When rating careers, most folks will favor a high peak over a steady rate of accrual. They say that a fixed sum of value — like, 50 WAR over 10 years — tends to have more pennant impact if it’s unevenly distributed (say, five years of 7 WAR and five years of 3 WAR), rather than doled out as 5 WAR each year.

That view has intuitive backing. Whereas WAR is gauged against a replacement-level player, the average player is a more relevant value if you’re trying to build a contending team. If you swap Mike Trout’s 2013 value for that of Jay Bruce and Ben Zobrist, you gain WAR (10.2 to 9.2), but you lose Wins Above Average (5.8 to 7.0) — and you have one less lineup spot from which to build back that WAA.

I can’t quite refute that position, but I do have a soft spot for steady, Lou Whitaker types. (You noticed?) So I wonder how far that intuitive logic is borne out empirically, by actual pennants and championships.

 

I wish I could do a competent study of that question, but there are too many complications — the Yankees’ historical dominance, the decline of high-WAR seasons in the divisional era, the extra rounds of playoffs, etc. Any suggestions on how to approach the issue, without first earning a master’s degree in statistics, would be most welcome.

In the meantime, here are some simple arithmetic observations about big-WAR seasons, in terms of reaching and winning the World Series. First, please note:

  1. This post covers position players for the 109 years when a World Series was played (1903, 1905-93, and 1995-2013).
  2. All WAR figures herein are pro rated to a 162-game schedule, multiplying raw WAR by 162 and dividing by that season’s schedule. (Neither individual games played, nor team games lost to weather, etc., were considered.) For the 154-game schedule, WAR values were bumped up 5%, so the “7-WAR” threshold is 6.6 WAR.

 

7-WAR Seasons

Before we dive into the data pool, some recent history: In the wild-card era, 7-WAR players have figured less in the World Series than ever before. Just 14 of the last 38 WS teams had a 7-WAR player, or 37% — far below the prior norm of 53% — and those teams went 6-8. The “have-nots” went 13-11 overall, 6-4 against “haves.” Since 1995, none of the 17 teams with two or more 7-WAR players won the World Series (0-2).

Now, the plunge. In the 109 years when a World Series was played, position players had 651 seasons of 7+ WAR. Such years were more prevalent before the split to divisions and playoffs:

  • From 1903-68, there were 10.1 seven-WAR years per 30 team-years.
  • From 1969-2013, there were 7.3 seven-WAR years per 30 team-years (7.2 in the past 10 seasons).

Of those 651 seven-WAR seasons, 143 were for teams that reached the World Series, or 22%. (The four players traded mid-season were counted for the acquiring team.) They went 67-76 in those Series, counting each 7-WAR player separately even if a team had two or more such players. Counting each team just once, they went 50-60.

From another angle: About half of all World Series teams had at least one 7-WAR player. The “haves” went 50-60, while the “have-nots” went 59-49; have-nots facing haves went 32-22. That’s probably just a fluke of a small sample and the arbitrariness of a 7-WAR threshold — plus, we’re not even looking at pitching — but it still surprised me.

A quick rundown of the World Series fates of teams with any 7-WAR player(s):

  • Any 7-WAR player(s): 19% reached the Series (110/566), 50-60 record.
  • One 7-WAR player: 16% reached the Series (80/486), 34-46 record.
  • Two 7-WAR players: 36% reached the Series (27/75), 15-12 record.
  • Three 7-WAR players: 3/5 reached the Series, 1-2 record.

As with all things Fall Classical, a breakdown by Yankees and others is apt:

  • For the Yankees, 49% of 7-WAR years were for Series teams (31 of 63), with a WS record of 22-9 for those players, 15-7 for those teams.
  • For all other teams, 19% of 7-WAR years were for Series teams (112/588), with a WS record of 45-67 for those players, 35-53 for those teams.
Teams with One 7-WAR Player

Of all teams with exactly one 7-WAR player, 16% reached the Series (80 of 486), going 34-46. The rates have changed since the playoffs began:

  • Through 1968, 20% of teams with one 7-WAR player reached the Series (52/258), going 21-31.
  • Since playoffs began, 12% reached the Series (28/228), going 13-15.
  • In the two-division era (1969-93), 14% reached the Series (16/115), going 7-9.
  • In the wild-card era, just 11% reached the Series (12/113), going 6-6.

