The Philadelphia Eagles surprised just about everybody by winning the Super Bowl on Sunday against the almighty New England Patriots. What some people might forget is that just a couple of years ago this team had been taken over and run into the ground by Chip Kelly. So how did they survive that debacle and rebuild to the point where they beat the GOAT in Tom Brady with not their stud second-year QB Carson Wentz but backup Nick Foles? What can certain MLB teams learn from the Eagles model?
FiveThirtyEight.com ran a great piece detailing what they see as the Eagles secret sauce. They detail several moves that GM Howie Roseman made: extending contracts of key players(like Foles), going after formerly high draft picks who washed out with other teams and focusing on the offensive and defensive linemen. Obviously, that last one doesn’t apply to baseball – unless you apply it to bench quality and bullpens as baseball’s “unsung” heroes.
The former draft/player development piece is a pretty good place to start. The Eagles ended up ranked 6th highest of weighted draft ranking of any championship team in the free agency era. That means combining their draft rank and value to the team to get an overall score. They certainly didn’t draft everyone – but picked up where other teams gave up especially in the lineman department.
The Colorado Rockies made some noise this offseason as they beefed up their bullpen. This is somewhat interesting because the Rockies already had a pretty good bullpen last season. They were second in save percentage at 76%, tied for second in Inherited Runners Score % at 25%(which to me indicates a shutdown reliever who can come in with runners on and get it done), and in general according to FanGraphs had a bullpen WAR of 6.4, good for 6th in MLB. Sidenote: the Angels were 5th.
Now the Rockies take Greg Holland from the Cubs, Bryan Shaw from the Indians, and have a few other high-quality arms/former closers in Jake McGee and Carlos Estevez on staff still.
If modern baseball is about exploiting market inefficiencies as Billy Beane (and everyone else) would tell you – putting the right people in the right places seems like an easy way to help maximize output. Part of this problem could be contracts: when the Red Sox are paying David Price his hundreds of millions of dollars – the ownership doesn’t like seeing him pitch 1 inning out of the bullpen every few days.
Perhaps that is the biggest adjustment Major League teams will have to adjust from the Eagles model: the issue of contracts. Baseball contracts are typically paid out based on past performance – though many teams like the Rays and Pirates are locking up super prospects to long-term deals early – but baseball is still littered with contracts like Albert Pujols, Matt Kemp, and a certain Melvin Upton Jr went from the last year of his bad contract ending in 2017 earning $16.5M to a 2018 contract of $1.5M minor league invite for the Indians. The market has spoken.
In baseball, one player does not have as big of an impact on the entire team the way a quarterback does in the NFL. Except for the rare ones like Barry Bonds, Mike Trout, Ken Griffey Jr etc., most teams build up depth assuming certain injuries will come up. We’ve talked before on these pages about how the biggest difference money can buy for teams isn’t as much the talent itself – but the talent behind the talent. Last year when the Pirates lost Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte it essentially sapped them of two impact starters and they couldn’t recover. When the Dodgers lost Adrian Gonzalez…they had a stud rookie in Cody Bellinger ready to go and in being without Clayton Kershaw and several other starters they had other quality free agent pickups ready to slide in.
The Eagles though show that even teams that make terrible judgment with careful analysis and not just draining the swamp – but at least sifting through the swamp to see what they can salvage – can recover and be champions. Hope for the Padres after all?