Ground Rule Doppelgängers, 2017 Edition

The Rockies and Dbacks are playing well, but their doppelgängers needed more time. (via John LaRue)

Prior to last season, I collected several data points about each team since 1988. These data points represented the organization’s past, present and future plans as well as its recent success and potential for success. Then I gave each a rank and percentile. The idea was to create an organizational fingerprint heading into the season, and then find a historical doppelgänger for 2016 teams. I’ve replicated this process for this season, along with some enhancements to improve the accuracy.

First, let’s discuss the updates to the process. Last year’s categories included the following for each team: previous year pythagorean winning percentage, previous theee-year pythagorean winning percentage, previous year’s fWAR from players age 25 and younger, net three-year bWAR from players gained and lost in the most recent round of free agency, payroll relative to league average, and the three-year average ranking in Baseball America’s organizational rankings.

You’ll note that off-season trades aren’t included in the list used last season. Using a combination of the trade database and Baseball-Reference’s transaction database, I was able to find appropriate trade data for 2017. It is now included. Last year, no consideration was given to the age of free agent acquisitions. This year’s iteration includes an aging curve to more accurately reflect the value of free agents, and the aging curve was also applied to traded players. And finally, using Skye Andrecheck’s research from 2010 at Baseball Analysts, I adjusted the Baseball America organizational rankings to include four years of data. This average ranking was then scaled appropriately and given an expected winning percentage bump, again using Andrecheck’s research. I’m now referring to this as the BA bump.

I wanted to test the predictive ability of these data. And while they produced some interesting results, what you’re about to read isn’t entirely predictive. Similarity here means that these franchises are on very comparable paths to their doppelgangers, but does not assume the same results. It would be better to say that they possess very similar organizational DNA. Teams prior to 1988 aren’t included because the Baseball America list goes back only to 1984, and payroll data prior to 1988 are less reliable.

With the updates out of the way, let’s take a look at 2017 doppelgängers.

What a difference a year makes in Boston. Last year’s Red Sox found their doppelänger in the 2006 Cubs—a team once full of promise but on the brink of collapse. This year, the Sox’ position is so enhanced that their doppelgänger is the 1993 Atlanta Braves (their second and third most similar —the 1998 Yankees and 1996 Indians —aren’t too shabby, either). In three of the categories (three-year pythagorean record, previous year fWAR from 25 and under, and BA bump), the Red Sox are less than 2 percent different from the 1993 Braves. The only category larger than 10 percent is league-relative payroll (Payroll+), and the Sox hold an edge in that category. With their youth at the major league level, their offseason infusion of talent (Chris Sale plays the role that Greg Maddux did for the 1993 Braves), and their impressive previous year pythagorean baseline, the Red Sox are well-positioned for 2017 and beyond.

Last year’s Blue Jays bucked the trend established by most of their doppelgängers. Of the 13 most similar historical teams to the Blue Jays entering 2016, 12 had exhibited dizzying declines in winning percentage. This year, the Jays pair up with the 1990 Giants. The teams are highly comparable across four categories, with two exceptions. The Jays boast a slightly better farm system than the Giants did circa 1990, and the Giants had a better offseason (as of Opening Day that year) thanks to the acquisition of Kevin Bass.

By contrast, the Jays made a few solid low-key acquisitions but lost moderate production from the 2016 squad —Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Cecil, RA Dickey and Michael Saunders. Bass ended up a bust for those 1990 Giants despite his strong history, which renders that particular category somewhat moot. It all adds up to a Jays team that carries the 1990 Giants as a warning sign.

The Yankees had two doppelgängers that were comparably close — the 2003 Mets and the 1994 Reds. I’ve opted to show the Mets because they match within 10 percent in five of the six categories, whereas the Reds match within 10 percent in only three categories.

The category where the Yankees separate from those Mets is an important one— the BA bump. Last year’s flurry of moves restocked the Yankees’ farm system, reflected in their above-average BA bump this year. More importantly, last year’s acquisitions for the farm only enhanced the youth that was already in place — Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and former BA top 100 pitcher Luis Severino. They had a quietly effective offseason, pairing useful smaller ticket free agent gambles (Chris Carter, Matt Holliday) with Aroldis Chapman. Two months in, they would appear to be more 1994 Reds (surprise contender) than 2003 Mets (expected contender, surprise dud), but the Yankees’ alignment with those two teams should tell you how potentially volatile the rest of their 2017 will be.

Last year’s list of doppelgängers flattered the Orioles, drawing comparisons to 15 teams with varying degrees of postseason success. This year’s list is not as flattering, returning the 2013 Angels as the most similar. Both this year’s O’s and the 2013 Angels boast a single divine under-25 talent (Mike Trout, Manny Machado), each team had firmly above average payroll, each team had a farm system that had collapsed, and each team was coming off of several seasons of moderate success. That formula led the Angels to 78 wins. Of course, the O’s have made a habit of bucking conventional wisdom in recent years and the first two months have been no exception. Thus far, they’ve gone toe to toe with the AL East heavyweights. Still, their organizational DNA right now is not a recipe for success, as recent vintage Angels teams can attest.

The Rays paired up with the 1988 Chicago White Sox last season. It was a prophetic pairing, with the Rays’ 68 actual wins lining up reasonably alongside the 71 wins the White Sox collected in 1988. This year’s result returns another ominous match — the 1997 Oakland A’s (actual record: 65-97). The only category in which there is greater than a 10 percent difference is in the BA bump, which favors the Rays by 10.2 percent to the 1997 A’s.

It’s not surprising that an analytically inclined team with severely limited resources would return a doppelgänger in late 1990s Oakland. And while the Rays made several intriguing moves this offseason, their pairing with the A’s underscores the perils of a franchise in their position. An awful lot of things have to go right for the Rays to elevate to contention, particularly in a division as tough as the AL East.

The Nationals serve as this year’s model to organizational consistency, with a 2017 DNA closest to their 2015 counterparts. They come in with less than 10 percent difference in all six categories. The 2015 season was a disaster for the Nats, as they entered the season as prohibitive favorites and exited without a playoff berth. And due to depth issues, the 2017 edition began with a higher bust rate than most Nats fans would prefer. Entering June, they’ve lost their big-ticket offseason acquisition (Adam Eaton) for the season and have weathered that storm, but still boast major bullpen issues.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Their similar DNA to the 2015 team speaks volumes about the type of talent on hand. They’d match their 2015 doppelgänger as a league-wide favorite if not for the presence of the powerhouse Cubs and Dodgers. Whereas disappointing seasons from Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon sunk the 2015 squad, this year’s team is riding the back of resurgent versions of Werth, Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman. If they can fix the bullpen, the 2017 Nats are poised to fulfill the empty promise of their 2015 döppelganger.

Few teams had the same amount of uncomfortable potential for collapse as this year’s Mets. For their döppelganger, they show up in lock-step with the 2005 Dodgers — a team that went from 93 wins the prior season to 71 wins in the blink of an eye. The Mets’ best doppelgänger is actually the 2017 Cardinals, but where’s the fun in that? As for the Mets and the 2005 Dodgers, they fall within 5 percent of each other in five of six categories. The sixth category — previous pythagorean record — is a mere 6.2 percent off in favor of the Dodgers.

In a vacuum, the Mets’ profile entering the seasons was sound, with above-average young talent produced on the farm over the last four years, a strong recent track record, and plenty of young talent already contributing at the major league level. However, this year’s Mets were ripe to be torpedoed by injury concerns throughout the roster, a risk that has come to fruition and then some early this season. Barring a rebound, they’re on the path to a meaningless October.

The Marlins are this year’s oddball. Finding a true match wasn’t easy. The closest pairing for the volatile mix in Miami is the 2015 White Sox. Very few teams with Marlins-level payrolls have had as seemingly strong an offseason as the Marlins did. However, so many of their incremental moves have blown up thus far — ineffectiveness from Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa in the bullpen, mediocrity from Edison Volquez at the front of the rotation, and negative value or no value at all from AJ Ellis and Javy Guerra. Dan Straily has been the lone off-season acquisition that has helped the franchise.

It’s also uncommon for teams with payrolls as low as the Marlins to also have a barren farm system, while also returning loads of production from under-25 talent. The 2015 White Sox match Miami in payroll, farm system ineptitude, three-year pythagorean performance, and offseason acquisitions (the White Sox added a lot of volume with Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, Adam LaRoche, Zach Duke and Emilio Bonifacio, while subtracting a lot of negative value). Two seasons later, the White Sox had gotten poor return on investment from their offseason acquisitions and they were in full rebuild mode. With the returns the White Sox got for Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, and with the state of affairs in Miami thus far, a fast-forwarded rebuild makes tremendous sense.

