You still hear the same complaints: The rich teams win all the time; the NFL is more unpredictable; once a loser, always a loser; my team has no chance.
Since 2006, 12 teams have made the playoffs that had a losing record the previous season. That's an average of two per season; the last season we didn't have at least one such team was 2005. Of those 12 "surprise" teams, six had lost at least 90 games.
So, yes, baseball is still plenty unpredictable. Teams do come out of nowhere, like last year's Arizona Diamondbacks. Odds are we'll have two teams that had a losing record in 2011 reach the postseason (obviously, the odds increase even more if the second wild-card team is added).
How did those 12 teams do it? Let's take a quick look.
2011 Arizona Diamondbacks: 94-68
Rookies: Josh Collmenter
The Diamondbacks only scored 18 more runs than 2010 but cut their runs allowed from 836 to 662. Improving a terrible 2010 bullpen was key, but the rotation lowered its ERA from 4.39 to 3.84.
2011 Milwaukee Brewers: 96-66
The Brewers went for broke in Prince Fielder's final season, trading off their top prospects to acquire two starting pitchers. Despite monster seasons from Fielder and NL MVP Ryan Braun, the team actually scored fewer runs than 2010. But their runs allowed fell from 804 to 638. An important note: the Brewers were able to acquire Greinke and Marcum despite having what most experts rated the worst or one of the worst farm systems. Brett Lawrie was No. 37 on Keith Law's preseason 2011 list; granted, he blossomed after the trade and now looks like a future star, but he wasn't a top-20 guy heading into the season.
2010 Cincinnati Reds: 91-71
The Reds broke through with their first winning season since 2000. Most of the gains were on offense as the Reds scored 107 more runs. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce improved from 2009 and Stubbs took over in center field from the abysmal Willy Tavares (.275 OBP in 2009). Cabrera wasn't great but he was better than Paul Janish and Alex Gonzalez and Rolen, acquired during the season in 2009, was a huge upgrade over Adam Rosales. Leake and Wood helped hold together a rotation that had only two guys make 30 starts.
2009 Colorado Rockies: 92-70
Rookies: Dexter Fowler
The Rockies had reached the World Series in 2007, so this wasn't quite a team out of nowhere. From 2008, the team scored 57 more runs and allowed 107 fewer. The offensive gains came from a healthy Todd Helton (.264 and 29 RBIs to .325 and 86) and Troy Tulowitzki (eight home runs to 32), which helped survive the loss of Matt Holliday. Replacing the awful Willy Tavares -- yes, him again -- helped as well. The additions of Marquis and Hammel helped solidify a rotation that ran through 12 starters in 2008. In 2009, the Rockies got 155 starts from their top five guys.
2008 Tampa Bay Rays: 97-65
Rookies: Evan Longoria
Tampa's remarkable turnaround has been well-documented, a 31-game improvement that shocked the baseball world. The offense actually scored eight fewer runs despite the addition of Longoria. But the 2007 Rays had allowed 944 runs, thanks in large part to some shaky infield defense, particularly from shortstop Brendan Harris. Bartlett improved the defense up the middle, Longoria added a terrific glove at third and Akinori Iwamura handled the transition from third to second. Defense alone wasn't the only reason the Rays allowed 273 fewer runs, however. The 2007 Rays had perhaps the worst bullpen of all time, finishing with a 6.16 ERA. J.P. Howell, Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour had all been on the 2007 club but combined for a 2.31 ERA over 214 innings. With help from the defense, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine improved and Garza gave the club a solid No. 3 behind James Shields and Scott Kazmir.
2008 Chicago White Sox: 89-74
Rookies: Alexei Ramirez
2007 had been a bit of an outlier, the White Sox' first losing season since 1999. The White Sox showed improvement across the board, scoring 118 more runs and allowing 110 fewer. Kenny Williams didn't really do anything fancy other than identify the bad players from 2007 and replace them. Cabrera and Ramirez gave the club a new double-play combo and he traded prospects to acquire Quentin (who was the leading MVP candidate until getting injured in September) and Swisher. Those two combined for 60 home runs, a big improvement from the likes of Scott Podsednik, Darin Erstad and Jerry Owens. John Danks and Gavin Floyd, rookies in 2007, took big steps forward to improve the rotation.
