Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Repeating As World Series Champions Is So Hard & Can The Yankees Do It?

In the last 30 years, only 2 teams repeated as World Series champions: the late 90s Yankees and the early 90s Blue Jays. No question, repeating in baseball is hard. The NFL, in the past 30 years, has had 5 teams repeat as champions; the NBA has 6. Heck, last year's Phillies are the first team in 8 years to appear in back-to-back Series. So, what is it about baseball that makes it so hard to repeat? And what is the secret to doing it?

It can't be free agency, the NBA and the NFL both have free agency; and Super Bowl teams are famous for being pouched after a team wins the Super Bowl. Is the number of games and the extremely long haul that is the baseball season? Probably not. The NBA has a shorter schedule, but doesn't have series, meaning teams travel all over the country to play one game in New York, the next in Dallas with one off day in between. And football, well, they stretch 16 games over 4 months, not including training camp and preseason.

So why is baseball so hard? Joe Torre said in 2009: "I think the most important thing you have to understand is that to repeat what you do, you have to get better at it. I don't think anybody can stay the same and expect the same result. Once you're on that radar screen as being expected to contend, you have to progress. One thing I was blessed with in New York was a lot of players who stayed hungry. You have to maintain that hunger.''

"Getting better." "Staying hungry." Frankly the sort of things we've heard before from announcers and sportswriters. And while those things aren't untrue—a desire to win; not standing pat—are definitely things that matter in repeating, in our sabermetric world, full of stats and Excel sheets, don't we want something quantifiable, something tangible that says, "This is it. This is what allows championship teams to repeat."

So I examined the 1992-1993 Toronto Blue Jays stats and the 1998-New York Yankees stats, in painstaking depth, and found....nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. With apologies to the Sabermetricians out there, there is no "one stat" that divulges the secret to repeating. Not BA or HRs or RBIs or fielding percentage or ERAs or saves or quality starts or anything. To be clear, there is no "one thing" that either the early 90s Toronto Blue Jays or the late 90s Yankees used to secure themselves the World Series, and then again, the following year.

This is not to say that OBP or ERA or save percentage aren't important. Pitching well, hitting well and fielding well are, of course, important in contributing to a successful franchise. This is just to say that there is no one indicator a team needs to win. And to win again.

For instance, when the Blue Jays won it all in 1992, their team batting average was tied for 4th in the AL at .263. The next year, when they won again, their batting average was .279, 1st in the AL. In 1992, their team ERA was 3.91; the next year it was 4.21. During their 1st World Series year, they stole a middle of the pack 129 bases. The next year, they led the American league with 170.

As you can see, no one aspect of the game of baseball in which the Blue Jays dominated, led them to win the World Series one year, and then to repeat the next season.

Let's continue with the dynasty-era Yankees. In 1998 the Yankees stole 153 bases, 2nd in the AL. The next year they stole 104, the league average. Still won the World Series.

In 1998, the Yankees were 4th in HRs, 27 behind the lead. They fell to 8th the next year, 54 behind the leaders. Won the World Series again.

To be sure, the Yankee had good pitching in those years, 1st in team ERA in 1998, 2nd in 1999. But in 2000 it fell to 6th in the AL, over half a run behind the AL leader. It didn't seem to effect their World Series run, as they beat the Mets in 5 games that year.

And check this out. The 2000 Yankees were 5th in the American League in OBP (which is in vogue as the most important statistic a winning team should have—ask Brian Cashman), while the 2008 Yankees who missed the playoffs were 3rd. The 2006 and 2007 Yankees were first. They lost in the first round of the playoffs both teams who had far lower OBPs.

And so on and so forth. What all this statistical mumbo-jumbo is this: That the statistics a team earns when it wins their first World Series and the stats they earn when they repeat can be completely variant. And therefore null. How they win one year may not be how they win the next year. There is no repeating action that repeating teams use. There is no secret statistic.

So what is it? What is the secret if not sabermetrics?

Perhaps it's balance—a good mix of leadership and youth. A strong foundation on which the team builds from mixed with a changing cast of professional veterans and new youth. Consider the 1992 Blue Jays: The teams had a core made of a nice mix of youth—Jon Olerud, Roberto Alomar, Juan Guzman, Todd Stottlemeyer—and veteran leadership—Joe Carter, Devon White, Jack Morris.

