That Escalated Quickly: The Cubs & The Increasing Frequency of Baseball’s Epic Failures
October is finally upon us and with it comes post-season baseball. While viewership among casual fans has dwindled in recent years, the additional Wild Card and accompanying one-game steel-cage death match has served as a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart of the prelude to the Fall Classic.
For some, however, this time of year serves as a reminder of their favorite team’s failures, be they late or long-gone. Scabbed-over emotional wounds are picked at until the blood of emotion runs fresh over nascent scar tissue that will never truly heal.
The collapse of the 1969 Chicago Cubs sent shockwaves through the their far-flung fanbase, enough so that even those of us who weren’t around to experience it felt the residual tremors. The pain of such an inexplicable fall from grace actually mutated the DNA of the faithful, altered the genes that they passed down to their progeny with no understanding or regard for how they too might be impacted.
That ill-fated team limped through the final month of the season, losing 17 of their final 25 games after having led their division for 155 days. This despite featuring future Hall-of-Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, and Ron Santo. But the aging Cubs were no match for the Amazin’ Mets, the seven-year-old franchise that shocked the nation en route to a World Series title.
So you can’t blame Cubs fans if they don’t share Bryan Adams’ enthusiastic nostalgia for the Summer of ’69, though they can certainly relate to the idea of it seeming to lasting forever. For nearly 40 years, the Cubs’ faceplant served as the, well, face of failure. And while we’ll be hard-pressed to find a team to supplant them as posterchildren, the Cubs have since been joined in infamy.
That’s because in 2007, those same New York Mets did something nearly as amazin’ as their run in ’69. They joined the Cubs by becoming the first team since 1969 to lead their division for 150 or more days and still miss the playoffs. The Mets battled back and forth with Atlanta throughout April before putting a stranglehold on the NL East in mid-May. But what was a 7-game lead on the Phillies on September 12th had shrunk to just 1 game on the 26th. The Phillies ended up winning the division on the last day of the regular season and the Mets had to watch the playoffs from home.
Just like Billy Madison helping out his young friend Ernie, the Mets had succeeded in making it cool to pee your pants. To that end, the 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks took the NL West lead on April 6th and held on like grim Death as their lead, which stood at 2.5 games on September 1st, vanished exactly 5 months after it began. They ended up 2 games out of the division lead and 8 out of the Wild Card.
You had to know that the American League was getting tired of the Senior Circuit getting all the negative publicity though. And since their city was already somewhat of a punchline, the Detroit Tigers decided to take one for the collective team, joining the party with their 2009 nosedive. After a late start to the season due to the World Baseball Classic, the Tigers were in an AL Central battle for much of the season.
They took the lead on May 10th and held it through the remainder of the regular season, eventually losing to the Minnesota Twins in a sudden-death 163rd game. So what started out as just one group of forlorn dudes hanging out all alone for 38 years had turned into four in the space of three seasons. Talk about a sausage fest.
But as everyone knows, you can’t talk sausage without involving people from Milwaukee. That’s because the 2014 Brewers just completed a slide their mascot would be proud of. But rather than enjoying a celebratory beer at the end of their journey, the Brewers and their fans are using the suds to drown their sorrows. After holding a lead in the NL Central from the first week of April, the Brewers gave it up on September 1st and never looked back.
And while nothing can provide adequate consolation for the Cubs at this point, the other teams can perhaps take solace in the fact that they only had one Wild Card to fight for. Of course, all of these teams were too busy simply fighting for air as they choked away their respective seasons to worry about moral victories.
So now you know the teams at the crux of my headline, but I suppose I should probably clue to you as to why I decided to pursue this Sisyphian endeavor in the first place. While listening to one of the final Cubs broadcasts on WGN radio, I heard Pat Hughes make a comment about the aforementioned free-falls, after which he asked partner Ron Coomer if he could come up with a reason for the increased frequency of the events.