This year’s Braves match up within 10 percent in all six categories with an important ancestor — the 1990 Braves. Their farm system took the top spot this year after an impressive No. 3 finish last season. The next great Braves team is starting to take form with names like Dansby Swanson, Kevin Maitan, Ozzie Albies and so many more, all surrounding the face of the franchise, Freddie Freeman. The fully mature version of that team is still a few years off, but the Braves have loaded up via free agency and trades on one-year deals to approach respectability and tide the fans over in their new ballpark.

Like those 1990 Braves, they have enough wiggle room with the future payroll to add their own modern free agent versions of Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Otis Nixon and Greg Maddux. Their posse of veteran 2017 starters (Jaime Garcia, Bartolo Colon RA Dickey) aren’t enough to get the Braves in contention this year, but better days are just around the corner.

The Phillies’ rebuild has run parallel to the Braves’, though it started a little bit sooner. Sure enough, the most similar team to the Phillies is this year’s Braves. Historically, the most similar team — in keeping with the theme of stages of a rebuild — is the 1991 Braves, one year ahead of the 1990 Braves’ comp found for this year’s Braves.

The problem here is that the one category in which the Phillies don’t match up with those 1991 Braves is  the BA bump, which was a significant category that helped sustain the early-’90s Braves. It’s akin to saying that Rocky V could have been Raging Bull if only it had DeNiro, Scorsese and a Paul Schrader screenplay. The Phillies’ farm system has been improving by leaps and bounds, with back-to-back top 10 finishes. But there’s a lot of damage to unwind from 2012 to 2015.

To bridge the gap and to distance themselves from last year’s horrible pythagorean record, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak loaded up on nine players whose team control expires at the end of the season. That should improve their short-term performance and give them some freedom around the trade deadline to further fast-forward their rebuild. Like Atlanta, the Phillies are one step closer to contention and there are much brighter days ahead. But as the first few months of this season have shown, patience is still a prerequisite in Philadelphia. In the very least, the light at the end of the tunnel in Philadelphia (and Atlanta) is no longer a train.

The Indians have two strong doppelgangers in the 2001 Cardinals and the 1991 Pirates, both teams fresh off resurgent seasons crafted on the backs of under-25 players, but also entering something of a down cycle for the farm. Instead of J.D. Drew, Rick Ankiel, Placido Polanco and Fernando Tatis, Cleveland answers with Tyler Naquin, Jose Ramirez, Trevor Bauer and the magnificent Francisco Lindor (despite wonky starts to 2017 from Naquin and Bauer).

As for the farm, there is talent to work with moving forward, but it took a hit in the Andrew Miller trade — hardly something the franchise should regret. They lost some value in free agency, but also found value on the market with Edwin Encarnacion to offset the losses. Add it all up along with a weakened division and, as with their two nearest doppelgängers (the 1991 Pirates and 2001 Cardinals), it should be another season with October baseball in Cleveland and a bright future.

Say what you will about the Tigers’ decrepit farm system, which finds itself in the bottom 10th percentile for the seventh straight season. Perhaps this is just who the Tigers are now — a team with a strong payroll, not totally barren of under 25 production despite the BA rankings, and alternating years between positive and negative free agent and trade acquisitions.

This year was a down year on the market, which gives them their closest comp — the 2010 Tigers. It was around that time that this became the annual profile for the Tigers. Unlike most of their 2010 to 2015 brethren that competed for AL pennants, this iteration of the Tigers began with a lower previous season pythagorean baseline. It places them right on the outside looking in at Wild Card contention, needing a few breaks to elevate their final standing.

After a tremendous two-year run of success that ended in a World Series flag in Kansas City, the well is starting to run dry. It’s not dissimilar from the Royals’ doppelgänger, the 1988 Astros — another team beginning a perilous descent without much youth and not enough on the farm or in payroll to compensate.

The Royals dipped below the 50th percentile in under-25 production for the first time since 2012, and under the 10th percentile for the first time since 1995. After an epic run of farm system prestige, the farm has reached its lowest point since 2009. Their pythagorean record in 2016 was its lowest since 2012. Payroll has swollen a little, for now, to keep up with their core players as it reaches past their arbitration years. The franchise isn’t totally barren but the life comes at you fast, just as it did in Houston in the late ’80s.

