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Tips for Identifying a Shocking MLB Success Story Before It Unfolds

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Tips for Identifying a Shocking MLB Success Story Before It Unfolds
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Thanks to all the advancements that have been made in statistical analysis over the years, baseball is more of an exact science now than it's ever been.

However, like the ol' Statue of Liberty play, the game still has the element of surprise going for it.

For example, nobody—or at least, very few people—saw the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A's coming last year. The two clubs combined to post 181 losses in 2011, and then turned around to combine for 187 wins in 2012. The established order, in the process, was very much upset.

Looking back within the last decade, the 2012 O's and A's aren't the only shocking success stories that stand out. Other clubs that come to mind are the 2003 Florida Marlins, the 2006 Detroit Tigers, the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays and the Diamondbacks again in 2011.

These eight clubs bear little in common with one another, but some deep digging did reveal some trends that they had in common. These trends have the potential to tell us who the next shocking success story is going to be. 

And they are...

 

Promising Finish the Year Before?

Rob Carr/Getty Images
The 2011 Orioles finished the season on a very high high.

More often than not, it turns out that a shocking success story isn't going to begin at random at the start of a given season. It's going to have roots in the prior season.

Six of our eight teams can vouch, starting with the oldest.

 

2003 Marlins

Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
A shot of A.J. Burnett from 2002, when he led the league with five shutouts. On a related note, you feel old right now, don't you?

It was par for the course for the Marlins in 2002. The club lost 83 games and finished in fourth place in the NL East, 23 games behind the Atlanta Braves.

The Marlins actually went into the All-Star break with a better-than-.500 record in 2002, but their doom was sealed with a seven-game losing streak immediately after the break. The club's record dropped to 45-50.

Instead of mailing it in, though, the Marlins saved face with a 34-33 showing the rest of the way. It wasn't much, but it was definitely something to build on.

 

2007 Rockies

The Rockies were a contender in the early part of the 2006 season, but a 21-33 showing in July and August put them in last place in the NL West. They didn't have much to play for heading into the final month of the season.

But the Rockies showed up anyway with a 14-14 record in September. They got that thanks largely to their offense, which exploded for 199 runs. This strong finish gave the Rockies a 76-86 record, their best since going 82-80 in 2000.

 

2008 Rays

The 2007 Rays were characteristically awful, losing 96 games and finishing 30 games out of first place in the AL East. 

The first four months of the season, however, were a lot worse than the last two. The Rays were 26 games under .500 at the end of July, but then went a respectable 26-30 the rest of the way.

This strong finish allowed the Rays to avoid losing 100 games for a second year in a row, which will always do for a moral victory.

 

2011 Diamondbacks

The 2010 Diamondbacks were hopeless under A.J. Hinch, going 31-48 in 79 games under his watch before he got the boot. In came Kirk Gibson, who guided the D-Backs to a decent finish.

The Diamondbacks went 34-49 under Gibson's watch, and the bulk of the damage was done late in the year. Arizona had a 38-66 record at the end of July, but proceeded to go 27-31 the rest of the way to avoid a 100-loss season. Again, always a good moral victory.

 

2012 Orioles

The Orioles failed to crack the 70-win plateau a fifth year in a row in 2011, but it could have been a lot worse. The O's went 7-20 in July to drop their record to 42-63, and it looked like they were in for a rough landing.

Instead, they responded by picking it up to the tune of a 12-17 record in August, and then went 15-13 in September. The capper was a series victory against the Boston Red Sox at the end of the season that barred them from the playoffs and allowed the Orioles to revel in spoilery glory.

 

2012 A's

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Good change, Oakland.

Sort of like the Diamondbacks under Hinch in 2010, the A's were a joke under Bob Geren in 2011 with a record of 27-36 in his 63 games at the helm.

But then came Bob Melvin and the righting of the ship. The A's followed a 39-53 showing in the first half with a 35-35 record that included a 14-12 record in the month of September.

 

None of these six clubs stormed through the competition the year before breaking out, but they were at least able to hold their heads high going into the offseason. When the spring came, they were ready to keep building.

If a strong finish to a lousy season is a sign of things to come, then you might want to keep an eye on the San Diego Padres. They finished 10 games under .500 last year and were largely irrelevant in the NL West race, but they went 42-33 in the second half of the season.

Only 11 teams did better than that in the second half last year. Nine of them went to the postseason, and the other two—the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers—finished right around (exactly in Philly's case) the .500 mark.

You've been warned, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. Be afraid. Be very afraid at least moderately afraid.

 

New Sheriff in Town?

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Kirk Gibson even looked the part of Wyatt Earp in 2010.

