lead over the next six frantic weeks. The two teams made for a study in contrasts. The Cubs were trying to bounce back from their hangover after coming up short in the infamous 2003 National League Championship Series (best known for Steve Bartman's star turn in Wrigley's seats near the left-field corner). By 2007, the team had long since been disappointed by homegrown talents like Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Corey Patterson, and they had also finally severed their long-time association with slugger Sammy Sosa. General manager Jim Hendry-perhaps with an eye towards his future under new ownership-needed to change gears and field a winner quickly. He did so by entering the free agent market and spending aggressively-$288 million to put Alfonso Soriano's power and speed in the lineup, add Cliff Floyd to the outfield mix as well, shore up the rotation with Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, plug in Mark DeRosa at second base, and keep third baseman Aramis Ramirez at the hot corner for years to come. With a group of nearly-ready hurlers and position-playing prospects down on the farm, Hendry was willing to go for broke in the present. Finally, he brought in veteran Lou Piniella to skipper the club. Waiting 'til next year was something that Hendry was no longer willing to do.

In contrast, the Brewers were the product of a long-term, more traditional player development plan executed by GM Doug Melvin and fueled in large part by the products of scouting director Jack Zduriencik's pickups in the amateur draft; from 2001-05, Zduriencik picked shortstop J.J. Hardy, first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, top pitching prospect Yovani Gallardo, and third baseman Ryan Braun. If the 2007 edition of the Brew Crew had a signature weakness, it's wasn't their relative inexperience, but instead their execrable defense. As talented as this group of young infielders were that Zduriencik and the rest of the organization's scouts had assembled with such remarkable speed, they were not an exceptional group of talented glovemen, and the team's Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rated next to last in the NL, and 28th overall. That inability to turn balls in play into outs contributed to the collapse of first the Brewers' bullpen and then their rotation, and the team managed to blow an 8� game lead they'd built up in June. They would make life interesting for the Cubs almost until the very end, even reclaiming first place for one day on September 18, but Milwaukee then lost four of their next five, and saw their hopes finally killed off with two games to go by having to face an equally desperate Padres club.

Most years, we take one such reversal of fortune as an exciting development. In 2007, though, that was the boring division race. Within that last weekend of regular season baseball in Milwaukee, we got to witness additional drama, as the Brewers would repay the favor by dropping the Padres into a tie for the Wild Card by winning those last two games. By doing so, Milwaukee had done their own small part to help produce what might be the most stunning turnaround yet in exploiting baseball's four-team playoff format. That's because with little more than two weeks left, the Colorado Rockies bounded back from virtual elimination to pass the rest of a crowded field by winning 14 of their last 15 games, earning a one-game playoff against the Padres to determine the NL Wild Card team. As Nate Silver explained, the Rockies are one of the five best buzzer-beating comebacks of all time-so slender was their margin for success that even their one loss on the last Friday of the season dropped their shot at the playoffs to 4.4 percent.

What was truly remarkable about the Rockies? As Silver pointed out, "They were never, not for one day, greater than even-money to make the playoffs until they actually did," and noting that they "were not as high as 50 percent to make the playoffs at any time before late Sunday afternoon [on the final day of the season]; in fact, they were never higher than 34 percent." Looking at it from the perspective of how unlikely they were to come back from ten games or less remaining in the season, the Rockies proved to be the least-likely team to make it with one, two, eight, nine, and ten games left to play. (See Table One.)


Table One:
Greatest Comebacks with a Given Number of Games to Play

GTP  Team            W-L   Playoff%  Odds
 1   2007 Rockies   88-73   12.83%    7:1
 2   2007 Rockies   87-73    4.40%   22:1
 3   1967 Red Sox   90-69   18.97%    4:1
 4   1949 Dodgers   94-56   11.91%    7:1
 5   2004 Astros    87-70   10.34%    9:1
 6   2004 Astros    86-70    8.67%   11:1
 7   2004 Astros    85-70    3.59%   27:1
 8   2007 Rockies   82-72    4.41%   22:1
 9   2007 Rockies   81-72    3.61%   27:1
10   2007 Rockies   80-72    3.11%   31:1

The math is dizzying enough for the numerically inclined, but what might get overlooked in the future about Colorado's late-season heroics is that they'd also managed to put themselves into the NL West's playoff picture, trying to come up from behind to almost catch the equally surprising Arizona Diamondbacks, not to mention leave both the defending division champion Padres and a strong, heavily-favored Dodgers squad in their wake. In this, perhaps the strength of the competition was what was needed to help forge an astonishing comeback team, as keeping up with the Joneses is as much incentive as any team requires.

Although some were quick to credit Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd for picking up bit parts like center fielder Willy Taveras or second baseman Kazuo Matsui in minor deals, these sorts of add-ons hardly proved critical to the Rockies' fortunes. Instead, where the team really made progress wasn't in the areas of quick-fixes through free agency or by picking through the waiver wire for any choice bits, it was in the development of its core talent, in assembling an exceptional defense, and supporting those reliable everyday elements with a quality bullpen-one place where a manager and GM can make an outsized impact without automatically breaking the bank.

The assembly of a talented, relatively young, and effectively homegrown team core was essentially a new proposition for the Rockies. For years, the franchise had invested too much time chasing down first one notion and then another as far as what kind of talent might be able to win at altitude without addressing the more basic issue of fielding a team that could win anywhere. The team's offense ranked sixth in the National League in Equivalent Average in 2007, still far from rating with the best teams, but their club's .264 EqA mark was an all-time high, and the first time the club had ever finished above the base average of .260. Despite past talk about trying to field a faster team, they weren't especially fast and were in the middle of the pack in stolen bases; losing the speedy Taveras for an extended period of time didn't help.

So how did they do it? Although they slugged a modest .395 on the road, what they did do was draw walks, finishing first in the league in unintentional freebies. That's a skill that carries over, whatever environment you're playing in, and it made for a lineup that generated all-time franchise highs in OBP (.336) and runs scored per nine (4.7) away from Coors Field, which turned into another high water mark-a franchise-best 39-42 on the road. It's fair to say that the greatest Rockies lineup wasn't the Blake Street Bombers of the over-inflated high-offense '90s, it was this team, a unit built around Rockies stars like Matt Holliday and Todd Helton, solid second-tier sluggers like Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins, and rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.

Tulo's play at short was a big part of another plays-everywhere asset of a new-and-improved Rockies club-their exceptional defense. In terms of overall Defensive Efficiency, the Rockies ranked a solid eighth in the majors, and sixth in the senior circuit. Modest-sounding enough, those marks represent all-time bests in franchise history, and they do the talent of the Rox D a disservice-with Coors Field's massive outfield pasture, playing defense at altitude isn't any easier than pitching, and Colorado's leather legion traditionally rates near the very bottom. Adjusting for the park's effect on Defensive Efficiency, we find that the Rockies were actually the second-best defensive unit in baseball, rating just a hair behind the eventual AL pennant-winners, the Red Sox. Players like Helton, Holliday, and Tulo rated among the best at their positions, and it was here that veteran add-ons like Taveras, Matsui, and catcher Yorvit Torrealba made an impact. That spread of top-tier defensive talent provided the additional offensive boon of allowing the Rockies to carry two less glovely players in the corners that many teams might have long since moved to first base; right fielder Hawpe and third baseman Atkins.

The final element that Rockies manager Clint Hurdle employed to good effect was a bullpen that, if short of being outright dominant, boasted both depth and talent. The Rockies have always had to compensate for rotations handicapped by the challenges of their environment, and beyond the contributions of a solid starter like lefty Jeff Francis, their rotation was not one of their assets. This was less a problem than an excuse to turn to a better pen, as the Rockies got more than a third of their overall innings thrown from a relief unit that posted a Fair Runs Allowed mark of 4.18, the ninth-best mark in the majors; in contrast, the rotation ranked 18th with a 4.96 rate and an equally modest rotation-wide Support-Neutral Value Above Replacement mark of 17.0, rotation achievements that were better than those of only one other playoff team-but more on the Phillies in a bit.