I found myself racking my own brain for answers to no avail. And if there’s anything I hate, it’s not having an answer, which is why I set about this task. As I began my research, I realized that I’d first need to look at each of these individual teams to see what caused them to collapse in the first place. I reviewed different hitting and pitching metrics, as well as average ages, injuries, and any other pertinent events.
But that is only part of the story, as I still had the task of determining why, after nearly four decades of it never happening, 4 teams in 8 seasons missed the playoffs after having led their respective divisions for 150 or more days. Be warned: this is not going to be short. In fact, it’s going to be quite epic. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
This category goes first because relatively short and easy to digest; it’s the appetizer, if you will. Aaliyah knew that age ain’t nothin’ but a number, but anyone who knows anything about sports understands that athletes who are past their primes simply can’t keep up as easily over the course of a season.
Baseball might appear to be a sport of leisure, but the grind of the 162-game season is something that can wear down even the strongest young man, let alone a guy near the end of his career. I was still nearly 10 years from being born when the Cubs broke all those hearts in ’69, but I know that much blame has been given to manager Leo Durocher continuing to play his aging stars through the dog days of summer, leading to late-season fatigue.
While a team that averaged 29.1 years of age might not seem that old, the Cubs were nearly 2 full years older than the MLB average at the time (27.4). Banks (38), Williams (31), and Santo (29) all played at least 155 games and even catcher Randy Hundley played 151. A quick look at the bench explains why the starters logged so many games, but perhaps fewer innings for the starters in June and July would have meant more in October.
By 2007, the league age had crept up to 29.1, but the Mets featured six players aged 40 or older that season to bring their average to 30.7. Julio Franco (48), Jeff Conine (41), Sandy Alomar (41), and Moises Alou (40) added a little distinction, but little production, to the roster. And the pitching staff, featuring Tom Glavine (41), Orlando Hernandez (41), Aaron Sele (37), Pedro Martinez (35), and Billy Wagner (35) wasn’t exactly a wellspring of youth.
At only 26.6 years of age, the ’08 D-backs are easily the youngest group on our list, coming in more than 2 years below the league average at the time (28.8). And were it not for elder statesman Randy Johnson (44), the desert dwellers would have come in even younger.
By 2009 the average had ticked up a whole tenth of a year, to 28.9, but the Tigers (29.9) outpaced that by a turn or twelve of the calendar. That number would have been much higher had a lineup of graybeards not been offset by a pitching staff that averaged only 24.1 years of age.
After three teams in three years, we had a 5-year gap before the Brewers, at 28.8, came in less than a year under the league average (28.1). It should not escape notice that the average age of a major-league ballplayer had hovered over 29 from 2000-07 before trending steadily downward since (more on that later).
So what, if anything, does this tell us? In a post that I can no longer find in order for a link back, I examined the age of baseball teams as it related to their success. In short, you want to be older than average, but not by much. It’s a delicate balance, as too much youth and inexperience deprives a team of all the acquired knowledge and nuance that make for winning baseball. But get too old and you risk losing the ability to put all that knowledge into practice.
There’s not enough information here to blame age for the struggles of these 5 teams, but it’s too obvious a facet to dismiss. Let’s file this one away for now and move on to…
Citing a catastrophic injury to a key player would make a given team’s slump much easier to explain, but there don’t seem to be any real instances of this in our sample. Pedro Martinez missed most of the 2007, but he was actually healthy for the stretch run during which his team floundered.
The D-backs did face a few struggles, notably SP Doug Davis missing 6 weeks due to surgery following a thyroid cancer diagnosis. Second baseman Orlando Hudson’s season ended on August 8th after wrist surgery and LF Eric Byrnes was lost to a torn left hamstring in June. David Eckstein and Adam Dunn were brought in to fill those gaps though, so the drop-off was somewhat minimized.
While Cubs fans might consider having Edwin Jackson in the rotation to be a fate worse than injury, the maligned starter actually acquitted himself well in Detroit. Most of the key players, including Maglio Ordoñez and Curtis Granderson, played a relatively full slate of games.
