Sports is cyclical by nature.
In the '80s and '90s, the Cowboys and 49ers were unbeatable. Then, the Niners went through a decade of losing before Jim Harbaugh took over, and Dallas is still a mediocre-to-poor franchise. The Atlanta Braves won 14 straight division titles, then went four straight years where they finished in 3rd place or worse. The Chicago Bulls won six world championships with Michael Jordan, then went six straight seasons in which they failed to win more than 30 games.
There are numerous examples of teams that have ridden the roller coaster of success.
The Phillies and Rays are on the roller coaster right now, and they're plummeting downhill.
In 2008, both teams won the pennant. The Phils won 92 games and the Rays won 97, both winning their divisions. They met in the World Series, where the Phillies easily dispatched Tampa in five games for their first world championship since 1980.
You know all these things.
Now, six years later, these same two teams have the two worst records in baseball. The Rays are tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks for the worst run differential in baseball (-51) with the Phillies are right behind (-50). And as of June 9th, Fangraphs says the Rays have a 2.4% chance of making the playoffs, while the Phils' chances of reaching the postseason is 0.8%.
How did this happen? How did we get here? For the two teams, both took very different paths.
|Year||Phillies Wins||Rays Wins|
|2008||92 (1)||97 (1)|
|2009||93 (1)||84 (3)|
|2010||97 (1)||96 (1)|
|2011||102 (1)||91 (2-WC)|
|2012||81 (3)||90 (3)|
|2013||73 (4)||92 (2-WC)|
|2014||25 (proj 66) (5)||24 (proj 61) (5)
Since their 102 wins in 2011, the Phils' decline has been steady, while the Rays won 92 games last year, made the playoffs, and were seen by many as favorites to win the AL East again this year.
As I wrote about in numberFire last week, the Rays are bad for several reasons, but chief among them is their offense and, more specifically, their lack of power. Their .243 team batting average ranks 13th out of 15 American League teams, their on-base percentage of .315 is tied for 12th, their slugging percentage of .367 is 14th and their wOBA of .304 is 13th.
And when you break it down by position, the Rays are having big problems at several offensive positions.
|C||.172 (15)||.224 (15)||.067 (15)||3 (15)|
|1B||.280 (3)||.318 (9)||.099 (15)||3 (13)|
|2B||.223 (14)||.288 (11)||.138 (4)||11 (3)|
|SS||.255 (8)||.299 (8)||.083 (11)||3 (9)|
|3B||.268 (T-5)||.316 (9)||.128 (10)||7 (10)|
|OF||.249 (10)||.327 (8)||.163 (5)||28 (5)|
Specifically, Evan Longoria is not having one of his typical MVP-type seasons, hitting .268/.330/.396 with 7 HRs, an ISO of .128 and a wOBA of .316. Those are below his career slash line of .274/.355/.503, his career ISO of .229 and his career wOBA of .367. Wil Myers, last year's American League Rookie of the Year, was struggling before he got hurt last weekend, hitting just .227/.313/.354 with an ISO of .126 and a wOBA of .299.
But the Rays are also much weaker at first base, with just three home runs so far from James Loney, a far cry from the power they received from Carlos Pena in 2008, as well as at catcher, where Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina have provided the worst offensive production in the American League, certainly much worse than what Dioner Navarro gave them in '08.
Pitching-wise, the Rays haven't been as bad, although their rotation isn't nearly as good as the one that won the pennant in 2008. Losing one of the best young arms in the game, Matt Moore, to Tommy John surgery in April was a killer. David Price (4-5 4.03 ERA, xFIP 2.73) has not had great results, although his 9.92 K/9 and 0.88 BB/9 are still outstanding. Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Erik Bedard and Alex Cobb have had a hard time matching the production the '08 crew of Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine gave them.
And while the bullpen was a mix-and-match situation in 2008, the "closer" of 2014, Grant Balfour (who was also on that '08 squad) has been horrible at the end of ballgames, with a 6.46 ERA. As a unit, their 'pen ERA of 4.18 is far worse than the 3.55 ERA put up by the team in 2008.
Unlike the Phillies, the Rays do not hang on to declining players. In fact, the Rays jettison guys before they hit their big payday, which is why they traded James Shields and Matt Garza, and it is why they will likely trade David Price. They load up on prospects, bring them up, and hope they succeed. So far this year, injuries, poor production by some of these younger players, and weakness at some key power positions, have buried them.
The Phils, meanwhile, signed Ryan Howard to an ill-advised long-term extension, paid big money for bullpen arms Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams, made several trades that plucked young talent out of the farm system (Hunter Pence, Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay to name a few) and failed to recoup some of that lost talent when trading away their own veteran talent (Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence).
And while a few players from their 2008 core has come through for them this year, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz chief among them, they are also getting far less production at some of the power positions than they did in '08.
At first base, their wOBA of .319 is far lower than the .368 Ryan Howard gave them six years ago. And while Pedro Feliz and others only gave them a .306 wOBA at third base in '08, it's actually gotten worse in '14, down to .254, far and away the worst in the National League. And finally, the outfield of Domonic Brown, Ben Revere and Marlon Byrd as a whole has been a huge disappointment, 13th in the NL in wOBA at .293, and far below the .343 clip put up by Pat Burrell, Victorino and Jayson Werth in 2008.
The Phillies are also clearly missing their injured ace, Cliff Lee, leaving them with just one real #1 pitcher, Cole Hamels, whose 3.49 ERA isn't quite at the elite level, but is getting better the more he pitches this year. If and when Lee comes back (and it's starting to feel more like it's not happening), you'd expect a rotation of Lee, Hamels, A.J. Burnett, Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez to at least keep you competitive. But recent struggles by Burnett, and inconsistency from Kendrick and Hernandez, have hurt.
But the biggest difference for the Phillies, pitching-wise, has been the bullpen. So far, the 'pen has generated an fWAR of -0.1, posting a 4.10 ERA and an xFIP of 4.07. Jonathan Papelbon has been great closing games, but every other aspect of the bullpen has been inconsistent. In 2008, the 'pen generated an fWAR of 4.4, with a 3.22 ERA, and an xFIP of 4.03, helped out by a Phils defense that was light years better than it is today.
Unlike the Rays, age and overpriced veterans not matching the numbers on their checks have doomed the Phillies. And of course, all that success from 2007-2011 has led to the Phillies picking near the end of the first round of the MLB Draft, while signing big-name free agents like Raul Ibanez and Jonathan Papelbon has also cost them some valuable first-round picks. That has bred a farm system that is still years away from producing any real fruit.
But this is not unusual for teams that experience success. Usually, there is a cost for being successful, and the Phils are finding that out the hard way now. Sports are largely cyclical, and the Phillies are on the downward slope of that cycle.
For the Rays, playing baseball on the cheap is all fine and good if you're smart and have good luck. So far in '14, the Rays have been very unlucky and also haven't seen the return from the young players they were hoping to see.
The 2014 season for both teams is essentially over, and the fire sales will begin soon. The good news for Tampa is that they are still loaded with young talent and should be able to make a return to contention next year. For the Phils, it could be another 3-5 years before they're ready to get back into the postseason conversation.
You don't need me to tell you it's no longer 2008, and there are certainly more reasons why both teams are failing this year. I wanted to keep this piece to under 10,000 words, so this is essentially the bullet points.
But, just so we all feel a bit better, let's end this with a little nostalgia. Because really, it's all we have left.