We’ll get to the meat of the offseason content after the World Series, but in the meantime, I wanted to point to an interesting article by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, where he tries to wrestle with what he got wrong about the Royals. Of course, basically no one predicted that they would reach the World Series this year, but Cameron panned the James Shields trade specifically because he thought that it was so unlikely that they would experience quick success as a result of it.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that when the results of the postseason don’t align with expectations, that our expectations were clearly wrong to begin with. The playoffs — like most short tournaments between competitors of mostly equal stature — are mostly random, with the outcomes swinging wildly on things that simply couldn’t have been predicted in advance.
But while I think I can defend my analysis of the Royals talent level, that doesn’t make the overall argument correct. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen essentially unparalleled parity in MLB, and this year, we have a World Series match-up between two teams who made the playoffs via the Wild Card. In 2012, the Tigers got to the World Series with 88 regular season wins; in 2011, the Cardinals won it all after winning just 90 games. While better teams are still more likely to win out in the postseason, the structure of the playoffs gives a real chance to every team who simply qualifies, even if they sneak in via the Wild Card. So maybe I underestimated the potentially positive returns from being on the good side of mediocre.
This is the crux of why I always land on the “retool” side of the “retool versus rebuild” argument. The 2014 Braves, for all their flaws, nearly won 80 games, and these days, pretty much any 80-win team is in range of a year like the 2014 Royals had — getting lucky and winning five or eight extra games in the regular season beyond what their Pythagorean record would have predicted, and then riding a Costco tub of pixie dust through the playoffs. The only way to guarantee you’ll miss the playoffs altogether is to rip off the bandaids and blow up your team, the way the Diamondbacks did in the firesale that netted us Justin Upton, or the way the Marlins did in 1998 and 2012.
As a lot of people have grumbled (including me), baseball has become less of a regular season sport and more of a postseason sport. What happens in the first 162 games is not completely meaningless, but since 1/3 of all teams play on past the regular season, the odds are incredibly good that the best teams in the regular season will not play particularly well in the playoffs, and that teams that were mediocre in the regular season will play great in the playoffs.
But that’s the world we live in, and that’s the world in which the Braves have to play. There’s almost no added advantage in winning 95 games in the regular season rather than 90. So that means that the ultimate goal must be to build teams that always have a pretty good chance of winning 90. There’s no harm if you overshoot that. But there’s significant harm if you foreclose on that possibility altogether.