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December 17, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Best and Worst Teams of the Decade

by Jay Jaffe

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With the end of the decade upon us, the task of identifying the best and worst single-season teams over the course of the past 10 years isn't a difficult one, even if we move beyond simple won-loss record. While we can debate the relative merits of teams' excellence at the plate, on the mound, or in the field according to a variety of metrics, at the end of the day, the elementary relationship between runs scored, runs allowed and winning percentage-so basic that Bill James likened it to the algebraic Pythagorean Theorem more than a quarter century ago-remains the best standard by which to judge teams. Even with the various enhancements we at BP add to the basic Pythagorean framework, adjusting for park, league, and quality of opposition, the inescapable conclusion is that the 2001 Mariners were the best team of the decade, and the 2003 Tigers the worst. In fact, the standards those two teams set carry the day over an even longer timeframe.

Clearing the nuts and bolts before we dive into this candy dish, recall that instead of simply relying upon the James-created Pythagorean Equation (Winning Percentage = Runs Scored^2 /( Runs Scored^2 + Runs Allowed^2), we publish three related derivations which are based upon a modification of that formula called Pythagenpat, where the power of the exponent varies with the scoring level:

  • First-order winning percentage uses actual runs scored and allowed.

  • Second-order winning percentage uses equivalent runs scored and allowed, based on run elements (hits, walks, total bases, stolen bases, etc.) and the scoring environment (park and league adjustments).

  • Third-order winning percentage adjusts for the quality of the opponent's hitting and pitching via opposing hitter EqA (OppHEqA) and opposing pitcher EqA (OppPEqA).

Over the past five years, I've used the the average of a team's actual and Pythagenpat winning percentages-known as the Hit List Factor-to run the Prospectus Hit List, our weekly power rankings (see here for more). While HLF doesn't adjust to account for league difficulty, it does provide a useful benchmark for for measuring relative dominance. When we compare HLFs across the entire decade, the 2001 Mariners are the runaway leaders:


Year Team         W-L   Win%  RDif*  HLF
2001 Mariners   116-46  .716   300  .687
2001 Athletics  102-60  .630   239  .642
2004 Cardinals  105-57  .648   196  .625
2007 Red Sox     96-66  .593   210  .624
2002 Angels      99-63  .611   207  .623
*: Run differential

The Mariners tied the 1906 Cubs for the major-league record for wins, though it took them 162 games to accomplish what the Cubs did in a pre-expansion schedule of 154 games. The M's also broke the 1998 Yankees' freshly-minted record for the most wins by a team over the course of a 162-game season (114). Even without Alex Rodriguez (departed via free agency over the previous winter), Ken Griffey Jr. (traded in February 2000), or Jay Buhner (limited by injuries to just 19 games), Seattle's offense led the league in scoring at 5.7 runs per game. Newcomer Ichiro Suzuki rapped 242 hits, hit a league-best .350, and won both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, Bret Boone bashed 37 homers and collected 206 hits, and Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, and Mike Cameron all had strong years as well. Meanwhile their pitching staff, which had seen Randy Johnson traded just two seasons earlier, allowed the league's fewest runs per game at 3.9, as Freddy Garcia, Aaron Sele, and Jamie Moyer all tossed more than 200 innings with ERAs of 3.60 or lower. Manager Lou Piniella simply had little to throw a tantrum about.

Those Mariners outscored opponents by 300 runs, nine less than the 1998 Yanks but 61 more than any team in this decade, with their own division-mates, the 2001 A's in second-that was the team with Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, and Eric Chavez in their primes, along with the big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. The Mariners' overall record was well ahead of their Pythagenpat-based winning percentages thanks in part to a league-leading WXRL total, but even the most conservative projection of their record-via their .675 third-order Pythagenpat-was well ahead of the pack. In fact, the Mariners' Hit List Factor was higher than any other team since World War II, with only the 1998 Yanks (.682), 1954 Indians (.677), 1969 Orioles (.677) and 1953 Yankees (.661), cracking the all-time top 25. Other than teams from the first decade of the 20th century, only two mega-famous Yankees clubs, the 1939 model (.713) and the 1927 club (.693), top those Mariners.

The irony, of course, is that those Mariners didn't seal the deal with a World Series win, instead falling to the Yankees in the AL Championship Series in five games. Anything can happen in a short series, of course, and it's worth noting that neither the second- or third-ranked teams on this list won the World Series either. Still, by the standards of the 162-game long haul, the 2001 Mariners tower over the decade's field.

