Sunday, January 30, 2005

centi grades

the cards are coming off their first 100-win season in 20 years, and only their third since world war 2. let me repeat that: in the last 60 years, the cards have topped 100 wins only three times.

just for the sake of comparison, the atlanta braves only have to go back to 1999 to count their last three 100-win seasons, and they’ve done it six times since 1993. but then, before 1993 the franchise had gone ninety-five years—back to 1898—without a single 100-win campaign. the oakland a’s have won 100 twice in the 21st century and four times in the last 16 seasons — but prior to that they’d accomplished the feat just once in more than half a century. the baltimore orioles did it five times in a span of 12 seasons (1969-80), but never before or since. the proud and successful los angeles dodgers haven’t had a 100-win campaign since 1974; the boston red sox since 1946. the pittsburgh pirates have won three world titles and made 10 postseason appearances since 1960 without once winning in triple digits; they last did so in 1909, on a team captained by honus wagner.

suffice it to say that 100-win teams are special. i’ve been looking at them as a group to see what they tell us about the cardinals’ prospects for 2005 and beyond.

first, a look at the cards’ last two 100-game winners, the 1985 and 1967 editions. both teams remained relatively intact for the following season; the ’67 cards returned all 8 position starters and all five starting pitchers, and they won 97 games in ’68 and another pennant. the ’85 team made offseason changes at catcher (mike heath replacing darrell porter) and in the rotation (booting wacky jack andujar and kurt kepshire), not a major facelift — but a rash of injuries and a demoralizing april sweep at the hands of the rival new york mets ruined the season, and the ’86 cards slid to 79 wins, finishing 29 games out of first place.

that 79-win performance is the worst follow-up season for any 100-win team since the divisional era began in 1969. over that span of 36 seasons there have been 41 100-win teams in the major leagues, and only two — the ’85 cards and ’70 cincinnati reds — won as few as 79 games the next year. the ’93 giants would likely have joined that group had the ’94 season been played all the way through; at the time of the strike they were 55-60.

at the other end of the range, the 1969 baltimore orioles followed their 109-win season with 108 wins in 1970 — one of 12 teams to follow one 100-win season with a second. here’s the complete "bell curve" of post-100-win performance, with win totals from strike-shortened seasons (e.g., the ’94 giants) extrapolated to 162 games:

total teams: 41
12 won 100+ games the next year
9 won 95-99 games
8 won 90-94 games
9 won 81-90 games
3 won fewer than 81 games
24 made the playoffs

so roughly 70 percent of all 100-win teams (29 of 41) win at least 90 the next year, and roughly 60 percent go to the playoffs. if we only look at the three-division era, with its watered-down playoff threshold, the numbers are more encouraging: 15 of 16 100-win teams won at least 90 games the following year, and 13 appeared in the playoffs. two franchises — the atlanta braves and new york yankees — account for 9 of the 16 100-win seasons since ’95, but if we eliminate them the ratios don’t change appreciably; of the remaining seven teams, six won 90+ games. however, three of the seven teams (43 percent) missed the playoffs.

those three teams — the 1999 arizona dbacks, 2001 seattle mariners, and 2003 sf giants — share a couple of int'sting traits that the 04 cardinals also possessed. first of all, two of the three posted enormous gains over their previous-year win totals — the 99 dbacks improved by 35 games, the 93 mariners by 27. the 04 cardinals, likewise, were 20 games better than the year before. this is significant — since 1969 only five 100-win teams were higher than +20 over the previous year, and four of them missed the playoffs the following year. their average win total in the post-100-win season was 87. . . . . on the other hand, five teams were either +17 or +18, and four of the five made the playoffs (the lone exception being the ’85 cards). all four of those who did return won 97 games or better. the cards, at +20, sit right on the cusp of these two clusters.

second, two of the three teams significantly outpaced their pythagorean w-l projections (for the uninitiated, the pythagorean w-l is based on the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed). both the the 03 giants and 01 mariners were 7 games ahead of their pythagorean projections; the cardinals beat pythagorus by 5 games. this too is meaningful: since ’69, 100-game winners who beat the pythagorean w-l by 5 games or more decline by an average of 12.2 games the following season; teams that are within four games of pythagorus decline by only 7.6 games the next year. year-after win totals for these categories average 92 and 95, respectively.

side note: the 2004 yankees outpaced their pythagorean projection by a whopping 12 games, suggesting they are primed for a serious fall. but the add’n of randy johnson may counteract that . . . . one more example of why one can’t use a $250 million team as a basis for comparison.

coming next: what the 2004 cardinals can learn from the 1988 oakland athletics.