2018 Ground Rule Doppelgängers, NL Edition

The Phillies are on a similar path to the one the Astros followed, so it’s no surprise they are doppelgängers. (via Ian D’Andrea)

For three years now, I have collected several data points, going back to 1988, about each major league team. These data points represented the organization’s past, present, and future, as well as its recent success and potential for future success. Then I gave each team since 1988 a rank and percentile.

The idea is to create an organizational fingerprint heading into the season as well as a general idea of where each team is in the win cycle. From there, I find a historical doppelgänger for each team — a club from the past that resembles the team’s present. I’ve replicated this process yet again for 2018. We’ll start with the National League.

First, I’ll describe the process in a little more detail. The six categories involved:

  • The 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.
  • Net age-adjusted bWAR for free agent and trade acquisitions and losses.

Starting last year, I have adjusted by adding an aging curve to free agent and trade acquisitions. Similarly, last season, I began using Skye Andrecheck’s research from 2010 at Baseball Analysts to create an expected winning percentage bump based on four years of Baseball America organizational rankings. You’ll see it in the radar graphs listed as “BA Bump.”

The one major update for this season can be found under the key for each team. You’ll see “Avg. top 10” beneath each team, 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 take a look at 2018 doppelgängers in the National League.

Atlanta Braves

Last year, the Braves matched very closely with the 1990 iteration of themselves. There was certainly some surface truth there — they are in the middle of a major rebuild, and appear to be on the precipice of big things. The doppelgänger analysis this year takes a little more realistic view. In other words, if you were expecting the 1991 Braves this year, that’s too ambitious. Instead they pair up this year with a 2015 Twins team that finally made strides in the standings after stacking up several years of young talent and farm prestige, on top of a bad three-year run at the major league level. In fact, this is the closest doppelgänger match I have of any two teams this season.

It’s a very familiar formula, one that has collectively netted a record just a tick under .500 for the 10 most similar teams. At some point after Alex Anthopoulos gets the lay of the land, likely next offseason, the Braves can accelerate payroll to complement their copious minor league talent. I suspect that next year, this process will result in more of a mid-range payroll team. And because of their access to more assets (a deeper farm, room for a higher payroll), I’ll take the Braves’ future moving forward over the 2015 Twins.

Miami Marlins

The Marlins are also at a very familiar stage — a team with a bad run of farm prestige, mediocre and worse recent on-field performances, and an offseason in which they lost major league talent more quickly than almost any team in my data set. It’s the classic small payroll teardown formula.

It’s no shocker that their top 10 closest comps includes four Brewers teams of yore, the 1996 A’s, and the Marlins’ best comp — the 2004 Expos. The Expos that year lost Vladimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez, while adding Nick Johnson, plus two lottery tickets in Carl Everett and Tony Batista. The Marlins registered more under-25 production last year than the Expos had in 2003 (entering the 2004 season), but a large chunk of that came from Christian Yelich, who now plies his craft in Milwaukee. It all paints a very grim picture for the Marlins moving forward.

New York Mets

Pairing the Mets with an iteration of the Marlins seems suspect. But under the surface, this was the 2012 Marlins — a team that wildly ramped up payroll in advance of the opening of Marlins Park. And while the Mets’ offseason lacked flash, it was productive, bringing back Jay Bruce and signing Todd Frazier, Anthony Swarzak and Jason Vargas. They have reasonable (if unspectacular) under-25 production, farm prestige, and payroll supporting their future.

The quandary here, as it was last year, is that so much hinges on health. The Mets remain a team with a wild variance in possible outcomes, as attested to by their 10 closest comps. Those 2012 Marlins and their 69 eventual wins reside on the low end of success, right next to the 2007 Orioles (another 69-win team). The top end includes the 96-win 2011 Brewers and 95-win 2000 Cardinals. In other words, it’s probably going to be another roller coaster ride this year.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies’ rebuild has been fun to track through the doppelgänger analysis. They’ve gone from a 2016 pairing with the 1989 Braves, then the 1991 Braves last season. The problem last season was that they didn’t have the farm prestige of those early ’90’s Braves. Their farm prestige had improved greatly, but wasn’t on par with what Atlanta developed. Now, they’ve found themselves matching up best with the 2015 Astros — an extremely close match, in fact.

