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May 24, 2012
Inside The Park
About Big Threes in Baseball
Since the NBA playoffs are currently going full throttle, this seems as apt a time as any to explore a basic concept of roster construction from that league to big-league baseball. Of course, many of you will disagree with this necessity of this because you don't like the NBA. Some of you will deny the very existence of professional basketball. That's okay. Trust me, this is a baseball article.
The Inside the Park series is about stories, but sometimes there in no particular story angle to what otherwise seems like a fun idea for an article. That's the case here. During the offseason, and after the Prince Fielder signing, I read a number of analyses of the Detroit Tigers that described their roster as top-heavy. Insofar in that there is criticism in that observation, the issue is that such a team is going to be more vulnerable to an injury to a key player. When Victor Martinez was injured, Detroit was able to throw the GDP of a good-sized nation Fielder's way, but such an option doesn't exist once the season begins. If Fielder or Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander were to go down, the Tigers would be perhaps be sunk even give their tepid competition in the AL Central. They would likewise be more exposed in the event of less-than-elite performances by any of the aforementioned trio. In fact, that may be happening already.
This notion was on my mind when the Tigers were in town for their first trip to Chicago earlier this season. That meant a chance to spend time with one of my favorite baseball people, the one-of-a-kind Jim Leyland. And I did manage to spend some time with him while hanging around the Tigers' clubhouse. Fielder was in the corner, his locker situated near the media's preferred hovering spot. I enjoyed that because at Wrigley Field in his Brewers days, it was hard to get near Fielder. The Brewers are touchy about the tiny visiting clubhouse there and will chase away reporters that seem just to be hanging around, BBWAA badge or not. Of course, that's kind of what a baseball writer’s role in the clubhouse is—to hang around—so it's an annoying policy. You can usually manage to get what you need, unless what you need is to talk to Zack Greinke. I always got the feeling that Fielder was the ringleader behind this hyper-sensitivity in regards to the players' personal space.
Anyway, Fielder was sitting in the front of the clubhouse, while Cabrera was wandering around the back and Verlander sat a table with some other pitchers mocking the media and its sheep-like movements. Again, the topic on my mind was top-heavy rosters, and given the setting, I couldn't figure out how to form this into a set of questions. So I waited around until we were ushered into Leyland's smoke den of an office. He didn't look up or acknowledge anyone present, even after someone turned on a television camera. He responded to questions, but the answers were curt and sometimes consisted only of a head shake or a shrug. He was not in a chatty mood. Again, I could not fathom any way to ask about top-heavy rosters and get anything like an interesting response. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that he would have taken the question as a shot at the "other 22" on his roster. I asked him some stuff, but not about that. Perhaps the topic was better left alone.
But it surfaced again a couple of weeks later when the Dodgers were in town. Los Angeles also has what might be considered a top-heavy roster. By a methodology that I'll introduce in a bit, the Dodgers got 58 percent of their WARP last season from three players—Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda. As with many teams, you have to wedge a third player in there to get a "Big 3," and sometimes a team really has a "Big 1." The 1985 Royals got 23 percent of their WARP from George Brett, who almost trebled the total of the No. 2 guy on the team, Bret Saberhagen. The Royals, of course, won the World Series that year, so that roster model worked out fine.
I was hanging by the Dodgers dugout before the game when I noticed Stan Kasten sitting nearby. It had been three days since L.A.'s new ownership group officially took control of the ballclub, and that day was Kasten's first in-person appearance at a game as the Dodgers' team president. He's quite a chatty fellow but had been muted for months by a gag order that Bud Selig slapped on the interested parties until the team's sale process was 100 percent completed. Kasten was almost euphoric in his willingness to talk to anyone and everyone. I got about a half-hour with him. Since he's one of the few people in professional sports to have held a high-level position in both baseball and the NBA, we talked at length about both sports.
"You know, you've got what might be described as the ideal NBA roster here," I said at one point, referring to the Dodgers' squad Kasten inherited. "Are there any lessons you took from NBA management into running a baseball team?"
Kasten was shaking his head before I'd finished the question.
"No, other than you need talent in both places," Kasten said. "They are very different exercises. In the NBA, you have 12 guys in your unit. That's it. That's all the players you have. In baseball, you have 25 guys here, 200 guys in the minors, 51 in the (Dominican Republic). It's very much an exercise in management.
"Also, in the NBA, you draft Shaquille, you go to the Finals. You draft LeBron, you go to the Finals. You draft Magic, you win multiple championships. It just doesn't work that way in baseball. If your best player is a pitcher, you're going to see him for seven innings every fifth game. It's just a very different thing.
