A common sentiment after the Nationals completed their offseason signing closer Rafael Soriano is that the Nats are even better this season than they were in 2012 when they won an MLB best 98 games. With a trade for a leadoff centerfielder in Denard Span, re-signing slugger Adam LaRoche, signing starter Dan Haren, and the aforementioned Soriano signing, it is a difficult point to deny. Now if the Nats are truly better it isn’t a stretch to think they can win even more game this season. But just how difficult is it to win more games the season after leading Major League Baseball in wins?
In fact since the start of the modern era, 1901, only 16 teams who have amassed the most wins in baseball have exceed their total the following season. Those 16 teams are: the 2010-11 Philadelphia Phillies (97 then 102 wins), the 1997-98 Atlanta Braves (101 then 106 wins), the 1992-93 Braves (98 then 104 wins), the 1989-90 Oakland A’s (99 then 103 wins), the 1960-61 New York Yankees (97 then 109 wins), the 1956-57 Yankees (97 then 98 wins), the 1952-53 Brooklyn Dodgers (96 then 105 wins), the 1949-50 Yankees (97 then 98 wins), the 1941-42 Yankees (101 then 103 wins), the 1938-39 Yankees (99 then 106 wins), the 1930-31 Philadelphia A’s (102 then 107 wins), the 1926-27 Yankees (91 then 110 wins), the 1922-23 Yankees (94 then 98 wins), the 1908-09 Chicago Cubs ( 99 then 104 wins), the 1903-04 Boston Americans (91 then 95 wins), and the 1901-02 Pittsburgh Pirates (90 then 103 wins).
There are some observations that immediately jump out. For one the Yankees accomplished this feat an incredible seven times and as a whole only eight different franchises have accomplished this feat, a surprisingly small concentration. Another interesting fact was that four times the team didn’t lead the majors in wins in the second season, despite increasing their win total over the year before when they did. In terms of playoff success there were five World Series Champions, seven pennant winners, and one LCS champion in the second season. Finally, counting teams who tied for the lead in wins there were 120 teams who lead the majors in wins in this period, which means only 13% of those teams increased their win total the following season.
I’d like to quickly make mention of some interesting special cases that I ran into during my research. These teams don’t qualify under the given parameters, but do give more context to the difficulty of accomplishing this feat. First off, there were two strikes in recent baseball history in 1981 and 1994. Interestingly, the two teams who won the most games those years, the Cincinnati Reds and the Montreal Expos, did not even reach their strike-shortened win total the following season. The strike of ’81 shortened the season to just 111 games and the Reds won 66, while in the following full 162 game season the Reds only managed 61 wins. The strike of ’94 shortened the season to 117 games and the Expos won 74 games, and then followed that up with just 66 wins in a 145 game season.
Another interesting group was the two franchises who both won over 100 games and lead the majors in wins for three seasons in a row, but never won more games than they did in a previous season. The first was the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals who won 106, 105, and 105 games. The second was the 1969-71 Baltimore Orioles who won 109, 108, and 101 games. These two teams accomplished more than some of the teams that fit the criteria, but alas never improved their win total. So we now know just how remarkably difficult accomplishing this feat is, but what can we learn from these teams and how does it apply to the Nats?
To start with, 13 of these teams outperformed their Pythagorean record in the first year, by an average of 3.3 wins. This is good news for the Nats since in 2012 they also outperformed their Pythagorean record by a comparable two wins. In the second year five teams performed exactly to their Pythagorean record, while seven over-performed by an average of 4.7 wins. So not only did these teams win more games, but they also performed even better statistically than the season prior.
When you dive deeper into the team stats a trend emerges, and that is a great pitching staff that keeps one of the best ERAs in its league. Of the 32 teams, including the first and second years, 19 finished first in their league in ERA, an additional eight finished second, and only five finished third or worst. The worst finisher of the bunch was the 2010 Phillies who finished 5th with a 3.67 team ERA, which is nothing to slouch at. While hitters get most of the attention, it appears that a key to a great team, and one that improves on greatness, is a top-notch run-limiting pitching staff.