Philadelphia’s rebuild is hitting an awful lot of positive signs and high points, and that doesn’t take into account the massive room they have for increased payroll. All of this is to say that things are accelerating quickly for the Phillies, and farming the same fertile territory of the recent Astros’ rebuild is yet another sign that big things are on the way in Philadelphia.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Washington Nationals

That the Nats have an average across their top 10 doppelgängers of 92 wins should be encouraging for Nats fans, but also unsurprising. Teams that have been as good as the Nats, supported by the kinds of assets the Nats have (large payroll, above-average youth factors), tend to stay very good for the immediate future. The Nats are dead ringers for the 2010 Yankees other than an enormous Bronx payroll that ranks in the 99th percentile of our sample. Even then, the Nats’ own payroll relative to the rest of the league is a very high 84th percentile.

There’s a lot of talk about closing windows in D.C. with pending free agency for Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. That said, the Nats should dominate the division this season and will have plenty of future assets to go toe to toe with the likely Braves/Phillies challenges for division supremacy.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are almost exactly as close to the 2013 Giants as they are the 1988 Mets. The difference is that the Cubs are within 10 percent of the Mets in five categories, compared to just four with the Giants. Additionally, the narrative fits a little better with the Mets circa 1988.

The Mets officially arrived as a contender thanks to a wave of homegrown talent three years prior, just like the Cubs entering this season. The next season, 1986, the Mets were a juggernaut, trampling the National League en route to a thrilling World Series victory over a star-crossed franchise (Boston), which sounds a lot like the Cubs two seasons ago. And finally, in 1987, the Mets were a very good team despite an inability to replicate their previous season’s magic — again, just like last year’s Cubs.

It’s almost eerie how much the Cubs have followed the same path as the late ’80’s Mets, right down to a shared rival in St. Louis. The only notable difference between the two franchises (the current Cubs and the 1988 Mets) is that the Mets had some of the best four-year BA prestige in the entire sample. The Cubs are respectable enough in this regard, but two consecutive summers of trades to enhance the major league club at the expense of the farm has sapped the prestige. Of course, it also fortified a World Series victory and gave them multiple years of rotation stability in the form of Jose Quintana, so nobody is grumbling about lost farm prestige. In year four of the Mets’ 80s mini-dynasty, they sprinted to 100 wins before getting Hershisered in October. Nobody should be shocked if year four of the Cubs’ mini-dynasty nets them triple digit wins.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds haven’t been rebuilding forever, but it probably feels that way to fans in the Queen City. And returning a doppelgänger of the same team just one year prior means the rebuild will continue, at least for one more year. Their farm prestige has been slowly improving, and, coupled with their pitching staff experiment, may be a harbinger of better things ahead… eventually.

The best hope here for Reds fans is that several of their 10 nearest doppelgängers showed massive improvement two years later. The 2002 Royals leaped from 62 wins to 83 in 2003, the 2014 Cubs skyrocketed from 73 wins to 97 in 2015, the 1998 A’s jumped from 74 to 87 wins in 1999, and the Rockies jumped from 75 wins in 2016 to 87 in 2017. The 2001 Twins registered a solid 85 wins themselves, and then hit 94 the following season. Other than their own franchise 12 months ago, those are the five closest teams to this year’s Reds, and the proximity is fairly stron. The rest of their top 10 includes two other teams that made quantum leaps two years later- the 2003 Padres and 2006 Diamondbacks. In other words, the Reds are worth revisiting in 12 to 18 months. And the NL Central could be a very crowded neighborhood.

Milwaukee Brewers

Few if any teams have as much variance in expectation from the advanced projection systems as the Brewers this year. While the additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain over 24 hours were breathtaking and universally loved, some projections saw them simply as a means of insulating the Brewers against the potential for a massive dropoff after arriving early in 2017. And those two huge moves account for most of the difference between the Brewers and their doppelgänger, the 2011 A’s, whose own good offseason couldn’t match the might of this iteration of the Brewers.

