Breakout Or Fakeout: Which MLB Teams’ Breakout Seasons Were Real? (Since 1980)

Will Andrew and the Pirates be smiling in 2012? 2013?
The Pirates’ success this season, and to a lesser extent, the Indians’ was the inspiration for this post.  Both of these teams have improved greatly this year, in comparison to the last three years.  However, are their improvements a prediction of further success or just a fluke?  The table below shows the top ten instances in which the breakout season foreshadowed sustained success (Breakouts), and the second table shows the top ten instances in which the breakout season was just a fluke (Fakeouts).  Only teams that have improved by 100 points or more in Win % were included.  Teams that meet that criterion are then measured by comparing their Win % over the three years after the breakout season to the three years before their breakout season.  Although the tables may not be comprehensive, they appear to be decent indicators of Breakout and Fakeout teams.  The columns on the table are Team, Year, Win %, and Improvement. 

Table Notables:

The Breakout teams seem to have a common characteristic:  they tend to be young talented teams in general, and their level of talent is evident at the time, not just in hindsight.

Atlanta ’91:  Young, great pitching, period.

Detroit ’04:  They had young pitching, but their improvement was equally a function of the absolute futility of the previous 3 years.

Toronto ’82:  I’m not old enough to speak intelligently about them, but they were a very young team and apparently talented.  Average age was 25!

’84 Mets:  This team is the epitome of a Breakout team.  Their starting pitching included Doc, Sid Fernandez, and Ron Darling; and was 23.5 years old on average.  They were probably the best team in baseball from 1984-1986.

Cleveland ’94:  Their pitching staff averaged 32 years old, but that didn’t matter; they just had to allow fewer than 10 runs to give the Indians a chance to win! A young Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome weren’t even the best players on the team.  Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, and Steady Eddie Murray were also a part of that devastating lineup.

Tampa Bay ’08 and Minnesota ’01 spent years building their farm systems and their talent finally matured.

Table Notables:  These teams tended to be older and a great deal of their success was attributed to players overachieving and having career years. 

Arizona ’07:  They won 90 games, but they allowed more runs than they scored. 

St. Louis ’85:  The Cards didn’t necessarily fakeout; it seems that 1985 was just the peak year of a pretty good run, not preview of years of .600 baseball.

Seattle ’01:  Winning 116 games was definitely a fakeout, but like the ’85 Cards, it was the peak year of a pretty good run. 

San Francisco ’93:  This may be the typical fakeout team.  Although their hitting continued to be as productive as the ’93 level, their pitching staff was characterized by guys like John Burkett and Bill Swift, who where mediocre pitchers having career years.

Based on the tables and the characteristics present in most Breakout and Fakeout teams, I think the Pirates are a Fakeout.  Their hitting isn’t great, and aside from McCutchen and Tabata, their young, talented hitters are a probably a few years away from contributing at the big league level.  Additionally, their pitching staff seems to be made up of overachieving journeymen. 

Admittedly, I didn’t need the tables to figure this out, but the tables do provide insight into predicting true breakout teams.  Disclaimer for Pirates’ fans:  I am pulling for the Pirates to win the division; it would be great for baseball to see them and their beautiful stadium in the playoffs.  I’m tired of seeing the same teams make it every year.

Were The Yankees The Best Offense In Baseball Last Year?

The table below attempts to answer the title question.  In the table, three measures are used to evaluate the effectiveness of an offense.  100 equals league average, while 115 is elite, and 85 is poor.  The numbers highlighted in blue indicate the team is top 5 in the category and in red, the bottom 5.

The first is measure consistency; consistency in this study is calculated by the number of innings scored as a percent of total innings played.  The logic behind it is that if a team scores in multiple innings during a game, then they are usually not susceptible to long scoring droughts or bouts of futility.  Additionally, sometimes a side effect of being a consistent offense is clutch hitting; partly because of the aforementioned aversion to long slumps.
The second measure is explosiveness; in this study it is measured by the number of runs scored per scoring inning.  In others words, when a team scores in an inning, how many runs do they score?  Do they explode for 4 or 5 runs, or are their rallies killed by poor hitters wallowing in the bottom of their lineup?
The third measure is offense index; it is measured by calculating the geometric mean of the consistency and explosiveness.  Average was not used because it can skew the offense index; a team with a 150 consistency and an 80 explosiveness would have an offense index of 115(when it should be around 109), because of the high consistency.  A team like that may score a run every three innings and that’s not enough to win a ballgame.  The converse of that, a team with 80 consistency and 150 explosiveness, may score three runs in an inning and none for the rest of the game; that is also usually not enough to win a ballgame.(Unless you’re the Phillies!)

There are no real surprises in the table, the Yankees ranked number one, and the Mariners were dead last. Although there were no surprises, there were some oddities. The Tigers and D-Backs were explosive offenses, but were more prone to slumps than the rest of the league. Both teams were also prone to strikeouts; Austin Jackson struck out 170 times, Mark Reynolds struck out 211 times and had a .198 batting average! The Rangers and the Marlins had elite-level consistency, but the Rangers’ explosiveness was slightly below league average and the Marlins explosiveness was near the bottom of the league.

Other Interesting Posts:

Will Clark: A Nice Career With No Evidence of PED Use. (Click Image to Enlarge)

Injuries caused his production to decline rapidly, but he was still a productive player.

A great way to detect an abnormal career progression; it uses OPS+ as a proxy to measure overall batting skill.  Relative OPS+ is measured by comparing 5-year periods of a player’s career.  For instance, when 32 is seen on the age axis it represents the player’s performance from age 28 through age 32, and age 33 represents ages 29 through 33 and so on.  The relative part is introduced when all of the player’s other 5-year periods are indexed to the player’s best 5-year period.  The best 5-year period equals 100 and the rest of the 5-year periods are measured accordingly.  The chart above  displays the career progression in which 80% of players fit.  A couple of things to remember when viewing the chart is that the area between the 10% lines is 80% of all players measured. Additionally, the player’s performance is compared to himself, so if Player A has an 85 rating at age  32 and Player B has an 89 rating at the same age, that does not necessarily mean that Player  B was a better player; it just means Player B closer to his peak than Player A.