The White Sox began a massive rebuild this offseason, dealing Adam Eaton and Chris Sale for a bounty of highly regarded prospects headlined by Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and Lucas Giolito. The moves launched them to fifth in this year’s organizational rankings, and gave them their best four-year BA run since 2007. They line up best with the 1996 A’s. In fact, they’re more closely aligned with their doppelgänger than nearly every pairing in this year’s group.

And while the 1996-1998 ineptitude in Oakland doesn’t bode well for the White Sox, the A’s didn’t have an instant influx of young talent like this year’s White Sox. It’s a highly notable difference. There is a lot of work still to be done on the South Side and several lean years lie ahead, but this past offseason was a very significant step. The May addition of wünderkind Luis Robert to the Pale Hose’s bevy of young talent won’t hasten the arrival of the next great White Sox team, but it will fortify the future when it finally does arrive.

Fast forward the 1996 A’s to 1998 and you end up with the best match for this year’s Twins, making the third time a late ’90’s A’s team found its way into this article. This year’s Twins and the 1998 A’s have previous pythagorean records and previous three-year pythagorean records that are dead-on. They align within 10 percent in four of the six categories. The two exceptions: both teams had very low payrolls but the Twins are 20 percentile points higher than the 1998 A’s, and the Twins’ BA bump outpaced the A’s by 15 percent.

Given that the A’s were one year away from a renaissance in 1999, that would seem to portend good things in Minnesota. The first few months have certainly been promising, with Jose Berrios appearing on the verge of big things, Miguel Sano and Max Kepler taking strides forward, and Brian Dozier continuing to provide borderline star production. The future quandary for the Twins is that their BA rankings took a dive to 21st this year, and they’re still waiting for full value from recent standouts like Byron Buxton. Like the Rays — one of the other late’ 90s A’s döppelgangers — it’s a razor-thin line between contention and mediocrity for teams with limited resources.

The Cubs came in to 2017 fresh off one of the best pythagorean records in the sample, driven by one of the largest amounts of under-25 value, and they back it up with payroll and  four-year farm prestige in the upper third. They also took a few hits in free agency and trades, having lost production from Aroldis Chapman, Jason Hammel, Dexter Fowler, Chris Coghlan and Trevor Cahill, although they did add Jon Jay, Koji Uehara and Wade Davis. That formula is a lot like the 2016 Cardinals.

Alas, the devil is in the details. The Cardinals’ previous season under-25 value was mostly derived from pitchers and Jason Heyward, whereas the Cubs’ young value came from position players with more reliable production. And of course, Heyward switched teams, meaning his 2015 contribution in St. Louis meant nothing for the 2016 team. Moreover, the strongest difference between the two is in payroll, with the Cubs offering slightly more resources to build around their wünderkinds.

All of this is to say that the Cubs are more likely to go the way of their second strongest doppelgänger- the 1988 Mets — than they are to experience what happened in St. Louis last season. A mediocre first few months and collective struggles from the rotation fortify their similarity to the 2016 Cardinals, but it still only moderately changes their overall outlook as NL Central favorite.

What happened in St. Louis last season was a precipitous fall from perennial division favorite to a team fighting for a Wild Card. As I mentioned earlier, the best pairing for the Cardinals is the 2017 Mets, which reinforces the likelihood of another Wild Card chase in St. Louis this year. This also means the Cardinals share the Mets’ pairing with the 2005 Dodgers, and the Mets’ potential for the kind of season in which the wheels fall off.

The notable difference between the Cardinals and the 2005 Dodgers is in free agency and trades, with the Cardinals coming in 19 percent higher. Losing Alex Reyes to a season-ending injury before Opening Day served a double wound. It took a bite out of their BA bump, and removed some of the value they attained last year from the under-25 group. Even as we enter June, there are still a wide range of possible outcomes in St. Louis. Their biggest strength — organizational depth — has insulated them against collapse, but it remains to be seen if they can find their way to the playoffs.

The Montreal Expos had two great seasons in 1993 and 1994, followed by a collapse below .500 in 1995. That set the stage for the 1996 edition of Nos Amours, and it also sounds a lot like how this year’s Pirates began. The two franchises fall within 10 percent of each other in every category except payroll, with the Pirates claiming a 19 percent advantage. Given the demise of the Expos’ fortunes in the years after 1996, it sounds like an unfavorable comparison for the Pirates. But those Expos rebounded for 88 wins in 1996 and a disappointing but respectable 78 in 1997. It wasn’t all doom and gloom just yet in Montreal.

The Pirates came in to 2017 with varying contributions expected in the rotation from three top-20 BA prospects (Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow), Starling Marte developing into a star, and Austin Meadows and Josh Bell likely providing value. It sounded like an impressive core for a team that should contend for a Wild Card and then ascend in coming years. Instead, the wheels fell off in the early going. Marte was suspended for 80 games, Taillon found himself bravely fighting testicular cancer instead of opposing hitters, and Meadows is off to a slow start in Triple-A. There’s still a bright future in Pittsburgh. It just may be deferred a bit.

The Brewers’ rebuild has gotten less attention than the work being done by the Braves, Phillies and White Sox, but that shouldn’t lessen the huge strides they’ve made in recent years. The 2005 Pirates landing as their doppelgänger speaks more to the state of the 2017 Brewers entering the season and less to the long-term health and improvement in Milwaukee. They’ve made steady progress in their BA prestige since cratering in 2014. The Brewers have also augmented their enhanced farm prestige with shrewd acquisitions of useful, undervalued young players from other squads — Jonathan Villar and Domingo Santana from Houston, Kyle Davies from Baltimore, Keon Broxton from the Pirates and Hernan Perez off waivers from the Tigers. The most productive creative acquisition has been Korean import and early-season sensation Eric Thames.

These are the type of moves that don’t show up in my doppelgänger analysis and it speaks well for the group making decisions in Milwaukee these days. They may pair best with a 2005 Pirates team stuck in a cycle of poor baseball. Spiritually, though, they seem more similar to the creative early years of Neal Huntington’s Pirate revival that began in 2008.

It’s Wayne Krivsky’s revenge for the 2017 Reds, who are strikingly similar in their development to the 2001 Twins (Krivsky was the assistant GM in Minnesota before his ill-fated run as GM in Cincinnati). This year’s Reds and the 2001 Twins are within 5 percent of each other in every category except payroll, where Cincinnati comes in 13 percent higher. Each had just experienced three very rough seasons. This year’s Reds didn’t seem to have youthful production in their arsenal until Eugenio Suarez, Scott Schebler and Tucker Barnhart took surprising steps forward.

Trades and lower draft position have helped the Reds keep their farm prestige respectable, and they had a decent offseason almost universally because they parted ways with a lot of recent dreadful performers. Their respectable first two months notwithstanding, it’s still a long haul forward for the franchise, especially in a division with several improved franchises and two potential annual juggernauts at the top.

The Rangers return an odd doppelgänger this year, partially because of their ability to outperform their pythagorean record last year. It’s rare to see a team with the AL’s best record carrying the same organizational DNA as the 2001 Blue Jays. Those Jays were mired a step above mediocrity for several years, just below contention. The Rangers match the 2001 Jays within five percent in their offseason acquisitions, under-25 production, and BA prestige, and within 10 percent of league-relative payroll. In fairness, the Rangers actually match the 1988 Expos in more categories, but the gap is so enormous in payroll (50 percent in favor of the Rangers) to render the similarity almost moot.

This year’s Rangers have their worst BA bump since 2009, but it’s still a healthy 64th percentile ranking. Their 87th percentile or better rankings from 2011 to 2016 should soften the blow. As we’ve seen thus far, they’ve turned out more 2001 Jays than 2016 Rangers, with no pythagorean overperformance to protect them. The Wild Card is still in play, but it’s going to take something special and unexpected to catch up to the Astros. A team the likes of the 2001 Jays wouldn’t have the horses to keep pace with this year’s Astros.

The Astros entered the season bearing an organizational DNA most on par with the 2015 Royals. This means they possess a middling payroll, strong but not great recent success over the last three seasons, above average production from the kids, and impressive prestige on the farm (more so in Houston than in Kansas City circa 2015).

They also took a lot of high risk/high reward gambles this offseason. Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, Charlie Morton and Brian McCann make for a fascinating and creative influx of talent for a variety of reasons. That said, they also lost reasonable production from Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus, Jason Castro,and Doug Fister. So far, McCann, Reddick, and Morton have been productive to varying degrees, fortifying a brilliantly talented young roster, while Beltran has faltered. Jeff Luhnow and his crew amassed enough young talent that the Astros should win the division and fight for the AL’s best record. Thus far, it looks like they’re going to run away with it. That’s what five consecutive top-10 finishes in the BA organizational rankings can do for a franchise.

