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go 4th and prosper

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pitchers and catchers report in two days; the cardinals will actually play a game in two weeks, against florida atlantic university. and this weekend, i'll start posting results for the all-time sim tournament. if anybody wants to fill out a bracket ahead of time to call the winners, you can download one here. it's a simple Excel file --- thanks to Zubin for creating that document. fill in the blanks and rename the file to "yourscreenname.xls" --- then e-mail it to cardinal70, who has graciously offered to keep track of things. his e-mail is we'll score 'em on the escalating-points system --- 1 point for calling a 1st-round winner, 2 points for the 2d, 3 points for the 3d, etc. brackets are due friday; the winner will get a prize to be determined.

last off-season, with the cardinals coming off their 2d consecutive 100-win season, i wrote a post about recent back-to-back 100-game winners. the 2004-05 cardinals were only the 13th team to win 100 two years in a row in baseball's divisional era (ie, since 1969); in 2006, they became the first such team to win a world championship in year 3 --- ie, the year after the two 100-win seasons. this despite posting the worst year 3 record among the 13 teams. their trajectory traces that of the 1970-1972 baltimore orioles:

1970-72 orioles 2004-06 cards
108-54 (.667) 105-57 (.648)
101-57 (.639) 100-62 (.617)
80-74 (.519) 83-78(.516)

the 1972 orioles' season was shortened by the strike; assume a 4-4 record in the missing 8 games, and their record projects to 84-78, essentially the same as the 2006 cardinals'. for what little it's worth --- and it may not be much, but it's february 12 here, folks --- i decided to see how the orioles fared in year 4: did they bounce back to 100-win form, or stay mired in 80-win territory? to add a little more weight to the inquiry, i decided to look at all the 100-win x2 teams who dropped to 90 wins or less in year 3. that gives us four precedents: the 1970-1972 orioles, 1975-77 reds, 1976-78 phillies, and 1977-79 yankees. and to broaden the context a bit more, i'll add a 5th team with a very similar profile to that of the 2004-06 cardinals: the la russa-managed 1989-91 oakland athletics, who fell 1 win shy of 100-win x2 status and then, in year 3, stumbled to 84 wins. raw data:

team year 1 year 2 year 3 year 4 place yr4 +/-
1970-72 orioles 108-54 101-57 80-74 97-65 1st +13 games*
1975-77 reds 108-54 102-60 88-74 92-69 2d +4 games
1976-78 phils 101-61 101-61 90-72 84-78 4th -6 games
1977-79 yankees 100-62 100-63 89-71 103-59 1st +14 games
1989-91 athletics 99-63 103-59 84-78 96-66 1st +12 games
2004-06 cardinals 105-57 100-62 83-78

the asterisk on the orioles' line indicates that their +/- calculation is calibrated to a 162-game season; in raw terms they were +17 wins, but their pro-rated gain was +13.

cardinal fans should find considerable solace in this table. three of the five teams rebounded by at least 10 wins in year 4 and won their division; that's encouraging. more encouraging still, four of these teams went on to win their divisions in year 5. so they all continued playing at a high level. let's' take a quick look at each of these examples to see what went wrong in year 3, and how the teams responded in year 4:

1970-72 orioles
what went wrong in year 3? they stopped hitting. the #3 hitter from the 100-win teams, frank robinson, got traded to the dodgers in 1972, and the other robinson (brooks) abruptly got old; their team hr total fell from 158 in 1971 to 100 in 1972, and they fell from 1st the league in scoring to 8th.
how'd they respond in year 4? they turned to young hitters. al bumbry hit .337 for the o's in 1973 and won rookie of the year. another rookie, rich coggins, hit .319 / .363 / .468 in part-time duty, and 24-year-old sophomores don baylor and bobby grich began to realize their potential. the youthful orioles changed the complexion of the offense; old and power-oriented from 1969-1972, they became great base stealers in 1973, leading the league with 146 thefts. they swiped 145 the following year and defended their al east title.

