A Recent History of Defending Champs

In case you missed it, the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series. While few Cubs fans have tired of seeing Kris Bryant throw to Anthony Rizzo to break the drought, the start of the 2017 season draws ever closer, and soon the Cubs will have to get on with the business of defending their title.

The Cubs are unsurprisingly the favorites for 2017 too, despite what PECOTA might say. But how have teams fared recently in their title defenses? Should we expect the World Series winners to do well the following season?

In order to answer that question, let’s take a look back at the subsequent seasons of recent World Series champions. To keep the situation broadly equivalent, this is restricted to World Series winners since the last round of expansion in 1998. Here is every World Series winner since 1998, along with their performance the following season:

WS Year Next Year
Team Year W L W-L% RS RA W L W-L% RS RA Outcome
NYY 1998 114 48 0.704 965 656 98 64 0.605 900 731 Won WS
NYY 1999 98 64 0.605 900 731 87 74 0.540 871 814 Won WS
NYY 2000 87 74 0.540 871 814 95 65 0.594 804 713 Lost WS
ARI 2001 92 70 0.568 818 677 98 64 0.605 819 674 Lost NLDS
ANA 2002 99 63 0.611 851 644 77 85 0.475 736 743 Missed playoffs, 3rd place
FLA 2003 91 71 0.562 751 692 83 79 0.512 718 700 Missed playoffs, 3rd place
BOS 2004 98 64 0.605 949 768 95 67 0.586 910 805 Lost ALDS
CHW 2005 99 63 0.611 741 645 90 72 0.556 868 794 Missed playoffs, 3rd place
STL 2006 83 78 0.516 781 762 78 84 0.481 725 829 Missed playoffs, 3rd place
BOS 2007 96 66 0.593 867 657 95 67 0.586 845 694 Lost ALCS
PHI 2008 92 70 0.568 799 680 93 69 0.574 820 709 Lost WS
NYY 2009 103 59 0.636 915 753 95 67 0.586 859 693 Lost ALCS
SFG 2010 92 70 0.568 697 583 86 76 0.531 570 578 Missed playoffs, 2nd place
STL 2011 90 72 0.556 762 692 88 74 0.543 783 596 Lost NLCS
SFG 2012 94 68 0.580 718 649 76 86 0.469 629 691 Missed playoffs, 3rd place
BOS 2013 97 65 0.599 853 656 71 91 0.438 634 715 Missed playoffs, last place
SFG 2014 88 74 0.543 665 614 84 78 0.519 696 627 Missed playoffs, 2nd place
KCR 2015 95 67 0.586 724 641 81 81 0.500 675 712 Missed playoffs, 3rd place
CHC 2016 103 58 0.640 808 556 ? ? ? ? ? ?

It may not have escaped anyone’s attention that winning the World Series has not recently been a great predictor of success in the subsequent year. Five out of the last six winners have failed to even make the playoffs the next season. Two of those teams weren’t remotely close to contending the following year, and the 2011 Giants were only within touching distance of the wild card—and eventual champion—Cardinals by virtue of severely outperforming their Pythagorean record.

It’s not much more encouraging that only one World Series winner of the previous fifteen has even won the pennant and returned to the Fall Classic the following year. The 2009 Phillies essentially reproduced their triumphant 2008 campaign, right down to changes of just one win in their record and fewer than ten runs in their run differential. They even replicated their NLDS and NLCS scorelines of 3-1 and 4-1, before finally falling to the powerhouse that was the 2009 Yankees.

Elsewhere, the fortunes of champions are bleak. Four more teams failed to make the playoffs the year after winning it all, all four of them also dropping into third place in their divisions. It’s hard to say that it was a shock for the 83-win Cardinals of 2006, who had the lowest winning percentage of any World Series champion in history. The same goes for the surprising 2003 underdog Marlins, who weren’t the league’s best team to begin with, then lost two key components of that lineup when Pudge Rodriguez left in free agency and Derrek Lee was traded to the Cubs for Hee-Seop Choi.

Even the 99-win White Sox team of 2005 coming back down to earth doesn’t look that surprising in hindsight, given that their TAv and wOBA marks were middle of the pack and most of their pitching peripherals barely put them inside the top 10, with a .275 BABIP aiding their rotation’s surprising success.

Of course, the 2016 Cubs aren’t all that similar to most of these teams. The first two more obvious comparisons to draw are Theo Epstein’s previous World Series-winning teams in Boston, from 2004 and 2007. Both were near-100 win teams with huge positive run differentials. The 2004 team obviously had even more parallels than simply the same front office leadership and an excellent team, with their own epic playoff comeback in the ALCS against the Yankees, and the end of baseball’s other notorious title drought.

Both of those teams would be just fine the following year, winning 95 games before being eliminated in the ALDS and ALCS respectively. As good as a 95-win season is, it’s hard to imagine that many people will be satisfied with that and a Divisional or Championship series exit coming, as the Cubs are, off of 103 wins and a championship.

It should also be noted that the Boston lineup in question was considerably older than these exciting young Cubs: David Ortiz and Gabe Kapler were the youth of the 2004 team at 28, while Coco Crisp was the baby of the 2007 squad at 27. In Bryant, Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Heyward, Contreras, Schwarber and Almora, the 2017 Cubs will likely use an entire lineup younger than that 2004 Boston team on multiple occasions this year.

Let’s turn, then, to the team that both represents the success Chicago would want to emulate and the image many would rather not have: the Yankees. The current iteration of the Cubs doesn’t seem to have taken that heel turn into ‘Evil Empire’ territory yet. They don’t have the history of dominance or the track record of using their financial muscle to overwhelm other teams. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the Yankees didn’t even get their infamous nickname until 2002, even if they embodied the spirit of it before that. Perhaps a surprise free agent splurge on Manny Machado or Bryce Harper in a couple of years would change everything.

Narratively, the 1998 Yankees aren’t as neat a match for the 2016 Cubs as the 2004 Red Sox are; 1996 is marginally more suitable on that front, representing the end of New York’s laughably short 18-year drought without a title. However, their level of dominance most closely matches that of the Cubs. They had a positive run differential well in excess of 200 runs and comfortably surged past 100 wins; in fact, their record splits the difference between the Cubs’ second- and third-order winning percentages from 2016.

While the eras make the raw numbers and ratios look fairly different, taken in context, the offenses are remarkably similar too. The two teams are among the best of all time in TAv, with almost-identical marks of .288 and .287: the ’98 Yankees rank 6th of 1652 teams since 1950; the 2016 Cubs are 11th. DRA- tells a similar story, with the Cubs at 85 and the Yankees at 89. Again, the Cubs have a significant edge in terms of young talent. While the Yankees had some 24-year-old shortstop called Derek Jeter, great production from the catcher spot in Jorge Posada (26), and a rotation anchor in Andy Petitte (26), the rest of the rotation and the regular lineup was 29 or older.

So defending the World Series is rare, and being a Series winner in the Cubs’ position is rarer still. The Yankees and the Blue Jays are the only teams since the 1970s to successfully defend a World Series title. The Oakland A’s of 1972-74 are the only other team to win it all three times in a row (the Yankees have done so on three separate occasions). Aside from these three, only one other team, the Reds of 1975-76, have defended a World Series title since the Second World War.

In other words, it’s really, really hard to repeat as champions in baseball. The signs are good; the Cubs are set up about as well as a team can be and they might be the best bet we’ve seen in a while to sustain a Yankee-like dynasty, without indulging in Yankee-like spending. While recent history suggests that we shouldn’t expect a repeat, we also haven’t seen a World Series winner like the Cubs for a long time.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports

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