On Great Teams

Baseball teams just don’t win like they used to.

Well, that’s not entirely true. In the aggregate, teams are winning exactly as many games as they always have, since every game has to have a winner and a loser. Some teams win more than others, of course, and some win or lose a lotmore than others. In the last eight years, what we’ve seen is a serious decline in the teams at the upper extreme. Winning 100 games is much harder now than it was a decade ago.

I find myself thinking about 100 wins today because the Red Sox just lost their 63rdgame of the season. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not likely to mean much; the Sox still have the best record in the league. However, it means that for the second straight year, no team will win 100 games.

Does this matter? Objectively, no, but baseball fans love round numbers. On some level, we know that the difference between a guy who hits 39 homers and a guy who hits 41 is almost nothing, yet we celebrate the 41-homer guy much more because he crossed an arbitrary threshold. For pitchers; the difference between 18 wins and 20 is tiny, yet there’s a mystique attached to the 20-game winner that the 18-game winner doesn’t have. Likewise, there’s very little difference between a 98-win team and a 100-win team, but that three-digit number carries some special significance in our minds.

What happened to the 100-win team?

Let’s go back to the beginning of the Wild Card era. In 1995, the Cleveland Indians* were the only team to win 100 games. That’s a bit misleading, as the 1995 season was only 144 games long; still, no other team in either league was on pace to win 100 in a full-length season.

*That Cleveland team was absolutely stacked. The lineup was deep enough to bat Jim Thome sixth and Manny Ramirez seventh. Albert Belle hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles – speaking of round numbers – and somehow lost the MVP to Boston’s Mo Vaughn. I guess the voters figured Belle’s team was good enough to make the playoffs with or without him, and they may have had a point; the Indians won their division by 30 games.

In 1996, no team won 100 games, though the Indians came about as close as possible with a 99-62 record (one game was rained out). In 1997, the Braves won 101. A year later, threedifferent teams won more than 100 games, led by the Yankees with an incredible 114. The others were the Braves (106) and the Astros (102).

What happened? The main culprit, it seems, is the 1997 expansion, which lowered the overall quality of competition by adding two new teams to the league. It also helped that the defending* world champion Marlins blew up their entire roster; they were the worst team in the big leagues, behind even the expansion teams, with 108 losses.

*There needs to be a better term than “defending world champions” for the 1998 Marlins, since they quite clearly did nothing of the sort. The most common antonym for “defending” is “attacking,” but considering the Marlins traded away their four best offensive players, that doesn’t seem terribly appropriate either. I think I’ll refer to them as the “retreating world champions” from here on out.

In 1999, two teams won 100 or more. Amazingly, the Diamondbacks did it in only their second season in the league, finishing at 100-62. The Braves did it again with 103 wins.

2000 was a bit of an anomaly by the standards of the time with no 100-win teams and no 100-loss teams. The next year, though, the Mariners set a Major League record with 116 wins, and the Oakland Athletics somehow managed to win 102 in the same division. The A’s remain the only team in the Wild Card era to win 100 games and not win their division (the 1993 Giants and 1980 Orioles did it in the pre-Wild Card era).

Then, in 2002, things went insane. Three different teams, the Braves, Yankees and Athletics, won 100 or more. The same thing happened a year later as the 2003 Yankees, Braves and Giants all hit triple digits. In 2004, the Cardinals and Yankees did it.

In all, we saw ten 100-win teams in just four years and fifteen in the span of seven. The game had changed, or so it seemed..

Then in 2005, the Cardinals won exactly 100, which seemed almost mundane after the previous four seasons. For the next two years, no team won 100 games. The Angels won 100 in 2008, the Yankees broke through with 103 in 2009, and the Phillies won 102 two years later. That’s it.

Put another way, in the eight seasons from 1997 to 2004 (yay, arbitrary endpoints!), there were sixteen 100-win teams. The complete list:

1997: ATL (101-61)
1998: NYY (114-48), ATL (106-56), HOU (102-60)
1999: ATL (103-59), ARI (100-62)
2000: None!
2001: SEA (116-46), OAK (102-60)
2002: ATL (101-59), NYY (103-58), OAK (103-59)
2003: NYY (101-61), ATL (101-61), SFG (100-61)
2004: STL (105-57) NYY (101-61)

In the eight seasons from 2005 to 2012, there were four.

When I started working on this piece, I assumed that the 100-win teams owed their success to the really badteams that they had the opportunity to play against. Certainly there’s some truth to that. The Yankees, for instance, benefited greatly from having the Devil Rays as punching bags throughout their run. The NL teams all had plenty of games against the hapless Pirates. The Tigers rather famously lost 119 games in 2003, a performance so bad that another perennial cellar-dweller, Kansas City, actually managed to post a winning season by beating up* on Detroit.

*That’s not entirely fair to the Royals, as they also posted winning marks against Cleveland (13-6), Minnesota (11-8) and Texas (7-2). Still, their 14-5 record against the Tigers played a big role in their 83-79 finish.

