Defending Champions and Cold Starts

Defending Champions
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The life of defending champions, in any sport, is never easy. This is especially true at the beginning of the next season. Either one begins said campaign hotter than the surface of the sun or colder than the Arctic Ocean. There are very few middling or even mediocre starts to seasons right after winning major championships. Baseball is no exception, though with the length of the sport’s annual calendar, the patterns can be tossed about a little bit more. It is, quite possibly, the ultimate in sporting streakiness. Teams on a scorching route can suddenly find themselves bogged down by bad pitching, bad hitting, or even bad luck and vice versa. This is why a defending champion’s season should never be judged by the first month.

However, we’re not here to examine that. We’re here to examine what happens when the defending champions come out of spring training coated in a thick layer of icicles. Bad starts to seasons for defending champions are nothing new. The 1998 Florida Marlins, 2019 Boston Red Sox, and 1947 St. Louis Cardinals all have this one thing in common. Even this year’s Atlanta Braves have had a difficult start, thus leading to the inspiration for this piece. Certainly, they’ve all had different players, different circumstances, and even different eras. However, their shared downfall was their slow start after winning the Commissioner’s Trophy. Today, we look at the three worst, according to an MLB.com article. They will be ranked here by how they wound up finishing.

 2019 Boston Red Sox

The 2019 Red Sox had everything going for them. Team President David Dombrowski had pushed all the right buttons in 2018. Their first World Title in five years saw the team riding high. An offense anchored by defending AL MVP Mookie Betts and a rotation led by seven-time All-Star Chris Sale seemed like a match made in heaven. Add in veterans like Mitch Moreland and David Price to go with young studs like Rafael Devers and the time was ripe for a repeat. Then, the team lost eight of its first ten games and did not reach the .500 plateau until May 8.

They began the season with a 12-4 thrashing courtesy of the Seattle Mariners. They went on to lose the series 3-1. Then, they headed south, where they experienced consecutive shutouts at the hands of the Oakland Athletics. Sale had a retro performance, giving up one run to the A’s on April 2. However, the Red Sox offense could not score, despite seven hits. A series loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks capped the ten-game scuffle. Boston posted 84 victories and a respectable third place finish, keeping them in the same spot on this list. However, their hopes for a repeat were dashed almost out of the gate. They finished 19 games behind the division-champion New York Yankees.

1964 Los Angeles Dodgers

The 1964 Los Angeles Dodgers were coming off a spectacular season. 99 wins, a World Series title, and one of Sandy Koufax’s best career seasons had the team in a buzz. In fact, the double-headed dragon of Koufax and Don Drysdale had combined for 44 wins and a stellar 2.26 ERA. Between them and Bob Miller’s excellent first year as a Dodger, the lackluster offense went unnoticed. Outfielders Tommy Davis and Frank Howard both posted excellent numbers. Speedy shortstop Maury Wills led the league in stolen bases for the fourth straight season. Other than that, the offense was mediocre at best.

In 1964, the pitching could no longer cover for the defending champions’ heinous offense. Despite Drysdale and Koufax continuing their Hall of Fame ways, major bats slumped. Howard’s average plummeted to .226 and his OPS+ fell from 150 to 111. Davis, a two-time defending batting champion, saw his average fall from .326 to .275. The team still led the league in stolen bases; however, their hits (1,375), runs (614), and total bases (1,870) ranked near the bottom. A team OPS+ of 88 says all about this group. While pitching may have won them the 1963 title, it simply could not mask the glaring issues with the bats. The 1964 Dodgers finished tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for sixth, 13 games back of the league-champion Cardinals.

1998 Florida Marlins

Finally on our list of cold defending champions, we jump back to the worst of the worst: the 1998 Marlins. After winning a World Series thanks to the heroics of men like Edgar Renteria and Kevin Brown, the Marlins committed a curious act. They got rid of most of them, stripping the team down to a bare core one year after a championship season. Moises Alou was traded to the Houston Astros and Jeff Conine went to the Kansas City Royals. However, perhaps the most baffling of all, was their trading of Brown to the San Diego Padres. True, the return package included future slugger Derrek Lee, but one has to question the motive.

In terms of form, the Marlins began the season with an offensive outburst. 11 runs on 14 hits managed to save a lackluster performance from Opening Day starter Livan Hernandez. The Marlins lost their next 11 contests, putting themselves in a six-and-a-half-game hole by April 13. They put up a pitiful 8-18 record in the month, followed by an even more disturbing 8-20 mark during May. Their Opening Day win over the Chicago Cubs marked the only time the team spent over .500 in the entire season. They were shut out six times and lost via walk-off an astonishing 12 times. Their biggest winning streak was four games. In all, they went 54-108, finishing 52 games behind the division-champion Braves.

Not All Defending Champions Are Similar

So, as we can see, defending champions do not always begin the season perfectly. In fact, sometimes, it’s downright horrendous. That being said, there’s always that small glimmer of hope that never truly fades away. It penetrates deep into the heart of every fan of a defending champion, driving them forward. That’s why, in most cases, it is unwise to throw in the towel after only ten or twenty contests. One never knows where things will end up.

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Players mentioned:

Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, Mitch Moreland, David Price, Rafael Devers, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Miller, Tommy Davis, Frank Howard, Maury Wills, Edgar Renteria, Kevin Brown, Moises Alou, Jeff Conine, Derrek Lee, Livan Hernandez