Just the same, the 2003 Tigers cower under it:


Year Team           W-L    Win%   RDif    HLF
2003 Tigers        43-119  .265   -337   .292
2002 Tigers        55-106  .342   -289   .326
2004 Diamondbacks  51-111  .315   -284   .327
2002 Devil Rays    55-106  .342   -245   .357
2005 Royals        56-106  .346   -234   .360

The franchise of Cobb, Cochrane, and Kaline had already fallen upon hard times coming into 2003, having suffered nine consecutive losing seasons, the worst of which came via their immediate predecessors. The 2003 club, helmed by longtime Tiger shortstop and rookie skipper Alan Trammell, was something else entirely. Only by winning five of their final six games did they avoid the legendarily awful 1962 Mets' 40-win, 120-loss standard of futility. Their offense finished last in the league in scoring at 3.6 runs per game, with only three regulars-Dmitri Young, Carlos Pena, and Eric Munson-managing even a league-average .260 EqA. Other regulars like Brandon Inge, Ramon Santiago, and Shane Halter finished at .211 or lower, well into replacement-level territory.

Meanwhile, the Tigers' pitching was second-to-last in the league in runs allowed, with Mike Maroth becoming the first pitcher since Brian Kingman in 1980 to lose 20 games, and rookie Jeremy Bonderman (6-19 with a 5.56 ERA) missing thanks only to a September spent in the bullpen. Nate Cornejo was the only starter with an ERA better than Bonderman's; he finished at 4.67, still worse than league average. Their bullpen ranked last in the league in WXRL, which helped the team's actual record wind up five or six wins below even their miserable Pythagenpat projections.

Those Tigers actually outdid the original Mets in a few ways: they were outscored by 337 runs, six more than the Mets, their Hit List Factor was four points worse, and they lacked expansion as an excuse. No other postwar team is even close to those two, and aside from a few war-torn Phillies clubs, the only post-Deadball Era team to surpass them in futility was the 1932 Red Sox (43-111, .291 HLF). The postwar bottom five would consist of those Tigers and the '62 Mets, plus the 1954 Philadelphia A's (.305), 1952 Pirates (.307), and 1969 Padres (another expansion club, .313).

So while recognizing the decade's best and worst teams' didn't yield any surprises on either score, as we look back across those 10 years, it's at least worth remembering that the extremes they achieved were history in the making-for better and for worse.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

33 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

SC

There's still a season to be played before the decade ends. I wonder if the '10 Yankees make a run toward the top of the list.

Dec 17, 2009 09:35 AM
rating: -3
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I understand your quibble but for ESPN's purposes (and in many other list-happy places), the end (of the decade) is nigh.

While I expect the Yankees to be very good, the strength of the AL East will likely prevent them from cracking this list.

Dec 17, 2009 09:51 AM
 
Benjamin Harris

I disagree. Are the 80s from 1981-1990? No. They're from 1980-1989. Just like the next decade will be from 2010-2019. The milenium may have started in 2001, but the decade started in 2000.

Dec 17, 2009 10:01 AM
rating: 3
 
Mountainhawk

No. For the same reason as a millenium starts in x001, a decades starts in xxx1. There was no year zero, so the first decade is 1-10, then 11-20.

Now, you can rightly claim that 00-09 is also a decade, but then so was 96-05, so we could have a 'best teams of the decade' every year.

Dec 17, 2009 10:08 AM
rating: 4
 
jlefty

Except when a millenia or century is referred to, it is basically always in reference to the period of time since year 1 (e.g. the 21st century). No one refers to this as the 201st decade because the term 'decade' is used differently in language, so it doesn't have to follow the same standard. It is overwhelmingly common convention to refer to a decade as a period starting from the last year ending in 0 until the next year ending in 9; 96-05 doesn't satisfy this criteria, so it would make much less sense to do a team of the decade every year.

Dec 17, 2009 14:05 PM
rating: 2
 
Matt Kory

Absolutely true. I'm not sure why people can't wrap their heads around this. Mountainhawk summarizes it quite well below.

Dec 17, 2009 10:54 AM
rating: -2
 
Benjamin Harris

It's not that I can't wrap my head around it. There's been 2009 years since the beginning (in year 1) of the Gregorian calendar, 2009 is not a multiple of 10. I get it. It's that when people refer to a decade, they refer to a period of ten years -- any 10 years. A decade is an abstract idea; it is not necessary for it to match the calendar. When (most) people refer to a decade and call it, say, "the 60's," they are talking about 1960-1969. The Phillies did not win the last World Series of the 70's, they won the first World Series of the 80's. If most people consider this to be the year the decade ends, then this is the year the decade ends.

Dec 17, 2009 17:07 PM
rating: 4
 
greenengineer

Glad someone noticed.

BP better not be running "best of decade" again next year!

