When Super-Teams Fail by Jeff Sullivan February 15, 2018 There is no strict definition of what a super-team is. There’s no cutoff at a certain number of wins, no cutoff at a certain number of standard deviations above the mean. We’re objective people with an analytical bent, so we should probably consider working on this, but for the time being, consider it a “feel” thing. Somewhere, there’s a difference between a super-team, and a team that just plain looks good. We mostly know it when we see it. And it’s been suggested that we’ve entered a super-team era. An era in which there are a number of very clear favorites. This would all be cyclical, and not a permanent state of being, but it’s hard for me to argue with. There are seemingly a number of clear favorites. You know exactly who they are. It’s impressive what they’ve all managed to build, but you could make the case it’s taken some of the thrill out of the offseason, with so many other teams deciding they just can’t keep up. Super-teams have accumulated much of the power. You’ve seen the various preseason projections. They’re all based on prior data, and projections inform the odds. We already know which teams are going to have strong World Series odds in 2018. In the interest of shining the light on uncertainty, though, I thought it could be instructive to examine a few super-team failures. As a reminder of how baseball could surprise, we can look at a few prior surprises. These are teams that looked extremely good. These are teams that fell short. I’ve noted so many times that I have a spreadsheet of preseason team projections going back to 2005. They’re differently sourced, introducing some inconsistencies, but all projections fundamentally work the same. The projections haven’t gotten notably better or worse as time has passed. So here’s all I’ve done. As mentioned, there’s no definition of what a super-team is, but I decided to look at teams with preseason win projections of at least 95. Teams, in other words, projected to finish with records of 95-67 or better. From 2005 through 2017, 12 teams fit. Of that dozen, nine teams made the playoffs. Which means, three teams missed the playoffs. Three teams that could’ve been called super-teams in March. Here are summaries of the three teams. This is nothing exhaustive, mind you; entire books could be written. This is just a quick layout of what took place. 2008 Mets Projected record: 95-67 Actual record: 89-73 BaseRuns record: 90-72 Preseason, division: 9 wins better than closest team Preseason, league: 7 wins better than closest team Actual division: 3 wins worse than best team The 2008 Mets had, barely, baseball’s best preseason projection. The year before, they’d finished 88-74, and that wasn’t tremendous, but then during the offseason they traded for Johan Santana, considered the game’s best starting pitcher. Also, in 2007, the Mets got all of just five starts out of Pedro Martinez. Then he showed up to camp throwing well, saying he felt the best he had in a decade. Articles were written about how the Mets probably had baseball’s best 1-2 punch. And it’s not like the rest of the roster was empty; there was a heck of a position-player core in place. The Mets didn’t really get worse. Willie Randolph was replaced as manager midseason by Jerry Manuel, and, under Manuel, the Mets won 59% of their games. But they just didn’t play well enough for long enough, even though Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Jose Reyes held up their end of the bargain. In 2007, those three combined for 19 WAR. In 2008, they combined for 20. And Santana was outstanding. But there were problems in the bullpen, with Aaron Heilman and Pedro Feliciano. Starter John Maine was injured and worse, and Oliver Perez also saw his performance slip. Probably the biggest blow, though? Pedro posted an ERA of nearly 6. Even though a lot of his missing velocity returned, Pedro was suddenly mortal. That 1-2 punch didn’t materialize. The Mets instead would tread water, while the Phillies again won the division. 2008 Yankees Projected record: 95-67 Actual record: 89-73 BaseRuns record: 87-75 Preseason, division: 3 wins better than closest team Preseason, league: 3 wins better than closest team Actual, division: 8 wins worse than best team The Yankees projected only very slightly worse than the Mets. See, in 2007, they’d gone 94-68, and they scored almost a thousand runs. They had the best preseason team projection in the American League, and the 2008 roster was to look similar. The dynasty was over; the Yankees weren’t always far and away better than everyone else. But this was the Yankees before the brief downturn. There wasn’t supposed to be much of anything wrong. What’s funny is that, compared to 2007, the Yankees’ rotation was better. And the bullpen was much better, as well. If you can believe it, the bullpen improved by five full WAR. But the position players lost 16 WAR between seasons, and I can show you where. In 2007, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, and Robinson Cano combined for 20 WAR. In 2008, those three players combined for 6. Rodriguez was still great, but less so. Meanwhile, Cano’s performance dropped to replacement-level, and Posada’s did as well, mostly thanks to injury. Hideki Matsui also had problems with his knee that hurt his performance, and the Yankees just couldn’t recover from all this. Their position players dropped from ranking second in baseball in WAR to 15th. That was just too great a drop, as the Rays also came to blossom, after years of ramping up. The Yankees wound up in third place in the East. 2015 Nationals Projected record: 95-67 Actual record: 83-79 BaseRuns record: 90-72 Preseason, division: 14 wins better than closest team Preseason, league: 3 wins better than closest team Actual, division: 7 wins worse than best team Here’s the most recent, most memorable, and most dramatic failure. The Mets and the Yankees were still all right. The Nationals, according to BaseRuns, were also all right, but in reality they only barely eclipsed the .500 mark. In 2014, under the same manager — Matt Williams — the Nationals went 96-66. Then management added free-agent Max Scherzer. The Nationals had also traded for Trea Turner and Joe Ross. I remember this preseason pretty well. The Nationals looked like one of the best teams imaginable. The NL East was a foregone conclusion. Bryce Harper seemed poised to win a World Series. What could possibly happen? The bullpen was hurt by the departure of Tyler Clippard. Tanner Roark wasn’t very effective, and Stephen Strasburg spent some time on the disabled list. That doesn’t seem to really capture the story, though. In this year, Harper had one of the best seasons of all-time. It was his breakout, his direct threat to Mike Trout’s supremacy. Harper seemed to become a surefire Hall-of-Famer before our very eyes. And yet Harper’s efforts were essentially wasted. In 2014, Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, and Denard Span combined for 20 WAR. In 2015, they combined for 4. Span had injury problems. So did Werth and Rendon. Desmond simply slumped. Throw in all the talk about clubhouse discord and you have a team that just went off the rails. This, while the Mets built around their healthy young pitching. In hindsight, BaseRuns does make the Nationals look better than it seemed, but they were more or less shoved out of the division race by the end of August. Relatively speaking, the 2015 Nationals were a catastrophe. ===== And so these are our three failures. They’re not the only three such failures — the 2006 Cardinals went from 94 projected wins to 83 actual wins (except lol they don’t count), and more significantly the 2005 Dodgers went from 92 projected wins to 71 actual wins. They’re also failures of different degrees, with two of the three teams still ending up with win totals in the upper 80s. Even the nightmarish 2015 Nationals remained above .500, despite, you know, everything. The thing about super-teams is that they’re strong and deep, able to withstand a number of blows. But the other thing about super-teams is that they’re vulnerable. Each and every one of them, for reasons that, in the preseason, can be hard to envision. The odds are what the odds are. The preseason odds are never 100%. It’s something to keep in mind, should you ever find that baseball feels too predictable. It never really is.