Last week, we looked at the five losing teams from last year that are most likely to take a step forward in 2023. This week, we look at five 2022 playoff teams that might take a step back in 2023.
We’ll start by again referencing the Plexiglass Principle: Teams that improve one season tend to decline the next and vice versa. Using a similar methodology as last week, we’ll examine the 75 teams that had winning records over five complete back-to-back seasons from 2015-16 to 2021-22. Not surprisingly, those teams declined an average of 3.4 wins the following season.
The 2021-22 San Francisco Giants are a great example of the Plexiglass Principle in action. After years of losing baseball, the Giants shocked everyone with a 107-win season in 2021. While nobody expected 107 wins again, they fell to 81-81 — a 26-win decline that matches the 2021-22 Oakland Athletics for the largest of the 75 teams in our study. (Of course, Oakland’s decline was self-imposed after a series of post-lockout trades).
So, let’s pick five teams coming off winning seasons that might regress in 2023 …
2022 record: 90-72
2023 PECOTA projection: 83-79
After Seattle finally ended its prolonged playoff drought in 2022, Mariners fans are understandably pumped for 2023. The Mariners have a franchise player in Julio Rodriguez, a deep starting rotation and, yes, it’s spring training, but Jarred Kelenic has been crushing the ball. The Plexiglass Principle doesn’t even necessarily apply because the Mariners won 90 games in both 2021 and ’22. However, there are some markers that warn of regression here, as evidenced in that 83-win projection.
While the win total was the same as 2021, the Mariners were a much better team last season. You might remember they were the infamous “fun differential” team in 2021 — outscored by 51 runs and yet, they somehow finished 18 games over .500. The 2022 Mariners were a legitimate 90-win team, outscoring their opponents by 67 runs.
They’ve had an incredible record in one-run games the past two seasons, going 33-19 in ’21 and 34-22 in ’22 (they also went 14-7 and 11-5 in extra-inning games, respectively). Seattle is the one team that loves the ghost runner rule, but it will be hard-pressed to win 67% of its extra-inning games again. Call it the law of competitive randomness.
The teams below Seattle in the American League West should be better (although there are fewer division games in 2023). The Mariners went a combined 25-13 against the Texas Rangers and A’s in 2022.
This is the big one for me: The Mariners’ rotation missed no starts because of injury in 2022. George Kirby replaced Matt Brash in the rotation in May, and Luis Castillo later replaced Chris Flexen, but other than a couple spot starts for doubleheaders and another at the end of the season, the Mariners had a steady five-man rotation all season. Will they get the same health results in 2023?
Pitching is much less stable than hitting when it comes to year-to-year consistency. The losing teams that improved the most saw the biggest gains come from pitching/defense. Likewise, the winning teams that decline usually suffer a drop in run prevention. The 38 teams in our study who won fewer games the following season declined an average of 31 net runs scored compared to the league average, but they allowed an average of 75 net runs more. The biggest season-to-season drop: the 2016-17 New York Mets, who went from 113 runs better than the National League average to 113 runs worse (and from 87 wins to 70).
Baseball Prospectus forecasts the Mariners to score 11 fewer runs and allow 39 more this season. Of note, four of the Mariners’ starters outperformed their Fielding Independent Pitching numbers in 2022:
Robbie Ray: 3.71 ERA, 4.16 FIP
Logan Gilbert: 3.20 ERA, 3.46 FIP
Marco Gonzales: 4.13 ERA, 5.05 FIP
Flexen: 3.73 ERA, 4.49 ERA
As a staff, the Mariners had a 3.59 ERA and 3.90 FIP — and they weren’t an especially good defensive team, so that’s one reason the computer sees some regression. The Mariners will point to their rotation depth to help withstand injuries, with either Gonzales or Flexen as the sixth starter and prospect Bryce Miller, who has looked terrific in spring training and is set to start the season in Triple-A, next in line. Plus, Kirby is a popular breakout pick after his strong rookie season.
Indeed, I’ll take the over on that 83-win projection, but if the Mariners do decline, it’s likely because the pitching isn’t quite as good — or as healthy.