Sometimes, getting an organization back on the right track is as simple as installing new leadership (as if installing new leadership is a simple thing). Sometimes there needs to be a new sheriff in town.

Not all of our eight key teams satisfy this requirement, but a couple of them will vouch for the value of a fresh voice. Especially if said fresh voice already has some built-in credibility.

 

2003 Marlins

Despite their strong finish to the 2002 season, the Marlins floundered (sorry, had to say it) under Jeff Torborg at the start of the 2003 campaign, going 16-22 in 38 games. To replace him, the Marlins tabbed Jack McKeon, who was 72 at the time.

"I'm a seasoned citizen, in years and baseball experience," McKeon said, via CBSSports.com. "But I'm not a miracle worker. We've got a lot of work to do. Hopefully we can take this club to another level."

McKeon was selling himself short. He was named Manager of the Year after the Cincinnati Reds won 96 games in 1999. He ended up leading the Marlins to a 75-49 record and a World Series victory, scooping up another Manager of the Year award in the process.

He probably didn't try walking on water after the season was over, but, well, I can imagine him trying all the same ('tis a silly image).

 

2006 Tigers

The Tigers lost 119 games in Alan Trammell's first year at the helm in 2003, but they began making progress under him the following two seasons.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Before he was hired by the Tigers, Jim Leyland had last managed in 1999 with the Rockies. It didn't go so well.

Began, yes, but the Tigers are in this discussion because their 2005 season ended in catastrophe. They were only five games under .500 at the end of August, but then went 8-24 the rest of the way. Trammell was fired shortly after the season ended and was replaced by Jim Leyland, a two-time Manager of the Year with the Pittsburgh Pirates and a World Series champion in 1997 with the Marlins.

The Tigers took to Leyland pretty well. They shrugged off their horrid finish to the 2005 season by posting a 55-25 record through the first three months of the 2006 season, and were in the World Series a couple months later. He ended up taking home a third Manager of the Year.

 

2011 Diamondbacks

I noted above that the Diamondbacks turned things around under Gibson in 2010. I presume it was because he scared everyone straight by standing in the middle of the clubhouse and eating a dish full of glass shards, just because he's tough like that.

The man himself gave a different reason.

"I know a lot of our opponents have said, 'You guys have a lot talent,' and have a hard time figuring out why we weren't successful," Gibson said, via The Sporting News. "I think we have a great foundation to turn this around very quickly."

It took a while, but Gibson's Diamondbacks eventually hit their stride and went 45-25 in the second half of 2011, taking the NL West from the defending World Series champion Giants.

 

2012 A's

The 2011 A's were a solid 27-27 at one point under Geren, but then lost nine in a row and forced general manager Billy Beane's hand. Geren was fired in early June, and Melvin was brought in as the team's interim manager.

The A's were one of the younger teams in the league in 2011, and to that end Melvin was the perfect manager for them. He had taken a very young Diamondbacks team to the postseason in 2007, picking up a Manager of the Year award for his troubles.

The young A's responded to Melvin in 2011, and they kept on responding to him in 2012. Beane liked him so much that he extended Melvin's contract through 2016, high praise for Melvin seeing as how Beane acquired a reputation in Moneyball for being a guy who treats managers like primitive dolts.

 

2012 Orioles

J. Meric/Getty Images
Buck Showalter's gaze pierces cloud, shadow, earth and flesh...

I'm sort of bending the rules a little bit for this one, as Buck Showalter wasn't brought in to patch up the Orioles in 2011. He was brought in to patch them up in 2010. Close enough for non-government work, says I.

The Orioles were a dreadful 32-73 at the time Showalter was hired in 2010, but that didn't stop him from saying (via ESPN.com) that he saw "enormous potential with this club." It was a laughable sentiment at the time, but Showalter had been known to get young, unproven clubs on the right track before. Perhaps he was right.

Sure enough, the Orioles went 34-23 under him in 2010, finished strong in 2011 and then punched the AL East status quo in the face in 2012. Or, you might say that Showalter totally altered the show.

...I'll let myself out, thank you.

 

Of our eight key teams, five had made recent managerial changes, a point for the notion that it's always the manager's fault (even though it rarely really is). And if a manager change can work for these clubs, maybe it will work for some of today's clubs. 

The following teams will be testing out new managers this season: the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays in the American League, and the Colorado Rockies and Miami Marlins in the National League.

Keep an eye on Terry Francona and the Indians. Based on the examples we took a gander at, managers with credibility can make a big difference, and two World Series championships tend to do wonders for one's credibility.

 

Got Youth?

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The 2008 Rays were basically a daycare operation.

Records and leadership aside, what does a surprise team really look like?

