Now that the Reds have begun to re-build, -tool, -load, etc. I’ve been wondering if there is a specific target, beyond being good, that they should be aiming for. That is, if you had a blank slate, is there a specific way to be good that is better than other ways?
To start, I had to define what better meant, and in the baseball world, I still think that it all comes down to the World Series. Yes, the regular season is probably a better measure of overall talent, but if the Reds won the Series again, and someone told me that it didn’t matter because they weren’t the most talented team overall, I would laugh all the way to the Fountain Square parade.
So, to see if there were better ways to be better, I decided to look at how each of the last 30 World Series participants have stacked up against league average in four categories: Offense, Defense, Starting Pitching, and Relief Pitching. The measures that I used (which of course we can quibble over, but for this exercise let’s not) were wRC+, fangraphs’ defense metric, and xFIP+ for starters and relievers.* You can follow those links for explanations of each.
*I scaled the Def measure so that league average is 100 rather than 0, so that it would be consistent with the other measures. For each of the measures I used, 1 point over 100 means the team was 1 percent better than the league average, and vice versa. Fangraphs uses xFIP-, where lower is better, but I inverted it for consistency.
I think just looking at the full results is interesting, so I’m going to include a long table here. See you on the other side.
Only 3 of the 30 teams were above average in all four areas of the game (’04 Cardinals, ’07 Red Sox, and 2011 Rangers), and while I’m not really differentiating between World Series winners and losers for this review , it’s worth noting that only one of those went on to win. So being good at everything clearly isn’t necessary to get to or win the Series.
Conversely, by combining the four measures I found that only four teams were below average overall (’03 Yankees, ’04 Red Sox, 2010 Rangers, and 2010 Tigers). So, while teams don’t have to be better than average at everything, 87 percent of recent World Series teams were good enough at some phases of the game to compensate for a weakness, and make them better than average overall. This is sort of a weird thought to follow, but the average World Series team was 9 percent above average overall. Make sense?
My belief going into this was that good offense and good starting pitching were going to be the best and most common formula, but only 11 of the 30 teams were above average in both, and about half of those went on to lose. The ranges for both starting pitching and offense went from about 10 percent below average to 17 percent above.
How to be good
The most common ways to be good were defense and relief pitching (24 of 30 teams), while only 18 teams had above average starting pitching, and only 17 teams had above average offense. That last one was especially surprising, given that it’s only 57 percent of the sample. That relief pitching seems so important does not bode well for the current Reds, since they have a terrible bullpen right now, but I think bullpens can be turned around more quickly than other parts of a team.
The weird thing is that while defense was tied for most frequently above average, it also varied the most. The range was from 83 percent below average, to 108 percent above average. There’s a lot for front offices to think about there. Clearly defense is important because World Series teams often are good at it, but a team can still be great and have a terrible defense. Some of that variance is due to the still-evolving state of defensive metrics, but still…
The big takeaway for me (from this admittedly crude analysis) is that even in the data-intensive modern era, there are still many different ways to make a great baseball team. The next time you here a play-by-play guy or TV analyst say “you absolutely cannot have a team that doesn’t do X and think you can win the World Series,” you’ll know that they’re probably wrong. For every World Series team with three aces at the top of their rotation, there are the 2015 Royals. For every team with MVPs up and down the lineup, there are the ’05 Astros.
As a GM for a rebuilding team, I think the takeaway should be to first, make sure your bullpen is at least decent (the worst World Series team was only 4 percent below average in relief pitching), and then to look at where your team excels and where it falls short to decide the best way to get the team to that 10 percent better-than-average-overall level. Maybe, based on trades and free agents, the best course is to shore up the weakness and be a generally-good-at-everything team, or maybe it’s to hit the throttle on your strength and blow other teams away with one super power.