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June 11, 1999

The Best Teams in Baseball History, Revisited

Now, a look at teams over a period of years

by James Kushner

Last July, I published an article here at Baseball Prospectus Online on the best teams in baseball history. At the time, the 1998 Yankees were plowing through the American league like Arnold Schwarzenegger through "Commando", and I noted that by my measurements, they could wind up as one of the best teams ever.

"The Best Teams in Baseball History" dealt with the question of competitive balance throughout baseball history. While in the 19th century .700 teams were common, today they are quite rare. This is because the aggregate quality of the game and its teams has been rising over the years. Moreover, this rising quality manifests itself more forcefully at the lower end of the standings. Bad teams, in a general sense, have been getting better and better throughout history. So, the question emerges: is a .630 team of today better than a .700 team of 80 years ago?

If you accept that the measurable quality of a team is a function both of its own achievement and the competitiveness of the league it plays in, then there are three things you would look for in an outstanding team:

  1. A whole mess of wins.

  2. Many more wins than the second-best team in the league.

  3. A lack of pathetic teams in the league.

Factor 1 is Achievement. It's the most intuitive and familiar of these factors. Factor 2 is Uniqueness. A great record is more impressive if no one else comes close. Factor 3 is Legitimacy. It's indicative of a great team that they achieved all of their wins against "legitimate" opposition. Someone has to finish last, but not all last-place teams have to be the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.

The equation for measuring quality divides a numerical measure of the quality of a team (I chose log5, discussed first by Bill James in the 1981 Baseball Abstract) by the standard deviation of this measure for all the other teams in the league. The log5 measure derives directly from win/loss percentage, and in doing so covers Achievement. The standard-deviation measure ties Uniqueness and Legitimacy into one package. A low standard deviation indicates that the rest of the teams in the league are clumped together, with no one being too good--threatening the Uniqueness--or too bad--threatening the Legitimacy. A high standard deviation probably lets the air out of one or both of those factors.

This tinkering yielded a numerical rating for every first-place team in history, a figure I dubbed the Competitive Quality Comparison Quotient (CQ), pronounced "cuckoo". At the start of the century, a CQ score of 6 was typical for a first-place team; these days, a typical first-place team earns a CQ score of 7. By this measure, then, first-place teams have been getting incrementally better over time, but there's still plenty of year-to-year fluctuation, so the deck isn't completely stacked in favor of today's teams.

To refresh your memories, here are the Dazzling Dozen, the only teams from 1876 to 1997 to achieve a CQ score of 10 or more. (In parentheses is the team's win-loss record and CQ score.)

    Team                         Record       CQ
1.  1941 New York Yankees        101-53    13.24
2.  1902 Pittsburgh Pirates      103-36    12.58
3.  1968 St. Louis Cardinals      97-65    12.28
4.  1885 St. Louis Browns         79-33    11.57
5.  1984 Detroit Tigers          104-58    11.44
6.  1958 Milwaukee Braves         92-62    11.40
7.  1915 Philadelphia Phillies    90-62    11.08
8.  1923 New York Yankees         98-54    10.74
9.  1958 New York Yankees         92-62    10.44
10. 1990 Oakland Athletics       103-59    10.24
11. 1975 Cincinnati Reds         108-54    10.08
12. 1970 Cincinnati Reds         102-60    10.01

The 1998 Yankees

When I first did the calculations (July 23, 1998), the 1998 Yankees were on a pace to wind up with a CQ of 12.00, which would have been good for fourth place all-time. Of course, they were also on a pace to have a .740 winning percentage. They slacked off a bit from that standard, managing "only" a .652 winning percentage from July 24th to the end of the season. We should all suffer such a slump.

They wound up with a .704 winning percentage, a considerable Achievement. The second-best AL team, the Red Sox, had just a .568 winning percentage, so the Yankees were certainly Unique. And while three teams finished with 70 or fewer wins, the context in which the Yankees reached their record win total was basically Legitimate. Their final CQ score of 11.17 marks them as the seventh-best team of all time.

All of you who have been waiting in suspense to see how it turned out, your wait is over. Of course, there's now more to consider...

Multiple-Season Samples

Have a look again at the list of the 12 best teams of all time. Notice anything distinctive?

