The Success Cycle is Full of Crap

We’re pleased to welcome our newest addition to the FanGraphs team – Jonah Keri. You may be familiar with his work, as he’s written for every publication known to man. We’re thrilled that he’s going to be writing for us going forward.

My name is Jonah Keri, and I am a fraud.

Nine years ago, I penned my first-ever article as a professional baseball writer, entitled “The Success Cycle”. The premise of the article was that every MLB team falls into one of three categories:

Competing teams feature enough talent on the major league roster to make a run at the playoffs. They should add win-now veterans and give themselves the best chance to win immediately.
Building teams own a solid core of major league talent, but still need to add a few pieces and wait another year or two to make a playoff run.
Rebuilding teams have already had their run at glory, and now must trade away veterans for prospects, bide their time for a few years, and take a shot at another run then.

The labels were all horribly wrong, and not just because the article referred to Luke Prokopec as an example of a desirable young talent.

On one end of the spectrum, you have the Yankees and Red Sox. With payrolls dwarfing the rest of baseball, there should never be any need for these teams to rebuild. Not that money guarantees dogpiles at the end of the season, but it does afford certain luxuries.

You can sign Carl Pavano to do nothing but fetch hot dogs, and still be fine. Or take a chance on a creaky Brad Penny or John Smoltz and kiss them goodbye a few months later, with no harm done. Best of all, if you have an elite player accruing service time, you’re not compelled to trade him a few months, a year, or even three years before he hits the open market.

In fact, not only can teams of that ilk avoid the dramatic teardowns that come with a true rebuilding project, the pressure to do just the opposite is overwhelming. When Theo Epstein said the Red Sox were in a bit of a “bridge period” after the 2009 season, Boston media couldn’t contain their contempt. After snapping an 86-year World Series drought by winning two titles in four seasons, the Red Sox could no longer afford to bide their time, let their prospects develop, and simply try to compete. Hell, even being a bit dull was deemed a capital offense

It’s not just the big boys who spit on the theory, though. Some of the lowest-revenue teams have likewise rendered the idea of a Success Cycle moot.

Years before Carl Pohlad built on his efforts to foreclose on family farms during the Depression by adding stadium extortion to his list of achievements, the Twins racked up division titles on a shoestring budget. Yes, they eventually unloaded more expensive veterans. But they compensated by plugging in newer, younger stars, and didn’t miss a beat. Counting the more middle-class Twins roster of 2010, Minnesota has won six division titles in the past nine years, with only one sub-.500 season during that stretch. You can’t just dismiss those accomplishments by blaming it on relatively weak AL Central competition.

The A’s made their own run starting in 2000, ripping off five playoff berths in seven seasons, finishing first or second in each of those years. Billy Beane‘s most impressive feat actually came a year before Oakland’s run of playoff berths started. At the 1999 trade deadline, with the A’s in the hunt, Beane flipped three pitching prospects for Kevin Appier. That same day, he dealt 37-year-old closer Billy Taylor for a replacement stopper 11 years younger, who was also coming off major surgery, had missed the entire previous season, and owned an abysmal 6.41 ERA, with crummy peripherals to match. Jason Isringhausen quickly turned into one of the best closers in the game, and the A’s launched their run a year later, getting better and younger at the same time. Some guy named Michael Lewis even wrote a book about it.

More recently, the Tampa Bay Rays have emerged as one of the strongest examples of a team’s ability to build and win at the same time. In my upcoming book, The Extra 2 Percent, I asked several executives, from Chuck LaMar to Dave Dombrowski, if simultaneously winning and building was doable. Both said it was the most difficult trick a team could pull. J.P. Ricciardi said constructing a playoff team and stacking your organization with young talent was indeed a reachable goal. But in the AL East, he warned, it was nearly impossible.

The Rays didn’t see it that way. Not only could they challenge the two toughest opponents in the sport every year for a playoff spot, they could do so while constantly upgrading their farm system, converting established big leaguers into younger assets, winning and renewing, over and over. To Andrew Friedman and the Rays’ legion of brilliant scouts and player development minds, coaches and number crunchers, this wasn’t just a noble goal. It was the only way the team could prosper.

An army of rookies and near-rookies — Matt Joyce, John Jaso, Wade Davis, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac — played pivotal roles in the Rays winning the AL East last year, just as Evan Longoria, David Price, and Matt Garza did two years earlier. The prognosticators who’ve written off the 2011 Rays may not think much of unproven commodities like Jake McGee, Desmond Jennings, and super-sleeper Adam Russell now, but they ignore the Rays’ ability to repeat history at their own peril.

