Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Baseball Greatness: The Best Players and Teams according to Wins Above Average, 1901-2017,  was published on March 1, 2018.  It may be ordered here.   Here are some pre-publication comments:

"Whatever you already think about measuring baseball greatness, Kaiser's tour de force will blow your mind…. In these days of websites and statistical black boxes and faith-based beliefs, we owe our gratitude to Kaiser, who shows all his work and doesn't flinch when the facts call for popping a few balloons." --Rob Neyer, author Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game

"Baseball Greatness honors under appreciated all-time great players by better incorporating fielding value for everyday players (e.g., Jimmy Wynn and Keith Hernandez) and filtering out team effects on perceived pitcher value (e.g., Wes Ferrell, Luis Tiant, and Dave Stieb). But more than that, author and real-world historian David Kaiser gives baseball fans a new and sophisticated history of the game: how owners and front office managers have built (and failed to build) great teams; how rare it has been that team greatness has relied on great pitching; and much more." --Michael Humphreys, author of Wizardry: Baseball's All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed

"The Sabermetric revolution in baseball analysis is no longer in its infancy and the basic principles are now embraced widely in the press, on the air, and by average fans. David Kaiser has done a fine job in clearly explaining the logic behind the calculations and has provided a very welcome synthesis across the various era of Major League Baseball. This book is recommended for those who wish to have a better understanding of the context of modern (and future) baseball analysis."--Dave Smith, founder, Retrosheet.org

"Baseball's stately pace encourages discussions, with 'Who was better?' being a favorite topic. David Kaiser's nominations, making full use of Michael Humphrey's authoritative solution to the 'is it fielding or pitching' defensive dilemma, are presented in a delightful style." --Richard Cramer, Ph.D., founder, STATS INC.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Curt Schilling and PEDs

 I have linked this post on the SABR List.  It was part of the ongoing discussion about Curt Schilling's stats and his Hall of Fame candidacy,  The moderators have refused to post it.  The reason, evidently, is one that I mentioned below--that in the post I cite my book, Baseball Greatness.  To repeat: I didn't cite it to "promote it," I cited it because it's the source of the data that I'm drawing on in this discussion.  The data had been questioned precisely because I was obeying the moderators' previous injunction not to mention my book anymore.  Citing your sources is what is called standard scholarly practice.  If you agree that the moderators are imposing an absurd rule, please let them know. Thanks. 

Kerry Keane  initially tried to refute what I said by misquoting me.  He claimed that I said Schilling was the only pitcher in MLB history who have never reached 4 WAA until he was 30. What I actually said was:

"Schilling is the only pitcher in MLB history who never reached 4 WAA until he was 30, and then did so in four more seasons."

The only one of the pitchers he mentioned who did reach 4 WAA 5 times (actually, more) beginning at age 30 was Phil Niekro, who, since his pitching relied on a particular skill, not strength, is not really germane to this discussion.  

Dazzy Vance exceeded 4 WAA four times.  I agree that he looks like a late bloomer, except for one thing: he didn't even have anywhere near a full season in the majors until he was 31. I'm trying to open up his minor league record on baseball-reference but none opens. If anyone can tell us where he was pitching all that time I'd appreciate it.

Then in a later post, Kerry wrote that he checked, and Schlling had 4 WAA when he was 25, making the issue moot.  Addressing this point also allows me to bring something to raise a closely related issue.

That may be what baseball-reference shows, but it isn't what my calculations for my book, Baseball Greatness,  (And no, I didn't jiggle those calculations to hurt  Curt Schilling, or to help or hurt anyone else.) All the numbers I quoted in the post are from that book, which explains, in great detail, how and why my calculations of WAA differ in key respects from those on baseball-reference.  The reason I didn't say that in the post is that the moderators have in the past automatically blocked any post of mine in which I mentioned that book, on the grounds that members are only allowed to "promote"--that is, mention--books they have written once.

I think this is, to put it mildly, a very questionable "rule." I spent several years writing that book, which developed new, very accessible measurements of player performance shedding new and different light on dozens of questions that have been debated, and will continue to be debated,. on this list.  I didn't do it for the money, of which there was very little, but for fun, and to contribute to the broader enterprise of sabermetrics.  I don't think Bill James would be forbidden from quoting from books of his if he were still posting on this list, and I don't see why anyone else should be either if the book contains data directly related to an ongoing discussion.

A last point: the issues I am raising about certain players' performance aren't, for me, issues of "character."  I am trying to identify players whose numbers suggest that they did not have the ability to put up the numbers they put up in their thirties without performance enhancements.  I have said many times that I'm glad I don't have to vote on the case of Barry Bonds, whose record suggests that he was an overqualified Hall of Famer before he got into PEDs, but who then used them to rewrite the record books. That's a different kind of case.

