FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The year after: It can be an ugly place.
There are horror stories about pitching staffs in the season following a World Series run. The extra month of baseball, and the additional stress of 20 to 30 innings pitched under the highest intensity imaginable, sometimes appears to manifest itself in a significant downturn in performance the following year.
Among the notable struggles: The 2005 White Sox were carried by their pitching; the next year, they permitted 162 more earned runs while seeing their ERA balloon from 3.61 to 4.61 while going from a 99-win team to a 90-win club that missed the playoffs. The 2007 Tigers, coming off the franchise's first World Series in more than two decades, saw their ERA balloon from 3.84 to 4.57. The result was an October vacation following an 88-win season. The 2008 Rays proved a revelation whose success was predicated on dominant pitching and defense; they gave up more than an additional half-run per game the following year, and missed the playoffs.
Those are just a few of the many examples of year-after pitching staff struggles. Of the 36 teams to reach the World Series between 1995 and 2012, 23 (64 percent) endured an ERA increase, with with 11 of those teams (31 percent) suffering an ERA rise of at least half a run per game. (If one switches from ERA to runs allowed per nine innings, the same results hold.)
That bump of at least half a run per game is fairly monumental and terrifying to teams trying to repeat. The challenge of offsetting an additional 80 or more runs yielded in a season is considerable, as evidenced by the fact that seven of the 11 teams to endure such a bump missed the postseason entirely the following year.
Overall, the 36 teams to reach the World Series between 1995 and 2012 suffered an average ERA increase of 0.18 runs per game the following year, with an identical average increase in runs allowed per nine innings.
The potential explanations are wide-ranging. In some cases, as with the 2006 White Sox, pitchers who enjoyed tremendous seasons en route to the World Series endured significant performance drop-offs the following year. Some of those were driven by health problems that emerged the following year, perhaps a concession to the extra workload of the previous October. Other teams, like the 1997 Marlins and 1998 Padres, were strip-mined in the year after their World Series, and so a different staff suffered the decline. Sometimes the defensive mix behind a team's pitchers changed, resulting in a struggle to prevent runs.
Regardless of the cause, historically, the likelihood has been that a team's pitching staff will be worse the year after working through three postseason rounds, a fact of which the Red Sox have been mindful in preparing for their title defense.
Though Juan Nieves was a pitching coach in the White Sox farm system in both 2005 and 2006, when Chicago went from a championship rotation to a worse-than-average one, he had occasion to discuss the dreaded year-after -- in which the White Sox saw their ERA jump by a full run per game -- with White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper during his five years as Cooper's bullpen coach from 2008-12.
"We have talked about that before several times. We've had those conversations," Nieves said. "When you have a staff like Chicago in '05 like [Jon] Garland, [Mark] Buehrle, [Jose] Contreras, Freddy Garcia, El Duque [Orlando Hernandez], these guys are seasoned guys who have had incredible careers, but it's true, it took a little bit out of them."
The conclusion for avoiding a repeat of Chicago's 2006 scenario?
"How you handle them in the early part of the season is going to be key to it," said Nieves.
That explains why Nieves and the Red Sox have been so deliberate in their build-up of starters this spring, essentially shortening the exhibition season by a start in order to reclaim some of the extra bullets that were employed last fall. And now, as the Red Sox enter their final turn of the spring rotation, they appear to be wrapping up spring training with their most important goal having been achieved.
"My biggest concern all spring training has been these guys walking out of here finishing camp healthy. If it's 80 pitches, 90 pitches, 110 pitches [that they've built to in an outing], we just want them to be healthy. Nobody is in the training camp grabbing their arms. That was my biggest concern," said Nieves. "I know we ended up the season a little late. I hope we have that problem every year. If they go 75 to 80 pitches the first time out, I don't mind that because it's a long season where these guys will make 30 to 35 starts. My biggest issue is for all of them to be healthy."
Overall, there would appear to be considerable cause for pessimism about the challenge a pitching staff faces in its quest to repeat. But it's worth noting that declines in the performances of pitching staffs are anything but universal.
After all, just over a third (13 of 36) of teams did a better job of preventing runs the year after reaching the World Series than they did in their run towards the title. How?
In virtually all instances of those ERA improvements, there were noteworthy personnel changes that facilitated the improvements -- sometimes homegrown players who were given bigger opportunities (the 2011 Cardinals with Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal; the 1997-98 Indians with Bartolo Colon), sometimes with free agents (the 2000-01 Yankees with Mike Mussina) or players acquired in trades either during the offseason (Roy Halladay with the 2010 Phillies) or late in the previous year (Denny Neagle with the 1996-97 Braves, Doug Fister with the 2011-12 Tigers), sometimes with in-season moves (the 2011-12 Cardinals with Edward Mujica, the 2011-12 Tigers with Anibal Sanchez).
The Sox, of course, have changed their bullpen/depth mix with the additions this year of Mujica, Burke Badenhop and Chris Capuano while the continued progress of pitching prospects like Brandon Workman, Drake Britton, Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo and eventually Henry Owens could allow them to follow the Cardinals' homegrown formula for pitching improvement in a title defense. Moreover, that wealth of prospects gives the Sox the ability to make mid-year deals to bolster their pitching should the returnees struggle.
But given that the Sox will be bringing back the same five starting pitchers (Jon Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Jake Peavy, Clay Buchholz) who wrapped up last year in their rotation, what might that mean?
In this case, the team feels there's still room to improve. The Sox had a good-not-great regular season ERA of 3.79 (6th in the American League); their starters had a 3.84 ERA that ranked fourth-best in the AL. While last year's workload raises questions about whether there could be a performance dropoff, there's also reason to ask whether the individual pitchers could improve.
Given that Lester finished the year (from the start of the second-half through the end of October) with the most dominant stretch of his career, there's reason to believe he could improve on a rather unremarkable 3.75 ERA.
If Buchholz remains healthy for more than 16 starts and 108 innings, he could change the complexion of the staff.
The Sox have been curious this year about whether Doubront might enjoy a career breakthrough.
Peavy will be with the team for a full season, and, if healthy, could represent an upgrade over what Ryan Dempster offered last year.
"I think, as a whole, we have a chance to be better. That being said, it's not going to be easier. I think it's going to be tougher. But I think we have a better chance at having a good year," said catcher David Ross. "Hopefully [Doubront] is more consistent than he was last year. I think he has the potential to be a solid two or three starter. His stuff, when he's on, can be really good. If he's more consistent and Buch stays healthy, that's the projections [for improvement].
"I think they have a chance to do really special things, to be really special again this year," he added. "I like the fact that people still don't give them credit. Nobody is still giving them credit. They think everything went our way. And those five guys, six guys that take the bump throughout the year are really, really good."
The group was good enough to carry the Sox through last October. Whether that performance proved a glimpse of more excellence to come or a bill that comes due this year remains to be seen, with the likelihood of a title defense hanging in the balance.