The Rockies created drama over the course of the season-they didn't ebb and flow, they careened. The offense struggled in the early going, helping to deliver a weak 18-27 opening run. Then they snapped off one of the happier streaks for which they subsequently became famous, racking up 20 wins in their next 27 games to move back above .500; during this stretch, they started dumping some of their worst veterans (Steve Finley, John Mabry) and turning to their own system to provide better, fresh-legged alternatives (Ryan Spilborghs, Cory Sullivan). They followed this up with another pratfall, losing eight straight at one point, handicapped by closer Brian Fuentes' four consecutive blown saves at the end of June. Down to 39-43 after their July 1 game, they rallied again, winning five of six to even things out at the All-Star break, and going 37-29 through September 15. Only four games over, they put together their 13-1 run, and then handily beat a listing Padres club in the one-game playoff against eventual Cy Young winner Jake Peavy. They did this despite the breakdowns of several rotation members (notably Rodrigo Lopez, Aaron Cook, and Jason Hirsh), and in no small part because of the defense and the pen. Fuentes' late-June setback turned into an opportunity for the equally talented Manny Corpas to close. Tulowitzki's bat came alive, and rotation patches Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales came up from the minors to fulfill the promise that both prospects held.

What might get blurred in all those shifting fortunes is that when you look at the league's playoff picture in the aggregate, the Rockies really were supposed to win. Take a look at the NL West's straightforward Pythagorean projection and Clay Davenport's more involved "third-order" projection that adjusts for strength of schedule and the quality of the opposition:


Table Two:
As it Was, Oughta Be, and Really Oughta Be

Actual          Pythagorean         Third-Order
Standings       Projection          Projection
D'backs 90-72   Rockies 91.4-71.7   Rockies 90.2-72.8
Rockies 90-73   Padres  89.5-73.5   Dodgers 87.3-74.7
Padres  89-74   Dodgers 81.8-80.2   Padres  84.6-78.4
Dodgers 82-89   D'backs 78.9-83.1   Giants  78.2-83.8
Giants  71-91   Giants  77.1-84.9   D'backs 77.8-84.2

The upset that we enjoyed in reality wasn't nearly as surprising from a statistical perspective-the Rockies were the best team in the division, and you can probably forgive them for taking their time in making that discovery, since it was as unexpected in analytical circles as it was within baseball. The real surprise teams in this context were the Snakes and the Padres, with the Dodgers representing the division's big underachiever. That Arizona ran out to such an early lead, five games up by August 18, and ahead by three on the day that the Rockies launched their late-season run, sapped the race of much of its drama, and a cooperative late-season schedule that had them face the already-dead Dodgers and two of the worst teams in the league (the Giants and Pirates) made the outcome of that last weekend's series against the Rockies meaningless to them, while representing everything for Colorado. This was synchronous with the Padres' dying drive running up against the equally desperate Brewers; the two team's split of that four-game set made necessary the one-game playoff, launching the Rockies' next seemingly improbable stretch, running riot in the NL playoffs en route to their own eventual rout at the hands of the Red Sox.

The simple fact of having four good teams in the NL West mounting their individual runs at the division title-with the Wild Card as their consolation prize-in turn created the backdrop for the year's truly surprising winner-take-all division race over in the NL East. Up until the Padres managed to blow their lead in the final weekend and then lose the one-game playoff against the Rockies, the Mets briefly held the record for the fastest-ever fold, going from having a 90 percent shot or better of making the playoffs to simply not making it at all, falling that far in only five days. The Mets are also arguably the second-most unlikely "miss" from the playoff picture in major league history, managing to drop from a 99.8 percent shot on September 12, when they were seven games up on the Phillies with only 16 games left to play. Using the same methodology as used in Table Two, they should have won the division by three or four games, while the Phillies weren't necessarily all that likely to finish second ahead of the Braves. How did this happen?

The tragedy wasn't the product of the Mets' lineup taking a powder; the hitters delivered their best months as a unit at the very end, averaging 5.7 runs per game in August and September after putting up 4.6 per in the four months before. The real problem at that point was a pitching staff that saw its ERA go up in every month over the course of the season; a staff that was allowing only 3.5 runs per game in April was hemorrhaging 5.7 by September, making the club's 14-14 record in that last month not at all surprising. Even there, though, this was a team that had obvious problems much earlier in the season that were being masked by the club's overall record. A good first couple of months put them at 34-18 and ahead of the Braves by 4� games; the Phillies were 8� back with their pitching a shambles. But the Mets offense had started off badly, and got worse in June and July. This was a team that literally never had a stretch where it was firing on all cylinders.

