Sylver: The Red Sox and the curious case of the World Series repeat

Oct 28, 2018; Los Angeles, CA: Boston Red Sox players celebrate after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium. (Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 28, 2018; Los Angeles, CA: Boston Red Sox players celebrate after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium. (Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub

MLB history is full of dynasties, successful teams with multiple World Series wins over a concentrated period of time. But few teams in history have been able to win in consecutive years.

In the last 40 seasons, only three teams have been able to repeat: the early 1990s Blue Jays, and the Yankees at the turn of the century - who actually did it twice, tallying three World Series wins in a row to cap a run of four across five miserable years. But no one has done it over the past 18 seasons.

While a championship squad boasts healthy, elite talent, any number of players performing above their heads, and a little bit of luck, it’s difficult to repeat that combination over yet another grueling 162-game regular season and playoff. Winnings teams often lose players to free agency or are forced to make trades due to fiscal constraints. Some teams experience injuries to key personnel, other forms of bad luck, and/or the inevitable regression to the mean.

With the Red Sox returning mostly the same team from a historic 119-win campaign that ended with their fourth duck boat parade since 2004, they're in the mix to be the first to repeat since their AL East rivals back in 2000. But it’s easier said than done. Of the 18 championship defenses since the turn of the century, the majority have resulted in diminished returns, with only two teams even getting back to the Fall Classic.

A Brief History...

The 2001 Bombers set themselves up for a four-peat, signing one of the hottest free agents on the market in now-Hall of Famer Mike Mussina. He replaced David Cone, who’d bottomed out at 4-14 the previous season. The Red Sox scooped up Cone, who had something left in the tank, and lavished $160 million on Manny Ramirez. While the wheels fell off for a bickering Boston team in the heat of the summer, the Yankees won eight more games than the previous season and carried their hopes of a fourth consecutive title into the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

Regular season plus/minus: +8
Postseason record: 10-7

On the backs of Randy Johnson (24-5, 2.32 ERA, 334 strikeouts) and Curt Schilling (23-7, 3.23 ERA, 316 strikeouts) the 2002 Diamondbacks won six more games in the regular season than their championship predecessors but failed to make it out of the Division Series, as the Cardinals hammered both Johnson and Miguel Batista in a three-game sweep.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: +14
Cumulative postseason record: 10-10

The 2003 Angels lost 22 games in the standings. Injuries to Darin Erstad and Troy Glaus gutted the middle of the order while their pitching staff came crashing down to earth. The 2004 Marlins also failed to muster much of a title defense without Ivan Rodriguez (free agent) and Derrek Lee (traded). Brad Penny and (cough) Josh Beckett both missed time and the Fish went 83-79.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -16
Cumulative postseason record: No change

The 2005 Red Sox undoubtedly weathered the biggest free agent defections of any team on the list, with Pedro Martinez going to the Mets and Derek Lowe to the Dodgers. They were replaced by Matt Clement and David Wells, who combined for 28 regular season wins but went 0-2 in the postseason Orlando Cabrera also departed, with Theo Epstein making a hypothetical upgrade in Edgar Renteria. The shortstop submitted one of the more underwhelming seasons of his career, Keith Foulke and Curt Schilling were hurt, Mark Bullhorn cratered and Kevin Millar’s stats continued to erode. They Sox boasted enough star power to somehow win 95 games, but were swept in the ALDS by the eventual champion White Sox.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -19
Cumulative postseason record: 10-13

After winning the World Series for the first time in 88 years, the 2006 White Sox didn’t rest on their laurels. With Frank Thomas retiring, they traded for Jim Thome, who proceeded to crush 42 home runs. The ChiSox won 90 games, but it wasn’t enough in a competitive AL Central and they finished in third place. The 2007 Cardinals took a lot of offseason damage with the departures of Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Jeff Weaver from their starting rotation. They did, however, get Adam Wainwright for his first full season as a starter. The result was five fewer wins than the previous season, when 83 regular season victories were enough to come out of the NL Central and take the title.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -33
Cumulative postseason record: No change