"You can have three great guys in basketball and go win a championship. That just doesn't happen in baseball. It's much more of a developmental, more of an organizational challenge in baseball. If you're a GM in basketball, not only do you know every player in the league, you might know their families. In baseball, it's not uncommon to make a trade for a player you had never heard the name of until 30 minutes before."
I asked him if baseball was the more enjoyable challenge of the two, and Kasten sort of summed up his outlook on life by saying, "I wouldn't say that. They're both the coolest things in the world."
The one part of that exchange that stuck with me was his statement about a club having just three great players and winning the World Series, how that never happens. Is that true? How would we even define such a thing? I mean, once and for all, what constitutes a top-heavy roster?
I decided to put together a database to take a fun look at this question. Here's the dry part of the article where I talk methodology. I downloaded year-by-year WARP figures for every player since 1950, then merged those numbers with a database I keep that has year-by-year team results and postseason outcomes. Then I ranked each player within his team in WARP. If he was in the top three, he was deemed a "Big 3" player, even if it's not strictly speaking what we're talking about here. I totaled up the Big 3 WARP for each team and calculated it as a percentage of the team's overall total.
Here, I cheated by doing something that will probably give Colin Wyers and Rob McQuown simultaneous heart attacks. Replacement level varies for teams from year to year, but for the 1950 to 2011 period, it's at about a .342 winning percentage, or 55 wins per 162 games. That of course gives you some teams that finished below replacement level, the dregs of the last sixty years like the '62 Mets and '03 Tigers. I didn't like the looks of those numbers, so I decided to use .247, which is a half-win below what the Amazin' Mets did in their inaugural season. I also adjusted the player WARPs accordingly. I'll quote their "actual" WARP when I bring up specific players, but the percentages weren't actually calculated using those numbers.
Two paragraphs on methodology are plenty, so let's move on to the fun stuff. First, what constitutes a top-heavy roster?
As a group, the 1,502 teams in my database got 46 percent of their WARP from Big Three players. Last season, that number was 43 percent. It's varied pretty widely over the years, ranging from 40.9 percent in 1986 to 54.2 percent in 1970. I have no explanation for any of that, except that teams are less top heavy than they used to be. It may have something to do with how much more often front-line starting pitchers used to be deployed. It may be due to parity. Here's the breakdown by decade:
And here's the breakdown by percentage group:
Just under two-thirds of all teams get less than half their WARP from their top three players. Let's label the 60 percent and above groups as "top-heavy." That doesn't work great, even for purely entertainment purposes, and here's why: the aggregate winning percentage for these 254 teams is .426. The average top-heavy team by this definition would be expected to go 69-93. Just 39 of the teams (15.3 percent) finished .500 or better, and just five made the postseason. There were two pennant winners—the 1972 Reds and the 2001 Diamondbacks. Arizona is the only World Series champ in the group, getting 60.4 percent of its WARP from Randy Johnson (8.9), Luis Gonzalez (8.4), and Curt Schilling (5.6). The '72 Cincinnati club wasn't quite the fully-mature version of the Big Red Machine, but the top of the roster certainly was at peak value: Joe Morgan (9.6), Johnny Bench (9.2), and Pete Rose (7.8) accounted for 64 percent of Sparky Anderson's club’s WARP that season.
The explanation for the number of bad top-heavy teams is that bad teams tend to have a lot of bad players. (You can slap me for writing that later.) In other words, a terrible ballclub may have one or two good players, but the bottom of the roster is going to be heavily populated by players below replacement level. This skews the percentages. The bad teams aren't really top-heavy, they're bottom-light. The 1969 Montreal Expos got solid WARP performances from Rusty Staub (6.8) and Mack Jones (4.6). Coco Laboy (2.1) was the default third wheel in this "big three," which accounted for 154 percent of the team's overall WARP. Montreal finished 52-110 that season, its franchise debut. The top 95 Big 3 percentages were posted by losing teams. Last season, there were two bottom-light teams that hit the 60 percent mark: Houston and Kansas City. There hasn't been a winning team to hit 60 percent since the 2003 Cardinals.
Let's refocus and look strictly at teams that finished .500 or better. That reduces our group to 783 teams. Here are the percentage distributions for this sub-group:
After looking at this, I'm going to define a top-heavy team as this: a .500 or better club that gets 50 percent or more of its WARP from its three best players.
