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The Cost of Complacency?

In all but one area, the Red Sox will field a team that’s virtually identical to last year’s World Series–winning squad. That hasn’t always meant success for a defending champion.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Red Sox starter Chris Sale struck out the side to defeat the Dodgers in the ninth inning of World Series Game 5, the last hitter he whiffed was Manny Machado. Machado was playing his last game for Los Angeles, and he wasn’t alone; half of the position players in the L.A. lineup that was taking last licks—including Yasiel Puig, Yasmani Grandal, and Matt Kemp—were about to be ex-Dodgers. Boston’s lineup, by contrast, was composed entirely of players who remain on the Red Sox roster in 2019.

This year’s Red Sox look a lot like last year’s. That’s not a bad thing, considering the 2018 Red Sox were not only one of the best teams in franchise history, but also one of the most successful teams of all time. It just makes it more difficult to find something new to say about a team that won 119 times over a span of seven months. The only members of Boston’s World Series roster who haven’t returned are Ian Kinsler, Joe Kelly, and, barring a last-minute or midseason reunion, Craig Kimbrel, all of whom reached free agency not long after the last out of Game 5. The Dodgers, meanwhile, shed the aforementioned quartet as well as Brian Dozier, Alex Wood, and presumably free agent Ryan Madson—more than twice as many departures as the victorious Red Sox, amounting to 21.9 percent of the team’s combined batters faced and plate appearances in the Fall Classic. Boston’s comparatively light losses represent only 11.9 percent of its total World Series playing time.

Neither of those roster-turnover figures is at all atypical for two teams on opposite sides of the Series. As Sam Miller observed in 2013 and I documented again the following year, World Series winners tend to bring back a higher percentage of their players than World Series losers, so both Boston and L.A. spent the winter playing to type. The table below lists the roster-return rates for every pennant winner in the wild-card era—first on the offensive side (by plate appearances), then on the pitching side (by batters faced), and then with both contributions combined.

Roster Return Rates of World Series Winners and Losers, 1995-2018

Year Winner Loser W Offense L Offense W Pitching L Pitching W All L All
Year Winner Loser W Offense L Offense W Pitching L Pitching W All L All
1995 ATL CLE 95.4 93.9 92.7 86.7 94.1 90.2
1996 NYY ATL 94.5 72.0 69.8 93.9 81.8 83.0
1997 FLO CLE 62.4 62.2 43.4 75.2 52.7 68.8
1998 NYY SDP 100.0 57.6 80.4 53.7 90.4 55.6
1999 NYY ATL 84.9 55.6 100.0 75.2 92.4 65.8
2000 NYY NYM 88.6 86.0 82.4 74.9 85.6 80.1
2001 ARI NYY 90.5 55.0 96.0 94.9 93.1 76.4
2002 ANA SFG 98.1 47.2 100.0 62.6 99.1 55.0
2003 FLO NYY 76.4 61.0 76.7 32.0 76.5 46.7
2004 BOS STL 85.7 67.6 66.0 70.7 76.4 69.3
2005 CWS HOU 81.1 92.2 88.9 100.0 85.0 96.2
2006 STL DET 92.7 98.2 48.3 99.5 70.7 98.9
2007 BOS COL 98.8 87.4 82.9 77.6 91.2 82.1
2008 PHI TBR 89.0 92.7 100.0 93.4 94.2 93.1
2009 NYY PHI 71.1 85.3 95.5 42.2 83.5 63.3
2010 SFG TEX 75.8 77.8 100.0 72.3 87.7 74.9
2011 STL TEX 75.5 98.5 84.1 73.1 79.7 85.2
2012 SFG DET 95.7 77.4 100.0 100.0 97.8 88.9
2013 BOS STL 84.0 79.7 97.7 96.4 91.0 88.2
2014 SFG KCR 81.6 84.9 100.0 75.3 90.5 79.8
2015 KCR NYM 80.8 84.2 76.4 95.4 78.6 90.1
2016 CHC CLE 82.4 75.8 86.0 97.4 84.2 86.8
2017 HOU LAD 97.7 95.7 91.2 75.6 94.4 85.3
2018 BOS LAD 95.3 66.5 80.9 89.6 88.1 80.5
Total 86.0 76.9 84.6 79.2 85.3 78.1

Despite the 1997 Marlins—assembled by current Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski—dragging down the average with their post-Series fire sale, the past 24 World Series winners have collectively brought back 85.3 percent of their Series rosters, while the World Series losers have averaged only 78.1 percent (identical to the Dodgers’ figure after the 2018 World Series). Teams that win the World Series tend to stand pat.