The A’s at that point had also been better in their previous three years. That said, the A’s followed up an 81-win season full of youth by stumbling, sinking to 74 wins in 2011, before rebounding to 94- and 96-win seasons in 2012 and 2013. That the Brewers drew that team as a comp backs up the assertion that they are a total wild card this year, capable of sinking back after an exciting previous season, but also having pried open a window. The immediate future is bright in Milwaukee, even if there may be some variance and slight missteps in time frame.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates’ two closest comps, tied in proximity to this year’s Pirates, are two versions of the Montreal Expos, each at very different points of the same decade in franchise history. Entering 1992, the Expos were coming off of a disappointing season but had ample young talent bubbling just beneath the surface, with some of that talent already contributing to the major league squad. Limited by payroll, their offseason saw the departures of contributors like Mike Fitzgerald, Dave Martinez and Andres Galarraga. Admittedly, that trio hadn’t had great 1991 seasons, but they had provided value over the prior three years. For that Expos team, the foundation was there for their monster 1994 season.

The other Expo doppelgänger — the one shown here in the graph — is the 1998 squad. Montreal’s previous three years included one season in contention and two on the outside. Like the 1992 Expos and current Pirates, this team featured the same limited payroll, but less farm prestige. Ultimately, it’s their closer proximity to the Pirates in farm prestige that led me to place that Expos team in the graph rather than the 1992 team. Moreover, while I think there’s a lot more to work with on the Pirates roster than they get credit for, not many folks foresee a 1994 Expos-style future. That’s doubly true in the wake of the Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen deals. There’s enough to maintain respectability and at least avoid total embarrassment in Pittsburgh, but the franchise reload is clearly afoot.

St. Louis Cardinals

An interesting thing happened when I was writing this article. The Cardinals signed Greg Holland, meaning I had to adjust their free agent and trade category. And while Holland wasn’t a colossal move, it was just enough to lock in the 2017 Cardinals as the doppelgänger over the 2016 Nationals. Additionally, their makeup shifted just enough that their average win total from the 10 closest comps went from 85 to 87. The only wildly different category between this year’s team and last year’s is that the 2018 squad benefited from less 25-and-under talent the previous season. If not for Alex ReyesTommy John surgery last spring, it’s likely there’d be no difference at all in the general DNA of the two teams.

The 10 closest comps provide lots of good vibes for the Cardinals, and a few warning signs. Four of their 10 closest comps registered 94 wins or more, including the 2013 Cardinals and their 97-win regular season. One, the 2012 Giants, even won the World Series, while the 2013 version of El Birdos at least reached the World Series. You may recall that last year’s Cardinals lined up best with the 2017 Mets and the 2005 Dodgers. Being that this year’s team is closest to last year’s team, that means those two warning signs also show up for the 2018 Cardinals. If that full suite of comps is any indication, the Cardinals have a 50/50 shot at 90 wins, and a one-in-five chance that the wheels totally come off. Most likely is a win total in the upper 80s and a Wild Card berth.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Arizona claims a middling payroll, a farm system in need of some repair, and a team that received above-average production from the under-25 crowd. The Diamondbacks also had a lot of success on the field last year after two poor/uneven seasons prior. That’s where the Giants stood entering 1988, with the departing Chili Davis standing in for the departing J.D. Martinez. The Giants were solid for the next three seasons — 83 wins in 1988 followed by a World Series appearance in 1989 and 85 wins in 1990 before finally slipping in need of an eventual Barry Bonds-sized rebuild.

The Diamondbacks’ situation is probably more fluid than that, and they’re going to have to rely on the farm system more than payroll — the opposite scenario of what happened in San Francisco. The rest of their 10 closest doppelgängers is full of contention. Five of the 10 landed between 83 and 88 wins. The 1991 Pirates with 98 wins stand as the high end outlier, while the 74-win Reds of the same season represent the low end. All of which is to say that the Diamondbacks should be relevant this year, even if they aren’t a juggernaut.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies, on the other hand, have 10 doppelgängers with a wide array of variance. Two of their three closest historical teams are the 2015 World Series champion Royals and the 104-win 1988 Oakland A’s. But their closest doppelgänger is the 1990 Padres, a team that had steadily risen from 65 to 83 to 89 wins in the three years prior. Then, sniffing contention, Trader Jack McKeon jettisoned a few prospects for Joe Carter in the hopes that the bat would push them over the edge (the prospects: Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar Jr.), supplementing the move with the free agent signing of Fred Lynn. They also lost Cy Young Award-winning closer Mark Davis. Carter was a bust in his one season in San Diego and the team sank to 75 wins.