A lack of repeats, that's what I notice. Aside from the arguable example of the 1970 and 1975 Reds, any given group of personnel can only make one charge for glory. For example, of the 1949-64 Yankee teams, only the 1958 edition broke through. This runs contrary to my notion of how achievement develops--a steady ascent, a stable peak and a steep decline.

The no-repeater effect is seen in part because I cut the list off at 12. If I were to list the top 50 teams of all time, more repeaters would begin to show up. It takes a special season to make the list of all-time greats; such special seasons can be characterized as on in which an excellent team gets lucky.

But when baseball fans discuss the best teams of all time, the conversation tends to be about teams over a period of years, rather than just one season. The 1941 Yankees are considered a great team because they were one among that 1936-43 powerhouse. The 1984 Tigers are not usually considered a great team; they are thought of as a team which had a great season. The distinction is critical: an all-time-great team versus a very good team that has one great season.

So, if I am going to resolve the best-teams-of-all-time debate, I'll have to figure out how to look at multiple years.

The crucial question is: how many years? It's tricky, because everyone has different ideas of how long a "team" lasts. Clearly, it's longer than one season. Just as clearly, it's less than ten years: the careers of most players, and certainly the primes of most players, don't last nearly that long. When people talk about the greatest teams, they usually are thinking of a three- to six-year period in the life of a franchise.

It awfully hard to be more specific than that. Exactly which years are we thinking of when we think of "the Dodgers of the fifties"? Or "the Big Red Machine"? When fans of the future remember "the Braves of the nineties", will they remember that Greg Maddux wasn't even around for their first two league championships?

Since we can't really get any more specific, I'm going to consider each of the possibilities individually: three-, four-, five- and six-year samples, and then try and put it all together at the end.

The Method

Once again, a team's CQ score will be used as the measure of its quality for any one season. For multi-year samples, the CQs from consecutive seasons are multiplied.

I chose multiplication rather than addition because I wanted a subpar season to have a better chance of knocking a team out of the running. If a team had a CQ of 7 for two consecutive seasons (a typical league-best showing), I wanted them to rate higher than a team with two consecutive seasons of 9 and 5 (an outstanding season followed by a pretty-good-but-not-great one).

Here are the results, along with some comments, for each sample size. For each team, I include the multiplicative average of their CQ scores for the sample size. (Note: only non-overlapping team/season combos are shown here. For example, the 1974-76 Reds did almost as well as the 1973-75 Reds, but I'm not going to put them on the list twice.)

Three Seasons

    Team                             Three-Year CQ
1.  1941-43 New York Yankees                  8.50
2.  1988-90 Oakland Athletics                 8.42
3.  1995-97 Atlanta Braves                    8.32
4.  1957-59 Milwaukee Braves                  8.13
5.  1885-87 St. Louis Browns                  8.04
6.  1880-82 Chicago White Stockings           7.64
7.  1973-75 Cincinnati Reds                   7.39
8.  1986-88 New York Mets                     7.36
9.  1956-58 New York Yankees                  7.24
10. 1996-98 New York Yankees                  7.16
11. 1921-23 New York Yankees                  7.11
11. 1966-68 St. Louis Cardinals               7.11

There's a fair amount of overlap between this list and the one-season list given above: of the 12 best seasons in history, eight of them managed to keep their dominance over a three-year period. Of the four newcomers to this list, the biggest running jump comes from the Braves of the 1990s, who never posted a CQ of even 9 for a single season, yet still placed third for a three-year stretch.

Also note the Chicago White Stockings of the early 1880s. They did, after all, have the best three-seaon winning percentage of any team in history, yet I'm still surprised at their strong showing. Their Legitimacy may not be as high as the others, but their Achievement and Uniqueness are unparalleled.

The top single-season team to fall off the list was the 1902 Pirates, and not by that much: their 1900-02 span placed 15th on the list.

Check out the CQ scores as well. Bear in mind that a single-season CQ of 8.5 or higher, while indicative of a truly fine team, is not terribly uncommon; it happens about once every four or five years. Do it for three years in a row though, and you might be the best team of all time.

Finally, I'm certain that the two teams "tied" for 12th at 7.11 aren't really tied, but the differences aren't significant.

