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After the Miracle: Surveying MLB's great comeback teams

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A few days ago I linked yet another tedious post claiming that the 2007 Rockies were a fluke never to be repeated, that the team was merely mediocre before its run and it will return to its perch of mediocrity in coming seasons and blah blah whatever. Alright, so if this fluke theory is true, it would make sense to me that there would be historical precedent to it. That one would be able to point to those teams which made inspiring charges down the stretch and find that their success wasn't duplicated in nearby seasons, thus proving that they were the Chumbawamba's of their time.

Last October, Nate Silver of used the site's probability models to rate the all time best comeback teams (paid subscription required) with the 2007 Rockies ranking number five overall. For those comebacks made with less than 20 games to go, the Rox ranked number three to two St Louis Cardinals squads. Here are the top eleven with less than twenty left to play as Silver rated them:

  1. 1934 Cardinals
  2. 1964 Cardinals
  3. 2007 Rockies
  4. 1951 Giants
  5. 1908 Cubs
  6. 1965 Dodgers
  7. 1973 Mets
  8. 2004 Astros
  9. 1982 Braves
  10. 1959 Dodgers
  11. 1962 Giants
On average the ten non-Rockies comebacks tallied 93.6 wins in their miracle years. The following seasons, the teams averaged 88.5 wins. That might not seem to bode well, but what is more important to me as a Rockies fan is the teams' performance for four or five years after the comeback (or in some of these cases before) as individual seasons will have all sorts of unpredictable variables. You just can't expect to win every year unless you're blessed to be in a weak division. The Rockies are not so blessed, so I just want to find out how to identify the flukes from the for-reals. I'm going to also layer the four teams that were included in Silver's all time comeback list but not among the buzzer beaters. At first, I'll just separate them out using Baseball Reference's League Index as a very blunt instrument. If the team was a legit contender, I would expect to see another pennant in the five year period following the comeback. If I don't see another flag for the team in that timespan, I'll put them in the flash in the pan category:

Perennial Contenders?:

1964 Cardinals
1951 Giants
1908 Cubs
1965 Dodgers
2004 Astros
1959 Dodgers
1978 Yankees
1984 Royals

Flashes in the Pan?:

1934 Cardinals
1973 Mets
1982 Braves
1962 Giants
2003 Marlins
1914 Braves

Alright, this is somewhat encouraging. Six out of ten of baseball's great late late season comebacks and eight out of fourteen of the great comebacks overall would go on to win a pennant in one of the five seasons following their first run. Of the four that don't, the 1962 Giants clearly don't belong in the flash category as they actually were part of a great winning and durable -but largely undecorated- squad in San Francisco in the 1960's. That said, a couple of the teams -the 2004 Astros and 1984 Royals and 1934 Cardinals- that are in the "legit" category had just one subsequent season of success before taking a tailspin, should I discount them? Closer inspection says no as well, as the Royals were nearing the end of a dominant stretch in the early eighties, much like the 1934 Cardinals squad came at the end of a good stretch for them. Similarly, the Astros averaged nearly ninety wins in the three seasons leading up to their 2004 and 2005 miracles. So who should we label as flash-in-the-pans, then? I'm going to label them this way: two seasons of success (greater than 85 wins) or less around the comeback year, surrounded by seasons of mediocrity (less than 85 wins) or worse. The new standard would make the lists look this way:

Perennial Contenders:

1964 Cardinals
1951 Giants
1908 Cubs
1965 Dodgers
1959 Dodgers
1978 Yankees
1984 Royals
1962 Giants
1934 Cardinals
2004 Astros

Flashes in the Pan:

1973 Mets
1982 Braves
2003 Marlins
1914 Braves

All of the teams in the top besides the Giants had a pennant in a nearby non-comeback season. All of the teams in the bottom had just one playoff season before falling back into obscurity. I feel better about this, the good news for the Rockies is that ten out of fourteen of baseball's great single season comebacks were part of a much larger success cycle for their teams, the bad news is that the two most recent examples weren't. Let's focus on the small window group for a moment to see what we can derive:

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1914 Braves: When you're talking about a team that had two players named Possum and Rabbit, you can see that the comparisons to a modern club might be tenuous. However, much like the Rockies, this was a team that got to the World Series by having a standout defensive unit make up ground for an average-ish offensive unit. The '14 Braves weren't that old, but it seems they could have been a more stable contender with a couple more elite players and not so many merely average ones.

Similarities to the Rockies: Read this post at Management by Baseball about the way Gentleman George Stallings constructed his team:

First, there was the natural law of supply. Stallings had no competition for marginal players with one or two very positive aptitudes; competitors were looking for all-around talent. So Gentleman George was free to browse at his leisure through he remainder pile, looking for players who had specific skills that complemented the skills the players already on his roster had. But once others noted the utility of platooning, it was more like Filene's basement -- a lot of stock, most of it useless, but a surprising number of valuable things and a horde of aggressive people competing to get them.

