Keys to Avoiding a World Series Hangover the Year After Losing

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Keys to Avoiding a World Series Hangover the Year After Losing
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How did the Texas Rangers do it in 2011?

Ah, the "World Series hangover" effect. It's the boogeyman of baseball.

You had best believe in this particular boogeyman. Ever since the New York Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000, we haven't seen a team win the World Series in back-to-back years. It's become uncommon for a World Series winner to even go back to the Fall Classic the next year, as only the Philadelphia Phillies have managed that feat within the last decade.

The World Series hangover, however, is even more real for World Series losers. Ever since the wild card era began in 1995, only one team has gone back to the World Series the year after losing it: the Texas Rangers in 2011.

How did they do it? Where did they succeed where other teams failed? What can be learned from them?

It boils down to a couple key things, some of which are within a club's control, and some of which are not.

We'll start with one of the latter.

 

Play in a Shallow Division

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Winning the World Series was the desired endpoint for the Rangers in 2010 and 2011, but first they had their eyes on winning their division. Depending on the division, that can be the hard part.

In the case of the Rangers in 2010 and 2011, winning the division was the easy part. The AL West was kind enough not to present a worthy opponent.

Combined, the AL East and the AL Central housed six teams that won at least 85 games in 2010. The AL West housed only one: none other than the Rangers, who won 90 games.

The next-best team in the division was the Oakland A's, who finished exactly at .500 at 81-81. Then came the Los Angeles Angels at 80-82 and the Seattle Mariners at 61-101. The Rangers won their season series against all three clubs, compiling a record of 32-25 against AL West competition.

Against the rest of the American League, the Rangers went 44-43. They thus really needed their record against the AL West to get to the postseason, as the rest of the league gave them more than a fair fight.

It was the same story in 2011. The Angels upped their win total to 86 games, but that was only good enough to place them 10 games behind the 96-win Rangers. The A's went 74-88. The Mariners went 67-95.

This time, the Rangers smoked the competition even more, going a staggering 40-17 against AL West competition. By comparison, they went 47-40 against the rest of the American League. Good, but not great.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
And there was much rejoicing.

Now consider what happened in the AL West in 2012. The A's came out of nowhere to win 94 games, and the Angels played .585 baseball after starting the season with a 6-14 record in their first 20 games. The Mariners were irrelevant in the first half of the season, but went 39-36 in the second half.

The heightened competition level in the AL West did a number on the Rangers and, ultimately, kept them from repeating as division champs.

The Rangers did just fine against the rest of the American League in 2012, compiling a 52-35 record against the AL East and AL Central, but they went 27-30 against the AL West. The three losses separating them from the .500 mark in that regard came when they were swept by the A's in the final series of the regular season.

That meant the difference between being guaranteed at least three postseason games in the Division Series round and being guaranteed only one postseason game in the Wild Card play-in round. That's where the Rangers met their undoing.

Had the AL West risen against the Rangers a year earlier in 2011, they thus very easily could have been barred from the World Series. 

It's certainly not unheard of for a division to rise against a World Series loser. The San Diego Padres swapped places with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West after winning the division and the pennant in 1998. The New York Mets watched the Philadelphia Phillies rise to power after they went to the World Series in 2000. The Detroit Tigers watched the Cleveland Indians rise to power in 2007. The Tampa Bay Rays watched the Yankees rise back to power in 2009.

The Rangers were fortunate in 2011, as the power structure in the AL West didn't change all that much from where it was in 2010. Most World Series losers aren't going to be so lucky for two reasons.

One is the simple fact that there's a lot of parity in baseball these days, as 27 clubs have qualified for the postseason within the last dozen years. Another is the fact that there are no longer any teams left in the league that are lucky enough to play in a mere four-team division that presents fewer potential challengers to the powers that be.

But I don't want to cheapen what the Rangers did in 2011 that much. There's something pretty important that they did between 2010 and 2011 to put themselves in a position to go back to the World Series.

And that is...