Despite some nagging ailments here and there, most notably to the modern-day spokesman for the merits of PED use, Ryan Braun, each member of the Brewers’ lineup played in at least 130 games. Pitcher, and noted hater of bunts, Matt Garza missed some time but still made 27 starts on the season. And when he wasn’t busy beaning Marlins, Mike Fiers was a more than ample replacement for Garza anyway.
I noted the Cubs durability earlier, so no need to rehash that here. All things considered, it’s actually quite remarkable that none of these collapses were aided in large part by trips to the DL. Injuries, particularly those caused by repetitive motion and common muscular ailments, are incredibly common in baseball, which is why we need a little help from our friends. And maybe also from…
Whether it’s a balm provided by your trainer (Who told you to put the balm on? I didn’t tell you to put the balm on!) or a greenie in a bottle, performance enhancing drugs have been around in baseball since before people were making bad jokes about how long it’s been since the Cubs last won a World Series.
Even some of the all-time greats like Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench have spoken about the use of amphetamines as being a boon to their careers. For a long time, “greenies” were gobbled greedily by ballplayers who needed to be able to take the field for a day game after a night game or for the second half of a double-header. The illicit nature of steroids and HGH in today’s game have garnered more attention, but guys have always been looking for an edge.
As we’ll see a little later, a team’s performance throughout the season can fluctuate greatly from month to month and there are some marked drop-offs that seem to defy simple explanation. With this in mind, I wanted to take a closer look at MLB’s testing policies to see whether an increased focus on the use of various PED’s could perhaps have led to this increased volatility.
Let’s take a look at a very condensed timeline of MLB’s testing and discipline policy changes:
August 30, 2002: MLB and the union unveil Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program as an addendum to the new Basic Agreement, which is bargained at the 11th hour just as the players are about to go out onstrike. The new policy calls for “Survey Testing” in 2003 to gauge the use of steroids among players on the 40-man rosters of each club. The tests will be anonymous and no one will be punished.
March 1, 2003: Drug testing begins in Major League Spring Training camps. Some teams, including the Chicago White Sox, consider balking at taking the tests to skew the results. A refusal to participate in the “Survey” phase is considered a positive test. That first year, all MLB players on the 40-man rosters are subject to be randomly tested once. In addition, MLB had the right to retest up to 240 players a second time by the end of the season. All players ultimately complied and took the tests.
Nov. 13, 2003: MLB announced that 5-to-7 percent of 1,438 tests were positive during the 2003 season, well above the threshold, setting in motion mandatory testing for performance-enhancing drugs with punishments for the first time in Major League history. The first positive test put a player on a medical track that includes treatment and further testing. Otherwise, there’s no punitive for a first positive test.
June, 2004: MLB begins drug testing Major League players under the punitive phase of the Joint Drug Agreement.
Jan. 13, 2005: During a quarterly owners’ meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., the owners vote unanimously to accept recently concluded negotiations between MLB and the union strengthening the drug program. The new punitive measures for Major Leaguers are a 10-day suspension for the first positive test, 30 days for the second, 60 days for the third, and one year for the fourth. All without pay. On the first positive, the players name is released to the public.
Nov. 15, 2005: Major League Baseball and the players association reached agreement on Tuesday on a plan that significantly strengthens penalties for steroid and other illegal drug use. Penalties for steroid use will be 50 games for a first offense, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third. The plan also includes testing and suspensions for amphetamine use.
While it’s true that usage rates by team would likely have been the same at all points in the game, the advent of testing and suspensions could have created a brave new world, so to speak. Think of the cop merging onto the interstate; everyone’s driving along at 9-15 mph above the limit until they see the black-and-white, at which point they all slow down. Then, as he picks up speed, so to do the drivers; once he exits, everyone speeds right back up.
But in that short limbo period when only a few commuters notice the cop, there’s a bit of confusion. Brake lights are illuminated for what seems like no reason, lanes are changed; there’s volatility on the highway as everyone grows accustomed to this new situation.
So is it conceivable that a decrease in the rampant use of HGH and artificial testosterone could lead to an increase in what had previously been a very aberrant outcome, particularly late in the seasons in question? Admittedly, this was sort of a flyer, but hey, no stone unturned. I quickly came across a 2009 article on Bleacher Report touting the relative safety of the steroid cycles of baseball players as compared to bodybuilders.