While Stallings is credited with being the first to realize the benefits of platooning, the Rockies have built much of their success around a similar bargain basement approach. Kaz Matsui, Jorge Julio, Matt Herges, Rodrigo Lopez and LaTroy Hawkins were all close to freely available when the Rockies picked them up. That said, so were Ramon Ortiz, Steve Finley and John Mabry. Kip Wells, Josh Towers and Marcus Giles were similarly out of demand this winter as well. I think where the Rockies rise above these Braves is in the level of talent we're getting from our own farm system. While we're once again exploiting the bulk aisle and the dollar stores, we're also making our own artisan work to go along with it.

1973 Mets This team won the NL with only 82 wins, so you can see right away that there could be some question about their long term viability. In 1974 they'd drop to 71 wins. Outside of Tom Seaver, there just weren't any stars on this team, and when your best players are only mediocre, you just shouldn't expect too much. Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca made his MLB debut with the 1973 team, so he could probably tell you more. 1976 would see the overachieving Mets make one final stab at hope and faith with 86 wins before the Amazin's would become cellar dwellers for the next seven seasons. There just wasn't enough depth to fill in the several weak areas on the team. This squad reminds me a lot of the Cardinals of a couple years ago.

Similarities to the Rockies: None, really, except for Apodaca. The Rockies are a much more balanced team with a deeper bench and pitching staff.

1982 Braves Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Chris Chambliss and a decent young pitching staff led this team to the NLCS that year, but they never got any further than that. 1983 would see them have the NL's best run differential, but they'd be kept out of the playoffs by the Dodgers. Horner's promising career would get derailed by injuries and then much of the lineup besides the Murph and Claudell Washington would crater in 1984. Dale's career too would decline shortly thereafter and the Braves would be in dire straits until John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Terry Pendleton came to their rescue in the nineties.

Similarities to the Rockies: Both teams seem to have several "very good" players with few, if any that enter HOF caliber discussions. I think this Braves squad shows the dangers of getting too attached to young defensive players without a lot of offensive upside. Sure the Bruce Benedict's, Glenn Hubbard's and Raffy Ramirez's of the world look good on the highlight reels, but having so many offensive liabilities eventually leaves a team very vulnerable if other positions underperform, like third base would for Atlanta until Pendleton came along. Left field also would go down the drain for the Braves.

2003 Marlins: Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, Derrek Lee, Pudge Rodriguez, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and also a very young Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis came back after an early season managerial change. Jack McKeon would guide the Fish all the way to the World Series title before the powers that be in Florida decided to blow up the team. The pentannual Marlin blow up has become a strange marker for new generations in baseball, but the only reason the 2003 Marlins team didn't contend for the next few years was because it ceased to exist as the same squad almost as soon as the trophy came back to Miami.

Similarities to the Rockies: If it wasn't for Tim Harikkala, Mark Redman would have been the oldest guy to start a game for both teams. How's that for odd trivia. The sole reason the Marlins didn't have a longer run of success was its ruthlessly greedy ownership. The more things change... anyway, even their harshest critics would have to admit that the Monfort's are at least a couple of rungs above that on the greed ladder.

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Okay, this post is already too long so I've decided to break it up into a couple of sections, but let me recap what this stroll through history has shown me so far:

  1. Most (10 out of 14) of baseball's great comeback teams had an additional two seasons or more (besides the comeback year) of contention within a five season window of the comeback season.
  2. The teams' aggregate OPS+ plus ERA+ seems to sift the pretenders from the contenders just as well -with only the 1984 Royals squad dropping to pretender status. Of the pretenders, only the 2003 Marlins team that was broken up following their win had a combined total over 205, 200 would be a perfectly average team. You can see that the Rockies are in the middle of the pack, but squarely in contender territory:
    1982 Atlanta Braves 198
    1973 New York Mets 199
    1984 Kansas City Royals 201
    1914 Boston Braves 203
    1959 Los Angeles Dodgers 207
    2003 Florida Marlins 208
    1965 Los Angeles Dodgers 209
    2004 Houston Astros 211
    1964 St Louis Cardinals 212
    2007 Colorado Rockies 214
    1908 Chicago Cubs 216
    1962 San Francisco Giants 218
    1978 New York Yankees 219
    1934 St. Louis Cardinals 220
    1951 New York Giants 227

  3. Silver's research cut off at 1900 apparently, but just nine years before that a comeback that was even more similar to the Rockies took place as the 1891 Boston Beaneaters (who would become the Braves) went 18-1 in the final nineteen games of the season, losing only the last game of the year to overtake the Chicago Colts (who would become the Cubs). Boston would go on to win titles the following two seasons as well, and amass a total of five in eight years.

It's become clear to me that if anything, a comeback of the magnitude that the Rockies made last year typically signifies that the team is worthy of the big stage. Of the four squads that doesn't seem to be the case with, one was dismantled, and the other three had zero depth. Colorado doesn't appear to be in this class. For part two I'm going to look at the ten teams with wider windows of success and see which the Rockies align best with.