But the change is a bit less if you filter the Yankees. For all other teams with one 7-WAR player, the pennant rate went from 17% pre-playoffs to 12% since. And those that did make the Fall Classic went just 14-27 pre-playoffs, 13-15 since.

Multiple 7-WAR Players

Of the teams with exactly two 7-WAR players, 27 of 75 reached the Series, going 15-12. Again, there’s a pinstriped divide: Yankees, 7/10 made the Series, 5-2 record; others, 20/65, 10-10.

Five teams had three 7-WAR players; three reached the Series, but just one went all the way:

  • 1927 Yankees (Babe Ruth 13.0 WAR, Lou Gehrig 12.4, Earle Combs 7.5) — won WS, 4-0.
  • 1929 Yankees (Ruth 8.5, Tony Lazzeri 8.2, Gehrig 8.1) — finished 2nd, 18 games behind the A’s.
  • 1953 Dodgers (Duke Snider 9.8, Roy Campanella 7.5, Jackie Robinson 7.3) — lost WS, 2-4.
  • 1961 Tigers (Norm Cash 9.2, Al Kaline 8.4, Rocky Colavito 7.7) — 101 wins but finished 2nd, 8 games behind the Yanks.
  • 2004 Cardinals (Scott Rolen 9.1, Albert Pujols 8.4, Jim Edmonds 7.1) — lost WS, 0-4.

In all, 30 of 80 teams with multiple 7-WAR players reached the Series, going 16-14. (Yanks 12, 6-2; others 68, 10-12.) And again, there’s a big break in the rates around the wild card:

  • Through 1993, 28 of 63 teams with two or more 7-WAR players reached the Series, going 16-12. (That includes 3-4 in WS among 14 such teams in the two-division era.)
  • But since 1995, just two of 17 such teams made the Series, and both lost (the 2002 Giants and ’04 Cards); 7 of the other 15 lost in the playoffs.

By the way, just once did teams with multiple 7-WAR players meet in the World Series: The 1941 Yankees defeated the Dodgers in five games, four of them close. (Joe DiMaggio 9.6 WAR, Charlie Keller 7.0; Pete Reiser 7.8, Dolf Camilli 7.0.)

The last team with multiple 7-WAR players to win it all was the 1976 Big Red Machine (Joe Morgan 9.6 WAR, Pete Rose 7.0). Since then, 21 teams had multiple 7′s, but just three reached the Series, and they all lost: the 1980 Royals (George Brett 9.4 WAR, Willie Wilson 8.5), the 2002 Giants (Barry Bonds 11.8, Jeff Kent 7.0), and the 2004 Cardinals (see above).

Sixteen Series matched a multi-7-WAR team against one with no such players; the big stars went 6-10:

  • 1906 Cubs lost to the White Sox, 2-4
  • 1913 Athletics beat the Giants, 4-1
  • 1914 Athletics lost to the Braves, 4-0
  • 1926 Yankees lost to the Cardinals, 3-4
  • 1928 Yankees beat the Cardinals, 4-0
  • 1930 Athletics beat the Cardinals, 4-2
  • 1932 Yankees beat the Cubs, 4-0
  • 1942 Yankees lost to the Cardinals, 1-4
  • 1949 Dodgers lost to the Yankees, 1-4
  • 1953 Dodgers (three 7′s) lost to the Yankees, 2-4
  • 1970 Reds lost to the Orioles, 1-4
  • 1971 Pirates beat the Orioles, 4-3
  • 1972 Reds lost to the Athletics, 3-4
  • 1973 Athletics beat the Mets, 4-3
  • 2002 Giants lost to the Angels, 3-4
  • 2004 Cardinals (three 7′s) lost to the Red Sox, 0-4

Meanwhile, teams with multiple 7-WAR players went 9-3 against WS opponents with exactly one such player. Go figure.