Quoted in the piece was former FLEX Magazine science editor Chris Street, who said:
One invaluable aspect of steroid use for professional athletes—and one to date not recognized by the media—is increased recovery from injuries during the season. In one example given to me by the interviewee, he pulled his semimembranosus (the most medial hamstring muscle on the back of the leg). As told to him by a physician, it was a partial tear. During the period after the injury, this athlete briefly increased his dosage of Oxandrin to 50 mg/d and experienced complete recovery in approximately 14 days. This injury, without drugs, would have kept an athlete off the field for six weeks and could have been season ending depending on the severity of the injury and possible reoccurrence. With steroids and daily rehabilitation he was running full speed with no hesitation on a leg that had previously exhibited torn muscle tissue. This was a serious injury.”
Immediately after the season he takes an 8-week lay off from both training and drugs. This time is used to rejuvenate his body and mind. After the season he is mentally and physically drained and needs a break. The time away from training is more mental than a physiologic need for recovery. The toll a season of Major League Baseball takes on your life is considerable. In addition to having to perform up to the parameters of a high dollar salary, players must simultaneously deal with family issues, wives, girlfriends (sometimes both), and various matters of business.
Street also lays out the 14-week PED cycle for a baseball player, which, if begun around the first of December (8 weeks after the end of the season), would end somewhere around late February. The subsequent cycle would start early in early March and end around the first of June. Then the next would start in mid-June and end around the first week of September.
Baseball is also a very psychological game, and anyone who’s played it knows that confidence is perhaps the most powerful drug of all. A player cycling off a PED regimen, while not necessarily diminished a great deal physically, could well be at a mental disadvantage; it’s essentially a reverse placebo effect.
This would seem to correspond with the drops in performance indicated by the charts in our next section (in which June and September/October appear to have the worst performance), but I wanted more than just some quotes and charts culled from a hasty internet search. With that in mind, I sought some advice from fellow Cubs blogger and personal trainer Andy Waskow, who had this to say:
Your theory has some merit. The lack of steroids/amphetamines could prolong offensive slumps late in the season. Mental and physical fatigue could affect a key player or players that cause them to have a drop in their output as compared to the start of the season. If going on cycles in the off-season (like December), the actual benefit would probably be gone by Opening Day. The substance truly only works if it is continued and used regularly. Since many steroids are used and can be eliminated within a day, the most true in-season benefit to using them would be [to do so] to keep muscles strong throughout the season…
In my opinion, the collapses since 2007 probably have some correlation to both of steroids and amphetamines. Younger teams will benefit because they are better able to recover and naturally have more energy than their older counterparts. In those instances, older teams who fall off late in the season are probably suffering from a fair amount of the effects of not having steroids or amphetamines. It would be very difficult to quantify that, though.
So you’re telling me I might need to consult a stats guy, Andy? Enter Dan Wade, baseball metrics junkie and caffeine connoisseur, who provided me with this:
The biggest issue with any PED study is the confounding variables and I think that’s where this is going to get caught. It’s possible that declining PED usage rates have lead to more volatility, but it’s equally possible that something like improvements in advance scouting have decreased run-scoring, leading to more one-run games where the chance outcomes are more likely.While I think you can make a case for hitters benefiting more from traditional anabolic steroids, I’m uncomfortable making the jump for all PEDs, especially since we don’t have great data on the effects of things like insulin abuse or even long-term HGH usage for people without an IGF-1 deficiency.At the end of the day, we still have no idea how many people were using pre-testing vs. how many are using now. People say usage has gone down (ostensibly a reference to the results of the ’06 survey testing) but with no real paradigm, it’s hard to say how much and that assumes that our current tests can detect what high-grade cheaters are using. The Biogenesis guys weren’t brought down by testing so much as a crooked doctor and beyond them we’re not really seeing gobs of users picked up.If, 15-20 years from now, we see that the period after testing showed an increased rate of volatility and then we resumed a more traditional pattern, I think you can make a case that PEDs were somehow involved…
Alright, so all I’ve got to do is let this thing marinate for a couple decades and I’ll be able to draw a conclusion. But like Veruca Salt’s desire for an Oompa-Loompa, I want an answer and I want it now! Based upon my research, it would seem that PED use is a part of the puzzle, but likely only as an adjunct and not as the central piece.