David Kaiser

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The 2020 update will be delayed

 Because of a deadline on another large writing prospect--about football, this time!--the process of doing a 2020 update on for Baseball Greatness will be delayed, possibly  until the new year.  Of course, the unprecedently short season will make the process more complicated, and the results less significant, as well. Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Runs Saved Controversy at BillJames.com

This month, in a new series of statistical analyses, Bill James introduced some new ideas (to most of his readers, anyway) about defensive measurements.  His posts at BillJames.com and the comments can't be read if  you haven't subscribed to the site, but I'm repeating a few excerpts for non-commercial use only (I hope he won't mind that), and in any case, this post is written mainly for other subscribers to the site. 

In the post that kicked off this controversy, Bill wrote:

"It is not a perfect and unassailable truth that Offense and Defense are perfectly balanced, that Scoring Runs is half the game and preventing them is half the game.   It is not a perfect and unassailable truth, but it is a general and usable truth which can be validated in various ways.   If offense and defense are equal then, on a "league" basis—understanding that the league is no longer a completely self-contained entity—but on a league basis, runs prevented are equal to runs scored.  If there were 11,449 Runs SCORED by National League teams in 2019, there must also have been 11,449 Runs PREVENTED by National League teams—not perfectly, because the league winning percentage was not exactly .500, but we can adjust for that.  The question is, who prevented how many of those 11,449 Runs that were Prevented by Defensive Performance?"

In the comments section to that article, nine different people, including myself stated either that they did not understand this argument or that they did not agree with it.  Several others said they did agree with it, but the majority of respondents certainly did not. 

Bill replied a few days later with a long rant (there's really no other word) in another post, informing all of us who had questioned this conclusion, in essence, that he had done everything he could to help us understand this argument, about which he evidently had no second thoughts, and that if we didn't get it, it was our problem.  He also described any "argument" or "challenge to my work" as an"asshole question" to which he wasn't going to respond, and disclaimed any interest in any opposing arguments that we might make.

If Bill doesn't want to read this post of mine, that's his business.  I am writing it for the other posters on his site whom he essentially ordered not to continue the discussion there.  I think that the above statement is wrong, as is another follow-up statement he made in a later post that we will get to, and I want to explain why and solicit comments from other reasons on what they think.

Let's start with some simple logic.  Let's look at the paragraph above. First I want to clarify something that could be clarified better, which I have run into myself: the reason league runs scored don't equal league runs allowed nowadays is interleague play.  One league always scores more runs than the other in interleague play, and that unbalances each league's totals.  That's a minor point.

But what about the statement that runs prevented must equal runs scored?  That, it seems to me, is obviously wrong, for at least two reasons.  The first is the simplest and most important.  Runs allowed are not equal to runs prevented. Runs allowed are equal to RUNS NOT PREVENTED.  That, to me, is so obvious that any further arguments are extra.

Yet there are further arguments.  Bill also argues that what he is trying to do is to disaggregate runs prevented in the same way that the runs created formula disaggregates runs scored.  It is true that every run scored is scored as a result of hits, walks, stolen bases, and a few other miscellaneous things, and no runs would be scored in the absence of those contributing factors.  But runs prevented or runs saved is not comparable in that respect, particularly with respect to fielders  One could argue that it is comparable for pitchers, since they could indeed prevent every single run scored by the opposition by striking everyone out, or by inducing easy chances in the field. But for fielders it isn't true.  There are very large numbers of runs that no fielder could prevent, which are scored thanks to walks, to home runs, or--critically--to balls in play which no fielder could possibly turn into an out.  The offense is a factor in every run scored.  The defense (the fielders) is not a factor in every run allowed--if the offense was good enough, there wasn't a damn thing the defense could do about it.  (Come to think to think of it--the same argument does in a sense apply to pitchers as fielders.  While pitchers could in theory strike everyone out or pitch nothing but no-hitters, no one has ever been that good, any more than any three outfielders have ever been good enough to turn every ball hit beyond the infield into an out.  But that's a side issue.)

Another fallacy in Bill's thinking emerges in a third, most recent post.  Analyzing the 2019 Houston Astros, Bill calculates that based on the league averages of runs scored/allowed, they could have been expected to allow 840.32 runs.  He then says:

"The 'zero point' for them is twice that number.  If they had allowed twice that number of runs, that would be 1680.64 runs allowed.   They actually allowed only 640 runs, or 1040.64 runs less than they theoretically might have allowed, had they had zero talent on their pitching staff and in their defensive play."

