The 2013 Atlanta Braves and core WAR

Just before I sat down to watch game four of the ALCS on Wednesday night, a link to a neat little series of graphics from Mauricio Rubio and Craig Goldstein rolled across my twitter feed. In their piece, Mauricio and Craig show that the St. Louis Cardinals, unlike the other organizations remaining in the 2013 playoffs, owe most of their success to homegrown draftees— over 70 percent of their WARP, in fact.

I tried to remember the last time we saw a team that relied so heavily on their farm system make it this deep into the post-season . The 2008 Rays immediately came to mind, and prior to that maybe only the Moneyball A’s of the early oughts.

But instead of just relying on memory I decided to get particular about it and wrangle up the data. What I found is that despite the high number of homegrown players on the roster, the Cardinals aren’t getting any more production out of their youngsters than the typical major league club. The Redbirds 18-25 year olds were worth a total of 7.7 fWAR this season, just a hair below the average of 7.9 for a major league team.

In fact, it was another club from the 2013 post-season that seemed to be getting historical production from their youth core— The Atlanta Braves.

The Braves yongsters enjoyed over 27 WAR on the merits of their 18 to 25 year olds, far more than any other team this season. Only the Diamondbacks came remotely close to this astounding figure, and their core WAR of just 15 wins still pales in comparison.

Most of the Braves ridiculous feat comes courtesy of breakout performances from Freddie Freeman (4.8 WAR), Andrelton Simmons (4.7), Mike Minor (3.4), Jason Heyward (3.4), and even Justin Upton at 3.2 WAR. All told, the achievements of their youth core accounted for more than 62 percent of the Braves production. Only the Miami Marlins core meant more to their squad, which doesn’t mean much with a mere 13.4 WAR total for Miami in the 2013 season.

Looking at the teams in the live ball era with the most combined WAR from this age group, Freddy Gonzalez’s 2013 Bravos rank sixth:

Most productive youth cores since 1920

# Team Season Wins Total WAR 18-25 WAR 18-25 WAR%
1 Red Sox 1942 93 51.2 33.5 65.4
2 Athletics 1971 101 45.8 29.2 63.8
3 Giants 1928 93 43.2 27.5 63.7
4 Mets 1986 108 52.3 27.5 52.6
5 Cardinals 1943 105 57.5 27.3 47.5
6 Braves 2013 96 43.2 27.1 62.7
7 Reds 1970 102 52.3 27.0 51.6
8 Braves 1964 88 43.1 26.7 61.9
9 Cubs 1935 100 49.3 26.7 54.2
10 Mets 1985 98 43.5 26.3 60.5

Of course, if we adjust the arbitrary age group parameters to only include 18-24 year olds, the 2013 Braves’ fall outside the top 40, after losing key contributions from 25 year olds Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel among others. But, amongst 18-23 year olds this year’s Braves squad once again returns to sixth most WAR since 1920.

Notably, the 1986 Mets are the only World Series winners of the group, benefitting from excellent seasons of youngsters Dwight Gooden (4.6 WAR), Lenny Dykstra (4.5), Darryl Strawberry (3.4), Ron Darling (3.2), and Kevin Mitchell
(2.7).

The 2001 Athletics ranked 22nd with 24.6 core WAR, while the 2008 Rays placed 15th in the live ball era, with 25.6 WAR. The 2007 Devil Rays and the 2010 Rays also ranked in the top 100, amassing at least 20+ WAR from their core in those seasons as well– a fine testament to their ability to continuously replenish the source.

The 2007 Brewers, 2005 Indians, 1999 Royals, 1993 White Sox, and the 1992 Expos also reached that 20.0 core WAR threshold.

It may be a common misconception these days that baseball’s front offices have achived some new brand of youth-appreciation in recent seasons. But in reality the 2013 Atlanta Braves are a special case. Baseball’s long-existing infatuation with youth is something we’ve explored multiple times earlier this year, but is also evidenced again by the scarce appearances of recent team-seasons in these rankings.

What might give us this false impression of a newly youth-obsessed era of baseball is our recent departure from the heavily veteran-favored era of the late nineties, early 2000s. It should not surprise you that this so-called “steroid era” was also home to some of the more successful veteran teams in baseball history.

If we look at the teams in the live ball era that have enjoyed the most WAR from their players above the age of 35, we find that seven of the top ten occurred after the turn of the century:

Most productive super-veteran clubs

# Team Season Wins Total WAR 36 and up WAR 36 and up WAR%
1 Giants 2004 91 40.5 16.0 39.5
2 Mariners 2001 116 62.7 15.4 24.6
3 Cubs 1945 98 53.0 15.2 28.7
4 Yankees 1931 94 61.9 15.1 24.4
5 Diamondbacks 2001 92 48.7 14.7 30.2
6 Astros 2004 92 43.4 14.7 33.9
7 Yankees 2008 89 40.4 14.3 35.4
8 Giants 2001 90 46.8 13.4 28.6
9 Angels 1982 93 50.4 13.4 26.6
10 Yankees 2012 95 48.5 12.3 25.4

If you are interested in browsing baseball’s most successful youth cores yourself, here’s a google doc with the top 200 team seasons ranked by their 18-25 core WAR, alongside several other possible age ranges to define “youth core”.

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Comments

  1. Kyle S said...

    A natural extension would be to see how the “young and good” teams did over the next 5 seasons. For instance the Rays won an average of 91 games per season the following five years. Is that result on average true? And how does it compare to the “average” five year success of teams with similar total WAR? Would be cool to know.

  2. Robert Twining said...

    Perhaps another approach might be to not just look at total WAR provided by homegrown players but number of players generating 1.0 or more WAR that are homegrown and do that over a period of time to indicate steady contributions to an organization.  Let’s say 3 year increments.

  3. RC said...

    This is a nitpick, but to consider Jason Heyward’s 3.4 and Justin Upton’s 3.2 “breakout performances” is completely ridiculous.  Heyward posted a 6.4 WAR in 2012, and a 4.7 in his rookie year of 2010.  2013 was actually a below average year for him at this point in his young career.  Upton’s 3.2 is right around his career average, but far from his 6.1 peak in 2009, making the term “breakout” a bad adjective to use in these cases.

  4. Todd said...

    Fair enough re: the Braves, but arbitrary cutoffs (i.e. 25 years old) are masking what the Cardinals are doing in this case. Matt Carpenter, for instance, is 28, so he’s not especially young. But he is part of the draft-and-develop strategy. In recent years the Cardinals have brought up a lot of 27-and-up guys, like Carpenter, Craig, Freese, and Jay.

    The drafted pitchers (Wacha, Miller, CMart, Siegrist, etc.), in contrast, are almost all very young, but didn’t accumulate a lot of WAR because they weren’t in the rotation all year outside of Shelby Miller.

    None of this is to take away from your point about the Braves, but I do think you went on a tangent from what you’d originally observed. It’s not that the Cardinals got a ton of WAR from young players, it’s that their farm system is driving them into and through the playoffs. That’s admittedly harder to isolate in data- how much do you want to credit Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright in that regard, as opposed to just looking at guys like Wacha and Siegrist? Still, I’d be interested in seeing a data-driven approach that focuses on that comparison. Maybe something like, number of players drafted by the team (or also were acquired before their ML debut?) with less than X (2? 3?) years of ML service time.

  5. Baltar said...

    That 2004 Giants team was really old.  If they weren’t the oldest team in the history of baseball, they must have been close.

  6. studes said...

    Great job, James!  Nicely done.

    As a Mets’ fan, this gives me just another reason to wonder what might have been…

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