The Myth of the Steady Rise

Having lost 95 or more games in three of the last four seasons, the Seattle Mariners have moved into full-scale rebuilding mode. Their big offensive upgrade of the winter was 22-year-old Jesus Montero, and the team is currently penciling in players with less than a full year of experience at second base (Dustin Ackley), third base (Kyle Seager) and left field (Mike Carp), plus wherever Montero ends up playing. General manager Jack Zduriencik is preaching patience, letting the fans know that they should expect to take some lumps this year, but that the fruit of going young will pay off with a steady rise up the standings as the kids mature.

Zduriencik can point to the Texas Rangers, who slowly stockpiled talent for years and saw their win total rise every season from 2007 through 2011. However, a more thorough look at recent history suggests that teams don’t usually follow this model of taking a slow, methodical rise from good to bad.

That isn’t to say that teams that lose with a bunch of young players don’t improve as those guys develop, or that the strategy currently being employed in Seattle won’t work in the long term. However, the evidence does show that improvement often comes from a big unexpected leap forward, as opposed to a steady rise.

The most recent example of this phenomenon was last year’s Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the National League West with a 94-68 record and took the Milwaukee Brewers to five games in the NLDS. The Diamondbacks had won just 65 games in 2010 and 70 games in 2009, so they certainly weren’t trending upward with a youth movement. They spent most of last winter fielding offers for star right fielder Justin Upton before finally deciding to hang on to him, and then GM Kevin Towers filled out roster with seven free agents, all of whom were 33 or older.

One of those additions, J.J. Putz, proved to be a vital cog in their bullpen turnaround, and the team improved on its 2010 record by 29 games. Rather than turning the franchise around slowly, the Diamondbacks relied on a roster full of solid contributors around one superstar (Upton) and were able to thrust themselves back into contention in short order.

The D-backs weren’t the only team that skipped the slow climb back toward contention in recent years. The 2010 San Diego Padres improved by 15 wins and lost out on a division title during the final game of the season, while the Cincinnati Reds added 13 wins to their prior season total and captured the NL Central title. In 2009, the Colorado Rockies won 92 games and the wild-card spot just a year after winning 74 games and trading away Matt Holliday. Then, of course, there are the Tampa Bay Rays, who famously jumped from 66 wins in 2007 to 97 in 2008.

Rebuilding myth
Of the teams with the 10 worst records in 2008, only one has seen an incremental increase in wins.

TEAM	'08	'09	'10	'11	AVG
KC	75	65	67	71	67.7
COL	74	92	83	79	84.7
CIN	74	78	91	79	82.7
DET	74	86	81	95	87.3
SF	72	88	92	86	88.7
ATL	72	86	91	89	88.7
BAL	68	64	66	69	66.3
PIT	67	62	57	72	63.7
SD	63	75	90	71	78.7
SEA	61	85	61	67	71.0
WAS	59	59	69	80	69.3
AVG	69.0	76.4	77.1	78.0	77.2

These big leaps forward may look like the exception rather than the rule, but the data suggests that large, unexpected improvements are actually more common than sustained rises through the ranks. The table to the right shows the 10 worst records in baseball in 2008, and then their win totals for each of the next three seasons:

The teams that struggled the most in 2008 were significantly improved the following year, but their average win totals in the following two seasons barely improved. The Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers were able to make the leap directly from bottom-10 team to perennial contenders, with all three posting .500 or better records in each season since. The only team that is following the traditional model of incremental improvement is the Nationals.

Even looking closer at the history of teams that built from within with young talent, we don’t really see this steady rise from bad to OK to contender. Tampa Bay won 67 games in 2005, 61 games in 2006 and 66 games in 2007 before surging forward to 97 victories and a World Series appearance in 2008. The Rays were stockpiling young talent during those years of losing, but they jumped straight from being terrible to being great in one season.

Baseball is a weird game, full of unexpected outcomes and things that simply couldn’t have been predicted in any kind of five-year plan. Young players get hurt, bad players have good years, expected contenders fall apart and teams that were written off as also-rans make the playoffs every year. Building from within is a good strategy, but teams should also put themselves in a position to capitalize if the stars align and they end up as the season’s surprise contender.

The Miami Marlins made the biggest offseason splash in attempting to upgrade a roster that won 72 games last year, but don’t be surprised if one of the other 10 teams that finished with 75 or fewer wins last year makes a run at a playoff spot as well.

The unexpected contender has become so common that we need to begin to expect it. Teams go from terrible to good in one season every year, and every team in baseball should begin 2012 with some modicum of hope. The Mariners, Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins might look like also-rans on paper, but don’t be surprised if we’re talking about whether one of these teams can actually pull off the upset in September.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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