A count of World Series results for all permutations of how many 7-WAR players:

  • Three vs. zero: 0-2
  • Three vs. one: 1-0
  • Two vs. zero: 6-8
  • Two vs. one: 8-3
  • Two vs. two: 1-1
  • One vs. zero: 16-22
  • One vs. one: 15-15
  • Zero vs. zero: 27-27
7-WAR Teammates

The most frequent teammates with 7+ WAR:

  • 7 years — Ruth & Gehrig (1926-32; 4 pennants, 3 WS titles)
  • 5 years — Aaron & Mathews (1957, ’59-61, ’63; 1 pennant, 1 WS title)
  • 3 years — Baker & Collins (1912-14; 2 pennants, 1 title)

Here are the top 21 teammate WAR totals within this 7-WAR pool. Nine pairs reached the Series, going 4-5. (Quick breakdown: Ruth and Gehrig, 5 years, 2-1 in WS; other pairs, 16 years, 2-4 in WS.)

  • 25.4 WAR — Ruth & Gehrig, 1927 (won WS 4-0)
  • 20.9 WAR — Ruth & Gehrig, 1930 (3rd place, 16 GB)
  • 20.5 WAR — Ruth & Gehrig, 1928 (won WS 4-0)
  • 20.4 WAR — Nap Lajoie & Terry Turner, 1906 Indians (3rd place, 5 GB)
  • 20.1 WAR — Ruth & Gehrig, 1931 (2nd place, 13.5 GB)
  • 19.3 WAR — Ruth & Gehrig, 1926 (lost WS 3-4)
  • 18.9 WAR — Home Run Baker & Eddie Collins, 1912 A’s (3rd place, 15 GB)
  • 18.9 WAR — Ty Cobb & Bobby Veach, 1917 Tigers (4th place, 21.5 GB)
  • 18.9 WAR — Ken Griffey, Jr. & Alex Rodriguez, 1996 Mariners (2nd place, 4.5 GB, missed playoffs)
  • 18.8 WAR — Barry Bonds & Jeff Kent, 2002 Giants (lost WS 3-4)
  • 17.9 WAR — Joe Morgan & Johnny Bench, 1972 Reds (lost WS 3-4)
  • 17.9 WAR — George Brett & Willie Wilson, 1980 Royals (lost WS 2-4)
  • 17.8 WAR — Baker & Collins, 1913 A’s (won WS 4-1)
  • 17.8 WAR — Lou Boudreau & Joe Gordon, 1948 Indians (won WS 4-2)
  • 17.6 WAR — Norm Cash & Al Kaline, 1961 Tigers (2nd place, 8 GB)
  • 17.5 WAR — Lajoie & Bill Bradley, 1903 Indians (3rd place, 15 GB)
  • 17.5 WAR — George Sisler & Ken Williams, 1922 Browns (2nd place, 1 GB)
  • 17.5 WAR — Hank Aaron & Eddie Mathews, 1959 Braves (2nd place, 2 GB)
  • 17.5 WAR — Reggie Jackson & Sal Bando, 1969 A’s (2nd place, 9 GB)
  • 17.5 WAR — Joe Morgan & Pete Rose, 1973 Reds (lost NLCS 2-3)
  • 17.5 WAR — Scott Rolen & Albert Pujols, 2004 Cardinals (lost WS 0-4)

 

8-WAR Seasons

If we raise the bar above 7 WAR by whole numbers, each of the next two steps drains about half the pool: 326 player-years of 8+ WAR, and 158 with 9+ WAR.

At the 8-WAR level, 76 of 326 were for Series teams (23%), with a 42-34 record for those Series players, 35-30 for those teams.

Of the teams with any 8-WAR player(s), 22% reached the Series (65/299), going 35-30. The usual caste system: Yanks 17/32, 12-5; others 48/267 (18%), 23-25.

