COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Based on the conversations we have with one another about our favorite MLB clubs, we all think we would be a great general manager capable of building the perfect, title-winning baseball team. We’re all wrong, at least some of the time, because even the “best” team often does not win the championship. Knowing that, how is anyone supposed to build a roster to win the World Series?
Most of the time you won’t. You will fail a whole lot. The best you can do is follow these principles, often positively associated with winners over the last 10 years, and hope to get lucky.
1. Q: What’s the most important predictor of success?
A: Score more than the other team
Let’s get an obvious point out of the way. The objective of is to score more than the other team. It doesn’t matter if your team scores 10 times if it gives up 11 runs, and your pitcher’s one-run complete game doesn’t help if his offense gets shut out.
You need to have some combination of hitting and pitching talent that allows you to come away with a positive run differential.
Run differential was the single most predictive measure of success between 2007 and 2016, with a nearly perfect correlation of 0.95 to regular season win total that period. A correlation of 1.0 indicates a perfect relationship between two variables.
Looking at each season by all 30 teams over 10 years, there is a correlation of 0.92 between run differential and regular season wins.
A great regular season run differential does not guarantee playoff success, especially if a team goes cold in October. Over the last 10 years, there correlation between regular season run differential and postseason win total is smaller but still strong, 0.64.
The trend is obvious: the more runs a team scores than the opposition, the better the team’s record.
That’s how it averages out over time anyway. Crazy things can happen in a single year. The Texas Rangers secured home-field advantage last year with a 95-67 record, best in the American League. Their run differential was a meager +8, worst among all playoff teams. It also trailed the differential of four teams that missed the postseason.
With that differential, they would be expected to finish 82-80, according to Pythagorean Win-Loss, which Bill James developed to predict winning percentage based on runs scored and allowed. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the Rangers’ true talent level, Texas lost all three games in its lone playoff series.
2. Q: How should I try to beef up my run differential?
A: Look to your position players to guide you
Good hitting and pitching are necessary to record a positive run differential. But when deciding which one to spend on, it’s important to remember that position players have had a greater influence on winning this decade.
Wins above replacement (WAR) judges a player’s total contribution to the team based on the number of wins a player is worth compared to a minor-league call-up player. It measures a player’s hitting, fielding, baserunning and pitching ability and makes comparisons to league and positional averages to find out how many wins a player is worth to his team.
World Series winners and average teams receive a greater WAR contribution from their position players than pitchers. But while the difference between the regular season pitching by eventual title teams and the average squad is less than two wins above replacement (about 12 percent), the gap separating position players is huge.
Position players on championship teams are worth nearly 30 wins above replacement on average. An average group generates 19 WAR. That’s a difference of 57 percent.
WAR is a catch-all stat and it can be dangerous to use an all-inclusive number to judge talent. But the correlation between position player WAR and regular season win totals is 0.86 — and 0.64 for postseason win totals. WAR for pitchers has a correlation of 0.62 for regular season win totals. As far as all-inclusive stats go, WAR is pretty darn reliable, especially for position players.
3. Q: Now that I’ve chosen to build around position players, what kind of hitters should I employ?
A: Hitters should control the strike zone
If you’re still evaluating players based on the stats on the back of their baseball cards, you’re falling behind in the MLB information race. But if you’ve already bought the cards, the stat on the back you should be valuing most is on-base percentage.
Team on-base percentage has a 0.72 correlation to regular season wins and 0.54 to postseason win totals. This may come as a surprise, but walks were a better predictor of success than hits, extra base hits and home runs over the full 10 years. They were about equally important as extra base knocks and home runs on a yearly basis. Walks aren’t flashy, but they put a man on first and help the team’s chances of scoring a run at no cost.
Drawing a walk requires a good sense of the strike zone. Hitters have to lay off pitches off the plate they likely can’t touch. Some batters can’t resist the urge to swing and can be manipulated into chasing pitches and striking out. Offensively, you want that to happen as little as possible.
Nothing positive comes with a strikeout. As long as the catcher keeps the ball in front of him, the batter heads back to the dugout and baserunners stay put. Teams that whiff a high percentage of the time find little success, as there is a -0.55 correlation between strikeout percentage and winning (as more batters strike out, wins fall).
Making contact with the pitch is the best way to avoid striking out. The 2015 Kansas City Royals have the highest contact percentage (81.9) and contact percentage on pitches in the zone (89.9) of the last five World Series winners. The pesky nature of their hitters helped make up for the team being fairly pedestrian in a number of offensive categories.
4. Q: Is that all I need from my hitters? A knowledge of the strike zone and an ability to make contact?
A: The offense should offer some power
Power isn’t the solution for every MLB team, but it’s often a key component of the best teams to win the World Series. The average team hit 161 home runs per season this decade. The teams that won the title hit 170—not a huge difference.