2007 Arizona Diamondbacks: 90-72
The D-backs had been building since a miserable 111-loss season in 2004 and won the NL West with a young lineup and patchwork rotation that survived the loss of Johnson in June. In truth, it wasn't that good of a club -- they were actually outscored 732 to 712, a differential larger than 2006. But in the NL West, anything can happen.
2007 Colorado Rockies: 90-73
Rocktober! The Rockies beat the Padres in a crazy 13-inning tiebreaker game, scoring three runs in the bottom of the 13th after the Padres had scored twice, to win the wild card. This was the team that won 14 of its final 15 and then went 7-0 in the NL playoffs -- an amazing 21 wins in 22 games. Anyway, 2007 ended a stretch of six consecutive losing seasons. The Rockies scored 47 more runs and allowed 54 fewer. Tulo was a huge upgrade over 2006 Clint Barmes (.264 OBP) and our man Willy Tavares actually played OK, hitting .320 with a .367 OBP. Matt Holliday had a monster season (second in the MVP vote) and Manny Corpas had 19 saves and a 2.08 ERA in relief.
2007 Chicago Cubs: 85-77
Rookies: Mike Fontenot
The Cubs signed five veteran free agents and it somehow worked out in a weak division. They scored only 36 more runs but allowed 144 fewer. Besides Lilly and Marquis, the rotation was helped by Rich Hill's one good season. Second-year pitcher Carlos Marmol had a 1.43 ERA in relief and Ryan Theriot became the starting shortstop, a step up from Ronny Cedeno. But basically the Cubs replaced a lot of bad starts in the rotation (Marmol, Juan Mateo, Angel Guzman, etc.) with better ones.
2007 Cleveland Indians: 96-66
Key additions: Joe Borowski
Rookies: Rafael Perez
The Indians had won 93 games in 2005 and had actually outscored their opponents 870 to 782 in 2006, so that 78-84 record was a bit flukey. The big improvements from 2006: Fausto Carmona went from 1-10, 5.42 as a rookie reliever to 19-8, 3.06 as a starter; Rafael Betancourt had a shutdown season in relief with a 1.47 ERA; and Perez posted a 1.78 ERA. After going 18-26 in one-run games in 2006, they went 29-24.
2006 Los Angeles Dodgers: 88-74
The losing season in 2005 was another outlier, as it was the Dodgers' only losing season from 2000 through 2009. The improvement in 2006 was all offensively -- 135 more runs scored as opposed to four fewer allowed. The Dodgers got Ethier from the A's for Milton Bradley and he hit .308 in a part-time role. Kemp and Loney contributed later in the season. But the big additions were veteran free agents. Furcal played 159 games, hit .300 and scored 113 runs. Garciaparra hit .303 and slugged .505. Lofton hit .301 with a .360 OBP and Saenz slugged .564 in a platoon role. The pitching was held together by the dominant 1-2 bullpen duo of closer Saito (2.07 ERA) and set-up man Broxton (2.59 ERA).
2006 Detroit Tigers: 95-67
Rogers and Verlander combined for 34 wins and a 3.74 ERA over 63 starts, helping the Tigers cut their run prevention from 787 to 675. Jones (37 saves) and Zumaya (1.94 ERA in 83 innings) helped shore up the bullpen. The offense scored 99 more runs, in large part because Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen each played 150-plus games as opposed 169 combined in 2005. Granderson, in his first full season, hit .260 with 19 home runs, an obvious step up from Nook Logan.
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As you can see, there were different methods to improvement. Only two of the teams — the 2007 Cubs and 2006 Dodgers — would I classify as teams that "bought" a division title primarily through free-agent acquisitions. And both of those teams won weak divisions. Most of our teams added some strong rookies or saw big production increases from young players. Sometimes, even the addition of a mediocre innings eater can be a big boost to a rotation; a lot of these teams were bad the year before because the bottom of their rotations were terrible. Getting 30 starts from a guy like Jason Marquis can help quite a bit.
Tomorrow we'll look at losing teams from 2011 that may have the ingredients to pull off a surprise in 2012. Meanwhile, vote in the poll (I could only list five teams)!