  • 11 of 26 teams with two or more 8-WAR players reached the Series, going 7-4. But no such team has won it all since 1937. Through 1937, seven of 16 such teams reached the Series, all winning (1927-28/’32/’37 Yanks, 1913/’29 A’s, 1935 Tigers). There were no such teams from 1938-58. Since 1959, four of 10 such teams reached the Series, each losing (1961 & ’72 Reds, 1980 Royals, 2004 Cards).
  • Just the ’29 Yanks had three 8-WAR players, and they ran a distant 2nd.
  • 20% of teams with exactly one 8-WAR player reached the Series (54/273), going 28-26. (Yanks 13/25, 8-5; others 41/248, 17%, 20-21.)

Eleven World Series matched teams that each had an 8-WAR player:

  • 1909 Pirates beat the Tigers, 4-3 (Honus Wagner 9.6 WAR; Ty Cobb 10.3)
  • 1929 A’s beat the Cubs, 4-1 (Al Simmons and Jimmie Foxx 8.3; Rogers Hornsby 10.9)
  • 1936 Yankees beat the Giants, 4-2 (Gehrig 9.6; Mel Ott 8.2)
  • 1946 Cardinals beat the Red Sox, 4-3 (Stan Musial 9.0; Ted Williams 11.5).
  • 1955 Dodgers beat the Yankees, 4-3 (Duke Snider 9.0; Mickey Mantle 10.0)
  • 1956 Yankees beat the Dodgers, 4-3 (Mantle 11.9; Snider 8.0)
  • 1957 Braves beat the Yankees, 4-3 (Aaron 8.4; Mantle 11.9)
  • 1961 Yankees beat the Reds, 4-1 (Mantle 10.5; Frank Robinson 8.1 and Vada Pinson 8.0)
  • 1980 Phillies beat the Royals, 4-2 (Mike Schmidt 8.8; Brett 9.4 and Wilson 8.5)
  • 1985 Royals beat the Cardinals, 4-3 (Brett 8.2; Willie McGee 8.1)
  • 1989 A’s beat the Giants, 4-0 (Rickey Henderson 8.6; Will Clark 8.6)

 

9-WAR Seasons

At the 9-WAR level, 41 of 158 were for Series teams (26%), with a 22-19 record for those players, 20-19 for those teams.

Of the teams with any 9-WAR player(s), 26% reached the Series (39/151), going 20-19. For the Yankees, 12/22 reached the Series and went 8-4; for all others, 21% made the Series (27/129) and went 12-15.

  • 2 of 7 teams with two 9-WAR players made the Series, both sweeps by the 1927-28 Yanks. (The other five were the 1906 Indians, 1912 A’s, 1930-31 Yanks and 1996 Mariners.)
  • 37 of 144 teams with exactly one 9-WAR player reached the Series, going 18-19. (Yanks 10/18, 6-4; others 27/126, 12-15.)

Only the 1909, ’46 and ’55 Series had two teams with a 9-WAR player (see above).

 

10-WAR Seasons

Finally, at the 10-WAR level, 31% were for Series teams (23 of 74), with an 11-12 record for those players, 10-12 for those teams. Only the 1927 and ’29 Yankees had two 10-WAR players (guess who); the ’27 squad went 110-44 and then swept the Series.

Of the teams with any 10-WAR player(s), 31% reached the Series (22 of 72), going 10-12. For the Yankees, 9/14, 5-4; all others, 13/58 reached the Series, 5-8.

Pre-playoffs, 19 of 59 teams with any 10-WAR players reached the Series, going 9-10. Since 1969, there were only 12 ten-WAR years, those teams going 1-2 in the Series. Since 1962, only Joe Morgan (’75) has won the World Series in a 10-WAR year.

No World Series ever had opposing 10-WAR players.

