The A's, Orioles and miracle teams

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
8:30
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In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," author Bill James has a section titled "Miracles" on the three 1960s surprise pennant winners: the 1961 Cincinnati Reds, the 1967 Boston Red Sox and the 1969 New York Mets. The Reds improved by 26 wins (67 to 93), the Red Sox by 20 (72 to 92) and the Mets by 27 (73 to 100). The Reds and Red Sox won their first pennants in 21 seasons while the Mets improved from ninth place to first place and won the World Series.

James outlined four ways that teams can show dramatic improvement:

1. Make some good trades.
2. Come up with young players from the farm system.
3. Young players they already have improve.
4. Veterans have some career seasons.

In modern baseball, of course, you can add free agency as a fifth category.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Orioles should be celebrating. They're in playoff contention after not having a winning record in 15 seasons.
What's made the 2012 season so exciting has been the emergence of the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles as potential "miracle" teams. The A's weren't exactly doormats in 2011, winning 74 games, but after they traded away Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and lost their best hitter (Josh Willingham) to free agency, many predicted a 100-loss -- or worse -- season for Oakland. In another sense, the Orioles are maybe the better definition of "miracle." They hadn't owned a winning record since 1997 and had lost 92-plus games the six previous seasons, including 93 in 2011.

Of course, the Reds, Red Sox and Mets didn't have the luxury of the wild card, and neither the A's nor the Orioles have locked up anything yet. But with their surprising success on our minds, I thought it would be fun to take a quick look at the three teams Bill wrote about plus three other miracle teams since.

To summarize Bill's work, here's a quick recap of those three teams.

1961 Reds
1. Trades. Traded shortstop Roy McMillan for pitchers Joey Jay and Juan Pizarro, then traded Pizarro for third baseman Gene Freese. Moved third baseman Eddie Kasko to shortstop.

2. Farm system. Not really.

3. Young players. Jim O'Toole improved from 12-12, 3.80, to 19-9, 3.10. Gordy Coleman moved into a full-time role at first base and hit 28 home runs.

4. Veterans. Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson were the Reds' best players in 1960 but improved from 11.3 WAR to 14.5 WAR. Part-timers Jerry Lynch and Wally Post had big seasons.

What happened next: The Reds actually improved to 98 wins but dropped to third place in 1962. They were competitive throughout the '60s but didn't reach the playoffs until 1970, with an entirely different roster.

1967 Red Sox
1. Trades. Not really.

2. Farm system. Reggie Smith and Mike Andrews had outstanding rookie seasons.

3. Young players. Jim Lonborg went from 10-10, 3.86, to 22-9, 3.16 (and won the Cy Young Award). Rico Petrocelli and George Scott were better.

4. Veterans. Carl Yastrzemski had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, improving from 5.1 to 12.0 WAR.

What happened next: The Red Sox had the second-youngest lineup in the AL in 1967 and began a string of 16 consecutive winning seasons, but 1975 was their only other playoff appearance during that period.

1969 Mets
1. Trades. Not really. Donn Clendenon came over in midseason to add some power at first base.

2. Farm system. Pitchers Gary Gentry and Tug McGraw were key additions.

3. Young players. Tom Seaver was great in 1968 (2.20 ERA) but even greater in 1969 (2.21, which in context -- remember, the mound was lowered in 1969 -- was a better season). Outfielders Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones were both 26 in 1969 so were young veterans who had big years.

4. Veterans. Not really. The Mets were the youngest team in the league.

What happened next: A numbing consistency: 83, 83, 83, 82 (although that was enough to win the division), 71 and 82 wins.

Here are my three other miracle teams.

[+] EnlargeTom Glavine
US PresswireTom Glavine helped the Braves go from doormat to years of dominance beginning in the 1991 season.
1991 Atlanta Braves
The Braves had won a division title in 1982 but had been a joke in recent years, averaging 96 losses per season over the previous six years. But Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz had quietly been developing a slew of young talent and it all came together overnight as the Braves improved from 65 wins to 94.

1. Trades. Acquired Otis Nixon from the Expos and he posted a .371 OBP and stole 72 bases before a drug suspension late in the season.

