Tonight the Los Angeles Dodgers are making their second consecutive appearance in the World Series. They are the first team to make back to back appearances in the World Series since the ’14-’15 Kansas City Royals. They’ll meet the Boston Red Sox who vanquished the reigning champion Houston Astros in an ALCS between baseball’s two best teams.
Having put a lot of thought during the season into what it would take for the Astros to repeat, I considered a lot of the aspects of the team, as well as the dynamics of a repeat attempt. The phenomenon of chasing after your first championship as opposed to defending the crown. The positive effect that success can have (the confidence boost, the experience of knowing what it takes, etc.) versus the negative effects (the fatigue, having the target on your back, decreased motivation etc.). But what I realized is that most of those factors I was taking into account are present across sports. In fact, most of them are just phenomena that humans naturally feel in any walk of life. We all feel a boost of confidence due to a major success or a lack of motivation following the achievement of a major goal in our personal and professional lives. So I think it’s safe to say those circumstances befall pretty much every champion in every sport.
The conclusion I’ve recently come to is that there’s something entirely different going on in baseball concerning repeat champions. I think they might be closely following 300 game winners on the road to extinction.
Just for a reference point, here are the last three repeat NBA champions: ’17-’18 Golden State Warriors (and yes, we were one Kyrie stepback three away from the Warriors chasing after their fifth in a row this season), the ’12-’13 Miami Heat, and the ’09-’10 Los Angeles Lakers. You don’t even have to go back ten years to find three instances of repeat champions.
Here are the last three repeat MLB champions: ’98-’00 New York Yankees (who won three in a row, four in five years between ’96-’00, and lost in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 in 2001), ’92-’93 Toronto Blue Jays, and the ’78-’79 New York Yankees.
That’s 40 years you have to go back to find three repeat champions in baseball. And it hasn’t occurred once in almost 20 years. I know it’s apples and oranges, but I think 300 game winners are certainly a thing of the past in baseball and we’ve seen four men eclipse the mark since the last back to back champion (Randy Johnson in ’09, Tom Glavine in ’07, Greg Maddux in ’04 and Roger Clemens in ’03). Sure, those pitchers are of a bygone era. But that begs the question; is the era of the achievable repeat championship bygone as well?
The first matter to consider is what was different about Major League Baseball 20 years ago, and what was different about those dynastic Yankees. The first is obviously Derek Jeter. The Captain was one of a kind, and we’re unlikely to see a winning force like he was at the center of a team again. In addition to the leadership and consistent stellar play he provided, Jeter made plays in the postseason that were literally the difference between the Yankees winning and losing, and he did it multiple times over those championship years. The control he exercised over the big moments was truly unique in baseball, and we’ll talk about that on a broader scale a little later.
So besides Jeter, what else? I think anytime you talk about the Yankees, the first thing that comes to mind for a lot of people is the power money provides them. The true essence of the Steinbrenner legacy is the dominant presence of seemingly unlimited money. It’s intuitive to assume that if you have the most money to spend you’re going to be able to put together the best team. One point to be made here is that the team payrolls from their championship years somewhat confirm this, but not entirely. In 1998, the first of their three consecutive championship years, their payroll actually came in second to the Baltimore Orioles. Following that came a run where they lead the league in payroll every year from 1999-2014. The interesting thing to point out here is that the chasm between the Yankees and the other highest payrolls in the league really began to widen after about 2003 (coinciding with the signing of Alex Rodriguez and the establishment of YES Network in 2002) before the gap began to substantially shrink around 2010. During that period where their spending on the roster truly dominated the rest of the league, they only managed to capture one championship. This would lead us to believe that the correlation between payroll and success isn’t quite as strong as we sometimes assume.
Where the dots begin to connect a bit more clearly in terms of the Yankees’ money is when you start to consider that payroll isn’t everything. When you have young players signed to relatively cheap contracts (as the Yankees did with Jeter, Rivera, Williams, Pettitte & Posada in the late ’90’s) it gives you a longer leash to be able to sign veterans to big contracts without it making as big a dent in the payroll. So in that respect, payroll doesn’t capture the full picture in terms of money spending ability. Just because you could have spent $100 million more than any other team doesn’t mean you’re going to if you don’t have to. And that’s the thing- as the Yankees began to have to re-sign that young core to bigger contracts as they got older in addition to signing the most expensive free agents every year, then you began to see those huge differences in the payroll numbers.
My concluding point of all this in respect to that special Yankees team, is that in order to create such a powerful team you need more than just the money advantage. They came into a time during their dynasty where their homegrown talent and money advantage intersected and the results were amazing. 20 years later, both of those things are far less likely to happen for one team. It’s rare to be able to hit the jackpot with your draft picks like the Yankees did at that time or like the Cubs and Astros have done in more recent years. But what’s close to impossible now is to be able to have that happen and be able to consistently outspend other teams by a wide margin. These days there are more teams with more spending power and once you sign one or two massive contracts you’re just not going to be able to outspend other teams in the battle for free agents beyond that. Not even the Yankees can anymore.
Now let’s deal more specifically with the nuances of baseball and what makes it so difficult to make a repeat happen on the field compared to other sports. After all, I think the Astros had as good a chance to repeat this season as any team has in recent memory. All their main pieces were back and with the additions of Gerrit Cole and Roberto Osuna, a lot of people thought they were an even better team than they were when they won it last year. They won a franchise-record 103 games and that was with major injuries to their star players, so it’s tough to disagree.
Something I’ve talked about several times before that pertains to this is the fact that the concentration of power over the outcome of games for individual players is far less in baseball than it is in a sport like basketball. That’s why Mike Trout misses the playoffs every year and LeBron James dominates the Eastern Conference every year from 2011-2018. A star or a few stars in basketball have way more control over the outcome of basketball games than stars in baseball do. You only get to bat a handful of times in a game. The exception to this is pitching, but again, a starter is only going to pitch every third or fourth day at the maximum. This is what I was referring to with Jeter. No one in my time watching baseball was able to control the key moments of a game like he did. In the field and at the plate he just made his opportunities count and those opportunities always seemed to come at the right time. How he did it, I’ll never know.
But in a more broad perspective on the subject of controlling a baseball game- it’s also more difficult for a team to control the outcome of a game than it is in other sports. That sounds weird and I hate to make it sound like it all comes down to luck because baseball is much more than that…but…you need the bounces to go your way to win a championship in baseball. That’s just the fact of the matter. The Warriors didn’t need any of the bounces to go their way in order to beat the Cavaliers in the Finals last year. Some of them still did, but they probably could’ve won that Finals with bad luck and a couple of injuries. Of course some matchups are closer and you may need more bounces to go your way, but that is the case much more frequently in baseball. It is almost always the case in baseball. In baseball, you’ve got a ball that bounces a couple of times off a fence ledge in foul territory at Fenway Park and allows an extra run to score for the Red Sox in Game 2 of the ALCS. You’ve got a potential two-run HR called an out due to fan interference in Game 4 that ends up being a two-run game in the end. How about J.D. Martinez getting the benefit of a called ball that should have been called strike three and then he hits a HR on the very next pitch in Game 5? These are the nuances of baseball that are impossible to anticipate. And these aren’t excuses for the Astros. The Red Sox outplayed them. But those bounces and calls went their way in 2017. They just didn’t this year.
So will there be another repeat champion in Major League Baseball? Probably at some point. In the near future? Well, whoever it is will need the universe on their side, that’s for sure.