 

Embrace Turnover and Be Bold Doing It

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a saying that World Series teams are always going to be tempted to take to heart. If a team is good enough to get the World Series one year, why change a thing?

The Rangers took a different approach in between 2010 in 2011. Instead of keeping the band together, they shook things up.

Here's a look at how the club's offense changed.

Position 2010 2011
C Treanor/Molina Torrealba/Napoli
1B Smoak/Moreland/Davis Moreland/Young/Napoli
2B Ian Kinsler Ian Kinsler
3B Michael Young Adrian Beltre
SS Elvis Andrus Elvis Andrus
LF Hamilton/Murphy Hamilton/Murphy
CF Julio Borbon Chavez/Gentry/Hamilton
RF Nelson Cruz Nelson Cruz
DH Vladimir Guerrero Michael Young

Changes abound! The Rangers completely changed their catching corps, settled on a new mix at first base, brought in a new starter to play third base, shook up their situation in center field, and opened up their DH spot for Michael Young to slide right in.

The Rangers got a mere .605 OPS from their catchers in 2010, so they had every excuse to install some fresh faces. Young was a defensive liability (see FanGraphs) at third base, so signing Adrian Beltre to take over was an easy call. In addition, Beltre's production promised to make up for the 29 homers the Rangers were losing when Vladimir Guerrero walked as a free agent.

As such, the changes the Rangers made to their offense between 2010 and 2011 can be chalked up largely to common sense. They saw opportunities to make improvements, and they went ahead and made those improvements.

Their pitching staff, however, was another story.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Lee only had a 3.98 ERA as a member of the Rangers in 2010, but he was brilliant in helping them get to the World Series.

The Rangers wanted to retain lefty ace Cliff Lee and made him a generous offer in hopes to do so, but he turned it down to sign with the Phillies. His decision left the Rangers without an ace-caliber pitcher, and they had other holes to fill in their rotation as well.

Turnover was thus in the cards one way or another. But instead of playing it safe by signing a couple free agents, the Rangers decided to be bold by staying in house with a few experiments.

Just like they had done with C.J. Wilson, the Rangers moved Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando from their bullpen into their starting rotation. Their starting rotation changed like so:

Order 2010* 2011
1 Cliff Lee C.J. Wilson
2 Derek Holland Colby Lewis
3 Tommy Hunter Matt Harrison
4 Colby Lewis Derek Holland
5 C.J. Wilson Alexi Ogando

*Per Baseball-Reference.com, this is roughly what Texas' rotation looked like at the end of the 2010 season.

This was a risky venture. The Rangers had gotten good production out of Wilson and Colby Lewis in 2010, but Harrison and Ogando were new to starting and Derek Holland had only 31 career major league starts under his belt heading into 2011. If the three of them failed as starters, the Rangers were going to be in a spot of bother.

In all, the 2011 Rangers were anything but a carbon copy of the 2010 Rangers. But instead of flopping, the Rangers saw improvements across the board.

The team OPS went from .757 in 2010 to an even .800 in 2011, and the club's run output went from 787 to 855. The Rangers offense therefore went from being pretty good to one of the very best in baseball.

The same thing happened with the club's pitching. Per FanGraphs, the ERA of Rangers starting pitchers went from 4.23 in 2010 to 3.65. That was a big reason why the team's ERA went from 3.93 to 3.79, good enough to tie them for 12th in baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Going into 2011 with a markedly different roster worked out as the Rangers hoped. They weren't just a different team. They were a better team, and it's hard to imagine them being a better team had they stayed the course with their 2010 roster. Their willingness to change is something other clubs can definitely take after.

Of course, not everything went swimmingly for the Rangers in 2011. They did have to deal with some adversity on the injury front. They just didn't let it derail them.

And there's the next lesson.

 

Avoid Major Injuries, Overcome Minor Ones

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Staying healthy is the No. 1 goal for every team in baseball in any given year. Nothing is more important.

...And nothing is more easily said than done.

There's no such thing as an injury-free season in baseball. The injury bug is always going to be out, and it's always hungry. Every club is going to have to deal with injuries, and it seems like World Series teams always have to deal with more than most.

Case in point, injuries are a huge reason why the Giants weren't able to find themselves back in the World Series in 2011 after winning it in 2010. Among the players they had to put on the disabled list in 2011 were: Carlos Beltran, Pat Burrell, Santiago Casilla, Buster Posey, Freddy Sanchez, Jonathan Sanchez, Pablo Sandoval and Brian Wilson.

The biggest blow among that bunch was Posey's catastrophic ankle injury, suffered in a collision at home plate in late May. After he was lost for the year, the Giants were left without their best all-around player and a key bat in their lineup. They stuck around in the NL West race for a while, but they were likely doomed all along without Posey.

You'll be surprised to hear, however, that the Rangers actually had worse luck with injuries than the Giants in 2011.

Technically, anyway. According to FanGraphs, the Rangers accumulated more DL days than the Giants in 2011. In fact, only four teams accumulated more DL days than the Rangers.

The key is that very few of those DL days were logged by Texas hitters, who ran the show in 2011. To boot, the Rangers managed to avoid any catastrophic injuries to any of their key hitters. They didn't have to deal with their own Posey situation, much to their relief.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Hamilton hit 25 homers in 110 games after he came off the DL in 2011, about a 37-homer pace.

Josh Hamilton suffered a broken arm, sure, but it only cost him 35 games' worth of action. Adrian Beltre dealt with a left thigh strain, but he was back after 37 games. Nelson Cruz landed on the disabled list twice with thigh strains, but he only missed a combined 28 games.

Even more fortunate for the Rangers was the fact that these injuries didn't overlap all that much. Their lineup was thus able to operate at roughly full strength from beginning to end, which helps explain the huge spike in its production in 2011.

Elsewhere, the Rangers may have had worse luck with pitching injuries, but not where their starting rotation was concerned. Their five primary starting pitchers made at least 29 starts apiece in 2011. They had only two starters make at least 29 starts in 2010, so the 2011 season brought a huge increase in rotation stability.

How did the Rangers avoid being undone by injuries? The turnover probably helped, as the Rangers weren't asking too many guys to do exactly what they did in 2010 all over again in 2011. They had fresh legs and fresh arms up and down their roster.

But beyond that, they have the L word to thank. 

The other L word, that is. You know...luck.

In regards to injuries, the Rangers' luck was halfway decent in 2011. Their luck was less good in 2012, as they lost both Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz to Tommy John surgery, injuries that rendered their starting rotation in a state of duress for much of the season. Nothing nearly as catastrophic happened to their hitters, but they were left with more slack to pick up as the club's ERA rose from 3.79 to 3.99.

The Rangers could have used some of the luck they had with injuries in 2011 all over again in 2012. Likewise, they could have used some of the other luck they enjoyed in 2011.

And therein lies the final point.

 

Get Some Well-Timed Career Years

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

How good were the 2011 Rangers?

Probably too good. They had tons of talent, but they benefited from the fact that some of their key players were playing way over their heads.

For example, the Rangers' offense wouldn't have been nearly as explosive without the contributions of Michael Young and Mike Napoli. Young hit .338 with an .854 OPS, and Napoli hit .320 with a 1.046 OPS and 30 homers in only 113 games.

Given his track record, Napoli had no business hitting like that in 2011. Observe:

Year(s) AVG OBP SLUG BABIP K%
2006-2010 .251 .346 .485 .293 25.7
2011 .320 .414 .631 .344 19.7

Napoli's a good hitter when he's healthy, but he was never as good as a .320 hitter before 2011. That's what he became that year because his BABIP skyrocketed and his strikeout rate plummeted. 

In retrospect, neither trend was going to be sustainable in 2012. And sure enough, Napoli's BABIP was corrected to .273, his strikeout rate shot up to a shade under 30 percent, and his batting line regressed to a much more Napoli-like .227/.343/.469. The power remained, but he wasn't an MVP-level slugger anymore.

As for Young, he had hit under .290 in two of the three seasons before 2011, the result of unspectacular BABIPs well below his previous career norms. Such things tend to happen to hitters as they get into their 30s, so Young's apparent regression was no real surprise.