2. Farm system. Mike Stanton and Mark Wohlers were rookie relievers. Outfielder/first baseman Brian Hunter drove in 50 runs in a part-time role.

3. Young players. Tom Glavine and Steve Avery improved from a combined 0.2 WAR to 13.1 (Glavine won the Cy Young Award). John Smoltz improved from 3.3 WAR to 5.1.

4. Veterans. See below.

5. Free agents. The Braves signed third baseman Terry Pendleton, first baseman Sid Bream (which allowed David Justice to move to right field) and shortstop Rafael Belliard (although Jeff Blauser played a lot of shortstop as well). All three were excellent glove men and Pendleton responded with a career year at the plate to win MVP honors.

What happened next: A lot of playoff appearances.

2002 Anaheim Angels
The Angels had never reached the World Series and hadn't made the postseason since 1986. While they had hovered around .500 at times, they had gone 75-87 in 2001. They won 99 games and the wild card and then got hot in the postseason to win it all.

1. Trades. Amazingly, they were able to trade Mo Vaughn -- who had missed the entire 2001 season -- to the Mets for a solid starter in Kevin Appier, who went 14-12, 3.92. Brad Fullmer, acquired from Toronto for Brian Cooper, slugged .531 as team's DH.

2. Farm system. John Lackey came up during the season and went 9-4, 3.66. Brendan Donnelly was a 30-year-old rookie reliever who had been let go by seven different teams but had a 2.17 ERA in 49 games. September call-up Francisco Rodriguez pitched only a few innings during the regular season but had a spectacular playoff run.

3. Young players. Starters Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz had what would be the best years of their careers. Second baseman Adam Kennedy improved from 1.3 to 4.4 WAR.

4. Veterans. Garret Anderson had the best season of his career, at least according to WAR (4.7, a two-plus-win improvement from 2001). Tim Salmon had a bad year in 2001 (0.9 WAR) but a good one in 2002 (3.7 WAR). Darin Erstad had a spectacular year on defense in center field, winning a Gold Glove, fueling a 3.4 WAR gain.

5. Free agents. Aaron Sele proved to be back-end rotation fodder.

What happened next: After dropping back to 77-85 in 2003, the Angels won five of the next six AL West titles. The team did have significant turnover, however, with the 2004 club improving primarily by signing free agents Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Jose Guillen.

2008 Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays had never won more than 70 games in their franchise history and had gone 66-96 in 2007. They went 97-65, won the AL East and reached the World Series.

1. Trades. Delmon Young brought shortstop Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza from the Twins, with Bartlett a big upgrade defensively over Brendan Harris.

2. Farm system. Evan Longoria hit .272 with 27 home runs, and his arrival allowed the Rays to move Akinori Iwamura to second base. David Price was a September call-up who helped in the postseason.

3. Young players. Starters Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine went from a combined 0.8 WAR to 3.2. Relievers J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour combined for 5.1 WAR as the bullpen ERA improved from 6.16 to 3.55. Catcher Dioner Navarro had his one good season. Ben Zobrist slugged .505 in a part-time role.

The surprising thing about the 2008 Rays is that the young core of James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena wasn't actually any better than in 2007. In fact, those five declined (at least according to Baseball-Reference metrics) from 25.3 WAR to 17.4 WAR. Basically, the Rays had no good pitchers in 2007 other than Shields and Kazmir. Garza, Jackson and Sonnanstine improved the back of the rotation; the bullpen, which had been maybe the worst in history, obviously improved.

4. Veteran players. No.

5. Free agents. Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd provided solid production in the outfield and DH in part-time roles. Troy Percival saved 28 games.

What happened next: They're still hanging around.

In comparing the A's and Orioles to these teams, the A's are the more conventional miracle team -- a group of young players that suddenly comes together, although they're somewhat unique in that many of the rookies and young players were acquired via trade. The Orioles are more difficult to define, since their improvement stems almost entirely from their all-time best record in one-run games. So give credit to the bullpen, plus some credit to the additions of starters Jason Hammel (trade) and Wei-Yin Chen (free agent from Japan).

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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