2018 Ground Rule Doppelgängers, AL Edition

The Astros and 1996 Cleveland team, led in part by Jim Thome, share lots of similarities, but Houston won a World Series. (via Erik Drost)

Welcome back for part two of this year’s Ground Rule Doppelgängers.  As a  reminder, or if you missed the National League edition, for this project I collect several data points about each team since 1988. The idea is to create an organizational fingerprint heading into the season as well as a general idea of where each team is on the win cycle. From there, I find a historical doppelgänger for teams entering the season — historical teams since 1988 whose franchise DNA entering the season most closely resembles this year’s teams.

The six categories involved are previous year’s pythagorean winning percentage, pythagorean winning percentage over the last three years, previous year’s fWAR for players age 25 and younger, payroll relative to league average, average Baseball America organizational ranking over the last four years, and the net age-adjusted bWAR for free agent and trade acquisitions and losses.

The major update for this season can be found underneath the key for each team. You’ll see “Avg. top 10,” along with a 162-game win and loss total. I’ve collected the 10 closest historical doppelgängers for each team and averaged their winning percentage. Then, I extrapolated that winning percentage to a 162-game record. In other words, “Avg. top 10” is the average record of a team’s 10 closest historical doppelgängers.

With the updates out of the way, let’s look at 2018 American League doppelgängers. If you were an Angels fan in the early to mid 1990’s, you should have lots of chances this season to relive the, um, “glory” of that particular run in franchise history. The same is true if you are in fact Gary Gaetti or a huge fan of The Rat, who appeared on three of this year’s AL doppelgängers, each a different franchise.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles didn’t have any particularly strong match this year. Their closest purely in terms of distance is the 2014 White Sox, although those White Sox come within 10 percent of the O’s in only three of the six categories. For reference, the average best match is under 10 percent difference in four or five of the categories. The O’s second-best match is the 1995 Cubs, who come within 10 percent in five categories.

Their lone category above the 50th percentile is in production from players aged 25 and under, which should show you just how much the presence of Manny Machado is holding the entire franchise on the ledge of oblivion. Their doppelgänger, the 2014 White Sox, was in full-on rebuild mode a few short years later, and it’s safe to assume the O’s are headed in the same direction, likely in a smaller window than those ChiSox did.

Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox turn up a curious doppelgänger, their ancestors from 2000. It makes sense upon inspection. The Sox entered 2000 with a three-year run that featured 78, 92 and then 94 wins. This year’s Sox have racked up 78, 93 and another 93 wins in their three-year window. Their farm system had enjoyed an extended run of success entering 2000, having deposited Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Suppan, Trot Nixon and Carl Pavano onto major league rosters in their four-year Baseball America window, but the shine in the organizational rankings was fading.

The same is true entering the year for this season’s Red Sox. Both teams are supported by well-above-average payrolls. The most notable difference is that the current Sox have more youngsters producing at the big league level. And in that sense, Boston more resembles its third-nearest pair, the 2015 Nationals.

Either way, their top 10 is littered with playoff teams. Six made the postseason and a seventh — the 2015 Nationals — entered the year as prohibitive league favorites. We’ll all be shocked if the Sox don’t make it, either as a Wild Card or division winner, and the window is still wide open, no matter how much Dave Dombrowski pushes the chips all-in for a winner at the expense of the future.

New York Yankees

The Yankees enter the season in an almost perfectly identical state as last year’s Cubs, with one category — free agent and trade acquisitions — making up the overwhelming majority of the difference. In both cases, the teams entered the season boasting gobs of under-25 production the previous year, a very good recent Baseball America organizational track record, 95th or better percentile ranks in previous Pythagorean records, and a very good three-year Pythagorean stretch anchored by the most recent season.

They differ mainly because an extraordinarily deep Cubs team in 2016 leaked mid-range value in free agency before 2017 (Dexter Fowler, Aroldis Chapman and Jason Hammel), whereas the Yankees plugged in Giancarlo Stanton to offset mild losses (Todd Frazier, Starlin Castro). One other difference is that the Yankees are just now starting to tap their enhanced farm system, whereas last year’s Cubs had already advanced most of their farm talent to the major league squad.

