December 20, 2012
In A Pickle
The Four-Tool Teams
You're familiar, I'm quite sure, with the sacrosanct quintet of "tools" that the very best baseball players are said to possess, the running and the hitting and the power and the throwing and the fielding that only a very few athletes pull together in one package on the field of play. You're also familiar with the idea that tools are (a) not all there is the universe and (b) not equally valuable. Examine, for instance, 2012's top five position players by WARP:
Trout and Cano are not known for their arms, Posey, athletic though he may be for a catcher, doesn't have wheels, Braun is not considered a stellar glove-man (though he is certainly better in left field than his brutal play at third base might have indicated he was capable of), and Cabrera ... well, that's a two-tool talent if ever there was one. And yet that two-tool talent won the MVP award! (Shh now, there there, it's all right, my statnerd friends. This too shall pass.) The reason, of course, is because at the top of the charts, most of a player's value comes from his bat being significantly better than the bats of others. Trout's WARP, for instance, breaks down this way:
Trout was third in all of baseball in baserunning runs, to give you a sense of scale. This illustrates the fact that there aren't enough opportunities to make a real dent on the bases and further the dents that excellent runners do make are small and easily fixed with Bondo.
So you see, if you didn't know already, why top hitters get the big bucks and top fielders or baserunners get shunted to the bench until the Angels manage to trade Kendrys Morales. (That's a Peter Bourjos reference.) And yet we still obsess as a baseball culture over five-tool players. Willie Mays and Bryce Harper get us hot and bothered (when the latter isn't getting us hot under the collar) while Miguel Cabrera, respect his bat though we might, engenders jokes about his midsection. It's not a failing on our part, exactly, because at the same time that we're searching for Truth and the ultimate measurement of Value as baseball scientists, amateur or pro, we seek Beauty and Joy as baseball fans, and batting alone rarely elicits elatement the way that Andrew McCutchen running a ball down in the gap, bashing a double, and stealing third all in the space of 15 minutes does.
That relatively familiar ground having been trod, the question that interests me is where we might find the Willie Mays of baseball teams. Which squads have excelled in every phase of the game? As it happens, we keep, right here on this site, a variety of team-level statistics that can help us address this very question. Four key areas come to mind: