The great 28 (part 1 of 2)by Chris Jaffe
July 16, 2012
This is something I’ve been waiting to do ever since I came to THT over five years ago.
I’ll occasionally ask SG from the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog for a favor. He has a computer set up that allows him to input 28 teams from any period in baseball history and run 1,000 simulated seasons using Diamond Mind Baseball to see how the squads shake out.
In the past, I’ve asked him to look at the worst teams of all-time, the best teams to miss the World Series, the worst world champions, the best World Series losers, and various other sims. But it’s all been working toward this. It’s the ultimate for one of these season-simulation exercises.
Let’s look at the best teams in history and see how they did.
Now, admittedly, this isn’t scientific, and the debate will always go on as to what the best teams are. But it’s an intriguing way to approach the question. It certainly feels like quite a bit more than me just spouting off my opinion.
First, though, we need to select the 28 teams to square off against each other. I have a few general guidelines. First, I want to have respect for various eras. You have to look at how a team did in the context of its own time and then compare their relative dominance across time.
Second, I put the start of modern baseball at 1893. That’s when the last great rule change occurred, the 60 foot, six inch pitching distance. Many others pick 1900 or 1901, but I never cared for that. There were only 12 teams in the 1890s and 16 in the 1900s, which is to say the overall talent level was diluted starting in 1901. I don’t want to pick the starting point with a year when the overall quality of a team went down.
So I’m looking at the best teams from all eras from 1893-2011. Ideally, we'll have two or three per decade, maybe with more in recent decades, but let’s not get too hung up on each one. As it happens, there are 14 pre-expansion era, and 14 expansion-era squads. That works.
As for picking the precise 28 teams, a couple guidelines are in place:
- Both the best one-season wonders and the best dynasties should be represented.
- Actual and pythag records both matter.
- Postseason performance isn’t the most important factor, but it is a factor.
- Let’s try to avoid teams that overlap each other. We want 28 distinct squads in here.
If I sat down 10 different times to create a list of the best 28 teams, I'd have 10 slightly different lists. That's okay, as there's only 10 or so teams you truly need, and there always will be debates along the edges.
All right, enough dilly-dallying, here are the 28 teams selected for the sims:
1896 Baltimore Orioles (90-39 actual record, 87-42 pythag record)
If you’re going to go back to the 1890s, you need the Orioles, who won three straight pennants from 1894-96 behind a star-studded lineup featuring Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley, John McGraw, and Hughie Jennings. I picked 1896 from the trio of first place squads because they had the best combined pythag/actual winning percentages. That’s normally how I settle it with dynastic teams. As it happens, 1896 was also their best actual record, with a .698 winning percentage.
1897 Boston Braves (93-39 actual record, 91-41 pythag record)
It’s the other 1890s dynasty. From 1891-98, the Braves won five NL pennants, which means either Boston or Baltimore topped the league eight straight seasons. According to Win Shares, this is one of the best defensive infields ever.
1902 Pittsburgh Pirates (103-36 actual record, 103-36 pythag record)
They set an all-time single-season wins record (which wasn’t going to last long, as baseball soon lengthened the season to 154 games). These guys were on pace for a 114-40 record over that many contests. The Pirates could’ve sleep-walked to 110 wins. Aside from big stars on offense like Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke, they had a really solid pitching staff behind Jack Chesbro, Deacon Phillippe, Jesse Tannehill, and Sam Leever.
1906 Chicago Cubs (116-36 actual record, 115-37 pythag record)
This is one of the obvious, inner-circle choices. The Cubs have the most wins and highest winning percentage of any team since 1893. In 1906, they scored 79 more runs and allowed 83 fewer runs than any team. The Cubs of the Tinker-Evers-Chance era also have the record for most wins over two years, three years, four years, five years, six years … these guys were good.
1910 Philadelphia A’s (102-48 actual record, 103-47 pythag record)
The A’s had a great run from 1910-14, winning four pennants and three world titles in five years, with one of those world titles coming in 1910. In this season, they posted their best record and had an even better pythag mark. They allowed the fewest runs in the league and were second in runs scored, just eight runs behind Detroit, who played in a much better hitter’s park.
