Thursday, October 11, 2012

Playoff Team Construction

 As you might have noticed, the Astros didn’t make the playoffs this year. Oh, so close. Obviously, the goal of all fans is to see their team win it all, and for that, you need to construct a team that will make it to the second season. After that, it’s a crapshoot.  Just ask Billy Beane. As we get ready to watch a slate full of meaningful Astroless games, once again, let’s take a look at how each of the 8 teams that made the playoffs were constructed,  to see which model the Astros should take to get them back to their rightful place. Rankings from the worst model to the best.


The Orioles were 29-9 in one run games this year. They went 16-2 in extra innings. They outscored their opponents by only 7 runs, and exceeded their Pythagorean record by 11 wins. Not to take anything away from them. They are in, and they have as good a shot as anyone.  If someone can figure out exactly HOW they did it, and a way to replicate it, the Orioles path to the playoffs seems like the way to go. I mean, that’s easier than actually taking the time to get good. Until then, let’s maybe try a different way.


The Yankees path to the playoffs is essentially to be the Yankees. The Red Sox tried to be the Yankees, with varying degrees of success. The Dodgers are currently a couple months into trying to be the Yankees, and the early returns are not promising. Something tells me the Astros, who have questioned whether hiring a certain broadcaster is in their budget, won’t be taking the “be the Yankees” path anytime soon.


Tigers’ path:
  1. Acquire the best pitcher in baseball
  2. Acquire the best hitter in baseball
  3.  ?????
  4.  Profit
That is obviously an oversimplification, as they got great seasons out of Austin Jackson, Prince Fielder and Max Scherzer. But they are definitely taking a stars and scrubs approach to team building. That works when your stars are Cabrera and Verlander. Maybe Correa and McCullers could be that for the Astros, but I think a better bet would be a more balanced approach.


The Giants have had a consistent run of success based primarily on their young starting pitching. They drafted Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner, and that trio led them to the World Series in 2010.The offense has typically lagged behind, and this year was no different, although the offense saw improvement with the rise to MVP status of Buster Posey. They caught lightening in a bottle with their young pitchers, but that is always a risky proposition. If the Astros were able to get pitchers of that caliber through the draft, I’d be all for it. However, TINSTAAPP (There is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect), which is why I was thrilled with the pick of Correa over Appel in this year’s draft. 


For whatever reason, the Reds have been unable to find any consistency. They won the division two years ago, with 91 wins, dropped below .500 last year, and returned to 97 wins this year. I can’t figure this team out, and I have nothing interesting to say. There are better ways to build a team, but there are worse ones too. Next team, please.


Ah, the sabermetric darlings of baseball, immortalized in Moneyball, the book and movie. Win by exploiting market inefficiencies on a limited payroll, and then get beat at your own game by teams exploiting the same inefficiencies with a bigger payroll. They are back, and this time with an all-rookie pitching staff and their best offensive players a castoff from Boston and a Cuban rookie. They are absolutely a model for making the most of limitations, and making the playoffs against all odds. Thing is, Houston is not a small market, and should be able to combine the A’s smarts with a little bit of money.   


The Cardinals are a model franchise. They have finished below .500 once in the last ten years, making the playoffs 9 times since 2000, and winning the World Series twice. They have replenished their team through the draft, despite not drafting particularly high. They have supplemented with smart free agent acquisitions, without overly burdening their future. They experienced a small drop off with the loss of Pujols, but not enough to keep them out of the playoffs. (They actually had a better run differential this year than last, FWIW). They are a lot like the kid in college who knows exactly what he needs to do to make an A, and does no more and no less. (Okay, that kid was me.) You’ll let us win the division with 83 wins. Okay – we’ll win the World Series. We need to win the wild card, and it will take an epic collapse from the team we are chasing? Okay – we’ll win the World Series. You will add a 2nd Wild Card, and we’ll need to play a play-in game on the road? Okay – you see where this is going. If the Astros can emulate the long term success of this franchise, everyone will be happy. I choose to give Luhnow 100% credit for all of the Cardinals' success, and am sure he will be able to duplicate that run in Houston in a couple years. So why are they number 2?


After a couple mediocre seasons, team loses 100 games two years in a row, and as a result picks first in the next two draft. Sound familiar. That was Nationals in 2008 and 2009. After losing 81, 91 and 89 games, the bottom dropped out and they lost 102 and 103 in consecutive seasons. That afforded them generational talents in Harper and Strasburg, and combined with several other smart acquisitions, got them in the playoffs as the number 1 seed in the NL just three years later. They are an example of how the draft system is supposed to work, and how you don’t have to get stuck in the same rut teams like the Pirates and Royals have been in for so long. Maybe the Astros won’t be on the same time table, but the Nationals are proof that we could be watching the Astros play these meaningful September games, and sooner rather than later.