As such, the Yankees’ window is open and is going to stay that way for a long time. Much like the Red Sox, the Yankees’ top 10 doppelgänger list is full of playoff teams, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch the two franchises going head to head for the division this year.

Tampa Bay Rays

On the surface, the Rays’ offseason was almost as disheartening as their state sibling’s in Miami. Since last June, the Rays have lost six of their top eight hitters by 2017 fWAR, via free agency, trade or waivers (Logan Morrison, Steven Souza Jr., Corey Dickerson, Colby Rasmus, Tim Beckham, and franchise icon Evan Longoria). They also lost their second-best pitcher by fWAR, Alex Cobb. That’s a breathtaking amount of turnover for any team.

One of the few teams to undergo such a comparable degradation of talent from the major league roster is the Royals entering 1996. In Kansas City that year, free agency cost the Royals Tom Gordon near the peak of his value, still-useful veterans as Gaetti and Wally Joyner and end of Greg Gagne at the end of his career. It wasn’t as dramatic a fall as the Rays’, but it was ample enough that the two organizations match up here. The slight good news is that the Rays have a better base of under-25 production to draw on than the Royals did, and they’re starting from a better place, a better recent performance.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

And while the Royals’ farm system in the mid-1990’s was solid, this Rays squad boasts better prestige, both short- and long-term. Any time you have limited payroll, this type of profile is always a gamble, no matter how well you run your team. All the same, the franchise isn’t totally bereft of talent, and the 10 closest teams still averaged 81 wins. Don’t be surprised if the Rays challenge .500 in spite of their difficult winter.

Toronto Blue Jays

In Toronto, the Blue Jays quietly had a good offseason, absorbing a flotilla of castoff Cardinals (Randal Grichuk, Seung Hwan Oh, Jaime Garcia and Aledmys Diaz ), along with Curtis Granderson and Yangervis Solarte, to spackle in some large holes on the roster. And these acquisitions were more or less free other than Dominic Leone and some prospect depth. The farm system itself isn’t the deepest, but it’s loaded at the top with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette registering in Baseball America’s top 10.

Prior to 2011, the Cubs also acquired a batch of solid performers in David DeJesus, Matt Garza and Paul Maholm. They had just had their worst year in the last three and were three years removed from a .600+ Pythagorean season. That’s when the bottom fell out, which ultimately led to the hiring of Theo Epstein and a total teardown of the organization.

The Jays aren’t headed there. Bichette and Guerrero  give them plenty to build on, franchise steward Mark Shapiro has his own lengthy track record of success, and the AL Wild Card race is so wide open that it’s not hard to see this year’s Jays contending. Tough decisions lie ahead, but this is not the pending disaster that shook Toronto’s doppelgänger.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox enter year two of a massive rebuild. They had a mostly positive offseason, adding Wellington Castillo and bullpen acquisitions Joakim Soria and Luis Avilan while jettisoning plenty of negative value. The farm system, which had bottomed out with a last place organizational ranking in 2012, recovered to 20th prior to the 2016 season and now boasts back-to-back top five finishes. That specific aspect offers the most hope for the future and the biggest difference between the White Sox and their doppelgänger, the 2006 Pirates. Otherwise, both teams contain the same grim markers of recent and three-year performance, a low payroll, and talent on the farm that has not yet paid major dividends through their under-25 value.

There’s a good chance that will jump significantly this year and next, with further exposure for Yoan Moncada, potential debuts this year for Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez, and several others on the way. This group will dictate how quickly the rebound happens, and collecting more top prospects via the draft and trade will help make their rebuild more sustainable. Either way, the White Sox are one year further removed from the total teardown and their underlying factors should help them avoid their doppelgänger’s future.

Cleveland Indians

In this analysis, certain franchises tend to pair up with one another, though payroll and local market conditions. Such is the case with Cleveland, this time linking up to the 2004 A’s. Both cases feature small market teams that had bucked their disadvantages to build up multiple years of tremendous success, full of under-25 talent, yet still needing to fight their limitations as they leak valuable players in free agency. For the A’s, it was Miguel Tejada, while Cleveland saw Carlos Santana, Bryan Shaw and Austin Jackson depart.