Dec 17, 2009 16:46 PM
rating: -2
 
Richie

A decade is a human construct, ergo is what we say it is. As a group human construct, if most everybody calls 2000-2009 a decade, then decade it is.

Dec 17, 2009 10:18 AM
rating: 9
 
SC
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Is math a human construct. Therefore is 2+2=5? No. Similarly, there was no year 0, we started counting at 1. You can say "it doesn't matter, people are using shorthand," but it doesn't change the facutal definition of a decade.

Dec 17, 2009 10:23 AM
rating: -4
 
Adam Hobson

The factual definition of a decade is simply "a period of 10 years", when it starts does not change or even conflict with that definition.

By the way, the first year was not 1, but something like 16 billion BC. There were many many years before the year 1 AD.

Dec 17, 2009 11:16 AM
rating: 2
 
jlefty

The numbers and symbols we use to refer to the idea they represent are human constructs, but not the math itself. 2+2=5 only if we have redefined the symbol "5" to refer to the idea that is currently referred to by the symbol "4".

=)

Dec 17, 2009 14:26 PM
rating: 1
 
SaberTJ

Jay, just humor me here. How high on that list of good teams would the 100-44 Indians of the strike shortened season have been?

Dec 17, 2009 10:19 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Their Hit List Factor was .658, which ranks 28th since 1901 and second in the Nineties (98 Yanks first) assuming we can include them despite the shortened schedule.

Dec 17, 2009 12:48 PM
 
SC

What about the other main victim of labor strive, the '94 Expos? 74-40 at season's end, how do they stack up? Pretty stacked team, they.

Dec 18, 2009 09:16 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

If I were Sweet Lou, I'd have thrown a tantrum that the M's did not make any trades to get an ace starter for the playoffs. Being the "team of the decade" is small consolation without a ring.

Dec 17, 2009 10:24 AM
rating: -2
 
Richie

This is arcane, but we can start a decade anytime we want. Same way as we decide 10 years is more telling than 9 or 11, we can decide that 3rd digit in the year determines which decade it is.

Dec 17, 2009 10:46 AM
rating: 5
 
AlCracka

I thought this was going to be the best overall team of the decade...I'd still like to see that too.

Dec 17, 2009 11:01 AM
rating: -3
 
doncoffin
(422)

I think it's worth pointing out that Brnadon Inge (whose 2002 and 2003 slash stats look a lot alike--.202/.266/.333 and .203/.265/.339), sub-replacement player of the 2003 Tirgers, is still on the team...his decade is .234/.305/.394. At least he provided pretty good defense at 3B.

Dec 17, 2009 12:15 PM
rating: 0
 
Luke in MN

Agreed that the third digit determines the decade. Nineties have nines in them. I don't really care about years 1 through 9 one way or the other.

Dec 17, 2009 12:37 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Yeesh. I come back from a chat all excited that the article is drawing comments, only to find readers engaged in the one of the world's most boring semantic arguments.

Seriously, get some air, go to BiMonSciFiCon, and come back ready to talk baseball.

Dec 17, 2009 12:51 PM
 
StarkFist
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Well okay, maybe it's not as entertaining as talking baseball, but if SC's point is valid (and it is) then you're doing your decade retrospective a year early, which does sound like a big deal to me.

Dec 18, 2009 10:09 AM
rating: -5
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Then that's an issue you'll have to take up with ESPN. This is just one of the many end-of-decade pieces they're running both in front of and behind the subscription wall, involving our partnership as well as some of their heavy hitters (Neyer, Crasnick, Caple, etc).

Dec 18, 2009 10:53 AM
 
Justice

O.K., I have a baseball question. Where do the 2005 White Sox rank on the list of the decade's great teams? I recall that the Sox actual record that year was better than their Pythagorean record.

The 2005 White Sox finished the season with a 16-1 kick (second only to the 17-1 finish of the 1970 Orioles, held a lead in their first 37 games of the regular season (breaking the record held by the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers), led wire-to-wire (along with the 1990 Reds, 1984 Tigers, 1955 Dodgers and 1927 Yankees) and swept the World Series. Only the '27 Yankees and the '05 White Sox led wire-to-wire and swept the World Series.

The 2005 White Sox -- at least statistically -- seem to run in the same company as some of the greatest teams ever: the 1970 Orioles, the 1984 Tigers, the 1955 Dodgers and the 1927 Yankees. Consequently, I wonder where the 2005 White Sox rank among the teams of the decade.

Dec 17, 2009 16:28 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Finally, a baseball question instead of a counting question (look for my article on end-of-decade list etiquette at Counting Prospectus tomorrow)...

Those accomplishments you list by the 2005 White Sox are very interesting and cool. By the methodology of this piece, however, they're nowhere near such company. They rank 54th on the 2000-2009 list with a .561 Hit List Factor, because while they did win 99 games, they only outscored their opponents by 96 runs over the course of the year.

However, that does put them on another very cool list: the overachievers. Those Sox exceeded their third-order Pythag expectation by 12.1 games, which ties them for fifth all-time: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9529. They owe a good bit of that accomplishment to the high-leverage success of their bullpen.

Dec 17, 2009 17:16 PM
 
Benjamin Harris

So the Pale Hose were the greatest overachievers of the decade (I assume), who were the biggest underachievers?

Dec 17, 2009 17:31 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

No, as impressive as the 12.1-win overachievement was, the 2008 Angels (+16.0), 2004 Yankees (+12.7) and 2007 Diamondbacks (+12.2) all exceeded their third-order Pythags by even more.

Meanwhile, 2009 was a banner year for underachievers, producing three of the five biggest third-order deficits of the past decade:

2009 Nationals -11.6
2001 Rockies -11.5
2006 Indians -10.7
2009 Diamondbacks -10.0
2009 Blue Jays -9.3

Dec 18, 2009 12:45 PM
 
Justice

Is the degree to which a team overachieves a possible measuring stick for the value of a manager? I imagine that many elements contribute to a team's overachievement. Good health, luck and players having career years ceratinly come to mind. Yet, it ultimately falls on the manager to find a way to get the most from his players and, for many managers, that is an elusive goal. I've always considered Ozzie Guillen, Mike Scioscia and Joe Torre to be great managers and I'm not surprised to find their teams on the list of top overachievers.

Dec 19, 2009 22:21 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I certainly think there's something to be said for the link between manager and overachievement, particularly given the persistent correlation between WXRL and third-order discrepancy; it's .42 since 1954, by far the highest of any of our offensive, defensive, or pitching metrics, and .48 since 1996, as bullpen usage has become increasingly more codified via matchup specialists and one-ininng closers.

Scioscia's Angels have consistently fared well in WXRL and D3, and it's certainly reasonable to conclude that he knows what the hell he's doing when it comes to running a bullpen. I've examined that to some extent in the forthcoming BP2010 essay on the Angels, and it's an area I intend to study more come the new year.

Dec 20, 2009 14:09 PM
 
Michael Bodell
(89)

One thing that I think would be interesting is to look at best teams during the past "decade" over periods other than just 1 baseball season. One could do shorter (which team was the best team over 1 or 2 months), but I'm most interested in longer. Which were the strongest 10 organizations over 2 seasons, 3 seasons, 4 seasons, etc. Obviously flags fly forever and championships are everyone's overall goal, but which organizations managed to be consistently good for longer periods of time?

Dec 18, 2009 00:43 AM
rating: 0
 
BillJohnson

Agreed, and see my following comment. However, there were a very few teams (Yankees, Bosox, one or two others) that had so much more money to spend that they could "succeed" over the whole decade without necessarily being well run. I mean, what message is there in the success of those two teams, and the non-success of say the Mets, other than "base your team in a gargantuan megalopolis with self-absorbed media and lots of obscenely rich people, and then (I'm looking at you, Omar Minaya) don't screw up"? Somehow I don't think that'll be all that helpful to the people in Pittsburgh and Kansas City...

Dec 18, 2009 06:27 AM
rating: 0
 
BillJohnson

I had a brain cramp when I read the subject line and thought the article was going to be about the best RUN teams of the decade, i.e., the ones that, on a continuing basis, did the best job of turning their assets into successes -- which would be another very interesting subject. It's notable, to me, that the top two teams on this list basically cratered after their big years, while the three behind them, which would be my own candidates for the "best run" title, continued to succeed. Similarly at the bottom, it's interesting that the Tigers were able to pick themselves off the canvas and have some successes later in the decade, while the Royals ... weren't.

Dec 18, 2009 06:09 AM
rating: 2
 
dianagram

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decade

A decade is a period of ten years. The word is derived (via French) from the Late Latin decadem, accusative of decas, from Greek decas, from deca. The other words for spans of years also come from Latin: lustrum (5 years), century (100 years), millennium (1000 years). The term usually refers to a period of ten years starting with 0 and ending in 9. For example, "the 1950s" refers to 1950 through to 1959 (inclusive). In English, "decade" can also be used to specify any period of ten years. For example, "During his last decade, Mozart explored chromatic harmony to a degree rare at the time".

Personally, I think Neil Young has the best "Decade".
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decade_%28Neil_Young_album%29

Dec 18, 2009 10:48 AM
rating: 2
 
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