Four Seasons

    Team                              Four-Year CQ
1.  1995-98 Atlanta Braves                    7.66
2.  1941-44 New York Yankees                  7.45
3.  1988-91 Oakland Athletics                 7.33
4.  1885-88 St. Louis Browns                  6.88
5.  1973-76 Cincinnati Reds                   6.86
6.  1956-59 Milwaukee Braves                  6.80
6.  1960-63 New York Yankees                  6.80
8.  1986-89 New York Mets                     6.72
9.  1921-24 New York Yankees                  6.63
10. 1972-75 Oakland A's                       6.54
11. 1943-46 St. Louis Cardinals               6.43
12. 1900-03 Pittsburgh Pirates                6.38
12. 1936-39 New York Yankees                  6.38
12. 1955-58 New York Yankees                  6.38

More apparent ties, as the peaks get slowly worn down over time. Three of the three-year teams fall from the list: the White Stockings of the 1880s, the Cardinals of the late 1960s and the current Yankees. The 1996-99 Yankees stand a reasonable chance of making the list: a 1999 CQ of 4.52 or better would move them into 12th on the list, and that's certainly attainable. They probably can't knock off the Braves for the #1 spot, though--that would take a 1999 CQ of 9.37, which is outstanding, something this year's Yankees apparently aren't.

The Ralph Houk Yankees and the Charlie Finley A's make appearances, as do the Gehrig/DiMaggio Yankees of the late 1930s and the wartime Cardinals. I feel a bit odd about the Cards making this list, as they were playing in a reduced-talent environment. Stan Musial's marital deferment gave the Cards a huge advantage in 1943 and 1944, with an effect roughly akin to putting Ken Griffey Jr. in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

On the other hand, once everyone returned to full strength in 1946, the Cards continued to win, so perhaps they do belong. After all, their four-season 1943-46 showing is stronger than their three-season 1943-45 showing. I have fewer qualms about the presence of the 1941-44 Yankees here, as their single-season CQs declined each season in that period, as you'd expect. Their presence here is more a reflection of their dominance of a full-strength 1941 AL than of their strong showing in the weakened 1943-44 AL.

Five Seasons

    Team                              Five-Year CQ
1.  1988-92 Oakland Athletics                 7.08
2.  1939-43 New York Yankees                  6.98
3.  1994-98 Atlanta Braves                    6.95
4.  1986-90 New York Mets                     6.56
5.  1972-76 Cincinnati Reds                   6.55
6.  1958-62 New York Yankees                  6.42
7.  1956-60 Milwaukee Braves                  6.28
7.  1971-75 Oakland A's                       6.28
9.  1970-74 Baltimore Orioles                 6.18
10. 1943-47 St. Louis Cardinals               5.97
11. 1994-98 New York Yankees                  5.87
12. 1920-24 New York Yankees                  5.85

The same three teams--the Yankees of the late 1930s/early 1940s, the Bash Brothers A's and the Bobby Cox Braves--have occupied the top three slots on each of the lists, and each has claimed the #1 spot once.

The increase in competitiveness over time--and thus in Legitimacy--really starts to manifest itself in this list. Of the top 12 teams, nine of them played in the last fifty years.

The impact of one single season seems to have washed out by now as well. Of the top twelve single seasons of all time, only six of them helped their teams reach the five-year list--and only two of the top seven.

The current batch of Yankees are back, as their strong 1994 basically cancels out their weak 1995 and brings them back into the fold. Going the other way, it appears that the St. Louis Browns of the 1880s had a period of legitimate dominance of exactly four years--no more, no less.

The early Earl Weaver Orioles finally make an appearance here, leading to something which I wouldn't have thought possible--two teams on the list who played in the same league at the same time. They both got big boosts, though, from finishing atop the incredibly competitive 1974 American League (23 games separating a 12-team league from top to bottom.

Six Seasons

    Team                              Six-Year CQ
1.  1992-97 Atlanta Braves                  6.741
2.  1936-41 New York Yankees                6.737
3.  1970-75 Cincinnati Reds                 6.61
4.  1958-63 New York Yankees                6.55
5.  1969-74 Baltimore Orioles               6.39
6.  1987-92 Oakland Athletics               6.37
7.  1985-90 New York Mets                   6.21
8.  1971-76 Oakland A's                     5.99
9.  1993-98 New York Yankees                5.80
10. 1955-60 Milwaukee Braves                5.73
11. 1943-48 St. Louis Cardinals             5.71
12. 1951-56 Brooklyn Dodgers                5.61

Yes, I know I haven't been extending apparent ties, but I had to in this case. The #1 spot is at stake, after all.

