Even before the addition of the second Wild Card, baseball’s postseason was not structured to reward the league’s best team with a championship.  It is the nature of baseball that a 162-game season says far more about a team’s abilities than a best-of- five or best-of-seven (or one-game!) series.  Most of the teams who have recently won championships- most notably the 2006 and 2011 Cardinals- have little claim to the title of Best Team in Baseball other than the rings they wear.

One convenient narrative to describe the 2012 postseason to-date is that four up-and-coming teams, whose preseason expectations varied from last place to fringe contenders, were exiled by four usual suspects, each of whom has played in a League Championship Series in the past two seasons.  If this is true, why does it feel like all of the good teams have been knocked out of the playoffs, leaving two weeks to determine which mediocre team can take advantage of bracket chaos and back into a championship?

Who were the best teams in Major League Baseball in 2012?  We could answer this question a number of ways.  Find out after the jump.

By win-loss record, the best teams were:

Washington, 98-64

Cincinnati, 97-65

NY Yankees, 95-67

The first two of those teams, of course, were vanquished in the NLDS by opponents with inferior regular season records, and the third seems of the verge of collapse.  Furthermore, just one of the three 94-win teams (San Francisco, Atlanta, and Oakland) is still playing, and they’ve certainly found themselves in an underdog role in their LCS as well.

If we adjust win-loss records for quality of competition, the teams in the AL East (Yankees and Orioles) and AL West (A’s and Rangers) look like the best teams in baseball, and again, only the Yankees are left standing, on one 787-year-old leg (an even 800 if we swap out Nunez for Jeter).

If we look a little deeper, at each team’s pythagorean record, an expected record based on runs scored and prevented, the best teams were:

Washington, 98-64

Tampa Bay, 96-66

NY Yankees, 96-66

Now we’ve got a team that’s been eliminated, a team that didn’t even make the playoffs, and the geriatric unit that keeps coming in third.  To be fair, the Cardinals had the fourth best pythag, at 94-68, and their run differential probably says more about their true talent than their win-loss record does.

Peel back one more layer, and we can look at the components that make up runs scored and runs prevented, namely hitting, baserunning, fielding, and pitching.  According to fangraphs, the best squads this season in terms of team WAR were:

1. Cardinals, 52.3

2. Yankees, 51.1

3. Rangers, 50.4

4. Brewers, 50.3

5. Nationals, 50.1

6. Diamondbacks, 47.6

7. Braves, 47.5

8. Angels, 47.4

9. Reds, 46.9

10. Tigers, 45.9

12. Giants, 44.6

14. Athletics, 41.8

20. Orioles, 31.9

There’s not much separation among the top five (which somehow includes the Brewers), but now we’ve got two teams that are still alive at the top.  This makes sense, since these are the teams fangraphs tells us displayed the most talent on the field all year, but of course, it’s counterintuitive to suggest that disparities in talent show up more in a short series than they do over 162 games.

A few things strike me here, starting with my motivation for writing this piece.  All season, I was certain the Rangers were the best team in baseball.  They won the pennant in the tougher league each of the past two years.  They had a star at practically every position Michael Young didn’t play.  They had a deep rotation, a great bullpen, and, for most of the season, the best record in the American League, despite playing in perhaps its most competitive division.  Let’s look at the components of their team WAR (from the Value tab of fangraphs’ leaderboards):

52.5 batting runs above replacement (6th in MLB)

1.1 baserunning runs above replacement (16th)

7.1 fielding runs above replacement (12th)

18.0 starting pitcher WAR (3rd)

5.9 relief pitcher WAR (7th)

That’s the profile of a good team- maybe the type that wins 93 games and almost wins its division- but not necessarily the powerhouse I thought they were.  Nevertheless, their 93-win season in baseball’s toughest division was rewarded with one game against a far weaker team by just about any measure, and now they’re watching the playoffs from home.