Still, the beat goes on, just as it did for the A’s. Cleveland enters this season as a major favorite to win the division. The Indians’ 10 closest is a who’s who of great small and mid-market teams: the 2001 Mariners, the 2004 A’s and the 1991 and 1992 Pirates all make an appearance.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers could have reasonably lined up with any number of historical teams; their profile is fairly generic. Lots and lots of teams have reached year one of a major rebuild, just as the Tigers are in now. And that’s what makes their nearest comp — the 1995 Angels — so odd, specifically because those Angels in 1995 made a strong run at a division title. Spiritually, this Tigers squad matches up better with its second-closest team, the 1997 Phillies, whose years of farm neglect were coming to a head (minus Scott Rolen, of course). Other top 10s that match the soul of this year’s Tigers: the 1999 Brewers, the 2002 Tigers, both the 2002 and 2003 O’s and the 2010 Astros- all teams either just beginning or desperately needing to begin a wholesale teardown. It was a great run in Motown, but now it’s time to pay the piper.

Kansas City Royals

Speaking of teams that desperately need to begin a major rebuild, the Royals’ closest match was a coin flip between the 1988 Braves and the 2012 White Sox. I’ve opted to show the Braves because the only real difference is in three-year track record, which is very much a distant memory for the Royals. The gap between the Royals and the 2012 White Sox is that the White Sox boasted more under-25 talent at the big league level, which is notable, particularly given the dearth of farm prestige for this Royals team.

In fairness, the Royals made a valiant attempt to prevent a total collapse by adding Jon Jay and Lucas Duda bringing back Mike Moustakas. With so many rebuilds going on in the AL Central, that should be enough to keep them out of the cellar. But you don’t end up as a comp for a 1980’s Braves team — just about as dire a situation imaginable in this sample- without needing a full teardown to build back up to success.

Minnesota Twins

Returning to the other corner of the division, away from the various stages of rebuilds, the Twins’ doppelgänger is the 2003 Phillies, and it’s an extremely close pairing. Half of the difference is made up simply by the previous year’s performance, and that favors the Twins. Starting in 2003, the Phillies racked up nine consecutive seasons with 85 wins or more, a stretch that featured one championship, two World Series appearances, and a 102-win juggernaut short-circuited by the wild 2011 Cardinals. Part of what sustained that success in Philadelphia was a major increase in payroll, which seems somewhat unlikely for the Twins.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. That the Twins line up with the 2003 Phillies speaks well for the burgeoning young talent the Twins have on hand, both at the major league level and on the farm. Last season saw a small blip in organizational prestige, but the Twins started to climb back toward the top this year. In the win cycle, the Twins’ window is now officially open. How close they come to replicating the success of the Philllies will depend on the development of their young core.

Houston Astros

If the Dodgers are the scariest team in this year’s batch, the Astros aren’t very far behind. Their top 10 includes three 100-win monsters, including (at the 10th closest) the 114-win 1998 Yankees. Their closest match lies in Cleveland entering 1996 — a team in the middle of a mini-dynasty, on the brink of a 99-win season that followed up their World Series appearance the year prior.

For the Astros, the farm system finally took a step back to 10th in the organizational rankings, but even so, they’ve been 10th or better for six consecutive seasons. That means they’re loaded with youth at the major league level and they have plenty of talent to add moving forward, or to trade for high-leverage midseason acquisitions. Along with above-average payroll and very high levels of under-25 talent at the big league level, it all supplements a franchise that registers 90th percentile recent pythagorean records in the previous season and the previous three. As with their World Series opponent last year, the window is wide open for the Astros, for now and the foreseeable future.

Los Angeles Angels

This year’s Angels and the 1993 Royals took very different routes to arrive at a similar place. Those Royals spread their under-25 talent around among Kevin Appier, Brian McRae, Tom Gordon and Bob Hamelin (just kidding… not Bob Hamelin). The Angels’ under-25 value arrives almost exclusively in the form of Mike Trout. The Royals’ farm prestige in the four years prior to 1993 was poor, but never really bottomed out the way the Angels’ has in recent years.