But then Young bounced back to hit .338 in 2011 thanks to a .367 BABIP. Even for him, that was a high BABIP. High enough, in fact, to be a new career-best for him and one of the highest BABIPs ever posted by a 34-year-old player (see Baseball-Reference.com).

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Young was a hitter of ropes again in 2011.

Young wasn't able to keep it going in 2012. His BABIP regressed to .299, causing his batting average to slip to .277. He didn't show off enough patience at the plate to rescue his OBP either, which slipped all the way down to .312.

Normalize Young's and Napoli's performances in 2011, and the Rangers offense would not have been as explosive. The result would have been a couple wins shaved off their record.

The Rangers also benefited from good fortune on the pitching side of the equation, most notably as things pertained to Alexi Ogando and C.J. Wilson.

Ogando was one of the best pitchers in baseball through the first half of the season in 2011, posting a 2.92 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP. He was able to do that despite the fact he only threw two pitches: his fastball and his slider. FanGraphs shows that Ogando went to his heater 67.4 percent of the time and his slider 27.7 percent of the time.

Relievers can make a nice living on a fastball/slider combination, but not starters. They need a third pitch. Ogando was able to get away with only two pitches for a whole first half, and the Rangers benefited to the tune of an 11-6 record in his starts.

As for Wilson, he developed into a front-line pitcher by posting a 2.94 ERA and pitching 223.1 innings. He was able to do that largely because he upped his K/9 to 8.30 and decreased his BB/9 to 2.98.

Those numbers look like pretty big outliers now. Observe:

Year K/9 BB/9
2010 7.50 4.10
2011 8.30 2.98
2012 7.70 4.05

So how did Wilson get so much better in 2011?

Hitters helped him out. According to FanGraphs, Wilson barely threw more pitches in the strike zone in 2011 than he did in 2010, as his Zone% went up from 46.1 to 46.3. The difference was that he got hitters to chase more pitches, upping his O-Swing% from 23.5 to 29.1.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Wilson had an ERA over 5.00 in the second half in 2012.

Hitters adjusted to Wilson in 2012. He threw more pitches in the strike zone, but he didn't get as many swings outside the zone. His O-Swing% regressed back more towards where it was in 2010, helping his strikeout and walk rates return to where they were in 2010.

Similar to how the club's offense wouldn't have been as explosive without the production of Young and Napoli, the Rangers starting pitching staff wouldn't have been as formidable had hitters figured out Ogando sooner than they did and Wilson had posted more typical strikeout and walk numbers. Normalize their production, and a couple more wins probably come off the board in 2011.

Would the Rangers still have been a playoff team? Absolutely. But it's probable that they would have been a No. 3 seed rather than a No. 2 seed, which would have cost them home-field advantage against the Tigers in the ALCS.

And seeing as how three of their four wins in that series came at home, flipping the script might have cost them a trip to the World Series.

 

Final Thoughts 

So what can a World Series-losing team do to avoid a hangover the next year?

Not a whole heck of a lot, really. Clubs can make like the Rangers did and put their best team on the field by embracing turnover, but beyond that things are in the hands of the baseball gods. 

Hardly an encouraging sentiment, I know, but that's baseball for you. Luck has always been a huge part of the game, and it's even more a part of the game now than it's ever been before.

Thanks to the expansion of the postseason, it's harder now for teams to go to two World Series in a row. A longer postseason brings more chances to get knocked out short of the prize, and it also means more and more games tacked onto the league's already long 162-game slate.

Those extra games can do a number on players, as we saw with the Rangers this past season. By the end of the year, they looked totally bushed.

The expanded postseason has also created more playoff spots for teams to fight for, which is an invitation for more teams to compete on an annual basis. Hence the increased parity, which works against both potential repeat champions and repeat pennant winners.

Given the circumstances at play, the 2011 Rangers didn't stumble onto some sort of secret scientific formula. They were just a damn good team that had a lot go right for them.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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

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