Being self-aware enough to constantly evaluate the state of your organization, realistically assess your team’s chances of winning, and construct a plan accordingly, is a state every team should strive to achieve. But let’s leave it at that. You don’t need a Cycle to find Success.




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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

41 Responses to “The Success Cycle is Full of Crap”

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  1. Carson says:

    Welcome aboard, Jonah. I love your work. Great piece to kick things off.

    It would have been 2% better without a Dan Shaughnessy reference, though!

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    • Albert Lyu says:

      Don’t you mean Shman Shmaughnessy, Carson?

      Carson and Jonah = Ultimate Podcast for #allthetostitos (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Welcome, Jonah! I hope the Amazon widget serves your book well. Looking forward to all of your work here at FanGraphs!

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  2. Heather says:

    I think you’re being a little hard on yourself. The concept of the “Success Cycle” isn’t horribly wrong. Sounds like a few teams are outliers. That doesn’t destroy your main premise.

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    • Jonah Keri says:

      Well, I named five examples. There are also teams that can never seem to get it together, like the Pirates (and arguably the Royals, even if their farm system is obviously very strong now). The White Sox make a go at it every year, using Kenny Williams’ unique GM Ninja Skillz. There are others too.

      Just embrace the fact that I’m full of crap, and we’ll all be better off.

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      • The209 says:

        Getting it together would be bad for the Pirates’ business model.

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      • jGreen says:

        Things that were once taken as indisputable fact were later found to be completely wrong. Most things we held to be “religious truths” 200 years ago are now seen as silly superstition. Whether or not the Success Cycle theory is 100% accurate is not important. What is important is the attempt to best understand the game of baseball using ALL the available data.

        You would only be “full of crap” if you refused to question an old theory even in the face of new evidence to the contrary. Sabermetrics only works when we’re willing to question ALL of our theories, regardless of who invented them or how much faith we once had in them.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Just embrace the fact that I’m full of crap, and we’ll all be better off.

        I’m not sure you’re going to fit in here with all of that humility.

        Welcome, regardless.

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    • Matt says:

      Furthermore, 2 of the outliers, the As and Rays, don’t really appear to be outliers to me.

      Sure, the As rattled off some successful seasons, but they were a competing team. Then they went down the suck hole for a few years while they were rebuilding. Now, they’re starting to enter the building team phase again.

      The Rays, well I don’t think they’ve been successful long enough to claim that they have broken the cycle as well. Competing this year will go a long way towards starting to see them as an outlier, but then again, Longoria’s contract is such an outlier it makes being an outlier a lot easier.

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    • Big Jgke says:

      There’s a difference between being wrong and being an optimist.

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  3. Chris K says:

    Stoked that I don’t have to pay for a BP subscription to read Jonah Keri now.

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  4. Rick says:

    Welcome Jonah! Been a fan for awhile, love the podcast and can’t wait to see more of your work here at Fangraphs.

    I wouldn’t throw out your success cycle framework altogether, but limit it to descriptions of status. Seems like the recommendation is always the same:

    1) Constantly strive to increase the level of talent throughout the organization.
    2) If you don’t have enough talent to win now, either a) supplement with FA signed to deals that don’t threaten #1, assuming you have the payroll to do so or b) trade away players who won’t be contributors next time for additional talent.

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  5. Comparing Pavano’s 40m contract with 2 low risk 1 year deals seems a bit off, also Philly, Anaheim, NYM, Dodgers etc have all had pay rolls within the Red Sox budget in the last few years. The Yankees and Sox generally win due to money and fairly competent scouting staffs, How about the Mets Oliver Perez deal? Or the trade Sox/Yanks did not make for Johan who has had extreme declines since his massive extension. Also may want to mention Hellickson (who will be a rookie this year) as the reason Garza was really available for trade mostly because no one would offer 1 top prospect nevermind 2 for Shields who they really wanted to move.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      Up until his recent injury, there hasn’t been anything “extreme” about Johan Santana’s decline. Yes he’s consistently declined, but he remained one of the best pitchers in baseball until very recently.

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  6. Pat G. says:

    Welcome Jonah! Glad to have you on another forum.

