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    Wednesday, March 28, 2018

    Is Tanking Still the Best Strategy for Teams to Get Ahead?

    With the season about to start, one thing that struck me about this upcoming year when previewing it (and especially following the long, strange postseason that followed it) is how many teams are tanking. This especially became apparent when I was writing my most recent article and looking over last year’s last place teams. By my count, at least seven different teams (the White Sox, Tigers, Braves, Marlins, Phillies, Reds, and Padres) who are in various stages of a complete tear-down.

    Some of them are further along in the process than others, to the point where several of them even made big signings this winter. But overall, these teams all stripped down their rosters recently in the hopes of rebuilding into a superteam in the near future, and almost all of them make no expectations about being able to compete for the playoffs in 2018.

    In some ways, it’s not hard to see why they would decide to do that, with the last two World Series winners having gone through the process themselves. But for as good as that track record looks, I’m a little skeptical that it’ll work for all of these teams. Obviously, they won’t all win the World Series like the Cubs and Astros; that’s the absolute best case scenario, and since only one team a year does that well, it’s likely most of those teams won’t win a World Series. But I’m even not sure all or even most of those teams will see notable turnarounds, because I think the number of teams tanking has an adverse effect on the teams doing said tanking.

    Basically, it comes down to the concepts behind Moneyball. While the term was for a long time understood to mean “using advanced statistics, looking for players that take a walk, and drafting safer, college pitchers”, that’s not really accurate. As many before me have noted, Moneyball is actually about looking for undervalued attributes in baseball; in layman’s terms, zigging when others are zagging. At the time, for the early-to-mid-2000s A’s and Red Sox, it was those things. For the late 2000s Rays, it was stockpiling young draft picks through the old draft system and locking up young players, among other things. For the recent Royals, it was a focus on defense and the bullpen when others had moved away from those things. And for the Cubs and Astros, it was tanking.

    Wednesday, March 21, 2018

    Which 2017 Last Place Team Has the Best Chance to Turn Things Around and Make the 2018 Postseason?

    As we stand at the start of the 2018, with Spring Training under way, it’s worth remembering the popular saying, “You can’t predict baseball”. The possible set of outcomes is just too vast to accurately call every little event that’s going to happen in the season.

    That being said…we have some pretty good ideas of where uncertainty might come in. For example, there’s a good chance that a team that struggled in 2017 will see their fortunes reverse in 2018. After all, since 2011, every season except one has seen at least one team go from last in their division to in the playoffs the next year. Some years, like 2015, see multiple teams turn it around (the Cubs and Astros serving as that year’s worst-to-first stories, a sign of the good things to come for both long-struggling franchises). The one year that didn’t was 2014, but of course, that year’s champion Giants had finished second-to-last in their division in 2013, so it was still pretty close.

    Given all of that, it’s probably not accurate to say that we’re guaranteed a massive turnaround, but it’s at least something worth thinking about going forward. And if we do see a last place team progressing leaps and bounds this year, who would it be?

    First, let’s look at how each of those teams did last year, for an idea of what each one has to build off of:

    Baltimore Orioles & Oakland Athletics: 75-87
    Cincinnati Reds: 68-94
    Philadelphia Phillies: 66-96
    Detroit Tigers & San Francisco Giants: 64-98

    The O’s and the A’s are starting off with a slight advantage over the other four; all other things being equal, starting seven to eleven wins higher is a big advantage for teams trying to turn things around fast.

    Of course, 2018 isn’t 2017, and these teams all look very different from last year. Of course, we don’t have any hard-and-fast records yet, but projections are another good starting point to look at. In this case, Fangraphs is projecting those six to finish thusly:

    Giants: 82-80
    Athletics: 80-82
    Orioles: 78-84
    Phillies: 76-86
    Reds: 71-91
    Tigers: 70-92

    Only two of these teams are predicted to repeat as cellar-dwellers (the Reds and Orioles*), which is a good enough start. And even the Orioles aren’t being predicted to finish any worse than they were 2017, so it’s not all bad news for them.

    *With the Alex Cobb signing, the Orioles are now predicted to be tied for fourth with the Rays.

    Still, it seems fair to say that the Reds and Tigers are on a different level from the other four; they’re both still deep in the throes of rebuilding, and will need a few massive surprises to make a serious run at competitiveness this year. The biggest offseason move for either of them was trading away Ian Kinsler, and most of the pieces they’ve brought in have been bit parts and depth pickups, meant to fill out a lineup until the prospects are ready. 2018 is probably just too soon for either of them.

    As for the other four, it’s worth noting that two of them (the Giants and Orioles) were in the playoffs just a year ago. Record-from-two-years-ago maybe not as good of an indicator as last year’s record, or projections for this season, but it’s also not nothing, and at the very least, it demonstrates how quickly a team’s fortunes can turn around.

    If we were to break down the case for why or why not these four teams might make the playoffs in 2018, I imagine it would look something like this: