Lessons from Brewers and D-backs, two latest turnaround teams
Go ahead and put Milwaukee and Arizona into the playoffs, given their sizeable first place leads and lack of a strong contender to challenge them. And when they do play in October, they will continue an amazing run in the Wild Card Era that speaks to the sport's parity.
The Brewers, who lost 85 games last year, and the Diamondbacks, who lost 97, will make it six straight years and 16 out of 17 that at least one team made the playoffs the year after a losing season. In wild card format history, nearly one out of every four playoff teams had a losing record the previous year (33 of 136, or 24 percent).
How did Milwaukee and Arizona do it? It wasn't by spending great gobs of money. Both teams actually cut their payroll this year. What they have in common are shrewd trades that addressed core needs (starting pitching in Milwaukee; bullpen and cutting down on strikeouts in the lineup in Arizona) and the addition of high-character role players. GMs Doug Melvin in Milwaukee and Kevin Towers in Arizona were aggressive in adding players through trades and low-profile signings.
What can the Brewers and Diamondbacks tell us about turnaround teams? Did they follow the road map of the 31 turnaround teams before them? Is there a preferred way for such fast improvement?
To find the answers we have to search for clues in all 33 turnaround teams in the Wild Card Era, Milwaukee and Arizona included. Once we follow those tracks, we can get a glimpse at what is ahead for the Brewers and Diamondbacks this October -- and beyond. Let's examine nine key questions about the art of the turnaround:
How many turnaround teams improved significantly on offense? Here's one answer: 14 teams improved by more than half a run per game -- less than half of our sample group.
Using the same half-run per game barometer for pitching as we did for hitting, 15 teams turned around with significantly better pitching. The Brewers (-0.97 runs per game) and Diamondbacks (-1.00 runs per game) took huge steps forward with their pitching.
Both Milwaukee (15 to 8) and Arizona (9 to 6) jumped from the bottom half of the league to the top half.
The analysis: Only two of the past 10 turnaround teams made the playoffs immediately after signing one of the 10 biggest free agents that applicable winter (ranked by total dollars of the contract): the 2010 Reds, who signed Aroldis Chapman, and the 2007 Cubs, who signed Alfonso Soriano.
Arizona (18th) and Milwaukee (26th) ranked nowhere near the biggest free agent spenders last winter. The Diamondbacks' biggest purchase was closer J.J. Putz, who took a below-market deal to pitch in Arizona ($10 million for two years). Towers chose to spread small sums around veteran role players with "character" who could improve the clubhouse ethos: Henry Blanco, Xavier Nady, Willie Bloomquist, Geoff Blum, Melvin Mora and Aaron Heilman.
Melvin spent only $5.6 million on the free agent market and shopped for veterans with a similar profile as did Towers: Craig Counsell, Sean Green, Mark Kotsay, Will Nieves and Takashi Saito.
Now consider the health of starting pitchers. Seven teams reached Labor Day with three starters making all their starts -- a minimum of 28 starts. All but one of those teams (the Dodgers) had a winning record. And two of those seven teams who ran out three starters all year without interruption? The Brewers and Diamondbacks.
Not much. Both teams are likely to be underdogs in the National League Division Series -- Arizona against a Philadelphia team that hasn't lost three out of five games since July 29, and Milwaukee against an Atlanta team against which it is 3-5 while scoring only 17 runs in eight games.
And next year? Milwaukee could lose Prince Fielder to free agency while the Diamondbacks don't face any key losses. But look what happened to the Reds this year. They were baseball's turnaround gift to the postseason last year, but even with virtually the same team back this year they flopped. The fact that 87 percent of turnaround teams don't make it back to the playoffs the next year will weigh against the Brewers and D-backs. Sometimes it's just your year -- and no more. Enjoy the fun while it lasts.