What Bill seems to be doing here is to find a baseline for calculating actual runs saved that is different from the average number of runs scored/allowed by every team in the league, a method which he repeatedly rejects.  (And, for the record, a record which I, along with certain other sabermetricians, do use.)  The selection of a "zero point" that is twice the park-adjusted league average, however, seems completely arbitrary.  In fact, as one other commenter said on the first post, a team with zero defensive talent would never retire a batter and would allow an infinite number of runs.  A team whose pitchers and fielders were half as good as an average team--that is, that walked twice as many men, struck out half as many, and allowed twice as many hits of all kinds--would, it seems to me (I haven't tried to do the whole calculation), allow twice as many runs as the average.  That's a very bad team--I don't think there has ever been a major league team that bad--but it isn't an infinitely bad one, or a team with no talent at all.

I am not going to comment on the way Bill has chosen to handle this controversy.  I have said many times in print that I understand a great many things thanks to him, that his work has given me many hours of pleasure, and that the baseball books I have written never would have been written without him.  I will say,  however, that from my own experience in my own career as an historian--which is quite comparable to his career as a sabermetrician, as you can see if you want at ALifeinHistory.com--I know that no level of skill, no amount of work, can exempt anyone, in any field, from criticism, particularly if one's work is genuinely original.  And no truly intelligent person should ever be afraid to admit that they might have been wrong, as Bill has many times in the past.

Feel free to comment!

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Catchers in the Hall of Fame

The unfortunate selection of Ted Simmons to the Hall of Fame yesterday has led me to do something I have never done before, a thorough comparison, using my standard methodologies, of all the catchers in the Hall of Fame, as well as a few that are not.  I have decided to present the results.

I must begin with a point I made in Baseball Greatness:  there is far less variance in the ability of catchers than in the ability of players at any other position, and the greatest catchers in history have contributed much less to their teams' success than the greatest infielders, outfielders, and pitchers.  My definition of a superstar season is 4 Wins Above Average (WAA), computed without position adjustments, and with Michael Humphreys's DRA to measure fielding contribution.  For a first baseman or an outfielder to have an excellent chance of reaching the Hall, he needs 5 superstar seasons in his career.  Quite a few infielders and pitchers have at least that many, and most infielders or pitchers, I believe, have at least 3.  An all-time team based on the highest numbers of seasons of 4 WAA or more would include Ruth (17), Barry Bonds (17), and Speaker, Mays or Aaron (16 each) in the outfield; Gehrig (12) at first; Hornsby (11) at second; Wagner (10) at short; Mike Schmidt (11) at third; and  a pitching staff of Clemens (12), Lefty Grove (10), Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson (9), and Grover Cleveland Alexander (8).  The catcher, however, would be Johnny Bench, with 3 such seasons.

There are two reasons for this.  First of all, although some great hitters have become catchers, the physical toll of catching is so great that none of them has been able to sustain year-to-year greatness the way other position players can, and they generally decline much more rapidly.  Secondly, as defensive players, there is very little, in most eras, that catchers can do to create more outs than other catchers.  They handle very few balls in play.  A catcher with a great arm can create substantially more outs than his peers in eras that feature lots of base stealing, but those eras are relatively rare in baseball.  Catchers, of course, always get credit for the brilliant handling of pitching staffs, but only when they happen to play on teams with good offenses that allow their pitchers to "win" lots of games.  We now know that framing can create additional outs, but we will never have a statistical basis for judging its importance across the history of baseball.

Because top catcher performance lags so far behind that of other positions, I can't even use the yardstick of 4 WAA--a superstar season--to identify the greatest catchers, as will become clear from the following table.  Instead I have to add "star seasons" which I have defined as anything from 2 to 3.9 WAA.  The following table includes all the catchers in the Hall of Fame based on 20th-century MLB performance, showing their total seasons with 4 or more WAA, with 3-3.9 WAA, and with 2-2.9 WAA.

Player Over 4 3-3.9 2-2.9 Stars
Bench 3 3 3 9
Carter 2 4 3 9
Piazza 2 4 3 9
Rodriguez 0 4 4 8
Berra 0 4 3 7
Dickey 0 4 2 6
Cochrane 2 1 3 6
Mauer 1 2 3 6
Freehan 0 2 3 5
Munson 2 1 2 5
Fisk 1 1 3 5
Torre 1 0 4 5
Bresnahan 0 1 3 4
Hartnett 0 2 2 4
Lombardi 0 1 2 3
Campanella 0 2 1 3
Simmons 0 0 3 3
Ferrell 0 0 1 1
Schalk 0 0 0 0
The four greatest catchers in history come from the Boom (Bench and Carter) and X (Piazza and Rodriguez) generations.  Bench, one could argue, edges out Carter and Piazza, but only because he topped 4 WAA three times, while they did only twice.  Yogi Berra was marginally superior to Bill Dickey, but not markedly so, as Bill James argued in his Historical Abstract.  Tied with Dickey we find his contemporary Mickey Cochrane--whose best seasons were the best posted by any catcher until 1970--and not-yet-elibible Joe Mauer of the Millennial generation.  While Yogi was indeed a great catcher, I pointed out in Baseball Greatness that he was never close to the best player in the AL in his three MVP seasons, and his last selection, in 1955, was truly absurd. Then, things get interesting.

