Can the Rangers rebound from crushing loss? History says no
The Rangers, just as they did after losing the 2010 World Series, held a clubhouse meeting after losing the 2011 World Series in Game 7 to talk about making a commitment to win the next one. Their persistence is admirable, if not standard stuff for also-rans. The ghost of Knute Rockne aside, what are the realistic chances that Texas can bounce back from not just losing a second straight World Series, but also one of the most historic collapses in postseason history, the 10-9 loss in Game 6?
Not good at all. Odds are that the Rangers, even with their willpower, have suffered a franchise-altering defeat.
We can get an idea of what will become of Texas by studying what happened to other franchises in the aftermath of a historic postseason loss of such magnitude.
Let's confine the argument to the past 25 years. I then picked the 15 most devastating postseason defeats of the past quarter century. I chose only teams that held a lead before losing the game -- so teams that were tied before a crushing defeat, such as the 1991 Braves and 2006 Mets in Game 7 losses, were not considered. I also gave more weight to defeats that occurred later in the postseason and/or later in a series.
I then ranked the 15 worst defeats by win probability, according to baseball-reference.com -- that is, the highest percentage of win probability in that game by the losing team. The 1986 Red Sox' defeat in World Series Game 6 ranks as the most devastating postseason loss of the past 25 years, thanks to a 99 percent win probability with a two-run lead, two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the 10th against the Mets.
So here you go: the 15 worst postseason losses of the past 25 years:
You can see that the 2011 Rangers rank sixth -- with their highest win probability, 96 percent, coming with a two-run lead, one out and nobody on base in the bottom of the ninth. You might also notice that the Yankees are the only franchise to show up three times on the list (and twice on the winning side) -- then again, they have played more postseason games in that time than anybody else.
So to figure out the road ahead for Texas, we have to find out what happened to the other 14 teams that suffered colossal defeats. Did they immediately recover, the way the Rangers vowed in their clubhouse? Or was the collateral damage so great that they needed several years and a new manager to recover?
The track record does not bode well for Texas and manager Ron Washington. Take a look at the aftermaths of the collapses. The teams are listed in order of how many more years the same manager remained in place. Also listed are how many years it took for the franchise to win its next postseason series:
What can we tell from this list? Teams don't recover quickly from devastating postseason losses. Only four teams won their next postseason series with the same manager -- and three of those had icons in the dugout (Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox; the fourth was Mike Hargrove).
More than half the managers of teams that suffered huge postseason losses were fired within two years. On average, it took about eight years for the team to win another postseason series.
Only three out of 14 teams made an immediate recovery, winning a postseason series the very next year with the same manager. And only one of them bounced back to win it all: the 1989 Oakland Athletics.
The team the 2011 Rangers most resemble is the 1986 Red Sox. They are fraternal twins in history, both of them the only two teams to get within one strike of winning the World Series without actually winning it. Check out the comparison between the '86 Red Sox and '11 Rangers in how many times they were one pitch away from being champions in their respective Game 6 disasters:
So what happened to the Red Sox after the Schiraldi-Stanley-Buckner Game 6 meltdown and subsequent Game 7 loss? The next year, returning the same lineup and same manager, they sunk to fifth place with a losing record (78-84). In July, with just two homers and a .621 OPS, Bill Buckner was released. Manager John McNamara survived that season, but was fired 75 games into the next. It was not until 13 years later, in 1999, that Boston won another postseason series. The negativity of the 1986 World Series is what established the franchise as cursed.
How can the '12 Rangers avoid becoming the '87 Red Sox? They can start by taking ownership of the World Series loss in terms of its scope. Game 6 was a disaster, and although rightfielder Nelson Cruz (playing too shallow in the ninth inning, not staying behind a flyball), closer Neftali Feliz (blown save and some question about whether he was fit to pitch in the 10th), reliever Darren Oliver (two lefties and the pitcher due up with a two-run lead in the 10th) and reliever Mark Lowe (3-and-2 changeup to David Freese) are easy targets, the Rangers have to admit they blew it as a team and not get involved in what former Red Sox pitcher Bruce Hurst called "picking at the scab" of the loss.
Like Boston, the Rangers essentially will return the same lineup. Don't look for Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder to wind up in Texas just yet. The Rangers don't want to be saddled with a huge inefficient contract, knowing they already have Michael Young and Adrian Beltre pulling down $32 million in 2013 and need a boatload of money to extend the contract of Josh Hamilton. (If extension talks blow up with Hamilton, Fielder may indeed come into the picture.)
Ace C.J. Wilson might be back, but only on a below-market contract. Wilson was gassed by October. He has started the most games in baseball over the past two years, 76, including the postseason, while throwing 479 2/3 innings, much of it in the heat of Texas after spending five years in the bullpen. It has been a rigorous workload running up to free agency at age 31.
Think about this if you want to be spending money on a starting pitcher at age 34 and beyond: Last season there were only six pitchers 34 or older who posted an ERA+ better than 100 over at least 200 innings -- Roy Halladay, Hiroki Kuroda, Tim Hudson, R.A. Dickey, Randy Wolf and Chris Carpenter -- and none of them pitched in the AL.
What the Rangers can do is put Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando in the starting rotation with Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland, with Scott Feldman as another option. They have ninth inning coverage if they want it with Mike Adams, or they can choose from the buyers' market of closers. Remember, last spring when Feliz worked as a starting pitcher the Rangers put him back in the closer's role because they had no decent alternative (Lowe and Ogando were the unproven candidates). But now they have Adams or they can go find the next J.J. Putz or Kyle Farnsworth -- buying low on a closer who can provide coverage without having to spend huge money (Matt Capps, Francisco Cordero, Joe Nathan, Jon Rauch, Kerry Wood, Jonathan Broxton, etc.)
Feliz's arm is wasted throwing 60-something innings a year, and he's not exactly bulletproof as a closer. Can the Rangers turn up another guy who can save 32 games in 38 chances? You bet. Can they find a starting pitcher who throws in the upper 90s? No. And the fact that Feliz could not take the ball in the 10th for whatever reason -- having thrown only 22 pitches -- at the age of 23 and needing three outs to win the World Series is an indictment of how he is used.
Texas has plenty of reasons why it should be optimistic about another postseason appearance in 2012. Until baseball realigns -- most likely in 2013 with two 15-team leagues -- the Rangers still benefit from playing in the AL West, the only four-team division in baseball, thus giving them a 25 percent chance of making the postseason. So they have simple math on their side. They also still have plenty of impact players in their prime years, so age should not be a factor. Then there is the increased revenues they will have from another pennant winning season that will take the payroll back over $100 million for the first time since 2003.
But don't discount the psychic weight of the historic loss. The Rangers are the oldest current franchise never to have won the World Series, a drought that enters year 52 next season. Until now, their futility included almost no angst whatsoever. They were cursed by irrelevance if anything. But with Game 6 they have earned an infamy. Next season will be their first playing with ghosts. In a way, they became a true franchise by having paid such dues. Now what defines them is not what happened in Game 6, but what happens after it.