In honor of our college basketball site, which should be launching very, very, very, very soon, I thought it was worth recalling one of the quirks of the NCAA tournament: 64 of the 65 teams end their season with a loss. The happiest team when the college hoops season ends is the National Champion. The second happiest is the NIT winner. And the third happiest is probably some mid-major that wasn’t expected to do anything at all, but finishes its season at 16-14 and doesn’t quite hit the NIT’s radar.
Baseball, with the Wild Card making the playoffs seem so tantalizingly close for so many clubs, is becoming ever more and more like this. It’s fairly hard for a team to be able to call its season a success if it does not make the playoffs. And for the very best clubs, even making the playoffs may not be sufficient. What you’re left with is one team — the World Series Champion — who is very, very happy, a handful of teams that are somewhat happy, and a large majority of teams that are anywhere from slightly upset to completely demoralized.
Before the season began, our friends at PROTRADE launched team-based stocks whose closing prices were based on a combination of regular season and post-season performance. Teams receive one point for each regular season win, four for each playoff win, 10 for reaching the playoffs, 10 for advancing into the LCS, 20 for advancing into the World Series, and 30 for winning the World Series. So the Red Sox, for example, started with a share price of 124.8 points, which would require some post-season play in order to achieve. The Nationals, on the other hand, had a price of 60.0, indicating that merely avoiding 100 losses would be a moral victory for them; there was essentially no playoff probability priced into their expectations.
How many teams are going to beat their PROTRADE expectation? Just 8 out of 30. Those teams are:
Team Expect Actual +/-
Rockies 82.9 122** +39.1**
D’Backs 97.5 122** +24.5**
Indians 104.9 128** +23.1**
Nats 60.0 73 +13.0
M’s 75.9 88 +12.2
Royals 64.0 69 +5.0
Angels 99.6 103 +3.4
Red Sox 124.8 128** +3.2**
** Still involved in playoffs; points may increase.
So we have the four teams still involved in the playoffs — and the Red Sox have just barely cleared their bar — plus the Angels, whose season can only be considered a success of modest proportions. Then we have two teams, the Nationals and the Royals, who were expected to be absolutely awful, and instead were only somewhat awful, and finally the Mariners, who were expected to be mediocre and instead were pretty good.
The other 22 teams were failures to one degree or another, although two others were very close:
Team Expect Actual +/-
Cubs 95.4 95 -0.4
Phils 99.7 99 -0.7
If we take style points into account, I think the Cubs go down more as failures than successes. They spent a lot of money, won the worst division in baseball in spite of barely finishing above .500, and were dispatched in three rather uninspired games in a Division Series that they were expected to win. That’s Jay Mariotti’s outline, at least. The Phillies’ late-season run, on the other hand, probably outweighs their loss to the Rockies; the sales people in their ticket office will have an easier time selling season ticket packages next winter than they did a season ago.
Here were the eight teams, on the flip side of the coin, who failed by the widest margins.
We should pause here to note that the PROTRADE valuations were determined by a very intelligent set of traders, who surely looked at PECOTA and other advanced projection systems in evaluating their stocks. Thus teams like the Cardinals and the White Sox were not as highly regarded here as they probably were in the general public.
Nevertheless, while the Mets take the choke cake, it’s fascinating that the Yankees check in as the fourth biggest disappointment. My assumption had been that getting into the playoffs is difficult enough in today’s American League that any team that does so can be considered at least as much a success as a failure. Well, not so in New York.
In fact, Joe Torre is hardly the only decision maker from this group whose job is on the line. The Twins, Cardinals and Astros have already replaced their GM. Although Grady Little appears to have Ned Colletti’s vote of confidence, he is skating on thin ice. Willie Randolph’s job may have been saved — for now — only because the Mets’ collapse was so bad that they are in a collective state of shock. Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams probably built up enough goodwill from 2005 that they have another 12 months to right the ship. Only Billy Beane and Bob Geren in Oakland would appear to be completely safe.
The other danger of the Expectations Game is to the people who write the checks. You can bet that GMs like Minaya, Cashman, Colletti, and Williams are under an awful lot of pressure to spend some money this winter. And if I were in their shoes, that’s probably what I’d do too, because I’d have to think about saving my job as well as the long-term health of my franchise. When you have two GMs from New York and one apiece from Los Angeles and Chicago who are going to be looking to make some big signings to placate fan expectations, the market for free agent talent is going to get awfully expensive.
In fact, I suspect that if Donald Fehr were trying to design a playoff structure that maximized the amount spent on free agents, he could not do any better than the current format. If fewer teams made the playoffs, you’d have more teams that would resign themselves to a rebuilding year, because they’d be just too far away from sniffing first place. If 16 teams made the playoffs, on the other hand, then the success function would become a bit more linear; there would be more ways to meet expectations in the middle. The Wild Card might be Bud Selig’s greatest invention, but it’s also his greatest curse.