Of the four catchers with 5 seasons of 2 WAA or more, Fisk and Torre and in the Hall of Fame--Torre, I suspect, largely because of his managerial success--while Munson and Freehan are not.  Fisk, whose best season was his rookie year, reached the Hall because he managed to perform at an adequate level for an extraordinarily long period of time, while Munson never got any serious consideration because of his early death.  (It is interesting, by the way, that Fisk, Munson, and Bench all were born in the same year, 1947--as was the present writer, who entered this world on the very same day that Munson did.)  Freehan will always be underrated because he played in a very low-offense era and his traditional statistics suffered accordingly.  Torre was in fact a very valuable catcher, whose playing career includes an astonishing irony.  He won the NL MVP in 1971 after the Cardinals moved him full-time to third base, where he hit .371 with 230 hits and 137 RBI.  We now know thanks to Michael Humphreys, however, that he had one of the worst years in the history of baseball at third base, surrendering enough extra base hits to account for -36 runs, and thus, his total contribution to his team in that year was only 2.1 WAA.  The real 1971 NL MVP, based on WAA, was Tom Seaver, who had his greatest season with 7.5 WAA, and the best position player was Roberto Clemente, with 5.1.  Freehan and Munson, along with not-yet-eligible Mauer, are the greatest catchers not in the Hall, and had more impact on their teams' fortunes than many of the catchers who are.  I would not have been unhappy if Munson had been elected this year.

Roger Bresnahan and Gabby Harnett represent the beginning and end of the Lost generation, in which they were indeed the most valuable catchers.  Ray Schalk made the Hall of Fame because he was one of the honest White Sox in 1919--there really is no other explanation.  Ernie Lombardi and Rick Ferrell were contemporaries of Cochrane and Dickey, but nowhere near as good.  Lombardi is probably in because he won one batting title, and legend has it that the Veterans' Committee confused Ferrell with his brother Wes, who is one of the greatest pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.  Roy Campanella's low place on the list is rather surprising.  Uniquely among ballplayers, he won an MVP award in every one of his star seasons, even though he was never even close to being the MVP on his own team.  He didn't reach the majors until he was 26 because of segregation, he had a lot of injuries and mixed very poor seasons in with his good ones.  Like Munson, however, he had fallen below the star level for two seasons by the time that a tragic accident ended his career.  And his three best seasons were better than Simmons' three best.

Ted Simmons, like Carlton Fisk, continued to catch for major league teams into his late thirties.  That, not his peak performance, is his biggest claim to fame.  He will not be the worst catcher in the Hall of Fame, but he is not in the class of the other three catchers from the Boom generation who preceded him (Bench, Carter, and Fisk), nor of another contemporary, Thurman Munson, who was on the same ballot.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The 2019 Veteran's Committee nominations

The "Modern Baseball" division of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee has just issued its ballot for 2020, composed in theory at least of players "whose primary contributions to baseball came between 1970-87."  On the ballot are Dwight Evans, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Marvin Miller, Thurman Munson, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons and Lou Whitaker.  Do any of them belong in the Hall?  I will try to answer this question.

If you are reading this post you may well be familiar with the methodology of my book,  Baseball Greatness.  It identified a superstar season as a season of at least 4 Wins Above Average (WAA--not Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.)  That figure defines the minimum performance by the MVP on a pennant winning team.  Only a very small minority of teams have reached the world series without at least one player that good, and even now, it's quite difficult to reach post season play without one.

What I found was that with respect to position players at least, Hall of Fame voters had a subjective understanding of this concept already which was reflected in the choices that they have made.  The vast majority of players with at least 5 seasons of 4 WAA or more are in fact in the Hall of Fame.  That includes 19 out of 29 with 5 such seasons, including 5 who are not yet eligible or only recently became eligible.  On the other hand, out of 51 players with 4 seasons of 5 WAA, only 18 of them are in the Hall, and 7 of them (Eddie Plank Robin Roberts, Juan Marichal, Rube Waddell, Carl Hubbell, Sandy Koufax, and Jim Bunning) are pitchers.  Of 54 players with 3 such seasons,  25 are in the Hall, and only five  of them are pitchers.  Hall of Famers with just 3 superstar seasons include Home Run Baker, Brooks Robinson, Lou Brock, Dave Winfield, Don Drysdale, Ron Santo,  Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench (the greatest catcher, by this measure, in baseball history), Andre Dawson, Alan Trammell, and Cal Ripken.  Among the non-pitchers on that list, six of them are third basemen or shortstops--for whom overall standards have always been lower--while Brock and Winfield piled up some impressive lifetime totals without very many truly outstanding seasons.

