To repeat as World Series champs, a little luck is needed
Thirteen consecutive champions could not do it, and now it's the Red Sox's turn -- for the third time -- to discover why repeating as world champion is so darn hard. When Boston doesn't win this year, even though it has the talent to repeat, baseball will have matched the record in the World Series era of 14 consecutive years without a repeat champion, equaling the drought of 1979-92.
Why can't Boston win again? There is no good reason on paper why it can't. The Red Sox are loaded with not just frontline major league talent, but also talent that goes about 35 players deep. As shortstop Xander Bogaerts, third baseman Will Middlebrooks and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. prepare to make an impact, and outfielder Grady Sizemore emerges from four seasons virtually lost to injury, Boston has pitchers Allen Webster (whose two-seamer is so nasty he junked his four-seam fastball), Anthony Ranaudo, Rubby De La Rosa and Drake Britton ready to contribute. Further behind them are others in a deep system, including catcher Blake Swihart, who had the coaches buzzing in camp with his leadership, bat and 1.8 pop time, and shortstop Deven Marrero, whom the Red Sox think is in the same elite class defensively as Jose Iglesias, only without the flash.
The offense, the best in the league last year, is a given, especially now that Dustin Pedroia had his thumb repaired and can get back to pulling the baseball with authority. The rotation is solid, and the surprisingly good bullpen (raise your hand if last year you saw 9-3 with a 1.41 ERA out of 134 innings from Koji Uehara and Craig Breslow) is fortified with a healthy Andrew Miller and strikethrowers Edward Mujica and Burke Badenhop.
So what is it about today's game that makes their mission so difficult? Boston already has accounted for two of the 13 repeat failures: It lost three straight games in the 2005 ALDS and lost in seven games in the 2008 ALCS.
"What I remember from 2007 is what a grind it was to win just one," manager John Farrell said. "And last year, we learned you have to be a little bit lucky to win one. If we don't get the grand slam [from David Ortiz in ALCS Game 2] we might be talking about a whole different story.
"In the World Series, Game 4 was the key game because then we have the homefield [advantage] and get the ball to [Jon] Lester in [Game] 5. And we had two straight starts getting four innings from our starting pitcher. Who knew that in those games we would get 4 2/3 innings out of [Felix] Doubront in back-to-back days? We didn't even know how well he could pitch out of the bullpen, never mind back-to-back days. You need things to go right for you."
So how come we haven't seen back-to-back champions since the 2000 Yankees captured their third in a row? Here are some common theories, only one of which makes the most sense:
1. Winning dulls their edge.
This is the fan's favorite armchair theory; players get complacent. Even Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino buys into this theory somewhat, saying, "It's human nature that it's hard to maintain the same edge and focus. Some of it is definitely based on the opposition and other teams that are capable of winning. But I do think human nature being what it is, some of it has to do with keeping the same focus and intensity. We'll see. With this group, though, we think we have a group that leans more to the exception than the rule."
Farrell didn't hesitate when asked about the championship dulling his team's edge. "That's nonsense," he said. "Not this group. These guys were [ticked] that we didn't win 100. They were talking about that in July: 'Let's get to 100.'"
2. Pitchers are worn out.
There actually may be a bit of truth in this one.
"I remember when he won in 2007," Pedroia said, "and we started early the next year because we opened in Japan. I remember Josh Beckett talking about what a grind it was, how hard it was to come back so soon after ending the season so late."
Beckett threw a career-high 230.2 innings over 34 starts in 2007, postseason included. He started the next season on the disabled list with a back strain, missed time later with inflammation in his elbow and ended the season fighting a strained oblique. He was a much less effective pitcher in 2008. In 2007, postseason included, Beckett was 24-7 with a 3.00 ERA. The next year, throwing 35.1 fewer innings, he was 13-11 with a 4.42 ERA.
(FYI: Keep an eye on Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers early this season. Los Angeles plans to monitor his early workload carefully because, like Beckett, he faced a quick turnaround after a career high in innings followed by an early international opener.)
If any Boston pitcher faces the threat of that kind of regression this year, it's Lester. He threw even more in 2013 than Beckett threw in 2007: A career-high 248 innings last year, making 38 starts. Farrell has worked all of his pitchers slowly in camp this spring, not just Lester.
"Yes, we've started them slow," Farrell said. "Most of them threw an inning or two in a simulated game before getting into a game. We've used a similar plan with our position players, too. In the past here, we pushed them a bit early, backed off them in the middle, then ramped them up as we got closer to Opening Day. This year is a little different. It's more been about starting slowly and just using a gradually accelerated pace to have them ready for Opening Day."
Pitching the seventh month can be a factor -- but not always. Pitchers such as Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz pitched deep into October virtually every year and showed little signs of diminished stuff.
3. Pitching is bound to regress.
If pitching is the key to winning championships, a worse pitching staff should be be the key to not repeating, right?
Well, that might have been true of the 2003 Angels, who allowed 99 more runs than their world championship season, and the 2006 White Sox (+149). But we don't see enough of a pattern here to buy the theory completely. In fact, five of the other 11 teams that failed to repeat actually allowed fewer runs. Overall, nine of the 13 teams that failed to repeat either allowed fewer runs or saw an increase of less then 40 runs.
4. Okay, it must be the hitting then; the bats don't stay hot.
There is a bit of a stronger connection here as compared to pitching, but I'm not convinced it's overwhelming. Nine teams did score fewer runs in the year after the championship, but a few did so marginally. Seven of the 13 teams either scored more runs in their year after or saw their production drop by less than 40 runs.
5. The close games stop going their way.
This one was really interesting. Only four of the 13 teams lost more one-run games in the year after winning the World Series than they did in their championship season. There is no strong indication that "luck" turned against World Series winners. Overall, the 13 defending champs played fewer one-run games, winning them at virtually the same rate (.530) as they did in their championship seasons (.537).
6. The postseason is a crapshoot.
A-ha! Now we are on to something. It's the Billy Beane theory. You build a team to win a postseason slot, then you cast your fate to the wind.
"In 2008, we made it to the seventh game of the ALCS against the Rays," Pedroia said. "We ran into Matt Garza and David Price. They pitched great. We had a great team. We were right there up until the end."
Defending champions don't typically fall off a cliff in the manner of the 2013 Giants, who won 18 fewer games. Four of the previous five defending champs made it back to the postseason and won at least one round. Overall, seven of the 13 defending champions made it back to the postseason and actually combined for winning records in postseason games (37-34) and series (8-7). They just didn't win the last series.
The 2013 Red Sox won 97 games. This team probably won't win that many. Nine of the past 10 defending champions won fewer regular season games. (The one exception, the 2009 Phillies, improved by just one win.) But Boston does look like a playoff team again, especially since every team has three avenues to the World Series (division winner or one of two wild cards).
Beane's crapshoot theory is even more applicable today with the expanded postseason and with greater parity. While Farrell's troops had their sights set on 100 wins last year, they found that there are too many good teams these days to get there. In the past eight seasons, only three teams won 100 games. In the eight seasons prior to that, there were 16 teams that won 100 games.
What Joe Torre's Yankees did in the postseason from 1996 until the 2001 World Series appears more freakish with every passing year: They played .746 baseball in postseason games (53-18) in winning 14 out of 15 series. They were Wooden's UCLA teams, too good to be beaten by chance. In today's game, without a dominant team, what greater competitive balance means is that there are more teams in the postseason and more teams with a legitimate chance of winning the World Series. Chance rules October more than ever.