In sports, most mourning periods don’t last long. No matter how much we want to mope after a six-plus-month season ends on a one-hit, two-run rally, the frustration subsides and we return to scouring rumors, our eyes on a distant prize. The offseason won’t start in earnest until the end of the month, but with a few baseball-free days before the showdown between #EvenYear and #Yostseason, we have time to reflect on the futures of the eight playoff teams whose seasons have already ended. So, briefly, before the unbeatable Royals resume their run, let’s turn our attention to 2015.
The good news for fans who are coping with small-sample failure is that just by qualifying for the playoffs, this year’s 10 postseason teams have, historically speaking, given themselves an even shot at returning to October in 2015. Starting with 1996, the second season of baseball’s eight-team playoff format, 79 of 158 October teams (exactly half) have been repeat visitors from the previous postseason. If you count an appearance in the play-in game as a trip to the playoffs, then the odds of double-dipping might be even higher in the current two-wild-card, 10-team format (although the long-term trend held in 2013 and 2014, both of which featured 50 percent turnover).
Conservatively speaking, though, chances are that five of this year’s playoff teams will be back next year, which leaves only five hypothetical spots to be distributed among the 20 teams whose players have already been hunting, fishing, and finding other ways to avoid their families for the past few weeks. Playoff teams, therefore, are twice as likely to continue to be playoff teams as non-playoff teams are to become playoff teams.
So that’s something positive to take away from an experience that for fans of nine out of 10 teams ends in agonizing defeat: There’s a decent chance you’ll soon get to experience that agony all over again. However, there’s a crucial question the 50 percent rule can’t answer: Which of this year’s playoff teams are most likely to be among the five repeaters?
“Ask me next September” would be the most prudent response. It will be difficult enough to predict 2015 playoff teams accurately on the eve of Opening Day, so to attempt it before this season officially ends — when we don’t know where free agents will sign, what trades will be made, how injured players will progress, and who’ll win more playing time by having a hot streak in spring training — is just asking for an article that will look silly in retrospect. Unfortunately, only Ned Yost knows the future, and he’s too busy outmanaging everyone to tell us what he’s foreseen.
While we can’t come to any definitive conclusions about which 2014 playoff teams will return to the summit next season, we can say something about which clubs have the highest hills to climb. Here’s one way to frame our inquiry: Which teams are bringing back the highest percentage of players who helped them win this year?
To answer that question, I determined the percentage of each team’s 2014 playing time and Wins Above Replacement1 that came from players who are under team control for 2015. By “under team control,” I mean players who are still in the organization and who aren’t about to become free agents. Some of them will move on over the offseason anyway, via non-tender or trade, but their current clubs have the option to bring them back.
We’ll start with position players. The following graph shows the percentage of each playoff team’s total plate appearances and total positive position-player WAR generated in 2014 by hitters who are under team control through next season. The teams are sorted in ascending order of controlled position-player WAR.
Damn near every important Angel and Cardinal position player could be coming back. Baltimore is the only team with less than 75 percent of its 2014 position-player WAR tied up for 2015. The A’s have the lowest percentage of 2014 plate appearances made by controlled players, but they rate in the middle of the pack WAR-wise, because their departed players and free agents produced only 2.9 WAR in close to 2000 plate appearances.
The next graph is structured the same way, with PA and hitter WAR replaced by innings pitched and pitcher WAR.
Again, the Orioles and Tigers take the bottom two spots (this time in reverse order), while the Angels nearly take the top position again. The Dodgers have the lowest percentage of 2014 innings under contract, but the third-highest percentage of 2014 pitcher WAR, because they can count on Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Kenley Jansen coming back.
The third graph, featuring loosely team-color-coded bars,2 combines the hitter and pitcher WAR percentages from the previous two to display the overall percentage of each club’s positive 2014 WAR produced by players under team control for 2015.
Red-and-white color schemes are too popular for this to work well.
While it’s helpful to know which teams might have the most winter turnover, there’s a problem with the retrospective approach. Bringing back a bunch of productive players doesn’t guarantee that those players will continue to produce at the same levels. Similarly, letting some prominent players leave might not be a big blow, depending on their projections for 2015. Some players overperformed their true talent in 2014 and should expect to decline, while others got hurt or had lousy luck and are good bets to rebound. An extra year of aging also has an impact, helping some players approach their peaks and pulling others further from their primes. The best way to set expectations for next season isn’t to start with each team’s 2014 totals and add or subtract based on arriving or departing players’ past performance. It makes more sense to focus on the future performance of the players on the current roster.