On the other hand, the Royals in that window never had a prospect on the level of Shohei Ohtani and — still to be seen — Kevin Maitan, with the caveat that Johnny Damon arrived as a top-level prospect in 1993. And while both teams had noisy offseasons, the Royals spread it around, importing David Cone, Jose Lind, Greg Gagne and Felix José. The Angels’ offseason was mostly condensed into Ohtani, Zack Cozart and Maitan (who is not likely to help for a few years).

For the Angels, this type of profile across their top 10 has led to a lot of teams falling right on the lip of contention. Five of the 10, including the 1993 Royals, finished between 84 and 88 wins, and a sixth, the 2000 Mariners, won 91 games. The only truly bad team with this profile is the 1988 Phillies at 65 wins. All  the rest won at least 76 games. In other words, the Angels are in decent shape for a Wild Card but it’s basically a coin flip. And that’s the most boring way to describe a team that carries the fun of Trout, Ohtani, and Andrelton Simmons.

Oakland A’s

Oakland’s doppelgängers are all or nothing — mostly nothing, in fact. Eight of the 10 were under .500, and five of those were absolutely dreadful, with fewer than 70 wins, falling as far as the 57-win Pirates from 2010. The two doppelgängers that exceeded .500 were the 2010 Padres with 90 wins, and the 95-win 2000 White Sox.

Like their nearest doppelgänger, the 1994 Angels, the A’s took a lot of measured gambles in the offseason. Swap out a fading Harold Reynolds for a fading Jonathan Lucroy and Bo Jackson for the high rebound potential of Stephen Piscotty. For each team, the payroll was lacking and the youth aspects — under-25 production and farm prestige — are subpar, though the A’s farm prestige has an edge. In general, the A’s have followed a set cycle for a few decades: a window to win (1999-2006, 2012-2014), followed by a downturn (2007-2011, 2015-present). This feels like an extended version of the downturn, as it may be a few more years, regardless of wise gambles and shrewd moves, before the A’s ascend back to the top.

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners’ above-average payroll appears to be their greatest current asset, along with general manager Jerry Dipoto’s willingness to experiment if the team doesn’t look to his liking. The farm system has become a problem and it’s starting to manifest itself in poor production from youth at the major league —level. The 1991 Angels, their best pairing — the 1991 Angels — were in a similar place and it took a few more years of decay before their farm system trended back up. Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds and J.T. Snow, among others, led the way back to respectability and contention.

For all the wheel-spinning of the last few seasons, the M’s are still a team that has bounced back and forth between under-.500 and fringe contention but has yet to produce a playoff spot. Only two of their 10 doppelgängers even contended (the 1988 Twins and the 2002 Dodgers), and none reached the playoffs. Only four of the 10 cracked .500. This is all a troubling harbinger for the Mariners this season.

Texas Rangers

Similarly, the Rangers’ doppelgängers are somewhat foreboding. Five of the 10, including their closest match, the 2006 Mariners, were within five games of .500 (76 to 86 wins). The only team in their top 10 to exceed 86 is the 2000 Cardinals, who had a monster offseason with the additions of Jim Edmonds, Fernando Viña, Darryl Kile and Andy Benes. In other words, while that Cardinals team offers a ray of hope, it’s hardly a perfect comparison.

The 2006 M’s are far more apt. Their offseason was defined by gambles on veterans like Jarrod Washburn, Matt Lawton and Carl Everett. For this year’s Rangers, the equivalents are Matt Moore, Mike Minor, Doug Fister and a lot of depth gambles. During the 2009-2016 run, they could rely upon the most underrated farm system in the game to fill in around those types of gambles, but the farm has run dry the last few years. These things are cyclical and the organization has shown an ability to rebound. This little dip might not last long. For now, though, a season floating close to .500 seems inevitable.

References and Resources

John LaRue is a graphic designer, former minor league baseball media relations director, and data visualization enthusiast. His work has been featured in The Best American Infographics 2013 and I Love Charts: The Book. Follow him on Twitter @tdylf.
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Carl Pavano was traded in the 97-98 offseason.