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.
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