If you haven’t read the first part of this series, you can read it here.
These thirty super-teams were assembled under the language of Wins Above Replacement. To repeat phrasing I’ve used before, WAR is an imperfect stat, but its greatest strengths are that it is intuitive and it is comprehensive. If you showed the all-time WAR leader list to the most rabid of old school fans and simply called it a subjective list of the greatest baseball players ever, they probably wouldn’t find that much argument with the list. WAR doesn’t redefine our perceptions of the sport, but rather it allows us to quantify and confirm what we long suspected. Also, WAR has the decided advantage of incorporating all facets of the game, not simply batting or fielding or base-running, and it can be used to compare position players and pitchers.
WAR is scaled to a player’s season or career, but it doesn’t really work for a single game, the parameter I’m using in this exercise. For instance, Stan Musial was worth 11.1 fWAR in 1948, so he was worth 11.1 more wins for his team than if he had been replaced by an average AAA player, but that number doesn’t itself tell you how much he influences the team’s chances of winning a game. The number becomes even more superfluous when examining career totals. We need to break this down further.
In 2019, Major League batters accumulated a total of 186,516 plate appearances in the regular season. There are 30 teams and nine spots in the batting order, which means the average lineup spot batted 690.8 times. This is the plate appearance baseline I’m using for batters. This is a bit of an oversimplification and I will concede a few flaws, but that I am not considering player usage frequency is not, I believe, one of them—in this scenario, everyone plays every game, barring injury, and since I am willing to create a sandbox in which people dead for over a century play with players born in the 1990s, I consider eliminating injuries a relatively minor logical leap.
I will scale each player’s fWAR with a team to a 690.8 plate appearance rate. While it is true that some players would realistically bat more, based on batting order, I held everyone to the same standard because it is not necessarily true that the better hitters would bat more—old school tacticians prefer batting a better hitter third than second, and new school ones prefer batting a better hitter fourth than third. Plus, fWAR is largely based on defensive production as well, and I want to keep things simple enough that I don’t allow my own biases to seep in.
Pitchers are a little more complicated because while I am not compensating for pitcher injuries, I am considering pitching fatigue. I considered scaling starters to the average length of a starter’s outing in 2019, but 5.17 innings is dramatically lower than the typical start in the early 20th century, when quite a few of this experiment’s pitchers pitched. That said, if Christy Mathewson could be relieved by Juan Marichal, my guess is the bullpen revolution would have come much more quickly.
So I’m giving each true starter six innings, the next two starters one each, and the team’s best reliever fraction of an inning, because despite the presence of extra inning games, the average baseball game takes less than nine innings, because of home teams not needing the bottom of the ninth. As it turns out, while the multiplier for the 7th and 8th innings–by definition existent (let’s just say there are no rainouts)–is 162 (as in WAR with the team divided by number of innings with the team multiplied by the 162 games in a WAR-scaled modern season), the multiplier for the 9th inning is, rounded, 158.4789 games. It doesn’t make a massive difference, but it matters somewhat. Plus, while some of these relievers are exciting to have on a team, just as many of them are the likes of Steve Cishek or Brian Fuentes. I feel perfectly happy to make these players less impactful than, say, Cy Young is.
One issue that arises here, if you see it as an issue at least, is that the system rewards shorter tenures. Carl Yastrzemski is the Red Sox right fielder because longevity says he’s the best player in Red Sox history that isn’t Ted Williams, but WAR/PA would strongly favor Mookie Betts in right field. It leads to an unusual conclusion in that Yadier Molina is not the best Molina in this league–his brother Jose, who only spent three years with the catching-starved Tampa Bay Rays, is. Even independent of pro-Cardinals biases, this seems absurd, but at the same time, what version of Yadier Molina should we get? Do we get the near-Replacement Level player he has been at times, or do we get the MVP candidates of 2012 and 2013? I think the most logical answer is we get somewhere in-between. On average, he’s a 4.9 fWAR player–not an MVP candidate, but a very good catcher. That seems fair. The key to the assembly of these teams isn’t simply to extract the highest peaks–it is to put the biggest stars the sport has had out there. Additionally, this gives an advantage to younger franchises–while, say, the Arizona Diamondbacks lack the history of the New York Yankees, they also have fewer superstars who had prolonged careers which became less productive the longer they went. In the end, being an older team is still preferable, because you have more choices, but it’s not a death sentence for newer teams.