The 2008 Red Sox were kind of like the 2001 Yankees, in that they experienced a great deal of postseason success before losing in a Game 7. In this case, it was the ALCS, but the 2008 club should receive a great deal of credit for getting as far as they did after the bizarre departure of All-World slugger Manny Ramirez. Schilling retired, David Ortiz hurt his wrist, Mike Lowell’s hips began acting up and the team endured yet another post-championship regression from (cough) Josh Beckett.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -34
Cumulative postseason record: 16-18

The 2009 Phils swapped former Cape League MVP Pat “The Bat” Burrell with Raul Ibanez, imported a junk balling Pedro Martinez and did what the 2008 Red Sox couldn’t do: they made it all the way back to the World Series, where they were stopped by the strongest Yankees team of the last 20 years.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -33
Cumulative postseason record: 25-24

George Steinbrenner was still alive in 2010, so when October heroes Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui departed, Curtis Granderson - then a five-tool stud - was brought in. Nick Johnson and his selective eye also returned, but he was limited to just 98 plate appearances, while Granderson underwhelmed in his first season in the Bronx. The Yanks made it back to the ALCS, but the Rangers flipped the script from their playoff matchups of the previous decade and dispatched them in six games.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -41
Cumulative postseason record: 30-28

The 2011, 2013 and 2015 Giants were derailed by injuries (Buster Posey) and key departures (Juan Uribe, Aubrey Huff and yes, Pablo Sandoval) but since their offense wasn’t a focal point, they needed their pitching to be both dominant and healthy nearly 100 percent of the time. That never happens in baseball, so the Giants settled for titles every other year, and missed the playoffs for all three of their title defenses.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -69
Cumulative postseason record: No change

The 2012 Cardinals lost Albert Pujols. That should be all you need to know, but Tony La Russa retired, as well. Amazingly, the Redbirds actually did return to the postseason under rookie skipper Mike Matheny, falling in the NLCS to the Giants.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -71
Cumulative postseason record: 37-34

The 2014 Red Sox were a disaster - the worst team (71 wins) on this list and the one that took the biggest tumble (26 games) in the standings. General manager Ben Cherington attempted to run it back with a group of players who had significantly overachieved the previous season and filled a gap in center field left by a departing Jacoby Ellsbury with Grady Sizemore and a not-ready-for-prime-time Jackie Bradley Jr. The GM was right to let Ellsbury walk, but his inaction resulted in consecutive last-place finishes and his own unceremonious departure less than 18 months after receiving his World Series ring. The 2016 Royals also parachuted from the playoff picture, finishing with a .500 record as Mike Moustakas got hurt, Johnny Cueto left, and the rest of the pitching staff predictably regressed.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -111
Cumulative postseason record: No change

The heirs to the 2016 world champion Cubs have been similarly stacked and in the mix over the past few seasons. In fact, they remain a contender in 2019 with much of the same personnel. Despite 92 wins in 2017, their encore lacked the magic of the previous year. This is one case where you can definitely cite the proverbial World Series hangover. And who can blame them after 108 years?

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -122
Cumulative postseason record: 41-40

The 2018 Astros won 103 regular season games and just happened to run into last year’s buzzsaw Red Sox, who won 108 and romped to an 11-3 postseason record and three straight Gentlemen's Sweeps. An injury to dynamic shortstop Carlos Correa didn’t help matters, though the addition of righty Gerrit Cole helped them gain two games in the standings.

Cumulative regular season plus/minus: -120
Cumulative postseason record: 45-44

And there you have it. Eighteen years of data. A cumulative loss of 120 games in the standings. However, four teams - the 2003 Angels, 2013 Giants, 2014 Red Sox and 2016 Royals - accounted for an 80-win drop.

Nine of the other 14 teams actually made it back to the postseason, and a combined playoff record of 45-44 suggests several of them did pretty well. In fact, seven of those teams made it back to the LCS, with two of them advancing to the World Series. The Red Sox, Giants and Cardinals have all managed to snag at least one additional title within five years of the first, and the Cubs and Astros remain contenders to do so. But none of those teams have managed a repeat.

Long odds. The Red Sox overcame them last year, when many doubted a squad that had flamed out in the previous two postseasons. The top-heavy nature of the American League means Boston is a heavy favorite to be the 10th team on this list to return to the postseason. But their ultimate success depends on a number of factors, which nobody since those 2000 Yankees have been able to control.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.