Remember earlier when I said there’d be more on the declining average age of major league players? That was a long time ago at this point, so you may not. While it certainly can’t be proven definitively, I have to believe that said drop correlates directly to stricter testing and disciplinary measures. Either that, or the inability to get buzzed and juiced with impunity just happened to coincide with a league-wide youth trend.
But enough of that. I’ve already referenced the numbers quite a bit, so let’s take a look at…
Let me start this off by saying that, despite my efforts to become more fluent in the language of advanced metrics, I am far from a sabermetrician. But I think I have enough rudimentary knowledge to be able to gather some numbers and form a hypothesis or three from what I see.
For the purposes of my research I took to FanGraphs and looked at each team’s hitting stats by month, focusing specifically on BABIP vs. batting average (since such monthly data does not exist for the Cubs, they are absent from the charts below). My initial thought was that these collapses could have been the result of luck.
Because it’s often better to be lucky than good, my theory was that these teams were simply playing above their ability and eventually fell down to Earth as the statistical probability of the season ground their good fortune beneath its bootheel. And while that appears to be at least somewhat true for some teams, it’s not universal.
The chart below displays BABIP and batting average on a month-t0-month basis (league rank), along with the full-season totals for each team and the league average for that season. In order to make it a little easier to review, you’ll see that I color-coded it; top-5 ranks are green, middle-5 blue (yellow doesn’t show up), and bottom-5/6 are red. Some stats of note are in bold.
Feel free to dig in to spot your own trends but indulge me, if you will, as I share a few that I found:
- With only 1 “green” month apiece, June and Sept/Oct were to two worst-hitting segments
- With 6 green sections, Mar/April was easily the best month
- The Mets were the best-hitting team of the bunch, both in pure numbers and relative rank
- The D-backs were the worst-hitting team and also had the biggest BABIP/BA gap
- BA fluctuation between the seasons was 567% greater than BABIP (.017 to .003)
- The Tigers were the only team without a green period and were the most consistent
- Only the Mets (2nd) finished higher than 8th in their league in batting*
|Mar/April||May||June||July||August||Sept/Oct||Full Season||League Avg|
|Mets||BABIP||.322 (2)||.302 (4)||0.279 (13)||0.298 (8)||.320 (4)||.299 (11)||.303 (6)||.301|
|AVG||.287 (1)||.269 (1)||.252 (11)||.271 (7)||.288 (2)||.284 (3)||.275 (2)||.266|
|Dbacks||BABIP||.298 (5)||.291 (12)||.270 (14)||.335 (2)||.294 (10)||.298 (11)||.299 (8)||.298|
|AVG||.268 (5)||.244 (15)||.224 (15)||.272 (5)||.247 (12)||.247 (14)||.251 (14)||.260|
|Tigers||BABIP||.295 (11)||.297 (10)||.282 (7)||.287 (9)||.292 (13)||.307 (7)||.294 (11)||.300|
|AVG||.265 (8)||.269 (9)||.249 (10)||.248 (13)||.257 (13)||.272 (6)||.260 (10)||.267|
|Brewers||BABIP||.300 (5)||.310 (4)||.306 (6)||.271 (15)||.298 (12)||0.268 (13)||.293 (11)||.300|
|AVG||.254 (5)||.259 (6)||.269 (3)||.228 (14)||.255 (6)||.230 (12)||.250 (8)||.249|
*For what it’s worth, the ’69 Cubs had a BABIP of .279, which ranked them 7th in the NL that year (.282 league average); the Cubs’ batting average of .253 ranked them 6th (.250).