The figures for this year's candidates are as follows: Dave Parker and Don Mattingy had 4 superstar seasons, Dwight Evans had 3,  Dale Murphy had 2,  Thurman Munson 1, and Steve Garvey, Tommy John,Ted Simmons and Lou Whitaker had none.  To me, this means, first, that none of these men is an overwhelming candidate, and only two or three of them are reasonable candidates whose qualifications match those of many members.

Parker and Mattingly are the strongest candidates, but I doubt that I would vote for either one of them.  Parker is a Boomer (b. 1951) and Mattingly is on the leading edge of Gen X (b. 1961.)  Other Boomers with 4 seasons of 4 WAA or more who hare not in the Hall include infielders Buddy Bell and Bobby Grich--both outstanding fielders--and outfielders Jose Cruz, Willie Wilson, and Jesse Barfield.  It's appalling that Grich is not on this year's ballot, and I don't think anyone should vote for Parker who wouldn't give a look to Cruz and Barfield, anyway, as well.  (Fielding was also largely responsible for Wilson's superstar seasons.)  The only Boomer outfielder in the Hall with 4 superstar seasons is Tony Gwynn, whose career was clearly superior to Parker's or Mattingly's.  Dwight Evans and Dale Murphy rank behind Parker and I think are dubious candidates.  (Incidentally, although Parker's teammate Jim Rice trails Evans in lifetime WAR--now a popular stat--Rice had 5 superstar seasons and was thus well qualified for Cooperstown.)  Two of this year's candidates are catchers, who have one of the lowest effective standards for the Hall, but their records would also make them dubious choices.  Thurman Munson did have one superstar season and four other star seasons of 2-3.9 WAA, but that ranks him below most of the catchers in the Hall. (His early death probably didn't affect his chances; when he died at 32, he was in the middle of his second average season.)  Ted Simmons, meanwhile, had six star seasons for the Cardinals, putting him in about the same category. 
Lou Whitaker was often linked to his teammate Alan Trammell during his career, but he had no superstar seasons to Trammell's three. That, however, is not the whole story  Any statistical guidelines will penalize one or two players who fall barely short of them. Whitaker is such a man.  While he never topped 4 WAA, he topped 3 WAA 6 different times over a 15-year period, and he topped 2 WAA on 5 other occasions.  He wasn't as good as Joe Morgan or Rod Carew, the greatest second basemen of his Boom generation,  and I don't think he was as good as Bobby Grich, but he was much, much better than a number of other second basemen in the Hall of Fame, and I wouldn't be upset to see him get in.

In his extraordinary 25-year career, Tommy John had 6 seasons over 2 WAA, two of which (in 1968-9, pitching for dreadful White Sox teams) topped 3 WAA.  That's a significantly better record than Jack Morris's and quite comparable to Don Sutton, and Morris and Sutton have already been elected, but it's way below the real greats of John's Boom generation such as Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven, and Nolan Ryan.  It's also way below poor Dave Stieb, who had six superstar seasons--second to Blyleven in their generation--but who will never get any Hall of Fame consideration because he never won 20 games in a season.  John owes his 288 wins (and 231 losses) to longevity.  I would not vote for him but I wouldn't have voted for Morris either.

Of the men on the ballot, Marvin Miller, who had more (and on the whole, better) impact on the game than any other executive except perhaps Judge Landis, is to me the obvious choice for inclusion.  Most astonishing is the failure to put Keith Hernandez on this ballot.   Although injuries cut his career short (his last full season was when he was only 33), he is by my measure one of the best players not in the Hall of Fame with 7 superstar seasons, thanks in part to his terrific fielding at first base.  That figure ties him with Eddie Murray and Wade Boggs.  He played for two pennant winners and he was the most valuable player on the 1986 Mets.  He was a much better player than anyone on this ballot, and I wish some one could tell me why he has been ignored by both the BWAA and the Veterans Committee.  He and Grich deserve election to the Hall more than any of the players on this ballot. Among them, I would be happiest were Mattingly to be selected.  He was as valuable as Parker, but he took care of himself and avoided serious off-field problems, and thus had a longer career.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Update for the 2019 season