1912 Boston Red Sox (105-47 actual record, 102-50 pythag record)
The Red Sox won four world titles in the 1910s, and this was their best season, as they scored the most and allowed the fewest runs of any team in the league.
1921 New York Giants (94-59 actual record, 95-58 pythag record)
This is one of the borderline teams that fill out the roster of 28. The Giants were never truly dominant in any single season, but they did win four consecutive pennants from 1921-24. For that, we’ll give them a spot. This particular team wins out by combining actual and pythag record. Plus, they won the World Series in 1921.
1927 New York Yankees (110-44 actual record, 109-45 pythag record)
Well, duh. This is an inner-circle team and a legitimate contender for the title.
1929 Philadelphia A’s (104-46 actual record, 100-50 pythag record)
Connie Mack’s second dynasty won three straight pennants from 1929-31. Initially, I figured the 107-45 1931 team would be the representative, but they had only a 97-55 pythag mark. Average actual and pythag records, and this one is slightly ahead.
1939 New York Yankees (106-45 actual record, 111-40 pythag record)
This is another Yankee team that could win it all. Though not as famous as Babe Ruth’s 1927 Murderers Row squad, the 1939 team was the fourth consecutive team that cruised to a world title and the best of all that 1936-39 foursome. This team even has a better pythag record than the 1927 Yankees.
1942 St. Louis Cardinals (106-48 actual record, 107-47 pythag record)
This might seem controversial because of players being drafted into WWII, but in 1942 not many guys had been taken from the NL. The most prominent NL player gone was Hugh Mulcahy, whose nickname was “Losing Pitcher.” So, yeah, we’ll let the 106-win team from that league in. The 1942-44 Cards are also the only team to post three straight 105-win seasons.
1953 New York Yankees (99-52 actual record, 101-50 pythag record)
Based solely on regular-season performance, they don’t belong here. But of course, they’re not here just on regular-season performance. The 1949-53 Casey Stengel Yankees won five straight world titles, and this was the best of that bunch.
1953 Brooklyn Dodgers (105-49 actual record, 99-55 pythag record)
This is the Boys of Summer Dodgers at their best. Sure, they won the world title in 1955, but they won 105 freaking games in 1953. Besides, the squad this team lost to for the world title is also in the Great 28 list. It’s the only pairing of World Series competitors on this list.
1954 Cleveland Indians (111-43 actual record, 104-50 pythag record)
They aren’t as good as their actual record, as the AL was the weaker league, and more than any other team in history the Indians beat the hell out of the little teams of the earth. They were 89-21 against teams with losing records (an amazing 75-13 if you exclude the Tigers), but only 22-22 against teams with winning records, not including getting swept in the World Series. Okay, so they aren’t as good as their record, but check out that record! A cool 111 wins? Yeah, the Tribe gets a place here.
1961 New York Yankees (109-53 actual record, 103-59 pythag record)
Despite winning 109 contests, I considered leaving this team out. Or I considered leaving them in and pushing the 1953 Yankees out as there is some overlap between the squads with their key players, Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford. But if we’re going to bend the overlap rule a little bit, this is the time to do it. The Yankees won 14 out of 16 pennants from 1949-64, so giving them two representative from eight years apart seems reasonable.
1968 Detroit Tigers (103-59 actual record, 103-59 pythag record)
Though not usually thought of as a historically great team, they led the league in runs scored, fewest runs allowed, had a great actual record, a great pythag record, and won a world title. That’s a nifty combination.
1969 Baltimore Orioles (109-53 actual record, 110-52 pytahg record)
Damn few teams win 109 games while underachieving their pythag record. They won 108 games and a world title in 1970, but with “only” 104 pythag wins in that season.
1972 Oakland A’s (93-62 actual record, 97-58 pythag record)
This team began the Mustache Gang’s three-peat dynasty. Based solely on regular-season performance, they don’t belong among the 28 squads, but winning those titles gets them in. The 1972 A’s had fewer wins than the 1973 squad, but then again there was a brief players’ strike in 1972 that cost Oakland seven games. They were on pace for 97 actual and 101 pythag wins.