The goal here is to approximate how many wins one of these superteams would win in a league populated otherwise with regular ol’ baseball teams, by adding to the total amount of fWAR with the multipliers and then adding 52 (the number of wins a “replacement level” team should win. As it turns out, by my calculations, 21 of the 30 superteams would be expected to break the MLB record for most wins in a season. The worst team of the thirty would merely be the winningest regular season team since 2001 Ironically, one of the nine teams that didn’t crack 116 wins is the team that actually did win 116 games in 2001.
The first seven teams are intuitive–they are franchises which have existed throughout the entirety of the World Series era of Major League Baseball and have won no fewer than three World Series championships. #8 is what I would consider the big winner of the single-game format: the Arizona Diamondbacks. And their lineup is, truthfully, pretty weak. They have a good but not historically great first baseman and second baseman but also the weakest shortstop/third base combo in the game. Their outfielder includes a mostly defensive center fielder, Steve Finley, moderately wasted in right field, and their catcher is the underrated but unremarkable Miguel Montero. But they have Randy Johnson, who was at the peak of his powers the entire time he was in Arizona, as the starting pitcher, and starting pitchers are the quarterbacks of this version of the sport–outsized in importance and nearly impossible to imagine great team success without individual success at that position. Johnson is worth 32.4 fWAR pitching six innings per game over a full season. He was, on average, a Cy Young candidate during his Arizona years, so this makes sense. Randy Johnson is the single most valuable pitcher (and, unsurprisingly, player) in the sport.
While I would have expected the Boston Red Sox to be one of the sport’s better teams, I did not expect them to be #1, but looking at the roster, it makes some sense. Their roster includes a few players who had their peaks but not their declines in Boston, such as Carlton Fisk, Nomar Garciaparra, Fred Lynn, and most importantly, Roger Clemens. Their pitching is nearly as good as that of the aforementioned Diamondbacks thanks largely to the team’s depth–Clemens is, of course, Roger Clemens, but Pedro Martinez and Cy Young make for a trio so good it makes your head spin. And Jonathan Papelbon’s consistent greatness in Boston might be more than you remember it–only Craig Kimbrel and (by the slimmest of margins) Robb Nen were superior with their teams. Even the Yankees, who have the benefit of Mariano Rivera, can’t quite compete, as the pitcher did have some minor dips during his long career.
No team is as shockingly low on the list as the Baltimore Orioles, a once-dynastic franchise that has existed since 1901 (granted, about half a century of that time was spent as the lowly St. Louis Browns) that ranks fifth from the bottom of this list. The problem is that the three greatest players in franchise history–Cal Ripken, Brooks Robinson, and Jim Palmer spent their entire careers in Baltimore. They’re still good players, but much of their peak greatness is diluted by their lesser years. The fourth and fifth best players in franchise history play the same position, thus leaving Eddie Murray on the outside looking in while the St. Louis Brown George Sisler handled first base. And compared to, say, the Barry Bonds-Willie Mays-Mel Ott outfield of the Giants, an outfield of Boog Powell, Paul Blair, and Ken Williams just isn’t quite of the same echelon.
The Texas Rangers, having never won a World Series, make sense as a bottom-half team, but I would not have predicted dead last. The biggest culprit is starting pitching–Kenny Rogers is the worst true starter in the game, with just 13.0 fWAR. The lineup has plenty of good players, but a general lack of greatness. The lineup’s top player, third baseman Buddy Bell, is blocking somebody who would be extremely useful for this team in a vacuum–Adrian Beltre. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez and center fielder Josh Hamilton do add some intrigue, but there is a reason this team is projected to be the super-league’s worst.
The math says that the Boston Red Sox are the best team in this experiment and the Texas Rangers are the worst. For some of you, that will be good enough. Not for me, though. I want this to be settled on the field. And, if I can’t have that, I want to at least simulate it being settled on the field. I will do that in Part 3.