As a result, the questions that can be asked as far as "why" should be directed at the club's problem-solvers: general manager Omar Minaya, and manager Willie Randolph. Whether a matter of the overly sunny optimism about the virtues of aging journeymen Jose Valentin and Shawn Green, and unduly sanguine faith that Moises Alou could remain healthy over a full season, or the misplaced belief that catcher Paul Lo Duca was an offensive asset, the lineup had problems beyond its star talent, problems that were fixed-at second, by trading for speedster Luis Castillo, and by benching Green once Alou came back from the DL-later in the day than proved wise. The rotation was an even worse problem, where a similar Godot-like patience with injured ace Pedro Martinez exacerbated matters. The in-house alternatives all failed, as first prospect Mike Pelfrey failed to overawe the league with an arsenal short of solid off-speed stuff, and then journeyman Jorge Sosa provided a reminder about why he's moved around. Tom Glavine proved to be something less than an ace at the age of 41, and the playoff-minded pickup of el Duque, Orlando Hernandez, predictably involved yet another injury for the infrequently-healthy postseason legend. Perhaps relying on the virtue of their good early start, and blinded by the star power of their own roster, the Mets ignored the problem. By the time September had rolled around, Pedro Martinez was back but couldn't go deep into games, Glavine and John Maine were spent, Hernandez wasn't available, and spotting drubbable alternatives like Brian Lawrence and rookie Phil Humber against the Nationals only led to beatings that the club couldn't really afford.

In contrast, the Phillies were nothing but active in fixing their problems. They recognized things were going terribly amiss early on, but perhaps having learned their lesson in 2006, they never gave up on their year. As what had initially looked like a well-stocked rotation came to pieces, they added Kyle Kendrick, a strike-throwing rookie from within their system. When they needed more, they traded for the Reds' Kyle Lohse. When the bullpen came apart early, they flipped struggling starter Brett Myers to the pen, and then shored it up even further in-season by rescuing rubber-armed lefty J.C. Romero from the waiver wire. When the lineup suffered the potentially crippling blow of losing star second baseman Chase Utley for more than a month, they made a quick swap with the White Sox to patch the hole with Tadahito Iguchi, a regular on the Sox's 2005 championship team. The absence of a solid third baseman was papered over with a three-headed platoon that involved one guy to face lefties, another for righties, and a third to field because the other two were defensive liabilities. When Rod Barajas, their expensive free agent catcher, struggled early on and then got hurt, they leaned on another ready rookie, Carlos Ruiz.

These improvisations were all built around the basic proposition that the core of this team's lineup-Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins (the eventual NL MVP), center fielder Aaron Rowand, first baseman Ryan Howard, and left fielder Pat Burrell-could deliver runs in heaps. They provided, and GM Pat Gillick and manager Charlie Manuel helped employ the right kind of backfill to be just good enough to catch up to and then pass the Mets in the season's last two weeks. If the season had been a shorter 150 games or a longer 200, the Mets might have won, either because they'd have been able to truly rest on the merits of their hot start, or because the extra time would have encouraged them to fix their problems more aggressively. Instead, the questions of time, a limited number of games, and the superior virtue of several discrete assets, had all allowed the Phillies to build their monument to in-season problem solving.

Now, if you're Bud Selig, this sort of excitement is a reflection of the four-team playoff format at its best. The Wild Card is perhaps the commissioner's signature achievement, something that when it works, generates late-season enthusiasm in multiple markets, and might help boost season ticket sales throughout the industry, since the number of franchises truly without hope and faith in any given season can almost be counted on only one hand.

The question is where so much on-field excitement rates in the context of It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and whether we have to revisit any of our listings. Using the same methodology as Clay's first pass and the same methods as you'll find in his Playoff Odds Report, the NL East race in 2007 rates only 16th, while the NL West winds up at a distant 61st. However, when he measured the 2007 season with his more time-sensitive third list's methodology, while the NL West and the escape valve of the wild card still only rates 51st, the Phillies' exceptional finish winds up deserving the second spot all-time, ranking only behind the "Impossible Dream" in Boston back in 1967. So, as unlikely a proposition as the Phillies' triumph this past season making everyone forget 1964 is, you can congratulate them for doing unto somebody else as had been done to them 43 years before. We'll see if Mets fans can bear the indignity any better, or if Willie Randolph might wind up being the manager who makes people forget-or perhaps even worse yet, remember-Gene Mauch.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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