I also wanted to look at pure hitting from a catch-all perspective, so I eschewed the above metrics for wOBA and OPS. This chart reveals similar patterns to that above, but there are some additional findings of note:
- The Brewers had the best season in relation to their league, but were the worst compared to other seasons
- The Tigers still had no green periods
- The drop in both wOBA (-.027) and OPS (-.069) is alarming
- No team finished higher than 5th in either category, with 9th ruling the day
|Mar/April||May||June||July||August||Sept/Oct||Full Season||League Avg|
|Mets||wOBA||.350 (3)||.329 (3)||.309 (13)||.321 (9)||.354 (5)||.353 (4)||.336 (6)||.330|
|OPS||.809 (3)||.752 (4)||.717 (13)||.738 (7)||.813 (7)||.814 (4)||.775 (5)||.757|
|Dbacks||wOBA||.352 (2)||.321 (13)||.288 (15)||.332 (9)||.319 (10)||.332 (8)||.324 (9)||.326|
|OPS||.813 (2)||.731 (13)||.652 (15)||.757 (10)||.734 (8)||.760 (7)||.742 (9)||.744|
|Tigers||wOBA||.333 (9)||.335 (8)||.323 (9)||.318 (9)||.323 (12)||.333 (7)||.328 (9)||.334|
|OPS||.757 (10)||.765 (8)||.737 (9)||.722 (10)||.739 (12)||.759 (7)||.747 (9)||.764|
|Brewers||wOBA||.314 (6)||.322 (5)||.337 (1)||.289 (13)||.321 (5)||.285 (11)||.313 (5)||.307|
|OPS||.714 (6)||.734 (5)||.768 (2)||.650 (13)||.730 (4)||.634 (11)||.708 (5)||.695|
*The Cubs were 3rd in both wOBA (.320) and OPS (.707).
If you can’t be good, be lucky. If you can’t be lucky, be juiced. Then again, since luck and steroids may both run out eventually, being good is probably not a bad idea. But before I posit that offense wins championships, let’s take a look at…
As above, so below. In order to take a snapshot of the pitching situation for each of the teams in my sample, I looked at FIP and ERA (again found on FanGraphs) by month and also the full season relative to the league average for the given year. While I know it may not be the easiest chart to digest visually, I hope the color-coding and ranks can help you to make quick work of it.
And if you’d prefer to just take my word for it, here are some observations:
- As with hitting, June was a down month; only one green to go with 4 reds
- August was the worst month, featuring 5 reds
- The D-Backs were easily the best staff, relatively speaking
- The Brewers numbers would rank them no worse that 5th in either category in the other 3 seasons
|Mar/April||May||June||July||August||Sept/Oct||Full Season||League Avg|
|Mets||FIP||4.37 (8)||4.64 (14)||4.30 (6)||4.68 (11)||4.56 (5)||4.18 (4)||4.46 (7)||4.500|
|ERA||2.96 (1)||3.73 (2)||4.20 (7)||4.50 (7)||4.93 (12)||5.14 (14)||4.27 (10)||4.440|
|Dbacks||FIP||3.74 (1)||3.66 (1)||4.03 (3)||4.03 (4)||3.60 (1)||3.99 (6)||3.84 (2)||4.320|
|ERA||3.25 (1)||4.09 (3)||4.37 (9)||3.82 (4)||4.47 (12)||3.96 (3)||3.99 (5)||4.300|
|Tigers||FIP||4.68 (10)||3.78 (2)||4.92 (13)||4.42 (7)||4.83 (12)||4.56 (10)||4.53 (12)||4.420|
|ERA||4.68 (8)||3.57 (2)||4.72 (13)||3.53 (1)||4.74 (8)||4.72 (8)||4.34 (5)||4.460|
|Brewers||FIP||3.50 (7)||4.64 (14)||3.73 (12)||3.92 (12)||4.10 (13)||3.45 (5)||3.89 (13)||3.69|
|ERA||2.82 (2)||4.12 (12)||3.95 (11)||3.87 (10)||4.16 (13)||3.14 (5)||3.67 (10)||3.66|
*The Cubs were 4th in FIP (3.23) and 5th in ERA (3.34).
The results here are very similar to what we saw with the offensive numbers, in that we have one team performing at a high level while three others are decidedly mediocre. Most of the teams did appear to start strong out the gate, though the Tigers used May as their big springboard month. With the exception of the D-backs, all of them faded down the stretch as they fell out of contention.
But looking at a team’s hitting and pitching independently doesn’t really give us a clear picture, so let’s find a way to give each a…
The goal of compiling all of these advanced metrics was to develop a clear picture of what caused these teams to fail down the stretch. The numbers can vary significantly between seasons, so I wanted to make sure I maintained a level playing field. To that end, I combined each team’s end-of-season ranks in BABIP, BA, FIP, and ERA to come up with a total score for each.
I should note that the wOBA/OPS numbers didn’t fundamentally alter the results so I left them out for the sake of ease. Also left out of the calculations, and the conversation in general, were the defensive rankings of each team. In reviewing team UZR metrics, I did not see compelling evidence to suggest that they should have been included in my findings.
Interestingly enough, the total scores dropped off with each passing year. The Cubs got a 22 (though they also had fewer teams in the NL at the time), the Mets tallied a 25, the D-backs a 29, Tigers 38, and Brewers 42. And that’s all well and good, but absent a benchmark, those numbers don’t really mean anything. So I headed back to the interwebs to calculate the scores for each playoff team in the same league in the given years of my research. No more charts, you’re just gonna have to take my word for it.
Of the 19 playoff teams I reviewed, only 7 had a higher cumulative mark than the Mets’ 25 and only 4 came in above the 29 of the D-backs, one of which was the D-backs themselves from from the previous year (43). But the average mark for all playoff teams was 19, with the ’08 Cubs (9) representing the lowest score and the ’07 D-backs the highest. Twelve teams ended up with a score of 22 or less while four ended up above 30.
It goes without saying that a lower score indicates a stronger team, but it also indicates a squad that is less susceptible bad luck, particularly late in the season. Basically, each point above 19 leaves you more likely to have problems, but things really seem to get squirrelly from about 25 points on up. I think you’ve had just about enough of all this though, so let’s get to the…
I’ve spent the last several thousand words droning on about why each of these individual teams ended up failing, pointing out the fatal flaw(s) that went from superficial crack(s) to all-consuming sinkhole at roughly the same speed as Javier Baez’s bat. And that’s all well and good, but I haven’t gotten into why this has all been happening with such frequency.
So why is it that we’ve been seeing more of these tragic collapses in baseball? Is it just coincidence or a case of water finding its level? After all, flipping a coin 38 times and getting heads each time doesn’t increase the chance that the next flip will be tails, but it does mean that turning up tails on 4 of the next 8 flips would be less than surprising.
As Dan Wade put it, “right now it strikes me that we’re just in an incredibly volatile period marked by a low run-scoring environment that exacerbates random chance happenings actually affecting the outcomes of games.”
All the factors listed above are combining to either create or foster an environment that is conducive to chaos. As offense has become more scarce, little things can more easily determine the outcome of a contest. A 7-game series will favor the better team, but a 1-game playoff is a crapshoot (right, Oakland A’s?). With offense confined to house arrest, randomness is invited to visit on a more regular basis.
Advanced scouting and more segmented and accurate statistical analysis begat increasing specialization in baseball: platoons, shifts, LOOGY’s, and over-managing, perhaps even over-general-managing. Done right, this works in much the same manner as counting cards in blackjack; when you understand how to use past outcomes to predict future results, you increase the probability for success.
However, human error and the old saying “you can’t predict baseball” will always conspire to shoot probability in the foot and then laugh as it hops around howling. I like to think of the construction of a baseball team as loading up a bar for the bench press or squat. In my case, neither would have much weight though, so we’ll just pretend my buddy Andy is the one doing the work.
One problem we can run into with this scenario is becoming unilateral, placing too much weight on one side or the other. Think about each player on a baseball team as a weight plate added to the bar; pitchers are on one side and hitters on the other.