But among the World Series winners, more home runs led to more regular season wins, with a 0.59 correlation. That doubles the correlation between the two stats for the average team, meaning the juggernauts among the World Series winners were crushing the ball over the fence while the less successful title teams got by in other areas.
The two best teams of the last 12 years—the 2016 Chicago Cubs and 2009 New York Yankees—both won 103 games while slugging 199 and 244 home runs, respectively.
It’s also hard to miss that the 2012 Giants managed just 103 home runs, 58 below league average and equivalent to 0.64 per game. But once the playoffs came along, they hit 14 round-trippers in 16 contests (0.875 per game).
Teams that win the World Series usually spend the postseason out-homering the opposition. Title-winners hit nine percent more homers per game in the playoffs than the average postseason team. That doesn’t sound like much, but in the low-scoring October environment, it can be a difference-maker.
5. Q: If I can’t find players to hit the ball over the fence, can I win making speed my priority?
A: Stolen base totals are not that important
The average team steals 95.5 bases a year. The number of wins associated with steals fluctuates greatly, making stolen base totals a downright unreliable indicator of success. Over the last decade, there has been a -0.07 correlation between stolen bases and wins, meaning there’s little connection between the number of bags a team swipes and win total.
What does that look like in practice?
Some teams had a collection of gifted base stealers; the Philadelphia Phillies stole 136 in 2008 and the Boston Red Sox took 123 in 2013, for instance. However, three particularly slow-footed teams stole fewer than 60 bases in their regular seasons, which roughly translates to one stolen base every three games.
For further comparison, MIlwaukee Brewers infielder Jonathan Villar led the majors in 2016 with 62 steals.
The 2014 and 2010 San Francisco Giants and 2011 St. Louis Cardinals continued their glacial stolen base paces in the playoffs, maintaining their sub-0.4 stolen base per game rate. The 2015 Royals lead the decade’s World Series winners with 14 stolen bases in 16 contests, 0.875 per game.
As a whole, sabermetrics suggest stolen bases are only helpful if teams can steal successfully at least 75 percent of the time. MLB teams from 2007 to 2016 stole safely 72.6 percent of the time and six of the 10 World Series winners eclipsed 75 percent. The 2013 Red Sox are the gold standard at 86.6 percent on 142 attempts.
6. Q: Okay, so forget about base stealing. What if I trade some offensive ability for great defense?
A: You can (and probably should) sacrifice defense to bolster the offense
Defense has always been the most difficult aspect of baseball to track and evaluate. The sport is better at judging a catcher’s ability to steal strikes with his pitch-framing than it is at understanding who its best defensive players are (former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has five Gold Gloves despite his limited fielding range, for instance).
So it should come as little surprise that the defensive analytics are not nearly as predictive of success as offensive and pitching statistics. Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, which assign run values to judge a player’s defense against the average, are the most reliable. Their correlations to regular season and playoff winning hover around 0.40.
Follow sports long enough and you’ll surely run into the “defense wins championships” adage. That phrase is not set in stone when it comes to baseball. Four of the last 10 World Series winners were below average in regular season Defensive Runs Saved, with negative marks indicating the defenses hurt the team more than they helped.
Although the numbers have not yet reflected a direct link between good fielding and winning, the 2016 Cubs served as an example of what help a strong defense can be. The Cubs saved the second-most defensive runs of the decade (82), trailing only the 2013 Royals (95).
On a related note, Chicago had the fourth-lowest ERA of the last 10 years (3.15). Fielding independent pitching, which is like ERA but takes a pitcher’s supporting fielders out of the equation, suggests Chicago’s staff had the talent worthy of a 3.77 ERA. No team had a better difference between ERA and FIP over the last decade than the 2016 Cubs.
Paired with their outstanding offense, the Cubs recorded an astronomical run differential of +252. That was the most since the Seattle Mariners outscored opponents by 300 runs in 2001. That Seattle squad tied the all-time record by winning 116 games.
If you don’t buy into defensive sabermetrics, the simplest of defensive stats gets the point across. Errors do not matter as long as they don’t create unearned runs. There’s a -0.30 correlation between errors and regular season wins, and a near-zero correlation between errors and World Series titles. Meanwhile, unearned runs have a -0.40 correlation with regular season wins and a -0.49 correlation with World Series titles.
Translation: Even playoff teams make mistakes in the field. The best ones make sure they don’t happen when runners on base could score.
7. Q: Speaking of preventing runs, how do I best manage my pitchers?
A: Keep your starting pitchers in the game as long as you can in the regular season
We were bound to run into this debate after the Cleveland Indians bullpen tore up the postseason and propelled them to within a game of winning the World Series. But the truth remains that relievers should be used sparingly in the regular season.
Innings pitched per game by starters has a correlation of 0.48 with regular season wins, while daily reliever innings is correlated -0.45 with wins. Relievers get burned out when they are overused and they start giving up more runs.
