Has a great team ever gotten this much better?

2019 Dodgers one of just 11 teams since 1969 to win 105 games

February 6th, 2020

The Dodgers won 106 games last season, the highest total in the entire history of the franchise, dating back to the 19th century in Brooklyn. They've won each of the last seven National League West division titles, and despite a winter where they'd done almost nothing aside from a few one-year bets on questionable pitchers, they were going to be heavily favored to win an eighth.

It's really, really difficult to improve on a roster that talented, is the point, which is part of why, after failing to land Gerrit Cole, they hadn't done much, because it's not like there were a lot of holes to fill. But Mookie Betts, generally considered the second-best player in the sport behind Mike Trout, certainly qualifies, doesn't he? Betts won't really improve the Dodgers' odds of winning that eighth straight division -- it probably moves the needle from something like 92% to 93% -- but if they don't finally get that ring in October, it won't be for lack of trying, will it?

Still, adding a player that good to a team that's already that good isn't something you see very often. This isn't like the 72-90 Angels adding Anthony Rendon, and it's not like the 80-82 Phillies adding Bryce Harper last year. The Dodgers are better than those teams; Betts is better than those players.

So that's what we wanted to know: Has there ever been a situation where a team coming off a year this good added a player this spectacular? The answer is "not often," but it's not "never."

The way we did this was to go back to the start of the divisional era in 1969, and to find teams that were coming off seasons where they'd won at least 105 games. That's not the perfect way to do it, because ideally we'd be looking ahead at the team's projections for the next season, but that kind of information isn't available back through history. You could also argue there's not much difference between the 102-win Yankees adding Cole and the 105-win Dodgers adding Betts, but we have to draw the line somewhere, so this is close enough.

Over the past five decades, there have been 11 teams to win at least 105 games. Listed in reverse chronological order, they are ...

2019 Astros -- 107 wins
2019 Dodgers -- 106
2018 Red Sox -- 108
2004 Cardinals -- 105
2001 Mariners -- 116
1998 Yankees -- 114
1998 Braves -- 106
1986 Mets -- 108
1975 Reds -- 108
1970 Orioles -- 108
1969 Orioles -- 109

... and we looked at what each of them did the next offseason. For the most part, they were relatively quiet, perhaps not surprisingly; they were returning very good rosters. Plus, the 1969-'70 Orioles didn't have the advantage of free agency, and the '75 Reds were barely into the free agency era. Interestingly enough, most of the meaningful moves these 11 made came via trade, anyway. The six times a 105-plus win team added a player who'd been worth at least 2 WAR (FanGraphs style) the previous year are ...

1) +8.2 WAR: Yankees trade for Roger Clemens (Feb. 18, 1999)

Speaking of great players who left the Red Sox with a ton of good baseball ahead of them, Clemens departed Boston following the 1996 season, signing with the Blue Jays. He was fantastic in Toronto, obviously, winning the American League Cy Young Award in both '97 and '98, throwing 498 2/3 innings with a 2.33 ERA. The latter season, per FanGraphs, was worth 8.2 Wins Above Replacement; it stands as the second-greatest Blue Jays pitching season ever, behind only ... the 10.7 WAR Clemens had posted in '97.

But with the Jays not close to contention, Clemens requested a trade following the '98 season, very nearly getting dealt to the Astros before going to the Bronx just as Spring Training opened. (Going back to Toronto: David Wells, Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd.)

Those 1998 Yankees, you might remember, are generally considered to be one of the greatest teams that ever played; including the postseason, they won 125 of the 175 games they played. Just what they needed: Arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history.

What happened next? In 1999, the Yankees won "only" 98 regular season games, but took their third title in four years, even though Clemens was just OK -- a 4.60 ERA in 187 2/3 innings. He'd spend five seasons in New York (not including his brief 2007 return), giving 1,004 innings of 3.99 ball, winning the 2001 Cy Young, and helping the Yankees to four pennants and two rings.

2) +6.9 WAR: Braves sign ... Brian Jordan (Nov. 23, 1998)

Shocker! You thought Betts would be No. 2. So did we. It turns out that the top two moves actually happened in the same offseason.

We should point out that the difference between Jordan's 6.9 WAR in 1998 and Betts' 6.6 WAR is essentially a rounding error, and consider this: Jordan had a fantastic 1998 for the Cardinals, hitting .316/.368/.534 (134 OPS+) with 25 homers, though a big part of his value came from defensive metrics that were somewhat less-formed than they are today. He was a good player who'd had a great year. It's also fair to point out that the year before, he'd made it into all of 47 games (hitting .234/.311/.269), as compared to Betts, who was the Most Valuable Player in 2018.

The Braves, having lost each of the previous two National League Championship Series, had just traded for Bret Boone (who'd been an All-Star for the Reds) in an attempt to improve. As the AP story of the time quoted general manager John Schuerholz:

"It’s not like we were discontented with what we have,″ Schuerholz said. But sometimes you need to refresh the mix.″

What happened next? Jordan wasn't as good in '99, but he was still solid -- .283/.346/.465 with 23 homers, worth 3.3 WAR and an All-Star selection -- and the '99 Braves won 103 games. Success! They'd get steamrolled by Clemens and the Yankees in four games in the World Series anyway. Jordan would spend three years in Atlanta before being dealt to the Dodgers in the 2002 trade that returned Gary Sheffield to Georgia.