On the surface, it doesn’t sound so surprising that teams that go all the way together, stay together. Teams that are already successful have less incentive to go in a different direction; in the wild-card era, non-playoff teams have gone on to get 66.1 percent of their playing time the following year from holdover players, while playoff teams have averaged 76.3 percent. But playoff teams tend to be significantly better than non-playoff teams, whereas teams that face off in the Fall Classic tend to be evenly matched. Entering last season, World Series winners in the wild-card era had gone 2,186-1,519 during the regular season, topping World Series losers over the same span by only one win (2,185-1,519). In theory, the outcome of a seven-game series against another great team doesn’t reveal much about a pennant winner’s true talent, and it shouldn’t dictate whether that team reshuffles its roster over the offseason. In practice, though, it seems to do just that.

As I wrote in 2014, there may be a few reasons the rosters of World Series winners stay more static than those of World Series losers. It could be that it’s easier to convince free agents to stay if they just won rings, or that winning a title racks up extra revenue that teams can devote to keeping free agents from leaving. It could also be that for sentimental reasons, teams are reluctant to break up the band and separate players from a fan base that bonded with them during a triumphant October run. The team that wins the World Series may not be much better than the team it beat in terms of true talent, but it did perform better for a single series, which means it must have benefited from clutch performances that conferred hero status on some players. Heroes are hard to part with. Would the Sox have re-signed summer trade additions Steve Pearce and Nathan Eovaldi if the former hadn’t won the World Series MVP Award and the latter hadn’t been a World Series standout himself? Maybe, but the odds of those journeymen moving on probably would have been higher had they not excelled in that series.

Keeping fan favorites around generates warm and fuzzy feelings, but there is a potential downside to avoiding change: It can contribute to a swifter and more severe comeuppance in the season to come. The table below shows the average ages, winning percentages, and postseason-qualification rates of teams that won or lost the World Series in the year they won the pennant and the following season.

World Series Winners and Losers, Year 1 and Year 2

Group Age 1 Age 2 W% 1 W% 2 Playoffs % 1 Playoffs % 2
Group Age 1 Age 2 W% 1 W% 2 Playoffs % 1 Playoffs % 2
Winners 29.6 29.6 0.59 0.54 100.0 56.5
Losers 29.3 29.5 0.59 0.568 100.0 73.9

Predictably, World Series winners and losers both tend to decline the following season. A lot has to go right for teams to win the pennant, so it makes perfect sense that the last two teams standing each season would be ripe for regression. In the wild-card era, though, World Series winners have fallen further than the losers, even though they had virtually identical winning percentages in their pennant-winning seasons. World Series winners have declined by 50 points of winning percentage the next year, compared to only 22 points for World Series losers. And 10 of the 23 World Series winners missed the playoffs the next year, compared to only six of the World Series losers.

That could be the cost of complacency. If championship teams place a high priority on retaining the players who just took them to a title, they may end up overvaluing them and sticking too long with players who are poised for declines. They may also miss out on needed upgrades for fear of messing with success. After coming close enough to taste a title and falling just short, it’s easy to stay hungry and continue to make moves. But in the afterglow of winning a World Series, it’s tempting to view a roster through rose-colored glasses and opt for inactivity. Between 2000—as far back as the team payroll data at Cot’s Contracts extends—and 2017, World Series winners outspent losers by $20.7 million (or 22.0 percent) during the seasons in which they won their pennants. But over the ensuing offseasons, the losing teams narrowed that average deficit to $14 million (or 12.5 percent) by raising their payrolls by 19.2 percent compared to the winners’ 10.0 percent.

So, has winning the franchise’s fourth championship in 15 years lulled the Sox into a false sense of security? In fairness to the Sox, the team boasted baseball’s highest player payroll in 2018, and it’s still on top in 2019 even though it hasn’t climbed. Aside from re-signing Eovaldi and Pearce, the Sox simply haven’t done much this winter. Every member of Boston’s projected Opening Day club, according to Roster Resource, is a carryover from the 2018 team, save for Darwinzon Hernandez, a 22-year-old lefty who climbed to Double-A in the Red Sox system last season and may make the major league bullpen on the strength of a sterling spring. Even though the Sox easily led the majors in wins last season, some underlying indicators of team strength, such as third-order winning percentage and BaseRuns record, indicated that they weren’t appreciably better than MLB’s other elite teams in 2018. And both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project the Sox for the fourth-best winning percentage in the American League this year.

Boston projects to lead all AL teams (and trail only the Dodgers) in position-player WAR, and only Cleveland can claim a more valuable projected starting rotation. Where the Sox seem to fall flat is the bullpen, ranking tied for 17th overall in projected WAR, and tied for seventh among AL teams. That makes for quite a contrast to the division-rival Yankees, who easily lead all teams with 7.1 projected bullpen WAR—more than three times Boston’s projected total (2.3). Although the Yankees lost David Robertson to free agency, they signed Adam Ottavino and re-signed Zach Britton, pairing that duo with Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Chad Green, among others. The Sox allowed Kelly to leave for L.A. and have repeatedly said that they won’t commit much money to a closer, which seems to rule out a reunion with Kimbrel, who reportedly is seeking a nine-figure deal. Without the talented (albeit mercurial) Kelly and Kimbrel, who combined for 35 percent of Boston’s playoff relief innings, the Sox are left with an extremely low-wattage group.

