If you ask somebody with only a very peripheral level of knowledge about Major League Baseball which franchise’s greatest players would create the best all-time team, most would say the New York Yankees. If you asked a casual fan the same question, most would say the New York Yankees. Most of you are probably saying the New York Yankees. I would like to speculate that you are wrong.
Without question, the New York Yankees are the most accomplished team in the history of major American professional baseball. The Yankees have won 27 World Series championships–the next three teams in the rankings have won a combined 29. They’ve also lost the second-most World Series championships, a staggering accomplishment given how often they won titles once they reached the Fall Classic. Their lore and the list of amazing players to have donned their legendary pinstripes is unprecedented. But this is the answer to a different question, though I may have been unclear about my question. My question is if you pitted all-time teams together, who would have the best chance of winning a single game.
The New York Yankees can field a staggering lineup of all-time greats: their all-time Wins Above Replacement leaders at six of the eight positions on the diamond are inner-circle Hall of Famers (Lou Gehrig, Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle, and Babe Ruth made it to Cooperstown on their first ballots; inexplicably, Yogi Berra had to wait until his second time and Joe DiMaggio had to wait until his fourth), and a seventh would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer if not for factors not related to his production (Alex Rodriguez). The eighth is Willie Randolph, a clear step down from the rest of the group, but a five-time All-Star over thirteen very productive seasons in the Bronx. But the key term here is single game.
The Yankees, for all of their many, many strengths, have relatively pedestrian high-end starting pitchers. To be clear, any team in Major League history would die to have their five best all-time pitchers as its rotation, but if we’re talking about the greatest pitchers in the history of a franchise, the Yankees are somewhere mediocre, especially since for one game, we’re functionally talking about one great starter. By FanGraphs WAR accumulated with one team, the highest ranking Yankee is Andy Pettitte, who ranks 24th. Don’t get me wrong–Andy Pettitte was a terrific pitcher, one I believe should be in the Hall of Fame (he received 11.3% of the vote last year, though this is at least somewhat informed by his admission of steroid use), but he is not an all-time great among all-time greats. Which provoked my hypothesis that the St. Louis Cardinals might be the best all-time team.
The entire argument for this falls on the right arm of Bob Gibson, undisputably a more accomplished pitcher than the likes of Andy Pettitte, Whitey Ford, or any other Yankee starter (I’m not including Roger Clemens, who was a Yankee and who was great as a Yankee but whose greatness was found primarily elsewhere). The Cardinals arguably only have advantages at two positions–pitcher and second base–but pitcher is of massive importance in baseball, particularly if we are talking about one game in which you get to throw your ace. The Cardinals also have a neatly assembled group of players–by FanGraphs WAR, you can construct a nine-man lineup out of the franchise’s ten greatest players, and by Baseball Reference, you can do it with the top nine exactly.
Perhaps the most entertaining thing to me about this hypothetical is that, since baseball is incredibly weird, I don’t know that any all-time team would be an overwhelming favorite against any other. The Yankees, who have been to the World Series 40 times, would certainly be single-game favorites over the Seattle Mariners, who have been to the World Series zero times, but the Mariners would still be able to throw Felix Hernandez and fit the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Ichiro Suzuki into their lineup. The Miami Marlins have a largely lackluster history, but they could still put Hanley Ramirez at shortstop and Giancarlo Stanton in the outfield.
Every single all-time team in the history of the sport would be the best team in Major League Baseball today. Think of it this way–the Houston Astros have been bad more times than good throughout their history and have a losing record as a franchise. They are also arguably the best team in baseball today. They could functionally take their current-day lineup but then also sprinkle in Jeff Bagwell. They could have to choose between Craig Biggio or Jose Altuve. I wouldn’t pick this team to beat the Yankees, but it wouldn’t be astonishing either.
This thought exercise was heavily influenced by Matt Snyder at CBS Sports, who is unveiling his all-time teams for every MLB franchise. They’re a fun read and I recommend them. And truthfully, I think his teams capture the spirit of a franchise’s all-time team better than what I am about to unveil. He also definitely put more work into it, because I kept my all-time teams strictly mathematical. Somewhat inspired by the JAWS system of evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, I looked at a player’s (FanGraphs, primarily because it’s easier to sort) WAR with a team and supplemented that by re-adding his best five years (JAWS uses seven) with that team. The second step doesn’t impact as many results as you might think, but it does allow some bonus for higher peaks. I stuck by positionality allowed by the FanGraphs leaderboards and was strict about this, with the exception of the outfield, where I required each team to have at least one true center fielder. If there had been a case where there were two center fielders, both of whom were defensive wizards, and thus putting one in a corner spot would severely diminish their value, I might have had to re-think allowing multiple center fielders in certain cases. Luckily, this never came to pass.
These team does not allow for duplicates, hence why Alex Rodriguez isn’t the shortstop on the all-time Mariners team–in cases where a player would qualify for multiple teams, he went to the franchise where he accumulated more fWAR (there are a few cases–see “Mariners shortstop” again–where a player was more successful with another franchise, but he didn’t qualify for that franchise’s team, so he went to the lesser team). Franchises include previous incarnations (the Twins get the 1901-1960 Washington Senators, the Nationals get the Montreal Expos, etc.). Because this is a mathematical exercise, I will not be explaining my picks below–I arranged batting orders mostly for my own amusement and based on sabermetric lineup construction. Each lineup includes the eight non-pitcher positions, three starting pitchers (while one will be the “true” starting pitcher, I am at least granting them a bullpen), and a reliever. No designated hitters are included here, though DHs are permitted to play at positions where they did play in the field–my approach functionally assumes they would have been terrible fielders (which is probably a fair assumption), but if they had the bat to make up for it, God bless them (see “Red Sox first baseman”).
New York Mets
St. Louis Cardinals
Los Angeles Dodgers
|SS||Pee Wee Reese|
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays
Chicago White Sox
Kansas City Royals
Los Angeles Angels
|CF||Ken Griffey Jr.|
So now the question is what to make of all of this information. Do we pick a lineup that sounds good and just roll with it? Is there a mathematical approach? You could do the former. I chose to do the latter…to a certain point. But also, with a lack of baseball season to occupy my time, my imagination is starting to run wild. I want to find a mathematical answer. But I want to use that mathematical answer to envision chaos.
Check back at STLbullpen.com for “Which MLB franchise has the greatest all-time team? (Part 2)”.