Five years ago, in 2014, American league teams averaged 144 home runs and 677 runs scored.  This year they averaged 232 home runs and 791 runs scored.  That’s a 61% increase in home runs per team, but just a 17% increase in runs scored.   Average team hits are almost identical—1410 to 1402— and the league batting average was .253 in 2015 and .253 again this year.  Average doubles plus triples were 301 in 2014 and 314 in 2014.  Thus, the increase in home runs corresponds quite closely to a decline of 93 in the average number of singles.  Average slugging percentage has increased accordingly, from .390 to .439. The OBP is up a little from .316 to .323, because  walks have gone up to 528  per team from 473.  So, 10% of hits were homers then, 16% of hits are homers now.  Strikeouts, however, are up from 1216 per team to 1428.  Combining 212 new strikeouts with 88 new home runs, the average team puts 300 less balls in play every season, or two less per game.  This makes sense: while the obvious alternative to a single is a ground ball out, the obvious alternative to a home run is a strikeout.

This very large increase in home runs, however, can make traditional statistics even more misleading than usual.  Homers are so plentiful that hitting them has become a less valuable skill relative to the league.  31 American Leaguers hit 30 or more home runs in 2019. Remarkably and significantly, Jorge Soler, who led the league with 48, earned just 3.3 WAA, a very valuable performance but short of the 4 WAA superstar level.  Minnesota’s Max Kepler hit 36 homers and earned 1.2 WAA; Gary Sanchez of the Yankees hit 34 (in 106 games!) and earned only 0.6.  Jose Abreu of the White House hit 33 and was an utterly average performer, and Rougned Ordor of Texas hit 30 with -1.8 WAA.  8 of these 31 players earned less than 1 full WAA. 

And thus, despite the escalating home run totals, the shortage of superstar performances in the two leagues continued.  In 2018 the AL had 9 such performances of 4 WAA or more and the NL 7. This year the corresponding figures were 10 for the AL—four of them with the same team!—and only 4 in the NL.  We now turn to the best teams in each league.

Although their lineup was four games better overall and their pitching four games worse, the Houston Astros in 2019 finished with essentially the same run differential as they had in 2018.  This time their luck improved, and they won a full 107 games, one less than their projected 108.  Once again their strongest offensive players were Alex Bregman (6.4 WAA) and George Springer (4.7), and Bregman edged out Mike Trout as the MVP of the AL, and indeed, of all baseball.  The lineup included three other stars: first baseman Yuri Gurriel (3.7 WAA), DH Yordan Alvarez (a remarkable 3 WAA in just 369 plate appearances), and Jose Altuve (2.4)  Outfielder Michael Brantley, catcher Robinson Chirinos, and oft-injured shortstop Carlos Correa were also above average.  On the mound, Justin Verlander (4.9 WAA) and Gerrit Cole (4.3) were two of the top four pitchers in the American League, and accounted for the entire positive value of the pitching staff.  Thanks to Bregman, Springer, Verlander and Cole, the Astros became only the eighth team since 1901 to have four genuine superstars in the same season, the last being the 2001 Seattle Mariners.

In a remarkable, injury-wracked season, the New York Yankee lineup, with only four players with more than 120 games played, still earned +15 WAA and enabled the team to finish with 103 wins.  D.J. LeMahieu just missed superstar status with 3.9 WAA, and second baseman Gleyber Torres (2), right fielder Aaron Judge (3.1 in just 102 games), third baseman Gio Urshela (2.4), and outfielder Mike Tauchman (2.1 WAA in just 82 games) were stars, while several other players performed at an above average level.  The team’s fielding was average, but the pitching staff contributed another +5 WAA, evenly divided between the starters and relievers.  While LeMahieu cannot be expected to replicate his 2019 contribution, the team’s many injuries suggest that they should be able to perform at least as well in 2020.  The Yankees lost a very close ALCS to the Astros in six games.

Helped by three games worth of luck, the Minnesota Twins, in an amazing turnaround from a sub-.500 2018, became the third team in the league to top 100 victories with 101. Despite poor fielding (-4 WAA), their lineup posted +9 wins in classic small market fashion.  Their best player, 38-year old DH Nelson Cruz, earned only 3.6 WAA, but their top 16 players did not include a single man worse than -0.5 WAA, while six of them earned more than 1.  Catcher Mitch Garver and outfielder Byron Buxton, although each limited to less than 95 games, starred with 2.1 WAA apiece, while poor fielding kept shortstop Jorge Polanco, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and outfielder Eddie Rosario from stardom.  The pitchers—whose contribution was somewhat obscured by their fielders’ problems—earned a combined +9 WAA as well, led by starters  Jose Barrios (2.1) and Jake Odorizzi (2.5).  Luck seems to have played a significant role in the overall pitching record, suggesting that the Twins will give up more runs next year.  On the other hand, the team, which set a new season record with 307 home runs, had 8 players with 22 home runs or more—only one of which appeared in more than 137 games.