Fangraphs tells us that the best hitting team in baseball, and the best baserunning team and the second-best fielding team, was the Trouts Angels, whose 37.4 position player WAR were 11% better than the runner-up Brewers.  Despite what looked like a dominant rotation on paper, the Angels’ pitching wasn’t good enough to lead them to the postseason, as they finished four games behind the two Wild Card teams.

After the Tigers and Rangers, the best pitching team was the Rays, with 23.2 WAR.  Conversely to the Angels, Tampa couldn’t hit enough to reach the postseason.  Certainly, the Rangers, Angels, and Rays would have been in any conversation about the best teams in baseball at any point during the season, but due to their own shortcomings and the mysterious magic of the Orioles and Athletics, they didn’t get a chance to test their luck in October.

What does that leave us with?  Well, for one, the Cardinals, who may be the best team in baseball despite their 88-74 record, worst among all playoff qualifiers (and worse than the Rays and Angels, to boot).  St. Louis can hit (NL-best 107 wRC+).  They can pitch (their 3.47 starter FIP was .01 behind the league-best Nationals, and that doesn’t include much from Chris Carpenter).  And as they did last year, they can hit you with eight playoff-caliber relievers (six of them had ERAs below 3 and FIPs below 3.5).  The defense and baserunning are suspect, but I’m not sure how much that matters when the umpires are giving them infield fly calls on 225-foot fly balls (I’m sorry, I had to).  Keep in mind also that the last two champion Cardinals teams also had the worst record of all playoff qualifiers, and this team seems even more poised to add another trophy.

It also leaves us with the Yankees, the best AL team according to two of the three measures above.  Much of the Yankees’ regular season value was tied up in their offense.  But the team that batted .265/.337/.453 this year (the latter two of those numbers led the AL) hasn’t shown up in October, when they’ve hit .205/.277/.326.  Their pitching has yielded an even more feeble .213/.255/.303 line, which has kept them alive, but much of that was against the impotent Orioles (.247/.311/417 all season).  It’s easy to think the Rangers would have stomped all over this Yankee team, but baseball isn’t that easy, and the numbers don’t vouch for Texas’s superiority.

The Tigers were just the 10th best team in total WAR, but that doesn’t count more than half of Anibal Sanchez’s and Omar Infante’s contributions, since they were acquired just before the July trade deadline.  It also includes a lot of subpar work from the Tigers’ bench, which was among the worst in the game (just nine Tigers position players finished the season above replacement level, while ten were below), and from Rick Porcello (4.59 ERA) and a handful of sub-replacement-level spot starters.  In the postseason, the Tigers will only start Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, and Max Scherzer, each of whom has dominated in October, and can lean on Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder without having to turn to their bench too often.

Finally, the Giants rank twelfth in team WAR and are basically an average team across the board.  They play in the most extreme pitcher’s park in the National League, which tends to paint the picture of a dominant pitching staff and a flaccid lineup, but adjusting for park effects, they had an average offense this year (99 wRC+), an average rotation (3.73 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 5th and 6th in the Nl, respectively), and a decent bullpen (3.56, 3.68).  The short series limits their exposure to Barry Zito, and seems to have helped Tim Lincecum, who’s given up one run in ten playoff innings out of the bullpen.  Still, this is not much better than an average team, with Madison Bumgarner possibly running out of gas and Ryan Vogelsong never inspiring much fear despite another impressive ERA (3.37) this year.

Clearly, the title of this post is a bit of an overreaction to the dismal Yankees-Orioles series and to the many errors and passed balls we’ve seen in every series.  The Cardinals may have been the best team in baseball this year (though I might still try to argue for the Rangers) and certainly look like the best team right now.  The Yankees may look like extras from “Cocoon” but they can still pitch, and the first 162 games of this season may tell us more about what their offense is capable of later this week than the last seven.  The Tigers are loaded with star power and their pitching is on fire at the moment.  And the Giants, well, baseball is unpredictable.  And they might have the best player still playing in Buster Posey.

If only the umps were playoff-caliber…

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