That’s all well and good, but we’ve seen plenty of terrible teams from 2005 on as well. The Devil Rays were still awful in ’05, ’06 and ’07. The Nationals were a laughingstock for several years. The Royals went back to being bad and stayed that way until this season. The Mariners had some horrendous seasons. The Pirates, of course, didn’t stop being terrible until this year. The Astros and Marlins have lost 100 already, and the season isn’t even quite over.

In the past eight years, we’ve only seen four 100-win teams, but we’ve seen eleven 100-loss teams, plus two more this year. Would-be dynasties have had their share of opportunities to rack up cheap victories.

Another possibility is the high-flying offensive environment of the late ’90s and early aughts. When everybody’s scoring and allowing more runs, the differences between the good teams and bad teams get bigger. That’s very likely a factor, but it’s not the only factor.

A bigger culprit, I think, is the way teams have handled free agents.

Free agency in baseball has been around since 1972, but I’d argue that it reached its peak two decades later. That was when the greatest pitcher on the planet and the greatest position player on the planet hit the market at the same time.

In 1992, Barry Bonds was the National League MVP for the second time in his career. He led the league in OPS for the third straight season, took home his third Gold Glove and third Silver Slugger, scored 109 runs, belted 34 homers and stole 39 bases. His dominant performance led the Pirates to their third straight NL East title. He was 27 years old.

That same year, then-Cub Greg Maddux made the leap from very good young pitcher to dominant ace. He led the league with 20 wins and 268 innings pitched, posted a sparkling 2.18 ERA and took home his first Cy Young Award; for good measure, he also collected his third Gold Glove. He was 26.

The baseball world had never seen anything like it. Two superstars, both just entering their prime years, were available to the highest bidder. For nothing more than money, all 26 teams had a shot at a player to build around.

Bonds signed with the Giants for six years and $43.75 million, which seems almost laughable today but was a record then. Maddux went to the Braves for five years and $28 million, which again was a very large contract at the time.

Six years later, the game’s most dominant left-hander was set to hit the market for the first time. Randy Johnson’s path to stardom was a little rockier; for several years he was an average- to above-average pitcher who struck out a ton of batters but also gave up far too many walks. As he got older, though, he learned to find the strike zone with more consistency, and in 1993 he broke through with a league-leading 308 Ks. Two years later, he became the first Mariner to take home a Cy Young Award. Two years after that, he won 20 games for the first time in his career.

In 1998, with free agency coming, the Mariners traded him to Houston, where he proceeded to spend two months mowing down the entire National League. He started 11 games, won 10 of them, posted a 1.28 ERA and helped the Astros put the finishing touches on their 102-win season. Between Seattle and Houston, he led the Majors with an incredible 329 strikeouts.

In the off-season, he signed a four-year contract worth over $52 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

While the Mariners watched one of the greatest left-handers in the history of the game develop, they also witnessed the rise of a Hall of Fame-caliber infielder. After short stints in Seattle as a teenager, Alex Rodriguez burst onto the scene by winning a batting title as a 20-year-old in 1996. For the next four years he was one of the game’s top players, flashing Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop while hitting like a first baseman.

In 2000, Rodriguez was set to hit free agency at the ripe old age of 24. He ended up in Texas on a 10-year contract worth $252 million; at the time, that was far and away the richest contract in sports history.

Of course, the Rangers found themselves unable to pay Rodriguez a few years later, and so they sent him to the Yankees by trade in the 2003-04 off-season.

In 2001, Jason Giambi was arguably the most feared hitter in the American League. After winning the MVP the year before, he followed up by blasting 38 home runs, leading the league in walks and OBP for a second straight season and making his second straight All-Star squad. He was also just 30 years old, still at his offensive peak.

The small-market A’s couldn’t afford to keep him, of course. He signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Yankees.

In the span of less than a decade, five legitimate superstars, including four inner-circle Hall of Famers, had changed teams at the peaks of their respective careers. What happened?

The 1997 Braves won 101 games. Greg Maddux was worth 7.8 wins above replacement (WAR).

The 1998 Braves won 106 games. Maddux: 6.6 WAR.

The 1998 Astros won 102 games. Randy Johnson: 4.3 WAR.*

The 1999 Diamondbacks won 100 games. Johnson: 9.2 WAR.

The 2002 Braves won 101 games. Maddux: 4.4 WAR.

The 2002 Yankees won 103 games. Jason Giambi: 7.1 WAR.

The 2003 Giants won 100 games. Barry Bonds: 9.2 WAR.

The 2003 Yankees won 101 games. Giambi: 4.8 WAR.

The 2004 Yankees won 101 games. Alex Rodriguez: 7.6 WAR.**

*That’s Johnson’s WAR in his 11 games as an Astro. Including his pitching for the Mariners earlier in the year, he posted a 5.8 mark on the season.