At this point, it's the same group of teams. The top eleven teams on the five-year list are the same as the top eleven on the six-year list; everyone just changes chairs a bit. The Bash Brothers drop off a lot , as their 1987 and 1993 seasons were mediocre or worse, while the two best seasons of the Big Red Machine finally get to share the same umbrella.

It's nice to see the Boys of Summer get their props.

Putting It All Together

So now we've got four lists of the all-time greats. How to compare these lists? The easy way: just average them.

For each set of years, I gave the top-rated team 100 points, and assigned points to the other teams in a proportionate manner (CQ-N). For example, on the six-year list, the Braves of the 1990s got 100 points, and the Yankees of 1936-41, hot on their heels, got 99.94 points. Here are the teams, listed in chronological order:

Team                                 CQ-3    CQ-4    CQ-5    CQ-6
White Stockings, early 1880s        89.84   79.75   68.71   66.00
Browns, mid-1880s                   94.56   89.89   79.59   79.06
Pirates, early 1900s                82.79   83.34   72.82   69.45
Yankees, early 1920s                83.57   86.63   82.61   81.26
Yankees, late 1930s/early 1940s    100.00   97.28   98.64   99.94
Cardinals, mid-1940s                82.87   83.94   84.37   84.69
Dodgers, early 1950s                76.19   78.63   81.65   83.21
Braves, late 1950s                  95.64   88.78   88.67   85.01
Yankees, late 1950s/early 1960s     85.17   83.35   90.72   97.23
Cardinals, late 1960s               83.57   76.29   79.05   79.44
Orioles, early 1970s                78.54   79.41   87.36   94.72
A's, early 1970s                    79.41   85.48   88.82   88.87
Reds, mid-1970s                     86.86   89.56   92.48   98.02
Tigers, mid-1980s                   70.77   81.24   82.13   80.62
Mets, late 1980s                    86.50   87.83   92.62   92.18
Athletics, late 1980s/early 1990s   98.96   95.67  100.00   94.54
Indians, mid-1990s                  82.95   82.18   81.27   78.09
Braves, mid-1990s                   97.78  100.00   98.19  100.00
Yankees, late 1990s                 84.19   74.54   82.89   85.99

I gave consideration to a few teams (the 1980s Tigers, the 1990s Indians) which didn't make the lists but were close a couple of times. You'll have to trust me when I say that I didn't exclude any major contenders. No, the Yankees of the late 1920s and the Athletics immediately thereafter were not really close.

The Best Teams of All Time

And now the moment you've all been waiting for...the final results! Teams are rated by the average of their CQ-N scores for the four periods we've discussed.

    Team                                      Average CQ-N
1.  Atlanta Braves, mid/late 1990s                   98.99
2.  New York Yankees, late 1930s/early 1940s         98.96
3.  Oakland Athletics, late 1980s/early 1990s        97.29
4.  Cincinnati Reds, early/mid 1970s                 91.73
5.  New York Mets, mid/late 1980s                    89.78
6.  Milwaukee Braves, late 1950s                     89.52
7.  New York Yankees, late 1950s/early 1960s         89.12
8.  St. Louis Browns, mid 1880s                      85.77
9.  Oakland A's, early 1970s                         85.65
10. Baltimore Orioles, early 1970s                   85.01
11. St. Louis Cardinals, mid 1940s                   83.97
12. New York Yankees, early 1920s                    83.52

And there you have it. By the slimmest of margins, the Bobby Cox Braves edge out the Joe McCarthy Yankees as the best team of all time, with the Tony LaRussa Athletics a strong third.

Postscript

You might be inclined to knock the wartime Cardinals off the list, and on some days, I might agree with you. Today I won't, though. The Cardinals' scores only get stronger as the sample size grows. Their six-year rating is their best, and the war only lasted for four years.

I also didn't consider postseason results, for three reasons:

  1. The legitimacy context of the ratings here is largely absent in the postseason. The overall quality of the league no longer matters--now it's just the quality of one team in a league.

  2. The nature of postseason play has changed radically. From 1949-53, the Yankees won five consecutive postseason series and got five World Championships out of the deal. In 1995 and 1996, the Atlanta Braves won five consecutive postseason series and were considered underachievers because they couldn't win a sixth. The Stengel Yankees would never have won five Series in a row if they needed to win three playoff rounds each year to do it.

  3. (In unison, please:) Anything can happen in a short series!

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