Report cards (Part 1)

It’s always fascinated me how many ways there are to build a winning team. It’s said often that pitching and defense win championships, but that idea is parroted when a team wins a low-scoring game instead of being analyzed from any angle.

Fortunately, the good folks who make the ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia have divided team performances into fielding, pitching, batting, and base-stealing win components. From Page 1383 of the 2006 edition, each of these is the “total number of wins the team achieved through its [fielding/pitching/etc.] compared to the average team in the context of the offensive level of the league and the team’s home park(s).” In other words, however they figure it out, they’ve adjusted the component figures to neutral levels so we can compare teams’ strengths and weaknesses across eras. Mind you, these statistics measure the component performances and not quite the actual wins achieved; Pythagoras isn’t invited to the party.

What I chose to do with the stats is group the components into grades, as all of them are measured as wins above or below average. For this exercise, these grades accompany wins above or below average like so:

   Fielding/Running    Pitching/Batting
A  +1.5 and up         +6.0 and up       
B  +0.6 to +1.4        +2.1 to +5.9
C  -0.5 to +0.5        -2.0 to +2.0
D  -0.6 to -1.4        -2.1 to -5.9
F  -1.5 and down       -6.0 and down

This breakdown, which simplifies the statistic a little bit while de-emphasizing minute differences, gives a fairly even distribution of A/B/D/F grades with a higher frequency at C. It also gives us 125 fielding/pitching/batting grade profiles (baserunning differences are too small and too dissociated from winning teams to be included regularly) and 13 team GPAs, which allow for a host of interesting comparisons.

I know the above explanation was kinda murky, but it’s an intuitive sort of breakdown that will make sense as I milk the data for every worthwhile configuration I can find. All profiles are listed in fielding-pitching-batting order, since that’s how the encyclopedia listed them. The figures are from 1901 to 2005, because the latter figure is where my edition ends. That’s still 2052 teams to find us some patterns. Let’s blow this Popsicle stand and get to analyzing!

The valedictorians

The 4.0 profile is rare, happening 20 times but only three times since 1945. (As strikeouts have increased and playing conditions have standardized, fielding wins are a tinge harder to attain than in days gone by.) The surprising bit is that four of those 20 missed the playoffs. The complete list of AAAs for those so interested:

1902 Pirates
1904 Giants
1905 Giants
1906 Indians (3rd)
1909 Athletics (2nd)
1910 Athletics
1910 Cubs
1912 Red Sox
1915 Red Sox
1915 White Sox (3rd)
1919 Reds
1929 Athletics
1939 Yankees
1942 Yankees
1942 Dodgers (2nd)
1944 Cardinals
1945 Cubs
1969 Orioles
1976 Phillies
2001 Mariners

Although eight of the 16 AAA playoff entrants have won the World Series, it’s only been one of the last six who have won. The ’42 Yankees lost to the CAA Cardinals (since it’s just the fielding that is different, that’s roughly an even match); the ’45 Cubs lost to the CAC Tigers; the ’69 Orioles lost to the BAF Mets (!); the ’76 Phillies lost to the ACA Reds (but the best hitting team without Babe Ruth of all time, by ESPN’s rankings); and the ’01 Mariners beat the CCA Indians but could not beat the CAC Yankees.

Ruthian/Fosterian offense aside, it seems that A pitching can hang well with A pitching regardless of hitting quality. But does that hold up? In later installments we’ll uncover this and other oddities. But for right now . . .

The dropouts

36 teams are in the ignominious FFF profile. And unlike the now-rare AAA profile, the FFFs split half-and-half at World War II. The last half of the list has a bunch of teams you’d expect and a couple of surprises:

1945 Phillies
1949 Browns
1949 Cubs
1952 Pirates
1954 Pirates
1954 Athletics
1955 Orioles
1962 Mets
1963 Mets
1963 Senators
1970 White Sox
1972 Rangers
1979 Athletics
1982 Athletics
1993 Rockies
2002 Tigers
2003 Tigers
2004 Diamondbacks

The three big surprises to me are the White Sox, the ’82 Athletics, and the Rockies. The A’s were too busy stealing bases to get noticed for their futility (they got an A in baserunning), while the Rockies’ newness and the Padres’ stink covered up the mess, but the White Sox never seem to come up in those “worst of” lists. Their frontline talent was decent, at least for a 56-106 team; Ed Herrmann and Bill Melton were sluggers at catcher and third base, they had a solid front starter in Tommy John, and Wilbur Wood was a workhorse closer.

But their bench was atrocious; two of their hitters with over 100 plate appearances had an OPS+ under 30, a feat achieved by only 28 teams without Bill Bergen on them. It’s not like the others were much better. The combined performance of the fifth through ninth bench players: 90 for 505 (.178) with a .255 SLG off 12 doubles and nine homers, walking 36 times and striking out 107 times. Those players combined for a season of stench, and with those hidden seasons on the bench, it’s no wonder the team was failing.

Yes, hap is a word. I looked it up and everything.

So we’ve seen the happed and the hapless. Next time we’ll look at some of the in-betweens and see if any of them shed light on the best way to construct a winning team.

References & Resources
A little bit of Baseball Reference and a heap of the 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia.

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