It’s worth noting that until he joined the Red Sox, Dombrowski was known for being bad at building bullpens. In each of his previous stints with teams, Dombrowski’s bullpens perennially ranked among the worst in the majors. The table below shows where the Expos’, Marlins’, and Tigers’ combined bullpen WAR totals ranked leaguewide during his tenures with each team. (Dombrowski didn’t take over as Expos GM until July 1988, and he left the Tigers in August 2015, but omitting ’88 and ’15 wouldn’t change the Expos- or Tigers-era rankings, respectively.)

Dave Dombrowski’s Pre-Boston Bullpen Problem

Years Team MLB RP WAR Rank Highest Single-Season Rank
Years Team MLB RP WAR Rank Highest Single-Season Rank
1988-1991 Expos 23 19
1993-2001 Marlins 27 15
2002-2015 Tigers 30 10
2016-2018 Red Sox 4 4

Dombrowski’s bullpens were fourth-worst in the majors while he was with the Expos, fourth-worst with the Marlins, and dead last with the Tigers, where his relievers flopped year after year. Only twice in his 27 seasons with those three teams did a Dombrowski bullpen rank in the top half of the league’s pens, and even then it topped out at 10th. The average WAR rank of Dombrowski’s bullpens from 1988 to 2015 was 21.5; the median was 22. Dombrowski’s teams won three pennants and the 1997 title in spite of those bad bullpens, but particularly with the Tigers, his pens periodically proved to be his teams’ undoing.

Considering how much bullpen performance fluctuates from year to year, one almost has to try—or, perhaps, not try—to be that bad at bullpen-building on such a consistent basis. So it’s notable that Dombrowski’s bullpen fortunes have reversed themselves in Boston, where the Sox have recorded the fourth-best bullpen WAR in his three seasons with the team. Not entirely by coincidence, those three seasons also encompassed Kimbrel’s time with the team.

In Kimbrel’s absence, the Sox are almost bereft of relievers with a history of recording saves. In fact, the Sox are heading into this season with an almost historically save-deprived bullpen for a team that expects to contend. Consider this: Since 1988, when Dennis Eckersley’s 45-save, Cy Young runner-up season helped cement the model of an inning-at-a-time closer deployed primarily in save situations, the average team’s April bullpen has sported a combined 185.5 career saves in prior seasons. Among teams that go on to finish .500, the average career total at the start of the season is 200.1.

This season’s Red Sox relievers, however, figure to have only 15 career saves among them on Opening Day—13 from Tyler Thornburg in 2016, and two from Matt Barnes from 2016-17. The table below lists all of the .500 or better teams since ’88 with no more than 20 combined previous-season saves among pitchers who appeared in relief in April (an approximation of what the pen looked like early on). Only seven started the season with fewer saves than these Sox—one of which was the 2003 Royals, who sandwiched a surprise 83-win season between two 100-loss seasons.

Lowest Combined Career Saves Totals for April Pitchers Entering Season on .500 Teams, 1988-2018

Year Team W% SV April Pitchers With Previous Career Saves
Year Team W% SV April Pitchers With Previous Career Saves
2015 NYY 0.537 6 David Carpenter 4, Dellin Betances 1, Andrew Miller 1
2003 KCR 0.512 9 Jason Grimsley 4, Albie Lopez 4, Kris Wilson 1
2004 MIN 0.568 9 Terry Mullholland 5, Aaron Fultz 2, Joe Nathan 1, J.C. Romero 1
2015 NYM 0.556 10 Jeurys Familia 6, Jerry Blevins 2, Carlos Torres 2
2014 STL 0.556 11 Randy Choate 6, Trevor Rosenthal 3, Carlos Martínez 1, Seth Maness 1
2014 BAL 0.593 13 Tommy Hunter 4, Evan Meek 4, Darren O’Day 4, Josh Stinson 1
2015 TOR 0.574 14 Brett Cecil 6, Aaron Loup 6, Jeff Francis 1, Todd Redmond 1
2019 BOS ? 15 Tyler Thornburg 13, Matt Barnes 2, ?
2009 FLO 0.537 15 Kiko Calero 7, Matt Lindstrom 5, Renyel Pinto 2, Logan Kensing 1
2017 WSN 0.599 17 Shawn Kelley 11, J. Blanton 2, Oliver Pérez 2, Enny Romero 1, Blake Treinen 1
2003 SFG 0.621 19 Félix Rodríguez 8, Tim Worrell 7, Scott Eyre 2, Jim Brower 1, Joe Nathan 1

