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Past leaves clues about how Rays can add 20 wins

BALTIMORE

The number, for those who have been paying attention, sounded like a joke.

The folks at Baseball Prospectus — and no matter what you think about the merits of hardball algebra, these people know their stuff — recently put together a statistical analysis predicting an 88-win season for the Rays.

Needless to say, the thought was terribly amusing. Almost comical. Practically silly.

And, okay, maybe a little intriguing.

Is it really possible for the Rays, who won 66 games last year, to have a 22-win improvement in a single season? To even come close? It got us wondering just how rare it is to see that type of turnaround.

Turns out, not all that rare.

Since the beginning of free agency in 1976, nearly 40 teams have had turnarounds of 20 victories or more. Discounting strike-shortened seasons, it works out to about 1.5 turnarounds per year.

In other words, the Rays have a shot. A long shot, to be sure, but a shot nonetheless.

So, to take it a step further, we studied some of these major-league makeovers to see if there were clues to predict a turnaround was on the way. The short answer is yes. The long answer follows.

There are certain signs that good times might be on the horizon but, more often than not, those signs lead to more heartbreak. Payroll increases help, but they certainly do not guarantee. A new leader in the clubhouse can have an impact, or he can turn out to be Greg Vaughn. Young pitchers can blossom, or they can fall apart.

Joe Maddon has actually seen one of these turnarounds up close. He was the bench coach when the Angels went from 75-87 in 2001 to 99-63 and a world championship in 2002.

A few roster changes had an impact, but Maddon suggests numerous factors were involved. The 2001 team, for instance, was not as bad as the record indicated. The Angels were 73-71 on Sept. 10 but fell apart when MLB took a weeklong break following 9/11. The Angels lost 16 of their final 18 games.

And while the pitching was helped by acquisitions Kevin Appier, Aaron Sele and rookie John Lackey, there were also unmeasurable factors.

"The reason we won is we played so well together. It was a tight team in terms of relationships," Maddon said. "We weren't loaded with superstars, but we had a great vibe. And once we started playing well, it snowballed."

What follows is the opposite of a Baseball Prospectus report. It's a purely subjective analysis of whether the Rays have anything in common with some of the stories behind baseball's more recent turnarounds.

The managerial change

Owners and general managers are on the hook for the players they've assembled, so they often fire the manager in hopes of a jump-starting the franchise. Sometimes, it actually works.

The most obvious example is Billyball. In 1979, Oakland was one of the worst teams in the majors at 54-108. Charlie Finley hired Billy Martin, and the Athletics went 83-78 the next season.

Billyball was Martin's way of getting his team to overachieve by being aggressive offensively, but the biggest change was a young pitching rotation that became the talk of the majors. Martin's pitchers were throwing complete games at a ridiculous pace, and whispers around the league were that pitching coach Art Fowler had taught them all to throw assorted types of spitballs.

Also see Davey Johnson with the Mets (1984), Bobby Valentine with the Rangers ('86), Dusty Baker with the Giants ('93), Larry Bowa with the Phillies ('01) and Jim Leyland with the Tigers ('06).

Rays factor: zero.

Growing up

Probably the most common factor. A young team gets beat up one season but shows dramatic improvement as rookies begin to arrive and mature. And, more often than not, it is keyed by pitching.

Tom Glavine was 10-12 with a 4.28 ERA as a 24-year-old in 1990 and Steve Avery was 3-11 and 5.64 as a 20-year-old. The next season, Glavine was 20-11 with a 2.55 and Avery was 18-8 with a 3.38. Not so coincidentally, the Braves went from last place to the National League pennant.

Also see the '84 Mets (Ron Darling, Doc Gooden and Sid Fernandez), the '90 White Sox (Jack McDowell and Alex Fernandez) and the '92 Orioles (Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald).

Rays factor: Strong with Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza.

The missing link

Teams forever think they are one or two pieces away from changing their fortunes. Every so often, they are right.

Free agents Jack Morris and Chili Davis completely changed the look of the Twins as they increased their payroll nearly 50 percent from 1990 to '91. They also went from last place to world champions.

The '88 Dodgers got a similar boost from Kirk Gibson, the '91 Braves from Terry Pendleton and the '93 Giants from Barry Bonds.

Rays factor: Slight possibility with Troy Percival.

The inexplicable

The Diamondbacks of 1999 had the greatest turnaround (35 games) of the past 100 years, and there is no easy explanation. Randy Johnson was signed as a free agent, but his 17-9 record doesn't account for such a dramatic shift.

It is true Jay Bell, Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez and Matt Williams had much improved power numbers. This was also around the time Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds had dramatic power increases.

Maybe it's not so inexplicable, after all.

Rays factor: Are you on drugs?

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Past leaves clues about how Rays can add 20 wins 03/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 12:51pm]

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