This season, people have compared the Orioles and their turnaround to the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. Heck, they’ve compared a whole bunch of teams to the 2008 Rays! We’ve seen them compare the O’s, the Athletics, and the Nationals all to that same 2008 Rays team. Considering just how incredible the Rays’ 2008 run was, every team going from anywhere near worst to first is being compared to them. Do any of them really compare? Let’s find out.
From 2005 to 2007, the Devil Rays were the worst team in baseball, going just 194-292 (.399). In 2006 and 2007, they were just 127-197 (.392) as they finished last in the AL both years. How about the O’s, A’s, and Nationals? Here’s a nice little table (WP% is winning percentage).
None of the trio of teams who have come on this season made nearly as big of a jump compared to the Rays even if you want to go back as far as 5 years. The Rays literally went worst to first. The Nationals and Athletics were not last place teams and the Orioles may not have been a last place team if they had played outside the AL East as they were bad but not horrific as the Devil Rays were.
Performance in Turnaround
Let’s add two columns to the chart above: winning percentage in the year of the turnaround (WP% in Turnaround), and the difference in winning percentage from the year of the turnaround to the year before (WP% Increase).
The Nationals actually have a better winning percentage than the Rays this season (although considering they’ll be able to rest their starters, the margin could be much smaller by the end of the year), but the difference in winning percentage favors the 2008 Rays by a wide margin (that’s a difference of nearly 10 wins per 162 games between the Rays and the Orioles, the next closest team).
A big deal has been made about how the Orioles have been outscored this season but have been winning thanks to their ability to win 1-run games thanks to their great bullpen (more on the bullpen below). Let’s see how lucky each of these teams have been in terms of how many more wins they have compared to their Pythagorean Winning Percentage (which is computed based on runs scored and runs allowed) and their records in 1-run games.
Everybody had at least a little luck involved in 1-run games. The thing is that the Orioles’ luck is exponentially better than everybody else’s as the other 3 teams all have winning percentages in 1-run games that were not far from their overall winning percentages. The Orioles’ Pythagorean luck also laps the field.
Maybe it’s not the magnitude of the turnaround that really matters. Maybe the biggest parallel between these different teams and the 2008 Rays is how they turned themselves around: pitching and defense. Let’s look at that.
All these teams are all over the place. The 2008 Rays were around the same in terms of FIP, but had a huge decrease in ERA. The 2012 Orioles improved but still have a horrific rotation ERA and FIP. The A’s basically stayed exactly the same. And the Nationals’ rotation jumped from good to very good. It’s hard to make a good comparison here, although we can say that it wasn’t truly better starting pitchers that led to the 2008 Rays’ incredible season- it was better defense and better luck.
Wow. The 2007 Devil Rays had a 6.16 bullpen ERA! Holy smokes! We see the bullpens making hugh progress for both the Rays and Orioles while the Athletics’ got better but luck (along with defense) could be a big factor and the Nationals stayed put. But even for the Orioles, no one had anywhere the type of ERA or FIP jump as the Rays’ bullpen. The Orioles saw a few relievers step up- the Rays completely transformed their bullpen.
Overall for the pitching, we see that everyone but the Nationals saw significant improvement to their pitching staffs. The Rays’ improvement was most striking overall, but the Orioles’ was also significant. The Athletics’ pitching staff had a huge turnover, mirroring the Rays in that way, but the difference was that the Athletics had something to build off of and were able to use a couple of good starting pitchers in Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey to acquire talented pitchers to take their places while the Rays were starting almost from scratch, having to make astute trades trading players of little use for productive players and depend on their farm system. The Nationals’ improvement has more to do with the offense than anything else.
Now let’s look at the defense. Defensive stats are always up for debate, but here we’ll use defensive efficiency (DE), the percentage of batted balls that the defense converts into outs, and park-adjusted defensive efficiency (PADE).
Here we see that everyone improved, but the 2008 Rays’ improvement was by far the most substantial. Looking back at FIP and trying to make sense of the difference between ERA and FIP, we saw the Rays’ pitching staff benefit enormously while the A’s and Orioles showed considerable gains as well. The A’s and Orioles bullpens still looks like they got lucky, although their defensive improvement shows that it was not by as much as you would have thought.
This is where it may get most interesting. The payroll data is courtesy of USA Today.
The 2008 Rays’ payroll is the lowest by quite a bit, but we see that they actually added the most money of anyone. The asterisk there is that the Rays didn’t really spend too much of that money to acquire new players but instead to keep their talented players from the previous season- Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, and Scott Kazmir. The payroll difference tells us quite a bit about how each team became so good. The Rays went up from the absolute bottom in salary to a more respectable number and invested the money wisely. It has to be noted that they moved up from last in MLB in payroll to just 29th. The Orioles cut bait with unproductive high-priced players and put the cast to better use. The Athletics cut salary but did so not by cutting the veterans they couldn’t afford and put stopgaps in for damage control but instead getting younger and replacing those productive veterans with younger players who were nearly as good. And the Nationals took the strategy of adding the few pieces they needed for a championship run.
Whose turnaround is most impressive? Well, we have seven categories, and here are the totals. 4 points is awarded for first in a category, 3 for second, etc. The rankings are based on the most improvement in each category.
There you have it- the Rays’ turnaround is still the best according to my method with the Orioles coming in a close second. None of these three teams beat the 2008 Rays at their own game, although factoring in offensive improvement would make the comparison even closer. The Rays’ turnaround was the most impressive because of just how bad they were beforehand along with how much their bullpen and defense improved, but all these teams have put together extremely impressive runs. It will be fun to see how the rest of 2012 pans out- will any of these great stories in 2012 make it all the way to the World Series like the Rays did?
(Personally, I hope not, at least in the cases of the O’s and A’s. I’d be more than happy to see the Rays take on the Nats in the World Series.)
Agree with me? Think my so-called method is complete nonsense? Please praise me, tear me apart, or somewhere in between in the comments.