If you were to diagram Seattle’s wacky, fun-filled 2017 offseason adventure with GM Jerry DiPoto, it would probably look like an FBI chart tracking organized crime. It would display an array of connectors shooting off in many directions, and plenty of players crossed off. It leads to the best comp for this year’s M’s, the 1994 Tigers, which has thus far appeared to be prescient in all of the worst ways for Mariners fans. All the moves in Seattle amounted to an upper 25th percentile finish in the free agency and trade category.

The farm has been sinking for years, but it took a step forward this year. Payroll in Seattle is decent enough to support a winner, but it’s below those 1994 Tigers. Their under-25 production from the previous season also falls short of 1994 in Motown, which is a bad sign considering the way the Tigers fell off in the mid-to-late 1990s. It’s an alarming doppelgänger for Mariners fans. Even if it continues to fail as it has in the early going of 2017, the best defense is the frenetic pace of the front office helmed by DiPoto. Things will not stay the same.

The Angels entered 2017 betting on defense to carry them to a postseason berth, adding Danny Espinosa and Martin Maldonado to a squad that already boasted standout defensive performances from Andrelton Simmons and Mike Trout. Of course, they also added Luis Valbuena, hedging their bets a bit. And Valbuena and Espinosa have been busts thus far.

For the second year in a row, the Angels have turned out the previous year’s version of the franchise as their doppelgänger. Like the Tigers, the Angels are a franchise fighting a strong organizational pathos. This means an ugly recent history in draft and development, loads of under-25 value thanks to Mike Trout, an above-average payroll, a baseline of underperformance the previous season, and some hopeful offseason moves. It’s been good enough to keep them away from embarrassment but rarely leading to long-term success. The Angels and M’s seem destined to fight the A’s in 2017 for least mediocre team in the AL West’s bottom tier.

The 1996-1998 A’s have enjoyed a lot of attention here as doppelgängers. Ironically, the 2017 A’s shed light on a completely different franchise — the 1994 Pirates, whose doppelgänger status with the A’s means they are now represented in 1994, 1995 and partially 1991. Both teams found themselves in small markets, further and further away from contention.

The largest seeming difference between the 1994 Pirates and the 2017 A’s was the A’s ability to find potential below market value in free agency through Trevor Plouffe, Adam Rosales, Matthew Joyce and Rajai Davis. This year, that quartet has mostly faltered in the early going, defining the floor of the cheap gamble. The Pirates had also enjoyed a little more success in their three-year window compared to this year’s A’s and their three-year window, but most of the historical Pirates’ success was from the 1992 version. It’s still a long climb back to contention for the A’s and their match with the 1994 Pirates (record: 53-61, year two of 20 consecutive sub-.500 finishes) is no accident.

There’s a fun symmetry with the Dodgers’ döppelganger. Last year, the Dodgers were most similar to the 1992 Blue Jays. This year, it’s the 1993 Blue Jays, and both seasons have been remarkably comparable to the early ’90s Jays. This season, they’re within 6 percent of their Canadian döppelganger in all six categories. They both have enjoyed strong and consistent three-year windows, both have top-shelf farm system prestige, and both have the payroll muscle to hold it all together. It turned ugly for the Jays first when they started to leak value in free agency circa 1994, and then uglier when payroll took a dive. Neither scenario is likely to happen to the Dodgers any time soon, underscored by their retention of Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen this past offseason. It leaves the Dodgers as one of the National League favorites.

Almost the entire difference in organizational health between this year’s Giants and the 1998 Mariners happens in free agency and trades. The Mariners took a small hit for losing Mike Blowers, Omar Olivares and Roberto Kelly, who had all been marginally useful during prior seasons. The Giants did better mostly by renovating their bullpen with younger relievers, led by the rock steady Mark Melancon. Every other category is in lock-step with the M’s — very good previous season and three-year pythagorean records, below-average production from players under 25, subpar prestige on the farm, and a payroll in the upper fifth of our sample.

The wild card here is that the Giants have an amazing record of far outpacing the reputation of their farm system, consistently receiving above-average and occasionally great value from the under-25 crew regardless of where they fall in BA’s metric. The Mariners had been mostly successful from 1995 to 1997, presaging a lot of hope before 1998 on the heels of a disappointing division series loss the previous year. And it crashed down in a 76-win campaign. The Giants appear headed down the same path this year.

The Rockies have made some huge strides in recent seasons, elevating the quality of their farm system and, by proxy, their production from under-25 players. It’s the farm system, in fact, that serves as the only notable difference between the Rockies and their doppelgänger, the 1990 Rangers. (It’s worth noting that the Rockies are also fairly close to their second and third best comps, the 2005 Indians and 2008 Brewers.)

Like the Rangers circa 1990 with Rafael Palmeiro, Ruben Sierra and Kevin Brown, the Rockies have  productive young talents leading the way — MVP candidate Nolan Arrenado, Trevor Story, Jon Gray  and DJ LeMahieu. Gray has been short-circuited so far, but other youngsters like Antonio Senzatela, German Marquez and Tony Wolters have filled the gap. The Rockies’ high risk, high reward bullpen is also paying dividends.

The acceleration of youth, the enhanced bullpen, and the early failures in San Francisco have bumped up the timetable by a year in Denver, something that never happened for the early-’90s Rangers. In fact, it seems to pair the Rockies better with their second and third most similar historical teams, the 2005 Indians and 2008 Brewers, which each won 90-plus games.

Everything unraveled in a hurry last year in Arizona. It led to a disappointing season, and then to massive turnover in the front office. Naturally, turnover on the field followed, with new GM Mike Hazen buttressing around the margins and flipping Jean Segura for Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte. This is the same DNA the Rockies had circa 2005, with the Diamondbacks carrying a worse pythagorean record from the previous season. Both teams had put themselves in the position of a diminished payroll and both needed an infusion to the mediocre farm. In Colorado, it led to two more down years before talent bubbled to the surface and led them to a 2007 NL pennant.

The Diamondbacks certainly have surprised early on thanks to the return of A.J. Pollock, a bounceback from Zack Greinke, Walker helping to further soothe the rotation, and a balanced overall roster. While this year’s team finds its parallel in the 2005 Rockies, I feel it’s worth the reminder that last year’s D-backs lined up best with the 1996 Mets. That team had high expectations on the heels of a bumper free agent crop, just as the Diamondbacks did last season. That Mets team in 1996 also disappointed for a year before finding their stride from 1997 to 2000. The same thing may be going on here, with the D-backs reaping at least some benefits of a massive offseason overhaul two years after the overhaul takes place. Whether it’s the late-’90s Mets or the 2005 Rockies, both teams found their way into the postseason within a few seasons, a promising omen for Arizona.

The Padres pair up with the 2007 Pirates, a team that was about to embark on its 15th consecutive losing season. It hasn’t been 15 in San Diego, but it probably feels that way. It’s at six and counting, and eight out of the last nine seasons. The Padres are surely on their way to making that seven and counting, and nine of the last 10 seasons. So much of the Padres’ payroll is wrapped up in paying other teams to play Matt Kemp, James Shields and Melvin Upton. Clearing those hurdles should prove helpful, and perhaps they can start building some long-term momentum on the farm and the under-25 groups, particularly thanks to large international hauls in recent seasons. It took the Pirates another five seasons before peeking their head back up over .500. It’s not quite that dire in San Diego… yet.

References & 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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Great article, love the graphics too! Wondering what you meant about the 1995 Pirates and the 1991 Pirates(partially) being represented as you state in the Oakland section. I couldn’t see them in the graphics.


My apologies- the 1991 Pirates are only represented in the text, as the 2nd best doppelganger for Cleveland. I had to choose either the 2001 Cardinals or the 1991 Pirates to display next to Cleveland, and the 2001 Cardinals were a slightly better match.

Jetsy Extrano
Jetsy Extrano

Fun and plausible stuff! I wonder if you could visualize how teams tend to move from year to year. Draw an arrow from each year Y to the same team’s Y+1… in your six-dimensional space? I dunno how best to make that work.

It might just look like an arrow storm, but it might show success / downfall / rebuild trajectories.


I think an animated gif could represent it nicely, or you could even place the years side by side. I’ve only done it once, but I did do an aggregate/average for the Cardinals under Walt Jocketty vs. under John Mozeliak. It’s through March 2016:

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