Fortunately, first-pass Steamer projections for 2015 have already arrived, so I summed the system’s projected WAR totals for the players on each postseason team with some big league experience who are under team control for 2015. Steamer adjusts its estimate of each player’s true talent for aging, ballpark effects, fastball velocity, and other factors that, if ignored, can cause forecasts to miss. Playing-time projections are notoriously tough to automate accurately (and difficult to adjust manually this far from next season),3 so you shouldn’t despair or celebrate based on these stats; however, you may allow yourself to smile more widely if Steamer says your team is especially strong. Place your cursor on the red or blue portions of each bar to see 2014 WAR totals and 2015 WAR projections for each team’s pitchers and position players, respectively.
Steamer’s initial playing-time projections are too low for some players who finished the season off an active roster, like Matt Wieters and Manny Machado, so I used manually adjusted totals for them provided by FanGraphs author Daniel Schwartz, as well as making some minor tweaks of my own.
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Even though this is a different method of assessing team strength for 2015, the Angels remain in pole position, with the Cardinals in their slipstream. Elsewhere, though, the rankings change: The Tigers and A’s move up, and the Giants and Dodgers drop back. This graph gives us a good look at team composition, too, which might tell us where this year’s playoff teams will focus their efforts over the offseason. Although the Angels lead the Nats overall, Steamer projects twice as much WAR from Washington’s arms. The Orioles have the second-most projected WAR from position players, but by far the least from pitchers.
Of course, talent on the current roster isn’t the only important input when we try to forecast a team’s future. We should also consider quality of competition, efficiency in spending, strength of the farm system — and, of course, payroll ceiling and payroll room, since some of these teams’ pre-option/arbitration financial commitments for 2015 hardly fit on the same scale.
With all of those moving targets in mind, we can make some semi-educated guesses about which of this season’s playoff contenders are most likely to be back next year, based on where the 10 teams stand today.
Pirates: It’s easy to envision Pittsburgh losing Russell Martin to a Dodgers megadeal, which could keep them playing second (or third) fiddle to St. Louis in the Central. The Pirates lack upper-echelon arms in the big league rotation behind Gerrit Cole, but the projections don’t account for the pitching prospects they’ve stocked in the upper minors, some of whom could play a role at some point next season.
Athletics: The A’s have the fourth-highest projected WAR total, but they’re going to have their hands full with a respectable Seattle, the probably resurgent Rangers, the improving Astros, and the Angels, baseball’s reigning best-record-holders. Even without Jon Lester, Oakland has the potential for an elite rotation if Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin return from Tommy John surgery without missing much more time, but a lot would have to go right in a difficult division for the A’s to return.
Orioles: Check out the tiny red box on the last graph: There just won’t be enough arms here if the O’s keep relying on a rotation with an artificially low ERA. The cluster luck from this season can’t be sustained, and we’re still a ways away from Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey tag-teaming with Kevin Gausman to give the O’s a true top of the rotation. The AL East probably won’t be a powerhouse, but Baltimore is still on the October bubble.
Giants: The last time the Giants won the World Series, they stuck with what had worked: re-signing almost all of their players from the championship run. The “stand pat” strategy, which is endemic to World Series winners, often proves costly: The team that wins the title typically has a lot of breaks go its way, and post-clinching complacency can ruin the victory lap when regression hits, as it did for San Francisco in 2013.
According to Steamer, the Giants would be the weakest of this season’s playoff teams if they entered next season with what they have now, so the risk that they won’t take steps to offset some slippage (from 88 regular-season wins, a low perch to fall from) is significant. There are reasons for optimism — for instance, San Francisco can confidently expect more out of Matt Cain and Brandon Belt — but we can’t put all 10 teams in the chosen five.
Royals: I’ve already predicted that the Royals would be eliminated three times since the postseason started, and they’ve yet to lose a game. Still, given the talent of the teams below them on this page (keep scrolling), I’m quadrupling down. The hope for Kansas City is that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas sustain their postseason success (and in Hosmer’s case, second-half success) into next season, and Steamer foresees that happening, projecting the pair for a combined 5.3 WAR (up from 1.1 this season).