A great deal went wrong for the defending champion Boston Red Sox, who declined from 108 wins in 2018 to just 84, both times with -4 wins worth of Pythagorean luck.  8 -1.  Their lineup was almost exactly as valuable as in 2018, with +8 WAA instead of +9.  While Mookie Betts and J. D. Martinez could not be expected to match their amazing 2017 seasons, they still posted 5.3 and 3.4 WAA, respectively.  In other bright spots, third baseman Rafael Devers performed adequately in the field and hit very well, finishing with 2.9 WAA at age 22, and catcher Christian Vazquez more than rebounded from a terrible 2018, with 2.8 WAA.  Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, however—a star in 2018—had a dreadful year in the field, giving up -26 runs, and finished with just 1.7 WAA.  Several second basemen once again cost the team badly, the first basemen were average, and outfielder Andrew Benintendi fell all the way to average after his excellent 2018 season.  Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. was below average both at bat and in the field and cost the team -1.3 WAA again.  The real disaster, however, was on the mound, where a staff that earned +13 WAA in 2018 fell to average.  Starter Eduardo Rodriguez posted an excellent 3 WAA, but 2018 stars Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello were average or (in Porcello’s case) worse. As a group the relievers were below average.  The team now wants to cut its payroll, but both Price and Sale have many years to run on long-term contracts totaling $45 million a year.  Another 2018 division winner, the Cleveland Indians, suffered a bizarre season. Their omens were good, since they had won 91 games in 2018 despite -8 full games of bad Pythagorean luck, and despite some injuries, their pitching staff led the league again at +11 WAA.  Their lineup, however, fell from +3 WAA to average thanks to wretched hitting, and their 93 wins left them short of a wild card.

Only luck allowed Tampa Bay to beat Cleveland for the wild card with 96 wins.  The Rays’ lineup lacked a superstar but included outfielder Austin Meadows (3.5 WAA), first baseman Ji-Man Choi (2.8), and second baseman Brandon Lowe (2.3).  The rest of the lineup was weaker—outfielder Tommy Pham was only average because of poor fielding--and overall it was barely average.  Their pitching staff, however, earned a full +10 WAA, led by Charlie Morton (3.5 WAA), Yonny Chirinos (1.4), and relievers Emkilio Pagan, Tyler Glasnow, and Oliver Drake (4.2 among them, in 187 innings pitched.)  Three games worth of luck gave them an edge over the Indians.  Oakland had much better balance and won 96 games, one below their projection, with promise for the future.   Great fielding produced tremendous performances from shortstop Marcus Semien (6.3 WAA), third baseman Matt Chapman (4.8), and first baseman Matt Olson (3.6), and star turns from outfielders Mark Canha (3.2) and Ramon Laureano (2.5)  Alas, the lineup also included DH Khris Davis (-1.2) second baseman Jurickson Profar (-2.3), and catcher Josh Phegley (-1.1) and overall it earned only 11 WAA.   A remarkably consistent set of pitchers added +6 WAA more, even though only Liam Hendricks topped 2 WAA, with 2.1 in just 85 innings.  While their top players cannot be expected to do quite as well next year, Billy Beane has often managed to find average ones to strengthen his weak spots.  With Houston to contend with, however, they are unlikely to do better than another wild card birth and a 50-50 chance of advancing.

The American League had 10 superstars in 2019, including four Astros; the National League had only five, including two Mets, top rookie Pete Alonso (5.3 WAA) and top pitcher Jakob DeGrom (4.9).  Despite that one-two punch, New York won only 86 games, far short of the playoffs.  Once again the Los Angeles Dodgers far outshone the rest of the league, winning 106 games despite -2 games worth of bad Pythagorean luck.  Their lineup improved its fielding from -4 WAA in 2018 to +2, and its overall performance from +10 to a whopping +16.  Cody Bellinger, the league MVP, led the way with 6.1 WAA, followed by second baseman Max Muncy (3.6), third baseman Justin Turner (2.9), and John Pederson, Corey Seager, Alex Verdugo, Will Smith, and David Freeze (about 1 WAA each.)    Their pitching meanwhile held steady at +10 WAA, led by starters Hyun-Jin Ryu (a near-superstar at 3.9 WAA), Clayton Kershaw (2.7), and Walker Buehler (1.5).  But the Dodgers fell to a much weaker Nationals team in the NLCS.

