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    Sunday, February 25, 2018

    What Makes a Dynasty in Baseball?

    Spring Training is finally starting, bringing and end to the long, dull offseason. Naturally, this seemed like a good time to talk about the postseason.

    Well, sort of. This was actually sort of inspired by the recent Super Bowl, the ongoing NHL and NBA seasons, and (of course) not having much baseball news to chew over in the offseason. Obviously, although they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, the lead-up to the Super Bowl saw much talk of the NFL’s modern New England Patriots dynasty. At the same time, the NHL and NBA have seen their own share of dynasty-like teams as of late, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and LeBron James & Co. Meanwhile, I’ve seen some people contrast this with baseball, with its relative lack of dynasties at the moment.

    So, this seems like a good chance to discuss sports dynasties. I’ve always wanted to discuss it in some capacity, although I’ve never gotten a good chance to do so, so I may as well take advantage of the relative lull. Let’s start with the first question: what makes a dynasty?

    The obvious is championships; you need some amount of titles in a short span of time, although we don’t really have a hard and fast number. I’d say there are other factors as well, though, like title game appearances, playoff appearances, and win totals. Also, I’d argue that those carry even more importance in baseball compared to other sports, since the baseball playoffs are easily the most random (which makes sense; all playoffs are of somewhat similar length, but baseball’s regular season is much, much longer, so the playoffs are a much less indicative sample size). This, in turn, means there are a lot more edge cases for what might make a run of years a dynasty or not. Helpfully, there are some recent National League teams that make for interesting demonstrations of this effect.

    First, let’s look at the recent Giants. They fit the most conventional definition of a dynasty, with three World Series titles in five seasons (2010 to 2014, if you forgot). But you could also easily argue that they weren’t dominant in that stretch, either; they actually had fewer division titles than World Series titles in that stretch, they never won more than 94 games in any season, and the odd numbered years in that stretch were pretty mediocre, leading to an average record of just 87-75. Also, even if you think they’re a dynasty, does that span extend to 2016? While they only won 87 games that year, that’s just one win less than their 2014 total. And we’re already skipping mediocre odd years to count the even years, so why draw the line there? And what if they win it all in 2018? Would we extend that dynasty label then, even with their awful 2017 season in between? More on that in a bit, though.

    The Cardinals of the 2000s also make for an interesting test case. They have two titles, in 2006 and 2011. They have two more pennants in that stretch as well, in 2004 and 2013, plus five more NLCS appearances and plenty of 95+ and 100+ win teams. You could easily break it into two successful runs, given that they missed the playoffs in 2007, 2008, and 2010. But at the same time, there was a good deal of continuity throughout, and that 2011 title year looks a lot more like the 2000-2010 period than the 2012-present period, given the departure of Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols that followed. Also, two of the years of missed playoffs in the middle (2008 and 2010) saw them win more games than their 2006 title run.

    If the Giants are one extreme, the Braves run would be the other end of the spectrum. They appeared in every postseason between 1991 and 2005 and picked up five pennants in that span. They averaged a .606 winning percentage in that time, which translates to a little over 98 wins. But on the other hand, they only won one actual World Series in that time. Does that count against them enough to make them not a dynasty?

    Ultimately, this is just going to come down to personal preference. Personally, I think all of those things should be a factor in determining a dynasty, and I’d count all three of those as examples. Of course, if someone thinks that ultimately titles outweigh the rest and only the Giants count…the definition is fuzzy enough that I don’t think I can really argue against it. Really, with any combination of those, it just comes down to personal preferences; as long as your reasoning is internally consistent, it is what it is.

    The one other factor that’s harder to quantify is continuity; it’s sort of a mini Ship of Theseus paradox. As you continually replace players, the team eventually no longer looks like it once did. At what point is it just become a new “dynasty”. See the 1947-1964 Yankees for an example of this; sure, they appeared in all but three World Series in that span, but they also went through four managers in that time, and had enough roster turnover that the 22-year-old rookie catcher on the 1947 team was the manager of the 1964 team. Do you draw a line in there? If so, where? It’s another factor that just muddies the water some (more on this later).

    Of course, the other thing about dynasties is that they’re really only clear in retrospect. We don’t really have many teams at that stage yet, but I’d argue that there are some teams that could become dynasties depending on how this year (and maybe the next couple after that) play out. Multiple dynasties seem like the starting place for determining a dynasty, so let’s play a game of hypotheticals: if the 2018 World Series winner is one of the most recent champions, would that make their run a dynasty?

    Houston Astros-Probably

    Back-to-back titles is obviously a great starting point in a dynasty argument. They’d also have at least one 100+ win season, as well as three playoff appearances in four seasons and most likely an average of over 90 wins in that span. The 2018 team looks a lot like the 2017 team, so that’s obviously pretty strong continuity. And if you think they need a few more good seasons after that, their core is locked in for a while, so a few more postseason appearances after 2018 doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

    Chicago Cubs-Yes

    I think it’s safe to say that a championship this year would put this Cubs team on the shortlist for dynasties; it’d be a four-year run that featured two titles, four straight NLCS appearances, and an average four-year win total likely north of 95. On top of that, in this scenario, they’d likely be favorites to pick up more playoff appearances the next few seasons given their still-young core, in case you don’t think four years is enough to qualify a team.