2022 record: 106-56
2023 PECOTA projection: 95-67
This is an easy one: 106 wins, World Series hangover, Justin Verlander now on the New York Mets. Of course the Astros will decline. They were so good last year, however, they could decline 10 wins and still end up with the best record in the AL.
One thing the Astros have been able to do throughout this run of six consecutive ALCS appearances and four trips to the World Series since 2017 is to keep supplementing their roster with new young players from the farm system. Here’s the first year these players made an impact in Houston:
That’s a nice run of star players and solid secondary additions, especially for a franchise that was never ranked high in team prospect rankings in this span.
The question for 2023 is who fits that bill? Hunter Brown entered spring training as the No. 6 starter and then, with Lance McCullers’ injury, was a favorite to land in the Opening Day rotation — except he has been wild early in spring training. There aren’t great options behind him. For position players, maybe catcher Yainer Diaz helps out, although that would probably be at DH, not behind the plate, where his defense is suspect.
In his essay addressing the Plexiglass Principle, Bill James wrote that a flaw of winning teams is they tend to bring back the same players — even ones who should be replaced. Modern front offices are more analytical than 40 years ago and are more willing to turn over the roster, but the Astros were without a general manager for most of the offseason and are essentially bringing back the same team other than losing Verlander and signing Jose Abreu to replace Yuli Gurriel.
Not that they had many holes to fill, but there are some question marks. They’re banking two 36-year-olds in Michael Brantley, who is returning from shoulder surgery, and 36-year-old Martin Maldonado, who is coming off a .186/.248/.352 season, and the rotation to be healthy — which, already, is not the case.
That’s nitpicking, of course. They still have an excellent lineup with Alvarez, Tucker, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and now Abreu, plus that ridiculous bullpen. As for the World Series hangover, it’s mostly real — no team has repeated since the 2000 Yankees. Though, the Atlanta Braves won 13 more games last year than they did in their 2021 championship season, and the Astros improved from 101 wins to 103 the season after their 2017 title.
That Houston team, however, acquired Gerrit Cole and had Verlander for a full season. This Houston team will win fewer games than last year — but might still be the World Series favorite.
2022 record: 93-69
2023 PECOTA projection: 86-76
Will the Cardinals finish over .500? Yes, they always do. Will they win 93 games again? Believe it or not, that was their most wins since 2015. Think of some of the indicators we’ve mentioned:
Plexiglass Principle: It’s a minor negative, as the Cardinals improved from 90 wins in 2021 to 93 last year.
Pitching more likely to decline: That would seem the case for the 2023 Cardinals, who are counting on 41-year-old Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas to top their rotation. Last year, 140 pitchers threw at least 100 innings. Mikolas ranked 102nd in strikeout rate, Wainwright 114th, Andre Pallante 128th and Dakota Hudson 139th. St. Louis was last in the majors in pitcher strikeouts; the four teams immediately above it all lost 94-plus games. In fact, of the bottom 15 teams in strikeouts, the only teams with winning records were the Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles. It’s hard to keep opponents off the board if you’re not striking them out.
Fewer division games: The Cardinals were 38-19 against the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates. They have 18 fewer games against those three teams.
Inertia: The only significant move was signing Willson Contreras after Yadier Molina retired. They will have Jordan Montgomery for a full season but lose Jose Quintana, who had a 2.01 ERA in his 12 starts with them.
OK, now for the counterarguments.
Enough with the glass stuff. Remember how last week’s study pointed to producing back-to-back strong rookie classes as a road to improvement? Well, last year the Cardinals produced Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman, Juan Yepez and reliever Zack Thompson. This year, we should see Jordan Walker (maybe on Opening Day), Alec Burleson and Matthew Liberatore.
The pitching is better than everyone thinks, especially if Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz are healthy. Those two combined for just 18 starts and a 4.82 ERA last season. Plus, don’t sleep on starter Gordon Graceffo, who had a 2.99 ERA between A and Double-A. And most importantly: Few teams catch the ball like the Cardinals. The defense makes all these guys better and helps them turn those balls in play into outs.
The whole schedule thing is overrated. The Cardinals won’t get the Reds or Pirates as much, but they get the Detroit Tigers and A’s.
Inertia? As important as Molina was to the franchise, Contreras is a big offensive upgrade. And with Walker and Burleson, they have a ton of flexibility in the outfield and DH.
