Rebuilding By Elo Rating

In baseball news and analysis throughout the 2016, “the tank” is a very popular topic. There are various takes on the rough MLB campaigns posted by several teams, as some commentators condemn the purposeful losing of bad teams, while others argue that it’s simply a bad league. The latter point is quite interesting, as bad teams can happen for many reasons; Brewers fans will be quite familiar with the 2014 collapse and subsequent lifeless play from a veteran squad to begin 2015, as one example. This season features several intriguing examples of downward trending teams, including the potentially-competitive Twins, as well as intriguing upward trending teams (such as the supposedly-rebuilding Tigers). Since it’s entirely too simple to write, “teams should aim to put the best team on the MLB diamond while also considering (and hopefully not exhausting) roster future values,” and such general platitudes can be executed one million ways anyway, it is worth digging into executive and ownership hiring, franchise movement, and the question of rebuilding. When should one tank? When should one rebuild? Does rebuilding require losing?

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The Brewers by Elo

Of course, these are unwieldy questions, because there are many different ways to build a front office (and therefore many different ways to enact player development strategies). Luckily, the Elo rating system provides a cumulative and up-to-date rating of a franchise’s success (via wins, probability and strength of schedule, and runs scored and runs allowed), which can help analysts to assess rebuilding teams with a simple number. An average Elo rating is 1500, and 1450 is an “expansion level” Elo rating. For this feature, I am working with several recently completed “well-known” rebuilds, alongside some more clandestine rebuilds, and other teams that decided not to rebuild (or may be headed in that direction). From these teams, one can learn several difficult truths about rebuilding: it does not have to take a long time, but it can also never come to fruition; rebuilding does not require tanking; and, rebuilding is also simply consistent with a new front office structure or GM taking a job.


 

Prior to working with the Elo ratings, here are the twelve teams for the purposes of this rebuilding analysis:

2000-2016 Rebuilding? # of Owners # of GMs Rebuilding could begin? Catalyst Actual Rebuild
Astros 2 5 After 2011 New Owner / New GM 2012-2014
Braves Media Groups 3 After 2014 New FO structure 2015-?
Brewers 2 2 Mid 2015 Poor MLB play 2015-?
Cardinals 1 2 2008 New GM ???
Cubs 2 5 After 2011 New FO structure 2012-2014
Mets 2 5 After 2010 New GM 2011-2013
Padres 2 4 Mid 2016 Failed “win now” ???
Phillies 1 4 Mid 2015 FO overhaul / poor play 2016-?
Pirates 1 3 After 2007 Full FO overhaul 2008-2012
Reds 2 4 Mid 2015 Poor MLB play 2015-?
Tigers 1 3 Mid 2015 Fell out of race ???
Twins Family 2 After 2011 New GM 2012-?

I included these franchises because they feature popular rebuilding models (like the full Pirates overhaul), arguably the most famous (or arguably the only “true”) tank (Astros), and recent building teams (like the Brewers), as well as some more interesting rebuilding cases (the Padres’ huge “win now” bid, the Cardinals’ covert rebuild, etc.). Of course, this is not to suggest that the other 18 teams have not had rebuilding stints or front office reorganization over the last 17 years; it’s simply a chance to begin working with the most recognizable or popular rebuilding franchises, and heading from there. (For example, I am not quite certain how to classify the Angels, Rockies, Orioles, or Mariners front office progressions, or those boom-bust cycles of the Diamondbacks and Marlins. I have almost certainly forgotten clear rebuilding cases like the Rangers and Nationals, too).

While working with each organization’s framework, it is fascinating to see how relatively quickly most franchises rebuilt after their catalyst; the Cubs, Astros, Mets, and arguably even the Cardinals successfully retooled within three years of hiring a new GM or instituting a new front office. The Pirates took five years, although those numbers are arguably inflated because of their heartbreaking 2011 and 2012 collapses.