    Kansas City Royals-Debatable, but probably

    This one is interesting, given that the last two seasons have been pretty unremarkable (winning just 80 and 81 games). But if we’re counting the Giants, two titles and three pennants in five years would be hard to argue against, even if they only have one 95-win season so far and no other 90-win seasons in that span yet. Making this slightly more questionable would be the amount of roster turnover in that time (Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist, Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, and likely Mike Moustakas have all moved on, and Yordano Ventura unfortunately passed away), but there are enough pieces still here, plus the same leadership, so it’s not the worst argument. Of course, they probably have the lowest chances to repeat of any team listed here, so it’s probably a moot point.

    San Francisco Giants-Yes?

    There’s been some turnover here as well, but a lot of the core from 2014 is still here, so it still looks like the 2010-2014 run. I think the only argument you could make against it is that their awful 2017 separates a possible 2018 title from the other three. But you already have to overlook the underwhelming odd years in the 2010-2014 run anyway, and four titles and five playoff appearances in nine years is pretty convincing.

    Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals-Probably not

    Even those these two are technically two of our most recent champions, it still feels like their wins were a long time ago. Probably in part because of how much each team has been remade. Both of these teams had good runs for a while, but they’re probably too far removed from those to have a potential 2018 win count towards those runs.

    I had always considered the Red Sox’s 2013 win to be a continuation of their 2000s success, and 2018 would be closer to 2013 than 2003 was to 2007. But the more I look at it, the less I’m sure they should be lumped together. Technically, it’s three World Series wins in a decade. But there are three years in between their 2009 playoff appearance and their 2013 win where the team just missed October twice and finished last once. And sure, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz were key members of both 2007 and 2013, but there aren’t many other commonalities between them otherwise; even the manager and front office changed. So, if 2013 isn’t a continuation of their earlier run, a potential 2018 win definitely wouldn’t be. It could be part of something new, especially given their strong, young core, but with only two 93-win, LDS exits preceding it, they would definitely need more after 2018.

    The Cardinals are a harder case. As mentioned earlier, there’s a pretty good argument that 2000 to 2015 represents a run, but they’ve missed the playoffs twice since then. Neither year has seen them below .500, but there’s still been a lot of roster turnover, so the team feels like a very different thing from the 2013 team that last won a pennant. Only Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright remain from that core, plus manager Mike Matheny (and the front office) and a handful of young players who had bit parts back in 2013. I’m also pretty bearish on Matheny’s management skill, so I have a bit of a feeling he won’t be the head of the next Cardinals pennant winner anyway. That would almost definitely represent a sort of “cut off” for a dynasty.

    Other Potential Candidates

    Are there any other teams who could make a case with a win this year? I’d argue there’s at least one decent case in last year’s runner-up, the Los Angeles Dodgers. They may not be there yet, depending on your definition of a dynasty, but if you think the ‘90s Braves qualify, the Dodgers would at least be on the right track. A title in 2018 would probably mean six straight division titles, four NLCS appearances including three in a row, two pennants, a World Series, and likely six straight seasons of more than 90 wins, plus an opportunity to grow that streak going forward thanks to their young stars and seemingly-limitless budget. It’s probably still a little light for some of you, but that’s close enough for me that I’d be willing to consider it.*

    *Of course, I think the late-2000s Phillies are also right on the border of being a dynasty too, so your mileage may vary in that regard. Sure, it’s only five seasons, but from 2007 to 2011, they averaged nearly 95 wins a year, won one World Series plus a second pennant, and were just an all-around nightmare to face, as a fan of an opposing team.

    There are some weaker cases, too. The Nationals, Yankees, and Indians all have good sets of young players and could go far in 2019 and beyond should they rise to the top this year, but even with a 2018 win, I think they’d all be a little light on achievements. The Indians would be top-heavy, with a title, a pennant, and at least seasons of 94 and 102 wins, but it would only be a three-year run at this point. The Nationals go back a little further, with four postseason appearances in the last six years (with win totals of 95, 96, 97, and 98), but they still have yet to win a single postseason series, and I don’t know if one World Series and four Division Series exits makes a dynasty.

    The Yankees are maybe the most interesting, in that they have an “unbroken streak” like the Braves; the Bronx Bombers have not had a losing season since 1992, and have a bunch of titles and other wins in that time. But like I said earlier, at a certain point, you need to draw a dividing line. The 2009 team felt radically different from the 1990s teams even with all of the Core Four still around. Now that Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada are in the “appearing on Hall ballots” stage of their careers, I really don’t think you could argue the 1990s team is still around in spirit or anything. Plus, one Wild Card Game appearance and nothing else from 2013 to 2016, plus a new manager in 2018, makes it feel even more like a natural dividing line. Any dynasty involving the 2018 Yankees will have to be from 2017 on rather than drawing back on ‘90s successes.

    Obviously, we won’t know all of this for a while, but in the early days of the 2018 season, it’s a fun exercise to speculate on all of the different ways this can go. While there’s no immediately apparent dynasty ruling over MLB right now, there are a lot of teams that look like they have the potential to do so. There truly are a bunch of stellar young stars and teams around the sport right now.

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