That leaves us with 163 top-heavy teams over the last 62 years. Last year, there were three: the Blue Jays, Dodgers, and Red Sox. Toronto was really a "Big 1" club. Jose Bautista (10.3) WARP accounted for 34.4 percent of Toronto's overall total. Only two players have been responsible for a bigger share of the success of a .500 or better team since 1950. Willie Mays (11.8) had 38.5 percent of the Giants' WARP in 1958, and Mike Schmidt (8.4) had 35.3 percent for the '81 Phillies in a strike-shortened campaign. I already mentioned the Dodgers, but the Red Sox were a bit of surprise, to me at least. Last year, Boston got a disproportionate chunk of its success from the work of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Gonzalez.
The Tigers, the team that inspired this query to start with, got 46.9 percent of their WARP from their top three players, and they weren't even the three players you'd figure. Cabrera (6.5), Alex Avila (6.5), Verlander (5.8), and Jhonny Peralta (3.9) all outperformed Martinez, who was fifth at 3.1. So much for that notion.
Just seven of the last 61 World Series champions qualify under our definition of top-heavy, which tells you that the star-system approach might not be the best, but it doesn't rule you out of the title hunt. Here are those star-dominated champs:
TEAM, BIG3% (TOP 3 PLAYERS BY WARP)
Here's the distribution for all 61 World Series champs:
There looks to be a sweet spot that you want to hit, between 30 and 49 percent. The last five champs have been in the 30s. You don't want to lean too heavily on your stars, but you don't want to be devoid of them, either. At least for the most part—as with most inquiries like this, there have been exceptions. In this case, that means these five teams that have won a World Series with less than 30 percent of their WARP coming from a Big 3:
TEAM, BIG3% (TOP 3 PLAYERS BY WARP)
It was truly a team effort for these clubs. The '86 Mets had 11 players with 2.0 or more WARP. The least star-studded of our champs, the '05 White Sox, had just seven players of at least 2.0 WARP, but had 17 contribute at least 1.0. That's the "it takes a village" approach, and it's one the White Sox have taken during most of Kenny Williams' term as general manager. His 79-win team in 2009 had a Big 3% of 25.3; last year it was 30.6. Perhaps it's an organizational thing. The 1990 White Sox had the lowest percentage of the 1,502 teams in the database with 22.3 Big 3% (Carlton Fisk 3.9, Ozzie Guillen 2.6, Frank Thomas 2.3). Chicago went 94-68 that season.
I'll post the complete list of top-heavy teams in an Inside the Park blog post, but I want to highlight a few of my favorite tidbits over the decades:
1. The 1950s Dodgers of Boys of Summer fame were a pretty top-heavy bunch, at least in some seasons. They were at 50 percent or more in 1951, 1952, and 1954, with Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, and Roy Campanella all taking starring turns. None of them was a Big 3 player in all three of those years.
2. All 30 franchises contribute at least once to our 163-member top-heavy club, but some show up much more often than others. The Giants, with 19 such teams, are far and away the leader. The Phillies, with 12, are a distant second. There are two pretty good reasons why the Giants are so ubiquitous: Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. Mays was the WARP leader on 10 different top-heavy teams between 1954 and 1968. Bonds dominated five Giants teams in seven years between 1998 and 2004. The only surprise about that is that it wasn't six out of seven. In 2003, the Giants won 100 games with Bonds leading the way, but after Jason Schmidt (5.5) in the second slot, things evened out through the rest of the roster. San Francisco had 30 players contribute a positive WARP that season.
3. The Yankees show up on the list just four times. For all their Hall of Fame players over the years, they've also always had a tremendous depth of talent, which is a painfully obvious thing to observe about the sport's most dominant franchise. The four teams that do show up include the 1956 World Series-winning edition that featured Mickey Mantle's Triple Crown season. The other three top-heavy Yankee teams featured Roy White and Thurman Munson and didn't make the postseason:
TEAM, BIG3% (TOP 3 PLAYERS BY WARP)
4. I don't remember the great Royals teams of my youth as being particularly top-heavy, at least beyond George Brett, but a couple of them were. In 1980, when Brett hit .390, his 10.1 WARP tied for the team lead with Willie Wilson. Hal McCrae was a distant third at 3.0. The season before, the Royals had the most top-heavy team on our list with a Big 3% of 73.7, made up of WARP leaders Brett (9.7), Darrell Porter (7.6), and Wilson (6.9).
5. Part of this may be due to the vagaries of WARP, but no team on our top-heavy list had a Big 3 comprised entirely of pitchers. Ninety-two teams had no pitchers in the top 3. Just 11 had two pitchers in the Big 3, the last of which was last year's Dodgers. Here's the full list:
TEAM, BIG3% (TOP 3 PLAYERS BY WARP)
So that's more than you wanted to know about baseball Big threes. Take that, Stan Kasten.