1975 Cincinnati Reds (108-54 actual record, 107-55 pythag record)
The Big Red Machine is one of the obvious picks, with their all-everything offense and solid pitching. Their 108 wins are tied for the most by any NL team in the last 100 years.
1984 Detroit Tigers (104-58 actual record, 99-63 pythag record)
They began the year 35-5 and coasted from there, topping the league in runs scored and allowed. Then in the postseason, the Tigers woke up and easily handled all comers for the world title.
1986 New York Mets (108-54 actual record, 103-59 pythag record)
This is the team tied with the 1975 Reds for most wins in the regular season in the NL over the last 100 seasons.
1988 Oakland A’s (104-58 actual record, 100-62 record)
When the A’s are great, they’re really great. They had another dynastic run in 1988-90, and while the 1989 team was the only one to win the world title, they were far more dominant in the 1988 and 1990 regular seasons. This one gets the nod over 1990.
1995 Cleveland Indians (100-44 actual record, 93-51 pythag record)
They were on pace for 113 wins over 162 games. I once did an SG sim for the best teams not to win the World Series, and this team came in first place. In a 14-team league, they led in most runs scored and fewest runs allowed.
1998 New York Yankees (114-48 actual record, 108-54 pythag record)
This was the team I figured was likely to win it all when I selected teams. Let’s see what the season simulation machine will say.
1998 Atlanta Braves (106-56 actual record, 106-56 pythag record)
I think 14 division titles in 15 years merits a place here, don’t you? Aside from a legendary run of dominance, this team deserves a slot for just what they did in 1998 itself. Reaching 106 victoires is tough to do, and it’s even tougher without exceeding your pythag record.
They have one of the greatest starting rotations of all time, with all five pitchers winning 16 or more games with quality performances.
2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46 actual record, 109-53 pythag record)
Yes, a team with 116 wins belongs in this simulation.
2004 St. Louis Cardinals (105-57 actual record, 100-62 pythag record)
They had a great season in the midst of a great run. They won 100 games the next year and claimed a world title in 2006. Not many teams win 105 games these days, but the 2004 Cardinals did.
2011 Philadelphia Phillies (102-60 actual record, 103-59 pythag record)
Not only are they the most recent team, but they are also the 28th team picked. The last slot came down to the 1904 Giants, 2009 Yankees, and 2011 Phillies. I decided I’d rather have a third recent team than a seventh team from 1896-1912. I picked the Phillies over the Yankees because, according to WAR, this team has the best pitching staff of all time. Besides, I’d rather have a Phillies team than another Yankees squad.
Those are the 28 teams I picked, but before moving on, I want to note some also-rans and explain why they were left out.
1904 Giants (106-47 actual record, 106-47 pythag record): They were nearly as good in 1905 as well, and a legitimately great team, but only the third-best NL team in the decade. The NL was a little too separated between its haves and have-nots in this period, so I left them out.
1909 Pirates (110-42 actual record, 105-47 pythag record): They’re the only 110-win team left out, and they’re left out for overlapping a bit too much with the 1902 squad. Hitters Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and Tommy Leach, and pitchers Sam Leever, and Deacon Philippe were on both. So I left this one off but the team with the higher winning percentage on.
1912 Giants (103-48 actual record, 100-51 pythag record). The Giants won three straight pennants from 1911-13 but lost each World Series and weren’t quite good enough in the regular season.
1917 White Sox (100-54 actual record, 101-53 pythag record). They won the world title this year, famously threw the Series in 1919, and nearly won the 1920 pennant. But they weren’t really as impressive as the teams listed above.
1932 Yankees (107-45 actual record, 99-55 pythag record). They have one of the best win totals for any team left out, but they overlap a bit too much with the superior 1927 squad, plus their pythag isn’t very good.
1934 Tigers (101-53 actual record, 100-54 pythag record). They won back-to-back pennants and the 1935 World Series, but weren’t really one of the top 28 teams.