Good question. Mash 'em all together and put them on public display, and onlookers would be forced to play a futile game of I-Spy (or is it Eye-Spy?). The truth is that every surprise contender is going to look a little different.

But as far as our eight teams are concerned, there is one thing surprise contenders are going to have in common: they're going to be on the young side.

Here's a look at the average ages of the batters and pitchers of our eight key teams, as compared to the league average that season.

Team Avg. Batter Age MLB Avg. Batter Age Avg. Pitcher Age MLB Avg. Pitcher Age
2003 Marlins 27.7 29.1 26.3 28.7
2006 Tigers 29.3 29.1 28.8 28.8
2007 Diamondbacks 26.6 29.1 28.2 28.7
2007 Rockies 27.9 29.1 28.1 28.7
2008 Rays 27.2 28.8 27.5 28.6
2011 Diamondbacks 28.3 28.7 27.4 28.3
2012 A's 27.7 28.5 27.9 28.4
2012 Orioles 28.0 28.5 27.6 28.4

Only the 2006 Tigers were not an especially young team.

But nor were they very old, mind you. Their batters were close to the league average, and their pitchers were exactly at it. Bear in mind that we're talking about a team that had a 41-year-old Kenny Rogers on the payroll. He's what we (meaning I) call a data-skewer.

It makes perfect sense that surprise contenders would be on the young side. Established contenders have every excuse to stay the course, and that means holding onto their own veterans and acquiring more veterans via free agency and trades who can contribute right away. They can't afford to wait on minor league prospects. Not too many at one time, anyway.

We don't yet know what the average batter and hitter ages are going to look like this season, but ESPN.com is keeping tabs on how old or youthful MLB rosters are right now. In order, the five youngest teams are: Miami, Houston, Atlanta, San Diego and Cleveland.

Miami, Houston and Cleveland all have new managers, and the Padres satisfied the hot-finish requirement. I wouldn't recommend betting your farms or your first-born on them just yet, but right now they're not looking so bad.

But it's not all about having young players, of course. It's to also have young, super-duper-talented players as well.

 

Got Top Prospects?

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Miguel Cabrera broke into the league 10 years ago. You now feel even older, huh?

I'm going to rattle off some names real quick: Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria and Manny Machado.

What do these guys all have in common? As in, beyond being awesome?

Easy. These guys all made their debuts for the eight surprise contenders we're discussing. They were top prospects at the start of the season, and then found themselves in the sound and fury of an MLB pennant race.

And they weren't alone. Our eight teams were fairly rich with top prospects who were either just breaking in or were still very early on in their careers.

 

2003 Marlins

Here's a look at the top prospects featured by the Marlins in 2003, complete with their preseason Baseball America rankings (via Baseball-Reference.com).

Player Pos. Age Pre. Rank 2003 GP
Dontrelle Willis SP 21 43 27
Miguel Cabrera UT 20 12 87

Willis was a 14-game winner with a 3.30 ERA in 27 starts, and he ultimately won NL Rookie of the Year honors. Cabrera came along later in the year and hit 12 home runs with a solid .793 OPS, and he went on to club three homers in the Marlins' victory over the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS.

Not featured in the above table: Josh Beckett, who made 21 starts in his rookie season in 2002. He bears mentioning, however, because he was Baseball America's No. 1 preseason prospect before the 2002 season.

Not a bad young team, those 2003 Marlins. Kinda gives you hope for the future of today's Marlins (emphasis on "kinda").

 

2006 Tigers

And now for the top prospects featured on the 2006 Tigers.

Player Pos. Age Pre. Rank 2006 GP
Joel Zumaya RP 21 35 62
Justin Verlander SP 23 8 30

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Justin Verlander's awesome levels from day one: High.

Zumaya racked up a 1.94 ERA and a 10.5 K/9 in 2006, which was back when he could still throw a fastball through a tank if he so desired. That's something Verlander can still do, and that year he announced his presence with 17 wins, a 3.63 ERA and a Rookie of the Year award.

Once again, there's another guy not featured but is worth mentioning anyway: Curtis Granderson. He was BA's No. 57 prospect heading into 2005, and 2006 was his first full season in the bigs. He hit 19 homers and posted a respectable .773 OPS.

The Tigers had some quality veterans in 2006, but the kids were better than alright.

 

2007 Diamondbacks

Just wait until you get a load of the top prospects the Diamondbacks trotted out in 2007: 

Player Pos. Age Pre. Rank 2007 GP
Justin Upton RF  19   9  43
Chris Young CF  23   12  148
Miguel Montero C 23  63  84

Of the three, Upton made the smallest impact in 2007, only posting a .647 OPS and hitting two homers in his 43 games. Young, however, hit 32 homers and stole 27 bases, and Montero hit 10 homers of his own. 