The Atlanta Braves improved their 2018 record from 90-72 to 97-65 for one reason: their Pythagorean luck earned them an extra 5 wins, having cost them 2 wins the previous year.  Their lineup (+6 WAA) was a little better, even though first baseman Freddie Freeman, now 29, fell off from 4.2 WAA to 2.2.  21-year old outfielder Ronald Acuña posted a fine 3.2 WAA, and new acquisition Josh Donaldson added 2.3.  Among the pitchers Mike Soroka, also 21, just missed superstar status with 3.9 WAA in 175 innings, and starters Julio Teheran, Max Fried and Dallas Keuchel contributed 4 WAA among them, although the rest of the staff pulled the  moundsmen down to just +4 WAA overall.  The Washington Nationals began the campaign with a wise decision not to sign the erratic Bryce Harper, who earned just 1.8 WAA in his first $11.5 million season with the Phillies.  Third baseman Anthony Rendon turned in a 4 WAA superstar season and 20-year old sophomore Juan Soto posted a very promising 3.4, allowing the lineup to improve slightly from +4 WAA to +5.  The pitchers (+8) remained the strength of the team, with starters Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez posting a combined 11.9 WAA, the best rotation in the majors.  In this case as in a number of others, the rest of the staff—a combined -4 WAA—pulled the team down.  In the NL wild card game the Nationals rallied to beat the Brewers, one of the luckiest teams in recent memory, who squeaked into the playoffs with just 89 wins—thanks only to a full +8 games of Pythagorean luck.  Then their pitching allowed them to sneak beat the superior Dodgers in the NLDS, and they swept the Cardinals quite easily in the NLCS.

St. Louis won 92 games thanks mostly to their fielding, which earned them a full +5 WAA.  Second baseman Kolten Wong and shortstop Paul DeJong saved +37 and +15 runs, respectively, allowing them to earn 1.4 and 4.6 WAA.  One must ask whether those figures owed something to the very effective use of infield shifts, and to a good deal of luck, as well as to the skill of those two men.  The Cardinals found their way to first place in the NL Central despite very disappointing performances from veteran Matt Carpenter (-2.4 WAA) and free agent acquisition Paul Goldschmidt (0.6).  Yadier Molina (1.6 in 113 games) had another good year behind the plate in limited duty.  The pitching staff evidently was not quite as good as it looked thanks to the fielding, and earned only +2 WAA overall.  Only starter Jack Flaherty (3.6 WAA) and reliever Giovanny Gallegos (1.4) earned more than 1.

After four consecutive seasons of 92 wins or more, including a 103-win world championship in 2016, the Cubs fell to 84-78 and missed the playoffs.  Among their long-time leaders, Anthony Rizzo lead the lineup with just 2.7 WAA, while Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber fell to average—in Heyward’s and Bryant’s cases, because of wretched seasons in the field.  The lineup earned just +3 WAA and the well-balanced pitching staff +5—even though Kyle Hendricks led the staff with just 1.9 WAA, trailed by Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels with 1.5 each.

On the all-time list of Millennial position players, only Mike Trout added to his total of superstar seasons, posting his eighth consecutive one, with 6.5 WAA in just 134 games.  He has never been below 4 WAA in a full season, but sadly, has appeared in postseason play just once.   Ted Williams also posted at least 4 WAA (and usually much more) in his first eight seasons, and Trout is two shy of the all-time record of 10 in his first 10 years, set by Albert Pujols.  The other great Millennials from the 1980s seem to be in the decline phase of their careers.  Robinson Cano has not added to his four superstar seasons since 2016 (though that total would normally get a second basemen comfortably into Cooperstown), Miguel Cabrera, with seven such seasons, has been average for the last three years, and Joey Votto, who also has seven, has been only a star, not a superstar, for the last two years.  Josh Donaldson hasn’t added to his total of four in the last three years.  The very unlucky Paul Goldschmidt—by this measure—posted his second 3.9 WAA season in 2018, to go with four other seasons comfortably over 4, but we have seen that he slipped all the way to average in his first year as a Cardinal, even though he is only 31.  Shin-Shu Choo had the last of his four great seasons in 2014.  David Wright, whose career is over, and Andrew McCutchen, both seem to have burned out very early, well short of Cooperstown.  Among younger Millennials born in the 1990s, Mookie Betts topped 5 WAA for the third time in four years at age 26, and Matt Chapman, Alex Bregman, and Christian Yelich all posted their second consecutive superstar seasons.  For the second year in a row, Aaron Judge, sadly, was only a star because injuries cost him a good chunk of the season.

Among the pitchers, Justin Verlander posted his fifth superstar season (4.7 WAA) at the age of 36, while Max Scherzer (3.7), while missing his sixth, posted a seventh consecutive season with at least 3.7 WAA. Clayton Kershaw (2.7) posted at the star level for the third consecutive year, but he, like Verlander and Scherzer, already looks like a cinch for Cooperstown.  Jakob DeGrom posted his second consecutive superstar season.  If the Mets can take care of their weak spots, DeGrom and Alonso should be able to lead them into postseason play in 2020.