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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

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