Also featured on the 2007 Diamondbacks were former top prospects Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin and Conor Jackson, who all went into the 2006 season as members of BA's Top 100.

Young as they were, the 2007 D-Backs weren't throwing nobodies out there. Like Nick Nolte in that one movie, Melvin had some legit blue chips at his disposal. 

 

2007 Rockies

The 2007 Rockies weren't as rich in talented youngsters as the Diamondbacks were that year, but they brought along some good ones.

Player Pos. Age Pre. Rank 2007 GP
 Chris Iannetta  C  24  92  67
 Ubaldo Jimenez  SP  23  84  15
 Ian Stewart  3B  22  46  35
 Troy Tulowitzki  SS  22  15 155

The name that stands out here would certainly be the last one. Tulowitzki hit 24 homers and racked up an .838 OPS as a rookie in 2007, and he also piled up more Defensive Runs Saved than any other shortstop in the league (see FanGraphs).

Also featured on the 2007 Rockies was left-hander Jeff Francis, who had been BA's No. 23 prospect heading into 2005. He won 17 games in 2007 with a 4.22 ERA and 215.1 innings pitched. Not impressive numbers for most pitchers, but very impressive numbers for a Rockies pitcher.

 

2008 Rays

When the Rays toppled the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East in 2008, they did it with quite a few talented youngsters, including these two guys:

Player Pos. Age Pre. Rank 2008 GP
David Price SP 22 10 5
Evan Longoria 3B 22 2 122

Elsa/Getty Images
Ducks now take to water like Longo took to the majors in 2008.

Longoria hit 27 homers as a rookie in 2008 and rated as one of the top defensive third basemen in the league, ultimately taking home Rookie of the Year honors. Though Price didn't come along until much later in the year, he found himself getting key outs in the postseason.

Also featured on the 2008 Rays were Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Scott Kazmir, who had all been top prospects at one point and were still very early on in their careers. B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford were there too. 

The Rays really have no choice but to be young and talented year after year, but I doubt they'll ever top the youth and talent that they had in 2008.

 

2011 Diamondbacks, 2012 A's and 2012 Orioles

Here's where things start to slow down a little bit, so I'm going to go ahead and rush to the finish line by jetting through the 2011 D-Backs, 2012 A's and 2012 Orioles very quickly.

The 2011 D-Backs were still largely based around the youngsters they had featured in 2007, but their starting rotation did feature Daniel Hudson in what was his first full year as a major league starter. He posted a 3.49 ERA in 33 starts that spanned 222 innings.

Later in the year, the D-Backs called up Paul Goldschmidt to play some first base. He didn't enter the year as a top prospect, but he was able to force himself into BA's midseason Top 50. He hit eight homers in his 48 games for the D-Backs, who went 30-18 when he played.

Last year's A's featured plenty of talented young players, but Jarrod Parker was their prized prospect heading into the season. He went from being BA's No. 26 prospect to posting a 3.47 ERA in 29 starts.

While he wasn't technically a prospect, the A's also got a big rookie season from Yoenis Cespedes, who hit 23 homers and stole 16 bases while posting an .861 OPS.

As for the Orioles, they didn't break camp with any top prospects in tow last year, but they did eventually call up Manny Machado to play third base later in the season. He was BA's No. 11 prospect heading into 2012, and he ended up making a huge difference for the O's down the stretch.

In addition to hitting seven homers with a .739 OPS, Machado also played a mean third base. The O's went 33-18 in his 51 games, all of which came in the heart of pennant race. Not bad for a 20-year-old who was technically playing out of position.

 

Of our eight teams, all eight benefited from the services of top prospects. In the mix were a couple guys who won Rookie of the Year awards: Willis, Verlander and Longoria.

These eight clubs can count themselves among the lucky ones, as top prospects don't always pan out the way their clubs are hoping. But if nothing else, what these eight teams can demonstrate is this: It's worth it to give the kids a shot.

So then, which team should you have your eyes on heading into 2013?

It's a bit of a tough call, as there's a big difference between having elite prospects and having MLB-ready elite prospects. But I'd recommend training an eye on the New York Mets, who should graduate Travis d'Arnaud and Zack Wheeler to the majors in the near future. The Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates could also feature more than a couple rookie arms in their rotations this year.

But then there are those Padres. They already have plenty of young talent on their major league roster, and Jedd Gyorko looks poised to join the mix as well. He's hit 55 homers in the minors over the last two seasons, and my colleague Gabe Zaldivar likes him to win the NL Rookie of the Year in 2013.

Alright, let's recap real quick. So far we have strong finishes the year before, leadership changes, youth and top prospects as key ingredients for a surprise contender. What's left?

How about that one dish that's best served cold?

 

Out for Revenge?

Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Orioles were out to get the Yankees in 2012.

Ah, revenge. It's the basis for all the best movies—Kill Bill, Gladiator, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissouand it has its place in baseball too.

You probably won't be surprised to hear that most of our eight teams didn't do so well the prior year against the teams that won their divisions. Their stories went a little something like...

 

2002 Marlins vs. Atlanta Braves: 8-11

The Marlins played the Braves tough, but in the end they were just another victim in Atlanta's wake. The Braves won an NL-best 101 games and something like their millionth NL East title in a row.

 

2005 Tigers vs. Chicago White Sox: 5-14

It was an ugly 5-14 too, as the White Sox outscored the Tigers 99 runs to 52. The White Sox won an AL-best 99 games and the World Series. In retrospect, it's easily one of the most underappreciated seasons in baseball history. So it goes for the White Sox.

 

2006 Diamondbacks vs. San Diego Padres: 9-10

Close, but no cigar for the D-Backs against the Padres in 2006. The Padres won 88 games and edged the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West crown.

 

Elsa/Getty Images
It didn't help that the Rays were still affiliated with the Devil in 2007.

2007 Rays vs. Boston Red Sox: 5-13

The Red Sox owned the Rays in 2007, outscoring them 113-64 on their way to a 96-win season and a second World Series victory in four years.

 

2010 Diamondbacks vs. San Francisco Giants: 5-13

The D-Backs didn't really get pummeled in their meetings with the Giants in 2010, as the Giants only outscored them by a total of 15 runs. They just couldn't match up against the Giants in close games that year. The Giants proved during their run to the World Series that few teams could.

 

2011 Orioles vs. New York Yankees: 5-13

Yankees hitters loved facing Orioles pitchers in 2011, piling up 122 runs and 31 homers. No team clubbed more long balls against the O's than the Yankees in 2011.

 

2011 A's vs. Texas Rangers: 6-13

The Rangers outscored the A's 114-66 on their way to a second straight AL West title and, ultimately, a second straight trip to the World Series.

 

The only team of our eight not featured here are the 2007 Rockies, who went 10-9 against the Padres in 2006. The other seven clubs recounted here combined to post a record of 43-87 against the division winners of the seasons in question.

That's a winning percentage of .331, which my old Baseball 101 textbook says is no bueno.

But now watch this.

  • 2003 Marlins vs. Braves: 10-9
  • 2006 Tigers vs. White Sox: 7-12
  • 2007 Diamondbacks vs. Padres: 10-8
  • 2008 Rays vs. Red Sox: 10-8
  • 2011 D-Backs vs. Giants: 9-9
  • 2012 Orioles vs. Yankees: 9-9
  • 2012 A's vs. Rangers: 11-8

The only team here that didn't exact any revenge was the 2006 Tigers against the White Sox. Even with their 7-12 record against Chicago in 2006 factored in, we still have a composite record of 66-63.

Some instances of revenge were more sweeter than others, mind you. The 2008 Rays, for example, won seven of their last nine against the Red Sox and then beat them in the ALCS to go to the World Series. It doesn't get much sweeter than that.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Then it was time to party.

Elsewhere, the 2011 D-Backs won seven of the last nine games they played against the Giants. The 2012 Orioles won six of the last 10 they played against the Yankees. The A's took the AL West title from the Rangers last year by sweeping them in the final series of the year.

Heck, even the 2006 Tigers won four of the last seven they played against the White Sox, helping to keep Chicago out of the playoffs despite their 90 wins.

So who's on the lookout for revenge this year?

To name but a few who posted less-than-spectacular (see "really bad") records against the champs in their divisions: Boston, Minnesota, Seattle, Chicago Cubs and Colorado.

Oh, and San Diego too. Just because.

 

Final Thoughts

Is picking out the teams destined to surprise in a given season ever going to be an exact science?

Of course not. And even if it was, wouldn't surprise teams then cease to be surprise teams?

But if you're the bold type, keeping a close eye on teams that satisfy most or all of the above criteria is a worthwhile venture. If the eight teams we took a look at are any indication, any club that salvaged a bad year with a strong finish, recently made a managerial change, is young with talented prospects ready to contribute and is on the lookout for revenge could be up for something big.

There's a fair number of teams that fall under this umbrella heading into 2013. Obviously, not all of them are going to surprise everyone this season.

But if one of them does, don't be too surprised.

 

Note: Stats and prospect rankings courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless where otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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