As human beings, we look for patterns to help us classify and understand a chaotic universe around us. So it's only natural, now that we are down to just four teams left in baseball's postseason tournament, for us to seek out commonalities between these clubs. What can they teach us about how best to build a baseball team and what it takes to be successful?
It's tempting to look at the Cubs and the Mets, for instance, and talk about how youth has taken over Major League Baseball. Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Michael Conforto are all under 25. Travis d'Arnaud, Jeurys Familia, and Matt Harvey are all 26, and Jacob deGrom is 28, but they still feel young because they are new(ish).
That said, that lesson is really too simple. The Mets wouldn't be here without David Wright and Yoenis Cespedes. The Cubs' pitching is almost entirely staffed with veterans. The Blue Jays are driven by players in their late 20s or early 30s, and the Royals' core grew up and have played together over several years. The youngest real contributor to that club is Yordano Ventura, who is 24.
It's not all about analytics either. While the Cubs, Mets, and Blue Jays have been lauded for having sabermetric-savvy front offices, the Royals are a relative outlier, building their club through smart scouting. Of course, all four of them are some blend of both, but in some very different combinations.
No, what seems to me to unite these four teams is their commitment to change. A measured, deliberate decision to turn over parts of their teams that weren't working and reinvigorating them with things that might both before the season started and in the heat of the pennant race. These teams were not willing to stand pat with guys who were simply "good enough," but looked instead for players who were the best fit and opportunistically grabbed them when they were available.
The Blue Jays could have gone forward with Jose Reyes at shortstop for all of 2015. Or with Dioner Navarro at catcher. Brett Lawrie could have held down third base again. All were perfectly fine players. Edwin Encarnacion could have stayed at first base. Instead, the Jays went out and traded for Troy Tulowitzki. They signed Russell Martin. They traded for Josh Donaldson. They shifted Encarnacion and signed Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello. They didn't stand pat with Drew Hutchinson or Daniel Norris or even Mark Buehrle. Instead, they traded for David Price and patiently waited for Marcus Stroman. These Blue Jays took advantage of every opportunity to upgrade their team and seemingly hit on every one.
The Royals won the American League pennant last year, and had a commanding lead in the AL Central for most of the first half of 2015, but still saw ways to improve their club. Rather than continuing to trot Omar Infante out at second base, they swung a deal for Ben Zobrist. Rather than trusting Chris Young or Danny Duffy in the playoffs, they went out and got Johnny Cueto.
The Cubs actively looked for ways to improve their woeful starting pitching from two years ago, turning the starting rotation over entirely. Just in this season, they promoted three new key players from their minor leagues and into starting roles, which excludes Jorge Soler. They shirted Starlin Castro off of shortstop to the less demanding second base. They took playing time from Chris Coghlan and shoved aside Mike Olt. The Cubs have been extremely aggressive at upgrading their minor league system so that they would have these dynamic young players in place just for this kind of situation.
And, finally, the Mets. They Mets didn't stick with their plans either. They shoved aside guys like Dillon Gee. They signed Michael Cuddyer and turned him into a platoon player. They promoted Conforto and Syndergaard, and Matz. They brought in Cespedes and Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson and Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed. In spite of their financial constraints, they looked for ways to upgrade themselves from within and without.
Teams that have gotten this far realized that the moment they stopped looking for ways to get better, they would start getting worse, and so they refused to simply be satisfied with the players on their roster simply because they were there. It's the sign of a healthy team that it's constantly trying new things and refusing to be complacent. Refusing to change, adapt, and evolve kills teams every year.
Baseball teams are like a very complicated lock. The lines and the grooves on the key have to fit just so or the key won't turn. The door won't open. You won't win a championship. Making the keys for those locks requires precision. It requires perfection. It requires a refusal to take "good enough" for an answer to throw the door open and grab that championship. And all of these teams were carved by some exquisite locksmiths.