3) +6.6 WAR: The Betts trade (not official yet)

Even those two deals aren't the same as this, though. Clemens was entering his age-36 season when he went to the Yankees. Jordan was turning 32 years old. Betts only just turned 27 in October. This kind of player just doesn't get traded. Literally. That is, Betts may not be first on this list, but for a whole lot of reasons, you'd absolutely want him more than either Jordan in '98 or Clemens in '99.

What happened next? Well, we can't possibly know yet. Here's a safe bet that the 2020 Dodgers will win the National League West, and that Betts will play very well. Of course, those two things were always going to happen anyway. This all comes down to October.

4) +4.2 WAR: Mets get Kevin McReynolds (Dec. 11, 1986)

Those '86 Mets are legendary in baseball circles, and in an attempt to repeat in '87, they traded some at-the-time well-regarded players in Kevin Mitchell, Shawn Abner and Shawn Jefferson in a package for McReynolds, with prospects going on both sides. McReynolds had just hit .288/.358/.504 (138 OPS+) with 26 homers for the Padres, giving him a four-win season even though the defensive metrics of the time didn't grade him positively.

Far more interesting, however, was a deal that seemed much smaller at the time: A few days before 1987's Opening Day, they traded for a 24-year-old pitcher who'd posted a 5.56 ERA in 22 2/3 innings for the Royals in 1986. David Cone didn't do much in 1987, but he would finish third in the Cy Young balloting in 1988, and he would go on to give the Mets 1,209 1/3 innings with a 3.13 ERA over seven years.

What happened next? McReynolds was good for the Mets in '87 (117 OPS+ and 2.2 WAR) and was generally excellent over five years in his first New York stint, posting a total 122 OPS+ with 118 homers. None of the players who went back to San Diego amounted to much, though Mitchell would move on to San Francisco, where in 1989 he hit 47 homers and won the NL MVP Award. But the '87 Mets won 16 fewer games than they had in 1986, and more than three decades on, they've still yet to win another World Series.

5) +3.2 WAR: O's deal for Pat Dobson (Dec. 1, 1970)

The 1969 Orioles won 109 games, then the 1970 version won 108 more -- this time taking the World Series title that the '69 crew had failed to capture. Headed into '71, the Orioles traded for Dobson from San Diego, where he'd posted a strong season in his first year as a full-time starter (3.2 WAR, in part because he threw 251 innings, not that anyone knew what WAR was at the time). Baltimore manager Earl Weaver was reportedly pleased because he'd liked Dobson "ever since the night I saw him strike out 21 guys in a game in Puerto Rico."

What happened next? Dobson famously was part of the '71 Orioles rotation that featured four separate 20-game winners, along with Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, and Dave McNally. The O's won 101 games and lost the World Series to Pittsburgh in seven games, which is somehow both "a massively successful season" and "a disappointing step back." Dobson was an All-Star in '72, then was traded to Atlanta after the season in an ill-fated deal that also included future manager Davey Johnson, right before he popped 43 homers for the Braves. Whoops.

6) +2.4 WAR: Mark Mulder goes to St. Louis (Dec. 18, 2004)

Two days after the Moneyball A's began to blow it up by trading Tim Hudson to Atlanta, they dealt Mark Mulder to the Cardinals, who had just won 105 games before being swept by the Red Sox in the World Series. While the '04 team had an excellent offense and a strong bullpen, the rotation was lacking, so Mulder, who'd finished second in the Cy Young voting in 2001 and had been an All-Star in '03 and '04, seemed like an excellent target.

What happened next? Mulder was good in 2005, throwing 205 innings of 3.64 ball. The Cardinals were also good in 2005, winning 100 games and three more in the NLDS before falling to the Astros in six in the NLCS. The problem is that '05 was the final productive year of Mulder's career, as he threw just 106 innings (with a 7.73 ERA) over the next three injury-plagued seasons. Worse, the deal cost St. Louis Dan Haren, who would go on to pitch 11 more Major League seasons.

7) Everyone else

Well, the 2019 Astros (107 wins) haven't done much aside from a few depth deals for veterans like Joe Smith and Martín Maldonado, but, you know, there's sort of a lot going on in Houston right now. The 2018 Red Sox (108 wins) tried too hard to keep the band together by giving Nathan Eovaldi $68 million and bringing back Steve Pearce without really doing anything else.

Remember those 2001 Mariners, the ones who won 116 games? They had an underwhelming follow-up, adding veterans like Ruben Sierra, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, and Jeff Cirillo; they won 93 games but finished third. They've still yet to return to the playoffs in the nearly two decades since. Those '75 Reds and '69 Orioles didn't exactly have the same access to players that today's teams do.

So is this kind of deal -- great team acquires great player -- totally unprecedented? Not exactly. Then again, Clemens was a pitcher a decade older than Betts. Jordan was a good player coming off his greatest season who had neither the track record nor the consistency of Betts. This might not be the only time a deal like this has happened, but it's the only time a deal like this has happened, anyway.