Legendary lineups, part two

In my THT debut, I ran down some “legendary lineups,” batting orders stacked with historically notable players. The list of teams was created by taking a weighted average of a roster’s career plate appearances to create a total “significance score” (not everything’s going to alliterate, cross my heart); the higher the total, the more illustrious the lineup in historical terms.

It was a fun list, but the comments that followed got me thinking about ways to combine significance scores of a team’s lineup and pitching staff, as well as adjusting for different eras in a systematic way.

Originally, I just divided the whole of baseball history into the pre- and post-World War II halves to level out the results a bit, but that really wasn’t very rigorous—and the last thing I’d want to be accused of is a lack of rigor. The answer, I decided, was in the magic of standard deviations.

For this article, I’ve converted the original significance scores into standard deviations above or below the yearly average, which has fluctuated throughout history due to things like league size and medical advances. This means that batting and pitching totals can be added directly, and that teams from all eras can be compared. The unit of measurement I’ve used for pitchers is batters faced, the equivalent of batters’ plate appearances.

I’ve also included two new categories, “experience” and “potential,” that I hope are pretty intuitive (and interesting). To keep things manageable, only the outright leaders are listed this time, with an occasional honorable mention. I’ve attached my complete spreadsheet below, however, and it’s easily sortable if you’d like to see the runners-up in a certain category.

EXPERIENCE (plate appearances/batters faced before a given season): Here are our grayest and greenest, the teams that were most veteran- and rookie-heavy. The leaders will be either very old or very young, of course.

Most/least experienced lineups: 1998 Orioles/1896 Louisville Colonels
{exp:list_maker}The Orioles’ 1996 lineup was a runner-up in my first article, but this weathered edition takes the crown as, ah, veteraniest; not one of the starting nine was under 30, and they even had 38-year-old Joe Carter as a fourth outfielder for most of the season.
In contrast, precisely none of the Colonels regulars was over 30 (if you don’t count supersub Doggie Miller, who was 31). The best of the bunch was future Hall-of-Fame outfielder/manager Fred Clarke; a barrel-chested utility man named Honus Wagner made the grade the next year, and the duo was the core of a terrific deadball Pirates franchise after Louisville was essentially folded into Pittsburgh in 1900. {/exp:list_maker}
Most/least experienced pitching staffs: 2003 Yankees, 1953 Indians/1919 Athletics, 1934 Athletics
{exp:list_maker}The aughts Yankees are going to pop up a few more times below, so I think I’ll just reserve extensive comment on them for the end. Three Hall-of-Famers plus Mike Garcia equals a Cleveland rotation that’s maybe second all-time to the Braves of the ’90s, who’ll definitely make an appearance before we’re through.
The only piece of Connie Mack‘s legacy more amazing than his two distinct dynasties might be the lead-balloon collapse of each of them. It seems like we sometimes forget the decades he spent in the wilderness of the second division. {/exp:list_maker}
Most/least experienced teams: 2005 Yankees/1982 Twins
{exp:list_maker}You’re probably aware that Yankee position players for the last few years have also been slightly talented—more to come.
1982 was the Twins’ first year in the Metrodome (nothing like that new-turf smell), and though the season was a lost cause, there were encouraging signs. Youngsters Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Frank Viola all made significant contributions to the World Series-winning 1987 team {/exp:list_maker}.

POTENTIAL (plate appearances/batters faced after a given season): I think of this measure as “talent remaining,” or the gas left in a team’s collective tank. It’s related somewhat inversely to experience, but then again, just because a team is young doesn’t mean it will ever be any good.

Lineups with the most/least talent remaining: 1944 Cardinals/1940 Phillies
{exp:list_maker}I was a little hesitant to list the ’44 Cards here, with World War II decimating the rosters of many teams, but the ’46 team also appears high on the list. A 23-year-old Stan Musial did the heavy lifting on the way to a championship over the improbable Browns.
Kirby Higbe tells some terrific stories about the atrocious 1939 and 1940 Phillies in his thin but startlingly honest memoir, The High Hard One. {/exp:list_maker}
Pitching staffs with the most/least talent remaining: 1993 Braves/1933 Phillies
{exp:list_maker}1993 was Greg Maddux‘s first year with the Braves, and for the next decade or so, he was the jewel of the best rotation in the history of the game. Even with the three-round playoff system, it’s almost unfathomable that they only won one World Series during their reign of dominance (see the 1954 Braves below.)
The Phillies had been a punchline even before Higbe arrived; William Mead wrote sympathetically about Weeping Willie Willoughby, Losing Pitcher Mulcahy, and their ilk.{/exp:list_maker}
Teams with the most/least talent remaining: 1954 Braves/1888 Kansas City Cowboys, 1899 Cleveland Spiders
{exp:list_maker}Bill James once wrote that the Braves of the ’50s might have wasted more talent than any team until the Griffey/A-Rod Mariners. (He said it more eloquently, of course, something about “parlaying the best years of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews into one championship and a long string of excuses.”)
If you’ve heard of anyone on the Cowboys roster besides Sliding Billy Hamilton and Baseball Think Factory Hall-of-Meriter Charley Jones, you’re a better fan than I. They really do look like they’re ready to hang up the spikes (to be fair, though, everybody back then did.) The Spiders…well, I’m guessing you’ve already heard of the Spiders.{/exp:list_maker}

SIGNIFICANCE (career plate appearances/batters faced): This is my method for identifying teams that had the most “legendary” lineups—what I described in my first article, now with new-and-improved SD scores.

Most/least significant lineups: 2004 Yankees/1941 Phillies (1940 Phillies already listed)

A recent Yankee team, you say? A-Rod’s arrival took the ’04 team over the top significance-wise, even if they couldn’t avoid an ignominious October.

Most/least significant pitching staffs: 2000 Braves/1919 Athletics, 1930 Phillies (1933 Phillies already listed)

Maddux and Glavine did their thing, but John Smoltz didn’t even pitch in 2000, recovering from Tommy John surgery. Kevin Millwood and John Burkett picked up the slack (in quantity, if not quality).

Most/least significant teams: 2010 Yankees/1919 Athletics (already listed)

So here it is, laid bare. For the last decade or so, there’s been a tickle in the back of your mind, either elating or deflating you according to the particulars of your fandom. A stacked deck, a uneven field, pick your favorite metaphor—the Yankees have been playing a different game.

Not convinced? Nine of the ten most “significant” teams ever are Yankee teams since 2002. They’ve been monopolizing marquee names to a greater extent than any other team in history. If they could only get a game on ESPN once a while, maybe people would notice…

Looking at these lists, it’s pretty obvious that the leaders of these various measures were generally excellent teams, and the laggards often pitiful. In Part Three (which I promise will follow more swiftly than this installment did), we’ll examine just how strongly significance correlates with success. If you’d like to read ahead, the spreadsheet with raw PA/BFP totals and standard deviations is attached below.

References & Resources
Here is the Excel spreadsheet.

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