The rotation looks light, particularly if free agent James Shields leaves for a larger contract and Danny Duffy’s luck turns, and bullpen performance fluctuates wildly from season to season, so the Royals can’t count on the Herrera-Davis-Holland trio disguising their other weaknesses to the same extent. However, the Royals will at least threaten to start a playoff streak if they invest the profits from their postseason home games and expected attendance boost4 back into the roster.
The Royals drew fewer than two million fans in 2014, which ranked 11th in the AL.
Dodgers: The correlation between payroll and wins is dramatically lower today than it has been in recent years, which could be a product of baseball’s youth movement, extension spree, and TV-money madness, or could just be a blip. Either way, it doesn’t seem to apply to the Dodgers, who’ve spent their way to contention under the Guggenheim Partners and just added intellectual riches to the game’s biggest bank account by poaching one of baseball’s best GMs. The combination of an enormous broadcast deal, Andrew Friedman, 94-win talent at the big league level, and promising prospects in the upper minors makes the Dodgers the team to beat for the foreseeable future, with or without free agent Hanley Ramirez.
Tigers: The Tigers aren’t going to be the clear preseason favorite they have been for the past few years, and not only because they’ll face stiff competition from Kansas City and Cleveland. Free agents Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez totaled 10 WAR this season, and Scherzer, at least, seems likely to walk. Between trying to re-sign or replace those two, tending to center field, and trying to build an implosion-proof bullpen, Dave Dombrowski will be one of the winter’s busiest GMs. But don’t be surprised if Detroit’s spending, coupled with the returns of injured youngsters Jose Iglesias and Bruce Rondon, ekes one more playoff appearance out of the current core.
Angels: “We feel we’re tweaks and turns from being a very good team again,” GM Jerry Dipoto said after the Royals swept the Angels out of the ALDS. It’s hard to argue with his assessment. The Angels just led the majors in wins, and they’re bringing back almost every player who helped them do it: Only Jason Grilli, Joe Thatcher, and a few minor bench pieces are about to enter free agency. After Anaheim missed the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, the roster’s inflexibility and lack of young, cheap, non–Mike Trout talent looked like a liability.
In 2014, though, a modest amount of young talent materialized, and now the lack of movable pieces seems like a strength — at least for the next year or two, after which some veterans will reach free agency and others will enter the albatross phase. The key for the Angels will be starting next season with a stronger rotation than the one with which they finished this campaign. Garrett Richards’s return will help, but Dipoto will need depth to cover for the likelihood of continued erosion in Jered Weaver’s fastball, the potential for further struggles from C.J. Wilson, and the possibility of regression from Matt Shoemaker and Hector Santiago. The Angels may be priced out of the top end of the arms market, but they’ll have to pursue a midtier starter, because converting Cory Rasmus won’t cut it.
Cardinals: At some point, the Cardinals’ run of success will hit a lull, but why bet on it to be now? The 2014 Cards pitching staff, which was the second-youngest in baseball, had the highest percentage of batters faced by homegrown pitchers since the 1999 Twins. Those guys aren’t going away. A full season from John Lackey, the likelihood of better health for Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha, development from Oscar Taveras, and a win or so just from not having the 2014 contributions of Allen Craig and Justin Masterson should offset issues elsewhere on the roster. The Brewers won’t push the Cardinals again, and while the Cubs will put up much more of a fight than they did this year, they probably aren’t ready to unseat St. Louis. The Cardinals will almost certainly enter 2015 as NL Central favorites again, unless Adam Wainwright’s on-again, off-again postseason problems presage a second UCL replacement.
Nationals: The Nationals were a popular World Series pick heading into October, and with good reason. They have the strongest projected 2015 pitching staff among this year’s playoff teams, and re-signing Asdrubal Cabrera would be an expensive but satisfactory solution to their second-base hole. In the outfield, they could splurge on Denard Span or make do with internal options like Steven Souza and Michael Taylor while hoping that Bryce Harper’s NLDS moonshots were the work of a batter who’s about to break out. The Nats might spend more of this winter thinking about extensions past 2015 than the upcoming season, since Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, and Jordan Zimmermann are all slated to hit the open market at the end of next year.
The pre-offseason snapshot suggests that some playoff teams are better positioned than others to get back to October next year. But remember: Even general managers can barely beat a coin flip when they try to predict baseball, and we’re no smarter than they are. So while history tells us that 50 percent of this year’s playoff teams will return to the postseason next year, it also tells us there’s a 50 percent chance that we’ll miss on which squads it will be.