Nothing breeds optimism like success.
I grew up in Kansas City, and spent much of my childhood, my adolescence, and my adulthood deeply obsessed with the Kansas City Royals. In 1980, the Royals won 97 games and took the American League pennant. I thought for sure the Royals would win again in 1981.
Instead they went 50-53.
The blind optimism of a child dies hard, though. When the Royals actually won the World Series in 1985, I thought for sure they would win again in 1986.
Instead they went 76-86.
I think I did actually learn my lesson that time, but by then I was a college student and double-majoring in cynicism and knowing-it-all (fortunately, I didn't earn a degree in either subject).
All of which I bring up only to suggest that I can empathize with the fans of the eight teams that reached the postseason last season, all of whom are just 100-percent sure their teams will do it again.
When I started thinking about this, I wondered how many teams actually do repeat, from one season to the next. What do you think? My guess was roughly half.
From 2001 through 2010, 80 teams qualified for the championship tournament.
Half of them did it again the next season.
I mean, exactly half: 40.
Don't you love it when a plan comes together?
A few specifics ...
- There wasn't a league-season in which all four postseason teams were repeaters.
- There was just one league-season in which nobody repeated; in 2007, all four postseason teams in the National League were "new".
- As you might expect, there were more repeaters in the American League (23) than the National League (17) ... which can largely be attributed to the Yankees, who repeated nine times.
- Combining the league-seasons into MLB-seasons, the most common result is four repeaters, which happened five times. Then it's five repeaters twice, and one season each for six repeaters, three, and one.
The upshot of all this is that your playoff team has roughly a 50/50 shot of getting back to the playoffs this season.
Well, except for two caveats. History suggests that the 50/50 rule does not apply to the New York Yankees. And if Commissioner Bud is able to implement his favored postseason format in 2012 -- Selig is reportedly "very hopeful" -- then obviously the odds change, and significantly. Just not significantly to avoid disappointing a lot of optimistic fans of teams that won last year.
So if we're stuck on eight postseason teams, we're like to see three or four 2011 postseason teams not make it back this season. And I think even if we move to 10 postseason teams, three or four non-repeaters is still the most likely outcome, but with the scale shifting toward three.
With all that in mind, here are the eight teams trying to make it back this season:
What do you think? Who's not going to be there next October?
Let's run through them quickly, and at the end maybe there will be a poll or something.
Brewers - Problems, right? Prince Fielder is gone, and Ryan Braun is probably gone for 50 games while serving his suspension. The Brewers did sign Aramis Ramirez to play third base, and it looks like triple-A slugger Mat Gamel's going to get a shot at replacing Fielder at first base.
There are other reasons for pessimism. The Brewers won 96 games last season, but with the run differential of a 90-win team. As you know, run differentials predict future records better than past records predict future records. Also, the Cardinals reloaded this winter, while the Reds are clearly going all-out in 2012. The Cubs and Astros aren't going to compete for the division title, but they'll be better than they were a year ago, which will make a Wild Card berth tougher to come by for NL Central clubs.
Cardinals - They lost Albert Pujols, but gain Carlos Beltran and Adam Wainwright. Not to mention full (or fuller) seasons from Rafael Furcal and David Freese. It's far from clear what the losses of manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan will mean.
Diamondbacks - The Plexiglass Principle, first noted by Bill James in the 1930s, suggests that teams that make a Great Leap Forward (GLF) in one season tend to fall back the next season.*
* Yes, this is just another term for regression to the mean, and it happens to almost everything and everybody.
In 2010, the Diamondbacks went 65-97. In 2011, the Diamondbacks went 94-68.
This is 1) amazing, 2) hard to maintain, and 3) an example of why it's so hard to repeat. There were any number of reasons why the World Series-winning 2010 Giants didn't even return to the playoffs in 2011, but one of them was that the Diamondbacks played so well.
Typically, we would expect Arizona to regress, and we probably will. But with the exception of catcher Miguel Montero, none of the Diamondbacks' every-day players had particularly out-of-character seasons. The rotation was probably over its head some, but Trevor Cahill's been added to the mix this winter. I do expect the bullpen to regress.
Phillies - They've reached the playoffs in five straight seasons, so perhaps we should just skip ahead to our next candidate ... Except there are some issues here. Left field is unsettled. Ryan Howard might miss half the season, or he might miss all of it. Roy Oswalt is gone, leaving the Phillies with three Cy Young candidates (which, granted, is still a lot of Cy Young candidates. And all those veteran infielders are yet another year older.
Rangers - It's hard to not love the Rangers, who lost C. J. Wilson but gained Yu Darvish. There's just about nothing wrong with this team, except they could use a better-hitting first baseman than the one they've got.
Rays - Everybody always says the Rays can't keep doing it, and they keep doing it. Carlos Pena's reclaimed his old spot at first base, and Matt Moore is the American League's top Rookie of the Year candidate. The Rays haven't lost any key players. You can't expect them to reach the playoffs, exactly. But they're in the mix.
Tigers - Just so you know, the Tigers were good candidates for regression before Victor Martinez went down with a serious knee injury. Yes, they went 95-67. But they outscored their opponents by only 76 runs. Those numbers won't show up together again this season. Also, I know Justin Verlander is really excellent but come on, he's not going to go 24-5 again. Having Doug Fister around for the whole season will help, but how much?
Of course, the Tigers do benefit from playing in the American League Central, which they won by 15 games last year. Who's going to challenge them this year? The second-place Indians were outscored by 56 runs, the third-place White Sox by 52. The Royals are still short a good starting pitcher, or maybe four. And the Twins? Hey, if Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer and seven other guys play a lot better than last year, they might become relevant once more. But even without Martinez, the Tigers are still the favorites entering the season.
Here's my ranking, in order of greatest likelihood of not returning to the postseason next fall ...
What do you think? We have a poll, and a whole comments section. It's Saturday in January! What else are you going to do?