1935 Cubs (100-54 actual record, 101-53 pythag record). The Cubs won four pennants from 1929-38, and this was their best team, but that doesn’t mean they were good enough.
1940 Reds (100-53 actual record, 96-57 pythag record). The Reds won back-to-back pennants in 1939 and '40, the world title in 1940, and won the 1940 pennant by 12 games this year. So they’re one of the better forgotten teams, but not good enough for here.
1946 Red Sox (104-50 actual record, 97-57 pythag record). They had one of the best records for a one-season team. But they were just a one-season team, didn’t have that great a pythag record, and didn’t win the World Series. With their core, had it not been for WWII, they could’ve been a great team throughout the 1940s, but WWII happened, so the rest is hypothetical.
1948 Indians (97-57 actual record, 104-50 pythag record). They had a great pythag record and won a world title, but won “only” 97 games and definitely overlap with the 1954 Indians.
1957 Braves (95-59 actual record, 93-61 pythag record). The Braves won the pennant in 1957-58 and narrowly missed out in 1956 and 1959. If they had won four in a row, they might get in, like the 1921 Giants, but they didn’t. And their single-season record was never that good.
1963 Dodgers (99-63 actual record, 92-70 pythag record). The Dodgers won three pennants in the 1960s, but were never that great in any one year.
1967 Cardinals (101-60 actual record; 97-64 pythag record). St. Louis won three pennants in the 1960s as well, and won the pennant by 10.5 games on the year, but that’s just enough to earn an honorable mention here.
1974 Dodgers (102-60 actual record, 106-56 pythag record). They’re a legitimate contender, and I wouldn’t argue against someone putting them in, especially given their continued success in the decade, but ... well, actually I’m talking myself into putting them in, frankly. Hey, if you make a list 10 different times, you’ll have 10 slightly different lists of 28. If they’d beaten the A’s in the World Series, they’d definitely get the nod over the Mustache Gang.
1976 Phillies (101-61 actual record, 104-58 pythag record). Another team just under the cusp. If they’d had more success in the postseason and/or had their actual/pythag record flipped, they’d have a stronger case.
1977 Yankees (100-62 actual record, 99-63 pythag record). They won back-to-back world titles but weren’t that great in either season.
1985 Cardinals (101-61 actual record, 100-62 pythag record). The Cardinals won three pennants in the 1980s, but their only world title was with their worst of those three teams. This team wasn’t quite as good as the 1967 Cards, and that wasn’t good enough, so neither was this.
1992 Blue Jays (96-66 actual record, 91-71 pythag record). They won back-to-back world titles in 1992-93 but weren’t especially great in either regular season.
1993 Giants (103-59 actual record, 98-64 pythag record). They are the best team in recent decades to miss a postseason birth, but that doesn’t mean they’re one of the 28 best ever.
1994 Expos (74-40 actual record, 70-44 pythag record). On pace for 105 wins, but most teams on pace for that through 114 games fall short in the next 48. A great, young, what-if team, but there’s no real pressing reason to put them in the 28. They’re a one-year wonder that’s ultimately only a two-thirds-of-a-season wonder.
2001 A’s (102-60 actual record, 104-58 pythag record). This is another squad that arguably belongs. They had back-to-back great years, but they just didn’t quite click for me. Maybe if they’d won a postseason series, or if there hadn’t been two other teams with more wins in the first half of the decade.
2002 Angels (99-63 actual record, 101-61 pythag record). This is a personal favorite because I think they played in the toughest division of all time: the 2002 AL West. Seattle, Oakland, and Anaheim were all stacked, and they won 99 games with a superior pythag and a world title. But there’s no way they make the final 28.
2009 Yankees (103-59 actual record, 95-67 pythag record). As noted above, the last slot came down to them and the 2011 Phillies, and I picked the Phillies.
Those are the ones left behind. Tune in next week to see how the Great 28 picked actually did.
References and Resources
Team info comes from Baseball-Reference.com.
The sims come from SG at the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog.
The whole exercise is inspired by a thread from years ago at Baseball Think Factory.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.