This is good news for the Nats, as in 2012 they also finished first in the NL in ERA at 3.34. More good news is that of the three stats I looked at in depth: ERA, strikeouts, and walks, the most inconsistent ranking was walks. Walking batters was where the Nationals pitchers struggled the most in 2012, finishing 10th in the NL with 497. The two pitching staffs of the group most like the Nationals’-- who also finished 3rd in strikeouts, are the 1993 Atlanta Braves and the 1989 Oakland A’s.
The ’93 Braves ranked 1st in ERA at 3.14, 6th in walks at 480, and 4th in strikeouts with 1,036. They also line up nearly perfectly with the Nats in allowing 1,297 hits (Nats allowed 1,296) and a 1.221 WHIP, same as the Nats. This was the first year the Braves had put together the trio of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine, which is reminiscent of the Nats’ Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann coming together for the first time in 2012.
The ’89 Athletics ranked 1st in ERA at 3.09, 8th in walks with 510, and 4th in strikeouts with 930. They also finished with a 119 ERA+, identical to that of the Nationals. The most recognizable member of this staff is closer Dennis Eckersley who finished with a 1.56 ERA and an astounding 18.33 K/BB ratio. While the Nats don’t have an Eckersley, their back end of Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, and Tyler Clippard is solid.
Offense is more of a mixed bag. There are a few all-time great offenses, such as the 1927 Yankees or the 1953 Dodgers who both finished first in runs, home runs, batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage. There are also some fairly average offenses, such as the 2010 and 2011 Phillies, the 1998 Braves, or the 1989 A’s; this is where the 2012 Nats fall. In particular their rankings compare favorably to the ’98 Braves.
The ’98 Braves ranked 4th in runs with 826, 2nd in home runs with 215, 4th in batting average at .272, 4th in OBP at .342, and 2nd in slugging at .453. Like the Nats and Ryan Zimmerman the Braves had a third baseman that was just in his prime years with an already impressive resume in Chipper Jones. The Braves also had their own Bryce Harper in 21-year-old phenom Andrew Jones. In both situations these two were surrounded by a talented cast, both young and old. And like the Nats, the Braves’ top pitchers could swing the lumber fairly well too.
Now if you were following closely then you noticed that the 1989 A’s were in both lists as comparable to the 2012 Nats. But this isn’t where the similarities end. 1989 was the first league leading year for the A’s and they won 99 games, outperforming their Pythagorean record by two games. In 2012, the Nats were in their first league leading year and they won 98 games, also outperforming their Pythagorean record by two games. Additionally, both were managed by future Hall of Fame managers in Tony LaRussa and Davey Johnson, albeit at different points in their career.
So let’s say the Nats follow the path of those A’s, what can we expect from the Nats in 2013? Well in 1990 the A’s saw a small jump in their offensive numbers, adding a 25 year old Jose Canseco full time certainly helped, while their pitching numbers remained relatively the same. They won 103 games, outperforming their Pythagorean record by four games this time, and went on to the World Series where they were swept by the Reds.
It’s likely the Nats don’t exactly become the 1990s A’s, although if they do expect to be seeing this piece again in October along with some gloating, but the main idea, that the Nats have some definite similarities to these great teams, remains. Earlier we stated it would be difficult to deny that the Nats are likely even better than they were in 2012. Then we saw that it is even more difficult to actually improve on a win total after leading Major League Baseball in wins. And now we have some hope that the Nats may be like those teams who did accomplish it. Earlier this winter I wondered whether the 2013 season could live up to the excitement and intrigue of 2012, when everyone was surprised by just how ready and good the Nats were. But as we see here, in baseball there’s always something new to shoot for, not just a title or a playoff spot, but a place in the rich history of the game.