While this year’s Rockies went the opposite direction — adding to the bullpen — they are very much in the same spot, having enhanced their standing the last few seasons, needing to get over a hump. It’s generally a strong organizational profile overall, one that has stabilized greatly over the last few seasons. Going all-in on the bullpen is a risky bet for this season, although extending Charlie Blackmon should help keep the window open a little longer. For now, the Rockies should compete even in a very tough division.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The monster out west — league-wide, even — is the Dodgers. The average of their 10 closest doppelgängers is 97 wins, meaning there are several teams that exceeded that lofty total. Four of their 10 closest cracked 100 wins, and only two fell under 93 (the 88-win Braves of 2001 and the 91-win Rangers from 2013). It’s not exactly a surprise if you’ve watched any baseball the last few years, but yes, the Dodgers are indeed loaded, and it’s so much deeper than just the current major league squad.

They’re 95th percentile or above in three categories, and 86th in a fourth (payroll). Their farm prestige is 96th percentile, least you thought they were going away any time soon. In fact, six of their 10 comps are iterations of vintage Braves teams, ranging from 1996 through 2004, including their closest (the 1998 Braves). The Braves of that era were a team that modeled itself on annual contention, above average payrolls, and a very strong farm system that enabled them to take some hits in the offseason markets. That’s where the Dodgers stand now and seemingly forever moving forward.

San Diego Padres

Things have been grim in San Diego. Last year, I lamented that they were slowly building toward a late ’90’s/early 2000’s Pirates-sized gap between .500 seasons. It’s been one more year for them now: seven seasons in a row under .500 and nine out of 10. It’s a profile that pairs them up with the 2004 Cincinnati Reds. Adding Eric Hosmer, Freddy Galvis and the returning Chase Headley will at least raise the floor a little, even if the cost for Hosmer was questionable (I’m being nice). The 2004 Reds’ additions that offseason were less ambitious, but the two franchises match well in so many other ways: a low payroll, a long stretch of poor baseball entering the season, and not much in the way of young talent stashed on the major league roster in recent years.

The best news for the Padres is that their farm prestige has been growing rapidly for two years in a row thanks to a flurry of shrewd trades and international acquisitions. There’s a ray of light there, and it lines them up — at least in terms of farm prestige — a little closer to the 2003 iteration of the Padres, which was a team on the precipice of kicking off the franchise’s last run of success. That’s a good sign. Better days are ahead and it’s finally starting to look like it, even if it may take another two years.

San Francisco Giants

Earlier, I mentioned that certain franchises and cities tend to pair up. Such is the case with this year’s Giants and the 2016 Tigers. That’s two out of three years that I’ve done this project in which a recent vintage Giants team has matched up with a recent vintage Tigers team.

This one is hardly surprising. In this case, this year’s Giants are aging, reaching the end of a splendid run, and have added Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen in the hopes of extending the window just a little bit longer coming off a terrible season and lacking farm prestige. That’s very similar to what happened in Detroit entering 2016, when the Tigers plugged in Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann, hoping to delay the inevitable. In both cases, the franchises leveraged the best asset they had — well above-average payroll — to acquire talent.

We all know that the Giants are going to have to deal with this rebuild at some point, and their doppelgänger registering as the 2016 Tigers verifies that point. The good news is that Longo and Cutch (which should be the name of a ’70’s cop procedural) are more likely to provide value than Zimmermann and Upton. And the Giants have long supplied more value out of their farm system than the organizational rankings would suggest. They’ve made a cottage industry out of beating the projections, supplementing their recent run with years of minor-league rankings in the 20s.

The bad news is that they have a long way to go after last season to return to contention, and they have to do it in a division crowded with three of last year’s playoff contestants — one of which is as loaded as the Dodgers. Take it all in for now, Giants fans. The reckoning is coming. And take heart in the fact that your front office has been one of the most productive in the game.

Our doppelgängers are halfway home. Stay tuned for the American League, where you’ll see the teams of Spike Owen, Gary Disarcina and Gary Gaetti resurrect themselves in modern day form, most prominently (but not exclusively) via a block of Nirvana-era Angels teams.

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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4 years ago

I totally agree with the 2004 Expos being doppelgängers of this year’s Miami Marlins. The other thing in common between these two organizations? They were run into the ground by Jeffrey Loria and David Samson.

4 years ago

Love this article, can’t wait for the AL version!!