Most 10-WAR seasons in this pool:

  • 10 — Babe Ruth, 3-2 in WS
  • 8 — Rogers Hornsby, 0-1 in WS
  • 6 — Willie Mays, 1-1 in WS
  • 5 — Ted Williams, 0-1 in WS
  • 5 — Ty Cobb, 0-1 in WS
  • 4 — Mickey Mantle, 2-2 in WS
  • 3 — Lou Gehrig, 1-0 in WS
  • 3 — Barry Bonds, 0-1 in WS

Again, the pinstripe breakdown: Ruth, Mantle & Gehrig combined, 17 seasons, 6-4 in WS. The five others listed above, 27 seasons, 1-5 in WS.

Besides those three Yankees, just five others won the World Series in a 10-WAR year: Eddie Collins (1910), Tris Speaker (1912), Lou Boudreau (1948), Willie Mays (1954) and Joe Morgan (1975).

__________

With all this, I can’t draw any conclusions. This anecdotal overview leaves me still not blown away by the pennant impact of big-WAR seasons — particularly outside of Yankeeland, and within the wild-card era — but maybe I just lack a good frame of reference.

On a parting note, for whatever it’s worth…

Greatest Teams and Their Best Players

… a look at the top 10 seasons by winning percentage, for 1901-60 and then for 1961-2013, listing all 7-WAR players, and the next-best under 7 WAR. (This includes non-WS years. All WAR figures pro rated as before.)

Pre-Expansion
  • 1906 Cubs (116-36, .763) — Frank Chance, 7.7; Harry Steinfeldt, 7.4 // Joe Tinker, 4.3
  • 1902 Pirates (103-36, .741) — Honus Wagner, 8.3 // Tommy Leach, 6.8
  • 1909 Pirates (110-42, .724) — Honus Wagner, 9.6 // Fred Clarke, 5.5
  • 1954 Indians (111-43, .721) — Bobby Avila, 7.3 // Larry Doby, 6.0
  • 1927 Yankees, 110-44 (.714) — Babe Ruth, 13.0; Lou Gehrig, 12.4; Earle Combs, 7.3 // Tony Lazzeri, 6.6
  • 1907 Cubs, 107-45 (.704) — None // Johnny Evers, 5.6
  • 1931 Athletics, 107-45 (.704) — Al Simmons, 7.9 // Max Bishop, 6.1
  • 1939 Yankees, 106-45 (.702) — Joe DiMaggio, 8.5 // Joe Gordon, 6.6
  • 1932 Yankees, 107-47 (.695) — Babe Ruth, 8.7; Lou Gehrig, 8.3 // Tony Lazzeri, 5.5
  • 1904 Giants, 106-47 (.693) — None // Bill Dahlen, 5.9
Expansion Era
  • 2001 Mariners, 116-46 (.716) — Bret Boone, 8.8; Ichiro Suzuki, 7.7 // Mike Cameron, 5.9
  • 1998 Yankees, 114-48 (.704) — Derek Jeter, 7.5 // Paul O’Neill, 5.8
  • 1995 Indians, 100-44 (.694) — Albert Belle, 7.8 // Jim Thome, 6.6
  • 1961 Yankees, 109-53 (.673) — Mickey Mantle, 10.5 // Roger Maris, 6.9
  • 1969 Orioles, 109-53 (.673) — Frank Robinson, 7.5; Paul Blair, 7.1 // Boog Powell, 5.9
  • 1970 Orioles, 108-54 (.667) — None // Paul Blair, 5.8
  • 1975 Reds, 108-54 (.667) — Joe Morgan, 11.0 // Johnny Bench, 6.6
  • 1986 Mets, 108-54 (.667) — None // Keith Hernandez, 5.5
  • 1998 Braves, 106-56 (.654) — Andruw Jones, 7.4; Chipper Jones, 7.0 // Andres Galarraga, 5.0
  • 1994 Expos, 74-40 (.649) — Moises Alou, 7.2; Marquis Grissom, 7.2 // Larry Walker, 6.7

In each set of 10 teams, there were 12 seven-WAR players and two teams with none. The average best player had 8.2 WAR in the first period, 7.9 in the second. The median best player for all 20 teams had 7.8 WAR.

Your thoughts? Anyone?

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