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  7. John Franco says:

    So what do we have, then? A revenue cycle? To some extent, teams’ payrolls do fluctuate when they’re winning compared to when they’re losing. Maybe a revenue hierarchy would be better:

    -Above the law / Nearly above the law
    -Can keep their own stars and sign occasional FA
    -Can keep some of their own stars but not much of a player in FA
    -Can’t keep their own stars into free agency
    -Can’t even keep their own stars into arbitration

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    • Jonah Keri says:

      I honestly don’t think we can box anything in baseball into anything as neat and clean as a cycle. The game is so dynamic and unpredictable, even chaotic, that all you can do is apply best practices and go from there.

      I mean even the title of my book is extremely vague, on purpose. What do the Rays do 2% than everyone else? Everything, you could argue. How exactly do they do it? Even 270 pages don’t fully explain it. But the basic premise is this: Prepare for as many contingencies as possible. The Rays layer scenario on scenario on scenario, so that they can react to anything – injuries, prospect flames out, whatever.

      About the best a team can do is expect the unexpected, try to get to know the unknowable.

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  8. LD303 says:

    ANDREW FRIEDMAN IS A GOLDEN GOD WHO CAN DO NO WRONG AND HAS NEVER MADE/WILL NEVER MAKE A BAD DECISION DURING HIS ENTIRE TENURE.

    -Baseball Writers

    Look, I’m as impressed with what he’s done as anyone. It’s amazing. Some of the fanboy worship for him is getting a little out of hand for my taste though; at some point a large contingent of people decided to agree that all Rays prospects will always pan out and make immediate positive impact at the MLB level. I don’t think any other team gets that kind of deference. It reached a fever pitch (in my mind) last week when Cameron essentially treated as a foregone conclusion the idea that a backup catcher with unspectacular tools and 60 PAs above AAA will be AT MINIMUM a 1 win player this year. Why? Because he’s a Ray, that’s why!

    I’m not a Rays hater (do those exist?) or even a fan of another AL team. I’m just consistently disappointed that the writers/commenters on sites like FG- sites supposedly dedicated to objective analysis- go out of their way to praise execs like Friedman with flowery narrative-shaping language like:

    “To Andrew Friedman and the Rays’ legion of brilliant scouts and player development minds, coaches and number crunchers, this wasn’t just a noble goal. It was the only way the team could prosper.”

    and lob grenades at others with successful track records. One last time- I understand that Friedman is good. I’m just tired of the love letters he gets when others with solid track records get nothing. At this point Friedman is the Tebow of baseball management.

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    • fenwik says:

      Are you talking about this?

      “Whether they use their new-found budget room to sign Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero, or Johnny Damon, the Rays will be adding something like a +1 to +2 win DH to their roster. When you add that value to the extra innings they can give Hellickson and the addition of Chirinos as catching depth, it’s pretty easy to see the Rays actually coming out ahead of what they had with Garza still on the team.”

      Because Cameron isn’t saying that Chirinos is adding those wins.

      Just saying.

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      • Oscar says:

        He’s probably talking about this:

        “Even if we take a lot of the air out of his minor-league numbers (he was a 26-year-old in Double-A, after all), it’s hard to project Chirinos as worse than a one-win player for 2011. ”

        Yes. That’s probably it.

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      • LD303 says:

        Thanks Oscar. Just sayin’. Also, of course, typo in my original comment- Chirinos has 60 PAs above AA, not AAA. But he’s a sure thing to log 1 WAR this year, and will probably be above that.

        Of course, if the teams’ roles in the transaction were reversed- the Rays felt like they were one pitcher away and mortgaged part of their farm to get a 3 WAR SP from the Cubs (just pretend with me here for a second)- the consensus on FG and other high-minded baseball sites would be “RAYS FLEECE CUBS- THEY GAVE UP NO ONE FOR GARZA. ANOTHER BRILLIANT GAMBIT BY FRIEDMAN. CAN YOU BELIEVE THEY GOT THE CUBS TO THINK CHIRINOS HAS ANY VALUE AT ALL?” I’m sure of it.

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      • Crumpled Stiltskin says:

        You do realize how bad you have to be at catcher not to log 1 WAR given any sort of playing time?

        1 WAR is not saying the guy’s going to be Carlos Santana or Buster Posey Matt Wieters or even John Jaso. 1 WAR at catcher basically means you can’t hit at all but you don’t give up runs in the field or you hit averagely but can’t field at all.

        It’s not exactly a lofty goal.

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      • blackout says:

        “I’m sure of it.”

        Well if that ain’t the kiss of death. lol

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  9. Barkey Walker says:

    Uh, the Tiwns had down time from 1993 to 2000. During that period they never broke 0.500 and the only team record that was set was Knoblauch’s 19 season hit-by-pitch record.