Relievers are extremely important in the postseason. The ability by the bullpen to strand base runners on base without scoring is better correlated with World Series titles (0.46) than regular season wins (0.40).
The closer holds even more influence on the playoffs. Ex-Yankees closer Mariano Rivera holds the all-time regular season saves record, but he earned his aura of invincibility in the playoffs, where he saved 42 games and had a 0.70 ERA.
Not many possess Rivera’s ability to finish off postseason wins; save percentage is one of the biggest statistical gaps between the team winning the World Series and an average playoff squad. Championship teams convert their save chances 83 percent more often.
8. Q: I picked up a reliable closer. What do I need to build a lead for him to save in a playoff game?
A: It’s really difficult to hit in the playoffs
It’s extremely hard for batters to find success at any time of the year, given how hard it is to connect with a fastball running in at 95+ mph. The degree of difficulty only increases in October, when temperature drops shorten the distance of batted balls and the sport’s best arms are always on the mound.
Based on postseason run prevention and batting average allowed, playing the team that goes on to win the championship is roughly equivalent to taking an at-bat against Red Sox righty Rick Porcello every time up at the plate. Porcello won the 2016 AL Cy Young.
Facing any random playoff team is akin to stepping in to face Giants lefty Matt Moore. Moore has never put a season quite as good as Porcello’s 2016 together, but he is capable of having amazing games. He came within an out of no-hitting the Los Angeles Dodgers last August and tormented the Cubs for eight innings of one-run ball in Game 4 last October before Chicago stormed back in the ninth to win the series.
Even against pitchers averaging the stats put up by Moore, postseason teams really struggle to find hits. A normal playoff offense is about as productive as the 2011 Mariners, who finished last in the AL in most offensive categories and at one point lost 17 games in a row.
For comparison’s sake, the average bats of the World Series winner are on par with last year’s Pittsburgh Pirates, a fairly ordinary offensive team.
Offense dries up in the playoffs and baserunners are hard to come by. Driving in runs often requires a big, timely extra-base hit. The World Series-winning team gets 22 percent more extra-base hits (3.0 to 2.4) and 39 percent more RBIs (4.6 to 3.3) per playoff game. Those differences go a long way toward winning in October.
9. Q: With all those roster areas to pay attention to, how expensive is this team going to be?
A: Building a good team will likely cost a chunk of money
Baseball is the only one of the top four North American sports that doesn’t use a salary cap. Teams have more statistical information now than they used to and top-market teams like the Yankees can’t run away with the league by outspending everyone anymore. That’s how it’s supposed to work, in theory.
From 2011 to 2016, eight of the 10 teams that spent the most were above .500. Six of the 10 clubs that spent the fewest finished below .500. The free-spending Dodgers and Yankees, the league’s top-two check writers, had the third- and fourth-most wins in baseball.
Over those six seasons, there was a correlation of 0.547 between total money spent and regular season win totals.
Some teams remained competitive despite their small markets and payrolls. The Indians, Pirates, Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays all finished above .500 over the course of those six years despite doling out $520 million or less.
10. Q: How did those small market teams win? Is there a market inefficiency?
A: Spending on pitchers helps, but you don’t have to if you draft and develop pitching well.
Pitching offered an interesting spectrum of results. The Dodgers and Giants spent the most on their arms. San Francisco won two of its championships after 2011, while Los Angeles won the third-most games in the league. Meanwhile, the Cubs and Phillies paid heavily for pitching and finished below .500. The two teams entered a rebuilding phase that saw them on the hook for big contracts for players they traded to restock the farm system.
As Chicago and Philadelphia floundered, a handful of small-market clubs flourished. The Pirates, Athletics, Rays, Indians and Atlanta Braves all finished above .500, not a club among them spending more than $200 million on pitching. All five teams leaned heavily on young pitchers on entry-level contracts.
A team like the Rays cannot afford the salary an ace like lefty David Price would command in free agency. Tampa Bay hung onto Price as long as it could, then traded him in his last summer under contract. That way, the Rays could at least get some prospects in return for Price before he could sign with another team, which would leave Tampa Bay with nothing.
Price won the AL Cy Young in 2012 with a $4.35 million tagline and finished second in 2010 while making $1 million, according to Spotrac. Indians ace Corey Kluber won the award in 2014 while earning $514,000. The pitching rotations of these teams have been littered with pitchers too young to command big dollars, and those approaching pay days are quickly shipped off for the next crop of prospects.
Still feeling confident you can build a team destined for greatness?
We’ve seen there are a ton of variables to keep track of and resources can be limited. Everyone is looking for the winning mix, and now I’ve spilled some of the secret ingredients to the world. This recipe won’t be perfect—few things in baseball are—but follow the directions and you should find your team hanging around the playoff picture. May luck be in your favor from that point on.