Working within this framework, I looked at the beginning and ending Elo ratings for each season from 2000-2016 (in progress, obviously). With this process of 34 Elo Rating numbers, I could easily identify clear starting points for a rebuild (such as a “midseason” trade deadline firesale, versus an offseason overhaul). It cannot be understated how important each of these trade windows are: the Brewers, for example, probably shortened their rebuilding efforts by at least one full year thanks to Doug Melvin’s sharp 2015 deadline. For now, I have also left farm system rankings and draft ratings out of the picture, as those are much more difficult to quantify (BPMilwaukee’s Julien Assouline wrote about the importance of this consideration while arguing about the dissimilarities between the Brewers and Cubs).

Rebuilding by Elo Previous Elo Beginning Rebuild Elo Points Below Expansion
Astros (2012-2014) 1430 1455 4 / 6
Cardinals (2008-2010) 1481 1489 0 / 6
Braves (2015- ) 1490 1495 2 / 4
Brewers (2015- ) 1495 1476 0 / 3
Cubs (2012-2014) 1474 1484 1 / 6
Mets (2011-2013) 1490 1495 0 / 6
Phillies (2016- ) 1451 1469 0 / 2
Pirates (2008-2012) 1458 1469 5 / 10
Reds (2015- ) 1496 1499 1 / 3
Tigers (2015- ) 1516 1473 0 / 3
Twins (2012-2014) 1446 1465 1 / 6

Perhaps the most important point is that a rebuilding team was not always a tanking team, or even losing team. The Cardinals never dipped below a 1500 Elo Rating after the middle of John Mozeliak’s first season, and their organization has posted Elo Ratings above 1515 since midseason 2009. The Tigers are another intriguing example of a team that is staving off rebuilding, after previous GM Dave Dombroski’s swift 2015 deadline moves. The Mets were a mediocre team while their front office retooled, allowing their rebuilding efforts to appear much more clandestine; perhaps the best lesson from their build is that a mediocre team allowed them to slowly and surely develop their best prospects at the MLB level.

Notably, the vast majority of teams did not use “tanking” to achieve their rebuilding efforts. For 55 possible season-opening and season-ending Elo Rating points, only 14 “below expansion franchise” Elo Ratings appeared (25 percent). Moreover, 11 of these below expansion level ratings were hoarded by the Pirates, Astros, and now Braves 11/20). So, nine of the studied teams managed to fall below expansion level at 3 of 35 potential season opening or season closing points. This appears to lend credibility to the argument that there is not a tanking crisis in the MLB; instead, there is simply a large number of mediocre teams.


 

Given this landscape, it is worth noting that not every rebuild works. The Twins were working with several poor seasons (and therefore great draft picks), and even a below expansion level campaign, but Terry Ryan could not produce a winner from those drafting positions; worse yet, they failed when doubling down on 2015’s average campaign (including a 1503 Elo Rating) in order to compete in 2016. The Pirates overhauled their entire front office, and they have not caught the Cardinals in Elo Rating, and now they lag behind the Cubs, too. A successful rebuild does not always mean franchise (or MLB) defining dynasties. There is no linear process, or clear definition to rebuild, as the examples above show.

In this sense, one might use the progression of Elo Ratings to argue that the Brewers have no reason not to compete (compete, not contend) in 2017 while also rebuilding. In a mediocre league, merely having a competitive team could go a long way in the Wild Card race, and the Brewers could continue their fidelity to rebuilding by failing to spend future value to win now. The Mets model of allowing top prospects to come of age at the MLB level is also an intriguing lesson for the Brewers with their advanced prospects.  There is no reason to exclude MLB improvement from a rebuilding plan, for the MLB itself proves there is no essentialism for rebuilding.


 

Boice, Jay. “How Our 2016 MLB Predictions Work.” FiveThirtyEight. ESPN Internet Ventures, 2016 (April 25, 2016). Accessed July 20, 2016.

Boice, Jay and Reuben Fischer-Baum. “The Complete History of the MLB.” FiveThirtyEight. ESPN Internet Ventures, 2016 (Updated June 26, 2016). Accessed July 20, 2016.

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