Saves, of course, are a somewhat arbitrary stat, and accumulating saves isn’t always an indication of a reliever’s quality, just as not accumulating saves isn’t always an indication of a lack of quality. Even so, managers have historically tended to pick one of their team’s top relievers as their primary saves-getter, so it says something that the Sox hardly have anyone who’s been assigned to that role. The only way the Sox could conceivably inflate their bullpen’s career saves total in April without importing a player from outside the organization is to promote Carson Smith, who has 14 career saves. But the 29-year-old Smith, who’s missed most of the past three seasons amid elbow and shoulder surgeries, is still working his way back from the latter, and he’s had only one full, healthy campaign, which came four years ago. Barring a buzzer-beating contract for Kimbrel, the Sox need multiple members of their low-profile pen to succeed in more prominent roles than they’ve habitually had to in the past.

There’s nothing stopping the Sox from establishing a lights-out late-inning arm, as many of the teams on the table above did. The 2015 Yankees used 30-year-old Andrew Miller as a closer for the first time in his life, and he responded with a 36-save season that earned him a 10th-place finish in AL Cy Young voting. The 2004 Twins did the same with 29-year-old Joe Nathan, who embarked on a run of six consecutive seasons with more than 35 saves. The 2015 Mets had Jeurys Familia, who amassed 43 saves and went on to secure 51 the following season. The 2014 Cardinals anointed Trevor Rosenthal, and the 2014 Orioles converted Britton from his previous starting role. The 2015 Blue Jays broke camp with Roberto Osuna and designated him as their closer midway through that season.

Closers can be found or manufactured along the way, and the Sox can do the same with Ryan Brasier or Barnes, the latter of whom pitched in higher-leverage situations than any non-Kimbrel Red Sox reliever last year. But that suggested solution presupposes that the Sox need to have a closer, and teams are no longer acting as if declaring a closer and assigning him every save situation is a bullpen imperative. For the past few seasons, the cachet of the save has been slipping, and teams have been parceling out save opportunities much more democratically, deciding which pitchers to summon in save situations based on the most favorable matchups rather than on rigid, predetermined roles. The graph below charts the average percentage of saves recorded by a team’s leading save-getter in each season from 1988 through 2018.

As the graph reveals, push-button, inflexible save assignments gradually gained in popularity in the 15 years after Eckersley helped make them the new normal, peaking at 80.7 percent in 2002 and plateauing in the mid-70s for more than a decade thereafter. That made the timing particularly poor for the 2003 Sox to embrace what came to be called a “closer by committee” approach (even if they hadn’t drawn it up that way). In the preceding winter, the Sox parted ways with 2002 closer Ugueth Urbina and decided to save on the bullpen, which led to a late-inning power vacuum that wasn’t resolved until the team traded for Byung-Hyun Kim in late May. Those Sox still won 94 games and came tantalizingly close to a pennant, but the Boston bullpen’s AL-worst 5.38 ERA before Kim’s acquisition caused a backlash that only strengthened teams’ attachment to the closer-centric structure.

Lately, though, the idea of a dedicated closer has eroded. Last year, only 60.6 percent of saves, on average, went to a team’s leading saves-getter, the lowest mark in this 31-season sample. Only 10 pitchers accumulated at least 30 saves, the fewest in a non-strike season since 10 reached that threshold in 1990, when there were only 26 teams. Only 18 pitchers recorded at least 20 saves, the fewest since 1991. But 44 pitchers amassed at least 10 saves, and 60 made it to five, both of which were the highest totals in this sample of seasons.

In that sense, the 2019 Red Sox are a team of its time, resisting the siren song of the proven closer and planning to piece together a pen out of pitchers who lack Kimbrel’s ninth-inning aura. That said, teams still need to have good relievers, regardless of their roles. The projections are skeptical of Boston’s pen as currently constructed, but many analysts were skeptical that that pen would perform last October, and the Sox wound up posting the lowest bullpen ERA of any playoff team with more than seven innings in relief.

It’s one thing to shut down opponents over 14 games and 63 innings with Kelly, an admittedly shaky and potentially declining Kimbrel, and assists from starting pitchers, and another to do it down two trusted arms for six months or more. Piecing together a bullpen is more manageable than piecing together a lineup or rotation, so if the Sox had to have a weakness, they’ve picked the right one. There’s plenty of time for the Sox to call in the cavalry between now and July 31, but at some point this season, they may wish they’d been more proactive about bolstering the bullpen with new blood—or even bringing back another bearded, familiar face.

Thanks to The Ringer’s Zach Kram and Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.