Each has a different value to the team, but when all’s said and done you hope to achieve balance. And even if things are a little skewed, it’s typically not a big deal. After all, you can set a very imbalanced bar on a squat rack and have it stay put. But remove too much weight from one side or the other, and you’re inviting disaster.
I actually did this once, being stupid and removing all the plates from one side before moving to the other. As I took a couple steps away in order to address the situation, the weighted ended began to provide a bit too much torque, eventually crashing to the ground in a heap of metal. Luckily, the only thing hurt was my pride. But it taught me a lesson that should have been obvious from the start.
For an example, look at the 2007 Mets. Their pitching was excellent for much of the season and was able to compensate for the aging lineup on the other side. But as the season wore on and the weight was redistributed, the balance was lost and the team fell apart. It’s an imperfect illustration, but I think you understand the point.
Similarly, loading too much weight creates a situation that may be impossible to extricate oneself from. A high cumulative score for a team is like a guy putting more weight on the bench bar than he can handle. Sure, he might be able to extend his arms get the bar off the rack, might even pump out a rep or two. But once reality sets in, that weight is on his chest and he’s unable to push it back up. That’s exactly what happens to these teams when the season eventually catches up to them.
All of the different factors listed serve to reduce a team’s margin for error, and thus their access to luck, a commodity that is already in decidedly short supply in today’s world of suppressed offense. And that is exactly why the Cubs have gone about constructing the new version of the team in the manner they have.
They’ve invested heavily in computer programs, training facilities, and offense…lots of offense. They have also moved players around to different positions, increasing both their positional flexibility and their value to the Cubs and/or potential trade partners. Drafting young, advanced bats provides the luxury of both experience and production without the cost associated with a veteran, which helps to mitigate the drop-offs noted above.
But has any of that translated to improvement, specifically in the admittedly rudimentary scale I’ve established? Actually, yes. In 2011, the year prior to Epstein’s arrival, the Cubs tallied a 37; not great, but not awful. Then came the purge, during which the team was torn down to its very foundation. 2012 saw the Cubs put up a 60, just 4 points shy of the worst score possible (16 teams with the Astros still in NL).
Then a funny thing started to happen: the Cubs began to get a little better. In 2013, improvement in all facets led to a score of 48. And while not as marked a change took place this past season, they were still able to lower that total to 42.
What the Cubs do in the offseason remains to be seen, but it stands to reason that a front office that has been loading up one side of the bar will now move to the other to give a little more balance. For once, this organization appears to be acutely aware of the failings of not only its immediate predecessors, but also those of its competitors.
Because as painful as it’s been to watch the Cubs lose 90-100 games season after season, it’s much easier to swallow when you understand that it has all been done with the goal of not losing 17 of 25 games down the stretch in September. And make no mistake, it’s far easier for a team in today’s game to experience such a collapse–two Wild Cards or no–than it was back in ’69.
So after all that, I can say that there’s really no magic bullet, no single culprit or nefarious little gremlin on which these collapses can be blamed. We can’t root out one problem because it simply isn’t possible; in all likelihood, we’ll continue to see more failures like these as long as offense continues to be stifled.
It’s no coincidence that of the five teams featured in this long and winding post, only one came from the American League. Does that mean it’s time for the NL to adopt the DH? Or perhaps lowering the pitcher’s mound would spur an increase in run-scoring. That’s exactly what happened after the “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968, when mound height was reduced from 15 inches to 10.
But until such time as MLB makes changes, Cubs fans should rest assured that their team is being built specifically to succeed in this current environment, inhospitable though it may be. Rather than trying to buy good fortune, this front office set about manufacturing its own luck a few years ago.
And what’s more, despite piles of accumulated evidence, circumstance, and happenstance to the contrary, the Cubs are bound to catch few breaks here soon. Right? They’ve been counting cards (and Cards) while waiting for the right moment to bet big, which, according to Theo Epstein, may be coming very soon.
Hitting blackjack with an ace would be a nice start.