The exciting, mysterious mix of brains, serendipity and dumb luck that always lands on a couple of happy teams suddenly befriended six of 10 teams in the playoffs. That made this baseball’s Almost Impossible Season.
Huge losers became huge winners without making huge changes. Poor teams, clubs that hadn’t won in eons and teams that couldn’t even draw 20,000 fans, discovered ways to win 90 to 97 games. Meanwhile, eight of the teams with the 12 top payrolls, including the Nats, missed the postseason.
The Nats had a traditional set lineup and a chockablock rotation. They added a costly closer to a good bullpen. They had youth, morale, apparent depth and even a possible Hall of Fame manager. Yet they never even came close. Months of jittery nerves hurt. But the Nats illustrate something more fascinating: They actually did plan sensibly and may be vindicated someday, but conventional team building is no longer the only way to win big in baseball.
So who actually made the playoffs, and what can we learn from them?
●Teams given little chance by the same odds makers who had the Nats at 7-to-1: Pittsburgh and Cleveland 66-to-1, Boston and Oakland 30-to-1.
●Teams that drew nobody: Tampa Bay was last in attendance and the Indians 28th. Their crowds combined were just 5,000 more than the Nats.
●Teams that paid their players squat: The A’s and Rays combined paid their players $118 million, barely more than the Nats $114 million.
●A team that hadn’t had a winning season in 21 years: the Pirates.
●Three teams — the Red Sox, Indians and Pirates — improved by 28, 24 and 15 wins, leaps that might seem saner if they came in three different years. Boston went from 93 losses to 97 wins, the Indians from 94 losses to 92 wins.
If we look at the teams that still had games this week, what do we see?
●Platoons to compensate for lack of stars.
●Mid-market free agents with stable attitudes such as Shane Victorino in Boston, who cost one-third as much as the Angels paid for Josh Hamilton.
●Emphasis on fundamentals. In Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Cleveland you can almost hear managers saying, “Half of you guys are here because other teams didn’t want you. Do it our way, the right way, or leave.”
●Radical defensive shifts such as that of the Rays, who may someday have players stand on each other’s shoulders, to capitalize on advanced stat metrics.
●Versatile athletes such as the Rays’ Ben Zobrist and Kelly Johnson, who can play infield or outfield and allow a manager to create any lineup that can be imagined to match up with a specific pitcher in a particular ballpark.