1975-77 reds
what went wrong in year 3? their pitching fell apart. much like the 2004-05 cardinals, the 1975-76 reds built their staff around mid-rotation arms such as gary nolan, jack billingham, and pat zachary, with an ace (don gullett) at the top of the rotation and a versatile bullpen propping things up. but gullett left for the yankees in 1977; nolan and billingham both flamed out; zachary (the 1976 rookie of the year) had a terrible sophomore slump, and replacement starters woody fryman and mario soto flopped. the reds could still hit (2d in the league in scoring), but their runs-allowed total ballooned by 92.
how'd they respond in year 4? they got lucky. cincinnati's pitching improved by about 50 runs in 1978, but joe morgan showed his age, the bench was abysmal, and the reds' run total dropped by 92. accordingly, their run differential shrunk from +77 in 1977 to +22 in 1978 --- yet the reds somehow increased their win total to 92. (their pythagorean record was just 83-78.) relief pitcher dave tomlin was the luckiest bastard on the team, posting a 9-1 record with a 5.78 era in 57 games. . . .

1976-78 phillies
what went wrong in year 3? they got unlucky. philadelphia's pythagorean record in 1978 was 95-67, just a slight dropoff from the previous year's pythagorean (98-64); they finished 3d in runs scoring and 2d in runs allowed, and their 90-72 record was sufficient for a 3d straight division title.
how'd they respond in year 4? they got worse. the phillies' era ballooned to 10th in the national league in 1979, mainly because of a total collapse in the bullpen. their offense went flabby too, despite the addition of pete rose. the 1979 phils actually weren't even as good as their 84-78 record suggests; they got outscored by 35 runs and should have been a sub-.500 team.

1977-79 yankees
what went wrong in year 3? they stopped hitting. thurman munson died in a plane crash, leaving a void in the middle of the lineup. nobody on the team had a particularly dreadful slump, but the bench was weak and guys like chris chambliss and lou piniella didn't have their best years. the high-priced, star-studded yankee lineup finished 10th in the league in scoring in 1979.
how'd they respond in year 4? the bats came back. 9 yankees finished in double digits in homers in 1980. rick cerone had a career year as munson's replacement, and willie randolph finished 2d in the league in OBP.

1989-91 athletics
what went wrong in year 3? the pitching fell into disarray. much as he did in 2006, tony la russa in 1991 placed his faith in reliable veteran pitchers and got burned. his two horses, dave stewart and bob welch, posted eras of 5.18 and 4.58, respectively; two vets added at midseason, ron darling and andy hawkins, were only marginally more effective. the overtaxed bullpen suffered accordingly, and the athletics --- after leading the league in era for three consecutive seasons --- fell all the way to 13th place in 1991.
how'd they respond in year 4? the veterans bounced back. stewart, welch, and darling all returned to form in 1992. the staff wasn't dominant, finishing 4th in the league in era, but it still improved by 102 runs. the athletics were also pretty lucky that year --- their pythagorean record was only 89-73 (vs a 96-66 actual mark), and they had the league's best record despite finishing only 4th in runs scored and 7th in runs allowed.

are there any common threads that run through these 5 stories? let's take a shot at it. with the exception of the orioles, all of these teams had lineups anchored by at least one transcendent player --- bench / morgan, mike schmidt, reggie jackson, canseco / mcgwire. and all had a bona fide ace pitcher --- jim palmer, tom seaver, steve carlton, ron guidry, dave stewart. the other common thing seems to be that every dramatic collapse --- whether by pitchers or hitters --- proved to be a one-year aberration. the oriole and yankee offenses jumped right back to the top of the league in year 4; the oakland pitching staff corrected itself after its collapse, and the red pitchers improved by 50 runs in 1978. i'll also note that the phillie staff, which fell flat in year 4, got back on its feet in year 5, delivering a pennant and a world championship.

so there's ample precedent to suggest that the cardinals can (even should) bounce back strong from last year's 83-win performance. that doesn't mean it's foreordained, of course; but it also wouldn't be such a shock if they were to find their way to 95 wins.