**Giambi was on this team as well, of course, but he was injured and contributed essentially nothing. On the year, he posted -0.1 WAR.

With the possible exception of the ’98 Braves, those nine teams, statistically, would not have reached 100 wins without their superstar free agents. Between them, these five players were responsible for more than half of the 100-win teams in that historic stretch from 1997 to 2004.

Now, acquiring a superstar domestic free agent certainly isn’t the only way to build a 100-win team. The Athletics and Cardinals both did it with homegrown players and trade acquisitions. The ’98 Yankees and ’01 Mariners were historically great because they started with outstanding homegrown cores and added big-time free agents (in New York’s case) or an incredible Japanese import (in Seattle’s case) to make that final push.

It’s possible to build a 100-win team that way, but everything has to break right. The Athletics, for instance, had six outstanding players (Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and the aforementioned Giambi) hit their stride all at the same time; that required tremendous skill on the part of GM Billy Beane and also some pretty incredible luck. The Cardinals likewise enjoyed the peaks of Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and struck gold with a historic run of dominance from Albert Pujols.

It’s much, much easier to build a competitive core and then acquire a free-agent (or free agent-to-be, or recent free agent on a huge contract) superstar to push it over the top, as the Astros did with Johnson and the Yankees did with Giambi and Rodriguez. Alternatively, you can sign a superstar free agent and find the pieces to fill in around him, as the Braves did with Maddux.* The Giants essentially mixed the two approaches; they became a 100-win team immediately after signing Bonds, took a step back, then built around their superstar to become a dominant force in the early ’00s.

A final option is to do what the Diamondbacks did: build a fantastic team entirely out of free agents and salary-dump trade acquisitions. It’s really incredible how quickly they assembled that ’99 squad, though of course they hadn’t been around long enough to build it any other way.

The trouble with all these approaches is that they only work if superstars are hitting free agency. Today, they aren’t.

In the past 12 seasons, 17 different players have won MVP awards. Of those, only seven have changed teams at all since winning their awards. Only four of those changed teams through free agency: Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrerro, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Only one, Tejada, made the jump while still at his peak.

Former Cy Young winners have moved around quite a bit more, but again they’ve typically hit free agency in the twilight of their careers. Pedro Martinez had one good year left when he signed with the Mets. Randy Johnson was 41 and rapidly losing effectiveness when he became a Yankee. Barry Zito crashed and burned as a big-ticket free-agent signing in San Francisco.

In the past 10 years, only two pitchers have won Cy Young awards with teams they joined as free agents, and they were Roger Clemens and Bartolo Colon way back in ’04 and ’05. Likewise, only one free agent signed* in the last decade years has won an MVP with his new club: Vladimir Guerrerro in ’04.

*Here I’m excluding players who reached free agency but ended up returning to their previous teams

A few high-caliber players are still switching teams via free agency, but they’re almost exclusively pitchers. CC Sabathia’s story was remarkably similar to Randy Johnson’s; he won a Cy Young with his original club (the Indians) was traded midseason to a National League team (the Brewers), dominated for two months and signed a lucrative free-agent deal with a different squad (the Yankees). Sabathia’s former teammate, Cliff Lee, also changed teams as a free agent a few years after winning his Cy Young. Both have been effective since (though CC just wrapped up the worst season of his career), but they’re exceptions, not the rule.

Of course, players like Maddux and Bonds were exceptions in their day, but today they’d be impossibilities. Look at the young and youngish players who’ve taken home hardware in the last five years:

Buster Posey: Signed through 2021
Ryan Braun: Signed through 2019
Joey Votto: Signed through 2023
Justin Verlander: Signed through 2019
Felix Hernandez: Signed through 2019
Joe Mauer: Signed through 2018
Dustin Pedroia: Signed through 2021

That’s six MVPs and two Cy Young winners (Verlander won both awards) locked up through their primes and beyond. Another, Clayton Kershaw, is almost certain to get a long-term extension from his team before he hits free agency, and we haven’t even looked at Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki and Andrew McCutchen (who may well win an MVP this year) and a half-dozen other young stars on very long-term contracts.

If Greg Maddux, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds came up today, it’s certain that they’d either sign long-term extensions with their original teams or get traded to teams that could afford to extend them. There’s no way to get a player of that caliber on the open market now.

Free agency isn’t dead, of course. In the American League in particular, a half-dozen free agent acquisitions (Shane Victorino, Adrian Beltre, Hisashi Iwakuma, Hiroki Kuroda, Bartolo Colon and David Ortiz) are playing at All-Star levels. In the NL, the Pirates and Nationals are benefiting greatly from the Russell Martin and Jayson Werth signings, to say nothing of the dozens of former free agents who are now useful role players and regulars.
Still, there’s no longer an easy way to get a superstar. That may not have killed 100-win teams, but they’re back to being a rare breed, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

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