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  10. CS says:

    Welcome Jonah.

    LD303, completely agree. TB’s first wave of veteran talents are just exiting – Pena, Crawford, Bartlett… and their prospects are still unproven (McGee, Jennings, etc). What this team looks like in 3 years may or may not be book-worthy. At the moment, I think it’s premature.

    Their current state stems primarily from sucking Pirates-style for over a decade, while not sucking Pirates-style in drafting. Scouting has been A++, although let’s not forget relative duds like Rocco Baldelli (6th), Dewon Brazelton (3rd), Delmon Young (1st!), Wade Townsend (8th) and even BJ Upton (2nd). The book is still out on Tim Beckham. In my opinion, picks 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 etc would have been better fits from the top 10 in 2008.

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    • Not this shit again... says:

      “Their current state stems primarily from sucking Pirates-style for over a decade,”

      Completely and totally agr….

      “Let’s not forget relative duds like Rocco Baldelli (6th), Dewon Brazelton (3rd), Delmon Young (1st!), Wade Townsend (8th) and even BJ Upton (2nd).”

      Wait, what?

      I’m not sure you thought this through, the only other picks the Rays had were Hamilton (irrelevant to their current success) , Niemann (hardly a world beater), Longoria, and Price.

      You need more than two or three players to compete consistently.

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  11. Peter says:

    Kevin Pelton wrote a piece on the Success Cycle piece from an NBA perspective recently (http://www.basketballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1360), also citing Derek Zumsteg’s follow-up piece to the original piece (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1707). Peace!

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  12. Jonah Keri says:

    @CS: All due respect, but if you think sucking for a decade and racking up high picks is the reason for the Rays’ success, I’d strongly encourage you to check out the book. Honestly, I came into the project thinking the same thing. But the more you drill down, the more you find it goes much deeper than that.

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    • Big Jgke says:

      No matter how much deeper it goes, I seriously doubt that without that sucking they could be where they are today. Now maybe they have the management philosophies in place to turn their suckiness windfall of good players into sustained success, rather than a KC-of-the-pena-years flash in the pan, but they wouldn’t be here without it.

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      • Not this shit again... says:

        You just called half of the high draft picks the Rays have ever had bust. As I pointed out above their only other picks were, Hamilton, Niemann, Longoria and Price.

        You need more than two or three players to compete consistently.

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      • Not this shit again... says:

        Whoops, you’re totally not the person I responded to above, sorry ’bout that.

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      • Big Jgke says:

        That’s it ‘Not this shit again…’ pistols at dawn! I demand satisfaction for being confused with someone else!

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      • Someanalyst says:

        I’ll be your second if you need one Big Jgke…. You too Not this…

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  13. Jonah Keri says:

    And thanks for the welcome, by the way!

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  14. Llewdor says:

    YAY! JONAH KERI!

    First, it’s always good to have more Canadians writing about baseball. If only we could develop durable pitchers…

    Second, I’m a big fan. You were my second-favourite writer at BP back in the day (only Zumsteg stood above you, and he doesn’t write abut baseball anymore, so welcome to the big time, Jonah!).

    I look forward to reading your articles.

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  15. Someanalyst says:

    Jonah – If the front office talent of the Rays org is so superior, why do they not get poached by teams that could afford to spend more on baseball operations staff? Or will it happen over time perhaps?

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  16. Jonah Keri says:

    @Someanalyst: That’s a fabulous question. On the upper levels, Friedman and Silverman are supertight with Sternberg, so an offer for more money may not hold much sway.

    Elsewhere in the org, that’s certainly possible. There’s a chapter in the book called “Mystery Men” which specifically discusses the supersmart folks (man in baseball ops, but some in places like player development too) who are invaluable contributors and who the Rays would probably just as soon keep relatively anonymous, and in-house.

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  17. Jason says:

    While its admirable that you are willing to challenge your own assumptions, I think you were on to something the first time. We observe teams trade future wins (prospects) for current wins (established players) all the time in an attempt to more efficiently distribute their wins. I don’t like using single case studies but the Brewers are a great example this offseason. So at a tactical level the management of these teams are behaving in a way that would support the cycle theory.

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  18. blackout says:

    “not just because the article referred to Luke Prokopec as an example of a desirable young talent.”

    Nice. Jonah, I like it already.

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  19. Fred says:

    When I read Michael Lewis in the article I collapsed to the ground and prostrated to his greatness in hallowed reverent fashion.

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