And have we mentioned Lars Nootbaar?!
The law of competitive balance says the Cardinals will take a step backward. Factoring in some regression from reigning MVP Paul Goldschmidt and with concerns about the rotation, I’ll agree — although I don’t know if it will be a big enough decline to lose the division.
2022 record: 99-63
2023 PECOTA projection: 97-65
That’s the best PECOTA projection in the majors and includes a conservative estimate of 136 innings from Carlos Rodon following the news that he’ll start the season on the injured list because of a left forearm strain. Rodon said he had the same issue last May and didn’t miss any time, so this could just be the Yankees playing it as cautiously as possible. Still, it comes on top of Frankie Montas‘ shoulder injury — he’ll miss at least the first half of the season — and relievers Lou Trivino (elbow strain) and Tommy Kahnle (biceps tendinitis) also starting on the IL. It’s too early to panic, but it’s not what you want to see in March. Harrison Bader is also out six weeks because of an oblique strain, so Aaron Judge might be the Opening Day center fielder. Giancarlo Stanton better dig out his glove from the bottom of his locker.
The Yankees improved seven wins in 2022 — much of that, of course, thanks to Judge. The entire offense took a huge step forward: They improved from 34 runs below average in 2021 to 123 runs better than average in 2022, a net gain of 157 runs. Of the 75 teams in our study, that was the largest year-to-year increase, with only three other teams improving by even 100 net runs: The 2016-17 Yankees, the 2016-17 Astros and the 2017-18 Boston Red Sox (all three of those teams were later penalized for sign-stealing violations of various magnitude).
We can apply the Plexiglass Principle to offense as well: After such a big increase, we can expect some regression, especially factoring in that the Yankees’ second-half OPS fell from .776 to .712 despite Judge’s heroics. Then there is the age of some of the key members: Josh Donaldson is 37; DJ LeMahieu 34; Stanton, Anthony Rizzo and Aaron Hicks 33. The Yankees are hoping an influx of young players will help stave off some of that expected decline but as impressive as Anthony Volpe has been in spring training, he’s still a kid who hit .249 in the minors last season.
Add it up and the Yankees’ depth across the rotation, bullpen and lineup will be tested early. No doubt manager Brian Cashman has been superb at getting unexpected results from unexpected sources — Nestor Cortes and Matt Carpenter last year, for example — but 99 wins in a tough division with a bunch of early injury concerns already looks like a tough act to follow. The AL East is unlikely to be a runaway like it was last season.
2022 record: 111-51
2023 PECOTA projection: 95-67
No surprise here, as 111 wins is nearly an impossible total to match. I’d warn everyone, though: Don’t bury the Dodgers just yet. This projection still sees the Dodgers as a win better than the San Diego Padres, although FanGraphs is more pessimistic in forecasting the Dodgers with just 86 wins — a win total they last sunk to in 2012, the last year the team missed the playoffs.
To recap the Dodgers’ offseason:
Shortstop Trea Turner signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.
His replacement, Gavin Lux, tore his ACL and is out for the season.
They lost 42 combined starts from Tyler Anderson (15-5, 2.57 ERA) and Andrew Heaney (4-4, 3.10 ERA), who signed with the Los Angeles Angels and Rangers, respectively. Walker Buehler is still here but is expected to miss most of the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
They lost Justin Turner to the Red Sox, essentially replacing him with former Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez.
Manager Dave Roberts has said Mookie Betts might play 40 or so games at second base, which begs the question of who plays the outfield when Betts is in the infield.
Their big pitching addition was Noah Syndergaard, who averaged just 6.3 K’s per nine last season and is a long time removed from his Mets peak.
For what it’s worth, of the 12 previous teams in league history to win at least 108 games, the average decline was 13.8 wins. Only the 1970-71 Orioles avoided a significant decline (dropping from 109 wins to 108). The most recent team to win 108 before the Dodgers, the 2018 Red Sox, dropped to 84 wins the following season.
So, the Dodgers weren’t going to win 111 games again even with the same roster and perhaps even if they had signed Judge or Carlos Correa or some other big free agent. They might still win 91 — which should be enough to earn them an 11th consecutive trip to the postseason.