A solid corp. But look at the changes made from 1992 to 1993. The DH was changed from Dave Winfield to Paul Molitor, both good veterans. SS Manny Lee was let go for veteran Tony Fernandez. Veteran Kelly Gruber was let go for veteran Ed Sprague. Journeyman Candy Maldanado was exchanged for much-journeyed Ricky Henderson. Aging closer Tom Henke was exchanged for younger Duane Ward. Veteran Dave Steib was replaced by veteran Dave Stewart. And a young Pat Hentgen came in when Jimmy Key left for the Yankees.

So, in 1993, the Blue Jays still had their core intact, and changed the supporting cast with a good mix of veterans and youth. And they won again.

Does the same apply to the late 90s Yankees?

To some degree, yes. The 1998 Yankees had a very solid core of players, both youthful—Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera—and veteran—Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius, David Cone, David Wells, Orlando Hernandez, all of which remained with the team throughout the 1998-2000 championship run. They also had a variety of role players.

In 1996, left field was mostly played by Chad Curtis, the DH was Darryl Strawberry and Joe Girardi played backup catcher. The next year, Curtis and Strawberry were out, replaced by the younger prospects Ricky Ledee and Shane Spencer as well as the veteran Chili Davis. David Wells was replaced by Roger Clemens. They won again.

In 2000, Hideki Irabu would be replaced by Danny Neagle, and Spencer, who would remain with the team as a backup would give way to David Justice. And while Ricky Ledee still played a part in left field, he played on 62 games, leaving a bunch of playing time to veteran Glenallen Hill. David Cone, ineffective and with nagging injuries, made way partially for Ramiro Mendoza. And Joe Girardi would be replaced with the younger Chris Turner.

In short, the Yankees, just like the Blue Jays, kept their core intact. They added some veteran leadership and some youth.

And possibly that is part of the secret to winning repeated championships. That being: A professional core with the drive and stamina to maintain the desire to win again, (Carter, Alomar, Morris on the Blue Jays; Jeter, O'Neill, Rivera on the Yankees), and a mix of fresh blood and solid veterans.

But is that it? Well no. We can't forget the other, obvious one. Health. To remain healthy in the game of baseball for 180 games or so, 2 times, is remarkable. And both the 1992-1993 Blue Jays and the 1998-2000 Yankees were able to keep their core in tact for the majority of the games. And that is probably the most important thing to creating any dynasty: Keeping your core players healthy.

The Rex Sox of the mid-2000s, was no doubt an impressible array of teams. But they were unable to win consecutive championships. Why?

Well, after the Red Sox won in 2004 with a relatively healthy bunch of guys, the next season Keith Foulke and Curt Schilling had terrible seasons as they battled injuries all year. Foulke went from 83 IP and 2.17 ERA to 45.2 IP and 5.93 ERA in 2005. Schilling went from 3.28 ERA with 226.1 IP to 5.69 ERA to 96.1 IP. Also, Kevin Millar, injured in 2005, saw his batting average drop 25 points from 2004 to 2005. His home runs dropped from 18 to 9. His OPS+ in 2004 was 117; in 2005 it was 98.

And the same goes for the 2007 Red Sox. J. D. Drew and David Ortiz played in 140 and 149 games respectively in 2007. The following year, they both played in only 109 games. (To say nothing of Manny Ramirez—the straw that stirred the Red Sox drink—who played his way out of town after only 100 games.) Curt Schilling, who on 2007 had a 3.87 during the regular season and a 3.00 ERA in the postseason with 3 wins, missed the entire 2008 season. Mike Lowell, after a .321 BA, 21 HR, 120 RBI season in 2007, had an injury-filled .274 BA, 17HR, 73 RBI 2008 season.

So what's the secret to repeating? Overall, probably luck is one of the main things. That aside, the most important things are 1. Keeping the nucleus of your team healthy, and 2. Surrounding those guys with a rotating and complementary mix of youth and experience.

So can the Yankees do it again? The Yankees still have a solid core to build around: Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, Cano, Rodriguez and Rivera, who have been around a while and who have won. And, in the offseason, the Yankees added Javier Vasquez, Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson. They also are adding 25-year-old Brett Gardner to the everyday lineup and are letting 23-year-old Phil Hughes take the fifth spot in the rotation.

So, a very solid core group of players...a solid mix of youth and veteran free agents. If they can stay healthy, that would be exactly the recipe needed to win again.

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