One of the things I dislike most about the off-season is how simple the analysis can be. Usually it all boils down to good ratings for the teams that spent money and added names, and poor ratings for teams who didn’t make a move or made low key additions. The analysis only views the off-season in a vacuum, and doesn’t consider the roster leading up to the off-season, the internal improvements on the team, or how the new additions — big or small — fit in with the overall team.
I was talking with a friend of mine about this recently. We were discussing the Seattle Mariners and their spending this off-season, and how that spending is probably going to land them at the top of most predictions heading into 2014. We were talking about how this happens every year. Each year there is a team that goes “all-in” during the off-season, then gets a ton of predictions of winning their division, or winning a World Series as a result. We’re in the month of February, which means we’re starting to get predictions for the upcoming season. A lot of those predictions will revolve solely around what happened during the off-season, and specifically how much money was spent and what names were acquired. So I thought I’d go back and look at two of the biggest spenders from the previous two years to see how the simple off-season analysis has worked out.
The Marlins got a new stadium in 2012, and went crazy spending free agent money to justify the new stadium. They committed $106 M over six years to Jose Reyes, $58 M over four years to Mark Buehrle, and $27 M over three years to Heath Bell. They finished the 2011 season with 72 wins, but the free agent additions were enough to get them a lot of playoff predictions.
ESPN always has a large amount of experts making pre-season predictions each year. They had 50 people making predictions about the 2012 season. Out of those predictions, 11 people picked the Marlins to win the NL East. The Marlins were more popular in the Wild Card, getting 18 votes. Only one person had them making the World Series, and losing.
A year after winning 72 games, the Marlins spent big in free agency, which resulted in 58% of ESPN predictions to put them in the playoffs. The end result was that they won 69 games — three fewer than the previous year — and finished dead last in the NL East.
As an example of the other side, Oakland traded away Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Ryan Sweeney, and Andrew Bailey. Their biggest signing was Coco Crisp for two years and $14 M. Oakland won 94 games, which was a 20 game improvement over their 2011 finish. They also won the AL West, despite zero ESPN pre-season predictions that they would make the playoffs.
2013 Blue Jays
This could also be “The 2012 Marlins 2.0”. A year after Miami signed a ton of high priced free agents, then went on to a losing season, the Blue Jays traded for pretty much all of those free agents. I’m not sure why this was considered a good idea, but people bought into it (Toronto also acquired R.A. Dickey from the Mets).
ESPN had 43 people making pre-season predictions. 20 of the 43 picked the Blue Jays to win the AL East. Of the remaining 23 people, 12 picked the Blue Jays to win a Wild Card. One person picked Toronto to win the World Series, while three others picked them to lose the World Series.
The irony here is that only four people picked the Red Sox to make the playoffs, and all of those picks were Wild Card spots. The Red Sox didn’t make a lot of big splashes over the off-season. They made a lot of mid-level moves that worked by complementing what they already had on the roster, and eventually got praise for such an approach. They ended up winning 97 games, which was the most in baseball. Oh, and the World Series. Meanwhile, Toronto won 74 games (one more than they won in 2012), and finished last in the AL East.
Making Good Decisions
The focus on payroll and spending money in the off-season is a distraction from where the real focus should be: the talent of the team and making smart decisions to add talent. Baseball is largely seen an individual game. Each play in baseball is a battle between the pitcher and the hitter. It’s not seen in the way that football is seen, where you have defensive linemen who are good in the 3-4 scheme, and other defensive linemen who are better suited for the 4-3. In baseball, the idea is that you just go for the best possible player at every position, and that approach will lead to a contender.
I think we’re starting to see that this isn’t the case. We’re starting to see more teams focusing on a scheme, and getting the right players, rather than putting together an All-Star team. Oakland focuses on pitching and defense, which is an approach the Pirates have also taken. You’ve got focuses on ground balls and infield defense, and more focus on how to properly value players for your home ballpark.
I also think that people generally over-value individual players. Boston didn’t get a lot of credit last off-season for adding mid-level free agents, but ended up with a World Series and after-the-fact praise for their approach. The Pirates had two of the best off-season signings with Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Then there’s the value signings. The Rays constantly add people who look like they have no value, only to see those players put up tremendous value.
The off-season is always graded with a cookie cutter approach. The grading process doesn’t focus on the actual teams, the plan the team has, the players already in place, and the idea that there isn’t much of a drop off between a top free agent and a mid-level free agent. Most off-season analysis just focuses on who the team added, and how much money they spent. And as we’ve seen the past two years, a “winning” off-season doesn’t guarantee winning, just like an underrated off-season doesn’t guarantee losing.
NOTE: I originally wrote this article back in December, but it was bumped after another topic came up that night. I dusted it off last week, but once again it was bumped. I decided to use it tonight, after spending the entire day cleaning up the Super Bowl mess in my house, and recovering from the Super Bowl food. From what I saw, Sports Illustrated released their off-season grades, giving the Pirates an “F”. That’s not a surprise at all. They really haven’t done anything this off-season, and if you’re going to be grading an off-season on the basis of making moves, then a team that didn’t make moves would get an “F”. This article isn’t really about the SI grade. It’s more an idea I had back in December, after discussing the Marlins and Blue Jays with my friend (around the time of the Robinson Cano deal). But it probably applies to the SI grades, and any future grades that come out.
Links and Notes
**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.
**Last week we finished our countdown of the top 20 prospects in the Pirates system. The number one prospect was Gregory Polanco. Click the link to read his scouting report, along with the complete list of top 20 prospects. If you enjoyed all of the reports, you can get more by purchasing the 2014 Prospect Guide.
**Our own James Santelli was Nominated For a SABR Award. The award is based on a vote. Click that link for information on how to vote for James and Pirates Prospects.