Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Thin Line Between Bad Luck...and BAD

The Persuaders had a Top 20 hit in 1971 with the song "Thin Line Between Love and Hate," and the 2013 Los Angeles Angels are straddling that even thinner line between bad luck and bad. 40 games into the season, it's hard to argue that age, injuries or plain old bad luck are the reasons--other that Jered Weaver, no significant player is on the DL and they have a projected payroll of $139 million. With established stars like Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, young studs like Mike Trout and decent enough pitching on paper with C.J. Wilson, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton, there's no way anyone expected them to have the record they do at this point. How do they compare with previous 15-25 teams?

The League Championship Series was established in 1969, and since then only three teams made the playoffs after beginning the season 15-25:
1. The 1981 Royals, a strike year with an expanded playoff format--they lost in the divisional series to the A's
2. The 1989 Blue Jays, who lost the ALCS to the A's
3. The 2005 Astros, who lost the World Series to the White Sox
The point of this post isn't to quantify that since 1969, only 3 of the 51 teams that started 15-25 made the playoffs--I assume you could figure that out for yourself. No, I'm more interested in researching whether these teams had bad luck--or were just BAD.

These are the most recent teams to begin 15-25:
2012--Cubs (61-101) and Rockies (64-98)
2011--Astros (56-106)
2010--Royals (67-95), Indians (69-93) and Brewers (77-85)
2009--A's (75-87)
2008--Mariners (61-101), Padres (63-99) and Rockies (74-88)
2007--Rangers (75-87)

Four of these eleven teams managed to cross the 70-win barrier. Some of this is built-in--to reach .500 by the end of the season, teams have to go 66-56 (.541), which is not exactly a torrid pace. This chart includes all teams since 1969 that began 15-25 and shows how many wins they finished with. It does NOT include the 1981 Royals because of the unusual playoff format for that year:

Not exactly a difficult chart to grasp--3 teams managed to get to 80 or more wins (in addition to the Blue Jays and Astros, some team finished 80-82, but I can't remember which team it was), which means that 47 had 79 wins or fewer. Picking completely at random, I'll pick one from the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s.

They finished 70-92 and were set up perfectly for the circus that would be 1977, when Ted Turner would appoint himself manager for one game before being told he was making a mockery of his team (not to be confused with the mockery that the 61-101 Braves were). A washed-up Jim Wynn was their best player, one of only two players to hit more than 10 home runs. You read that correctly. They had a rotation of Phil Niekro (17-11), Dick Ruthven (14-17), Andy Messersmith (11-11) and Carl Morton (4-9)--not a bunch of stiffs. But they were the Braves in the pre-Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine era, and they just weren't very good. Unlucky--no. Bad--YES.

1985 Phillies
They finished 75-87, underplaying their Pythagorean Wins by 5 runs. This team could hit--they had a still-effective Mike Schmidt, solid seasons from Juan Samuel, Von Hayes and Glenn Wilson and weren't far removed from a World Series appearance in 1983. Their pitching was underwhelming, with John Denny (11-14), Kevin Gross (15-13) and Shane Rawley (13-8) being the workhorses. Their staff also featured 40+ pitchers Steve Carlton and Jerry Koosman. These Phillies weren't bad, just at the end of the best run in their franchise history to date, making the playoffs in six of the eight years from 1976-1983 and winning the World Series in 1980. All good streaks come to an end, and this was the beginning of the end. Old--yes. Bad--NO.

1997 Padres
This was a strange year, in that the Padres won 91 games and made the playoffs in 1996 and would win 98 games and lose the World Series in 1998, but in 1997 they went 76-86 with a lineup that was a full three years above the major league average (31.3 to 28.3). They had Tony Gwynn, Greg Vaughn, Steve Finley and Ken Caminiti, but all were on the wrong side of 30. Their pitching was nothing special, and this team suggests that Bruce Bochy might be a better manager than people give him credit for--this team was essentially unchanged from 1996-1998 and had success in two of those three years. Perhaps they overachieved, perhaps Bochy was able to get more out of them. Greater than the sum of its parts--Yes. Bad--NO.

2012 Cubs
The Cubs blew up everything after 2011, firing a manager and general manager and getting rid of just about anyone that had value on a major league roster. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were not shy about what they were trying to accomplish, and they're in the vanguard of the future of baseball--developing future talent instead of throwing money after past performance. The lineup featured up-and-comers Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, serviceable players like Darwin Barney and David DeJesus and albatross Alfonso Soriano. Any decent pitching was traded in midseason (Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempster), with the rest of the staff comprised of players that had little business being on a major league roster. This was by design, as the Cubs were aiming for 2015--a difficult way to sell tickets, but a realistic view of a farm system that is close to being bereft of talent. A team in transition--Yes. Bad--YES.

Teams that begin 15-25 run the gamut in the baseball success curve, but the section of the curve that includes success is a pretty small slice. The Angels need to wake up in a hurry, and it would be no surprise if this cost Mike Scioscia his job. Any comparison of the Angels roster with any of these other teams shows the Angels with a far superior one, but sometimes a roster that looks good on paper fails miserably on the field. The Angels are team #52 since 1969 to begin 15-25, and the question remains as to whether they are unlucky or just bad is yet to be determined, but they're running out of time to make a move. They're already 7 games out of a wild card berth, but with a 5-team playoff format, they have a better chance than in the past. However, if the AL teams continue at their current pace, it will take around 90 wins to make the playoffs, which means the Angels would have to go 75-47 (.615) to reach that plateau.

They better get going.

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