Let's all take a moment to appreciate MLB's competitive balance. There aren't even two weeks left in the regular season, and 15 teams (half the league) are in the postseason hunt.
Ah yes, but which one of these clubs looks the most like a potential World Series winner?
For that, we must apply...[cue appropriate melody]...the blueprint.
Here's the deal. For several weeks earlier this year, I was busy obsessing over the last 10 World Series-winning teams in hopes of finding out whether there were any patterns that linked them all together. Sure enough, there were, and a summary of what I found was published on Opening Day.
Several months later, it's time to dust it off and make some use of it. What we're going to do is take the 15 teams in play for the 2013 postseason and see how well (or not well) they satisfy the blueprint.
Let's take it away...after this very important note: Because of the amount of time needed to gather information before the writing process could begin, all the statistics below are current only through the action on Tuesday, Sept. 17.
1. Innings-Eaters Are a Must
In a day and age when virtually every starting pitcher is on a pitch count and managers are more willing to go to their bullpens, starters who can eat innings have never been more valuable.
Knowing that, I wasn't surprised to find that the last 10 World Series champs tended to have starters who could eat innings. All 10 had at least three starters who logged at least 180 innings during the regular season, and eight of the teams saw their rotations finish in the top 10 in MLB in innings pitched.
So we're looking for three 180-inning (or better) guys and a high standing in the innings-pitched ranks. But since the season is still in progress, we'll lower the bar for the first part to 170 innings.
Only five clubs—Tigers, Reds, Braves, Royals and A's—are in good shape. They have both three individual innings-eating machines and a high standing in the innings-pitched ranks.
But I can practically see you sitting there wondering what the heck all those asterisks are about.
It's simple: Rotations change a lot throughout the course of a season. Some guys get hurt. Other guys get traded. Relatively few survive to make all their starts and pile up innings with one team.
So here's the thing about the asterisked clubs: They may be lacking in guys with a ton of innings to their names, but that doesn't mean they don't have guys who can eat innings.
Here's a rundown of pitchers who are averaging at least six innings pitched per start that the asterisked contenders have at their disposal:
- Dodgers: Zack Greinke
- Indians: Corey Kluber
- Nationals: Stephen Strasburg
- Orioles: Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, Scott Feldman
- Pirates: Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole
- Rangers: Martin Perez, Matt Garza
- Rays: David Price, Alex Cobb
- Red Sox: Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy
- Yankees: Andy Pettitte, Ivan Nova
Factor in these guys, and most of the teams in the table aren't low on starters who can eat innings.
In fact, there are only three teams on shaky ground: the Cardinals, Indians and Rays.
The Cardinals have Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, but Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha are each averaging fewer than six innings per start, and Jake Westbrook has been turned into a non-factor. The Indians don't have any six-inning guys after Justin Masterson and Corey Kluber. Ditto with the Rays after David Price and Alex Cobb.
All told, here's the breakdown:
Looking Good: Tigers, Reds, Braves, Royals and A's
Passable: Dodgers, Nationals, Orioles, Pirates, Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees
Not So Good: Cardinals, Indians and Rays
2. Strikeout Artists Are Preferred
Here's another thing the starting pitchers of the last 10 World Series champions had in common: They tended to be pretty good at racking up strikeouts.
Nine of the last 10 World Series champs had at least two starters who boasted a K/9 over 7.0, and seven of the last 10 saw their starting rotations finish in the top 10 in MLB in K/9. The notable exception to the rule was the 2005 White Sox, but all the others satisfied the strikeout requirement in one way or another.
So with that in mind:
Basically, everyone looks good. Such is life in an era in which strikeouts are on the rise. Shoot, even Rick Porcello has a 7.0 K/9.
Now, what should be noted here is that I only took pitchers who could conceivably be used in each club's postseason rotation into account. That's why the A's and Orioles stand out as lonely exceptions.
A.J. Griffin has a K/9 over 7.0, so he's good. But while Dan Straily and Sonny Gray also have K/9s over 7.0, I'm uncertain as to what their roles would be in the postseason. It's possible they'll both be pitching out of the bullpen, so I didn't feel comfortable counting them.
As for the Orioles, Chris Tillman has a K/9 over 7.0. But the only other guy they have with a K/9 over 7.0 is Bud Norris, who is their fifth-best starter. It's easy to imagine a bullpen role for him too.
So let's call it:
Looking Good: Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Indians, Nationals, Pirates, Rangers, Rays, Red Sox, Reds, Royals, Tigers and Yankees
Not So Good: A's and Orioles
3. A Good Lefty Specialist Must Not Be Left Out
Because I'm fond of the line I used in the original piece, I'm going to use it again: A good lefty specialist is like a hobbit on a quest to steal gold from a dragon. You never know when he might come in handy.
And as it turned out, only the 2003 Marlins didn't have a capable lefty specialist. In this case, the numbers suggested that "capable" meant "capable of holding opposing lefty hitters to a sub-.700 OPS."
What I found out about this year's contenders is this: That's not a whole lot to ask of the lefties they have in their bullpens. They all have lefty relievers who are holding opposing lefty hitters to a sub-.700 OPS.
...Save for one club: the Red Sox.
Craig Breslow is having a terrific year, but he's a reverse-splits guy. Opposing lefties have a .720 OPS against him. And while Franklin Morales and Drake Britton are doing better than that, it's over a small sample size, and exactly how they fit into Boston's plans for the postseason is debatable anyway.
However, here's one other thing that must be noted: I set the baseline for success at an OPS of .700 because that's where the baseline for LHB vs. LHP matchups tended to be for the bulk of the time period I was looking at, according to Baseball-Reference.com. There's been a shift in the last four seasons, and it's involved lefty pitchers becoming more and more successful against lefty batters.
The league-average OPS for left-handed batters against left-handed pitchers is now .646, and there are two clubs that don't have lefty relievers who are doing that well against lefty batters. That would be the Indians (Nick Hagadone and Rich Hill) and Yankees (Boone Logan).
But since that's still good enough in the eyes of the original blueprint, let's call it:
Looking Good: A's, Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Nationals, Orioles, Pirates, Rangers, Rays, Reds, Royals and Tigers
Passable: Indians and Yankees
Not So Good: Red Sox
4. Versatile Right-Handed Setup Men Are Also Good
Being a left-handed reliever who can get left-handed batters out is easy. But being a right-handed reliever who can get both righties and lefties out? That's not so easy.
The last 10 World Series winners, however, had a guy like that in their bullpens. What I found was that they each had a guy who was able to hold lefties to a sub-.740 OPS and righties to a sub-.720 OPS, all while posting a K/BB ratio of at least 2.0.
These numbers hold up pretty well even by today's pitching standards. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the league-average OPS for left-handed batters against right-handed pitchers is still over .740. The league-average OPS for right-handed batters against right-handed pitchers has fallen but not nearly to the degree that the OPS for lefty-on-lefty matchups has.
Now, because most relievers are right-handed and several clubs have a couple of them who are satisfying the requirements and some clubs have several that aren't, the big picture is frankly a bit of a mess. Presenting it in table form proved to be an even bigger mess.
So I'm just going to cut to the chase with the tally. That way, we can move along to talk about the guys in the bullpen who really matter: the closers.
Looking Good: A's, Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Indians, Nationals, Pirates, Rangers, Rays and Royals
Not So Good: Orioles, Red Sox, Reds, Tigers and Yankees
5. Not Just Any Closer Will Do
Are closers the most overrated and overvalued players in baseball? I would say so, yes.
But is a good closer still a very good thing to have?
Absolutely, and you won't be surprised to hear that the last 10 World Series champs had some good ones. The '04 Red Sox, '07 Red Sox, '08 Phillies, '09 Yankees and '10 Giants had good ones all along, and the other five clubs were able to dig up good ones late in the season.
Now, defining "good" proved to be a matter of looking at Win Probability Added. You'll have to read the original piece for a full picture of how I arrived at the conclusion, but a good WPA for a championship-caliber closer turned out to be at least 2.0.
Some perspective: Only 12 of the 27 guys who have saved at least 20 games this season have a WPA at least that high, according to Baseball-Reference.com. As for the closers on the 15 contenders out there...
Note: Pirates right-hander Jason Grilli also has a WPA north of 2.0. Spoiled rotten, those Buccos.
Nothing too surprising, right? Well, except maybe for the fact that star closers like Aroldis Chapman, Rafael Soriano, Fernando Rodney and Jim Johnson are below the magic number. But that actually makes sense if you ponder it, as those four have had a tendency to make things interesting in 2013. Same goes for Chris Perez, who has issues with both walks and home runs.
Looking Good: Pirates, Royals, Rangers, Red Sox, Tigers, Cardinals, A's, Dodgers, Braves and Yankees
Not So Good: Indians, Reds, Nationals, Rays and Orioles
6. Strength at the Top
The offenses of the last 10 World Series champs all had their differences, but there are a couple of things that they had in common. One is that they tended to be solid at the top.
Here's what I found: Of the last 10 World Series champs, eight either saw the first two spots in the lineup combine for a .340 on-base percentage and produce 200 runs or come very close to doing so.
So which contenders are getting that kind of production out of the top two slots in their batting orders?
Again, the season is still in progress, so there are indeed runs left to be scored. But the OBP aspect is what's really important here, and that's terrific news for the Cardinals, Red Sox, Reds, Tigers and Rays.
As for the others, some number-crunching revealed that the average team in 2013 is seeing its No. 1 and No. 2 spots combine for a .325 OBP. The Dodgers, A's, Yankees and Pirates have that covered, and the Orioles are close enough for government work.
As for the other five teams, however...well, they could be doing better.
Looking Good: Cardinals, Red Sox, Reds, Tigers and Rays
Passable: Dodgers, A's, Yankees, Pirates and Orioles
Not So Good: Rangers, Indians, Braves, Royals and Nationals
7. Power on the Corners
Conventional baseball wisdom holds that power guys are to be stashed on the corners of the diamond: first base, third base, left field and right field. That's where the lugs with big muscles go.
And wouldn't you know it, the last 10 World Series champs tended to have some pretty good lugs on the corners. Seven of them had their corner guys combine for a slugging percentage close to or over .470. Likewise, seven of them had their corner guys produce or come close to producing 100 home runs.
Now, here's a word of warning that Isolated Power (ISO) is better for measuring power than slugging percentage. I should have used it in my original calculations, truth be told, but slugging percentage still serves the purpose well enough.
Here are the numbers for this year's contenders.
Look at those Tigers all alone up there. Must be nice to have the most fearsome hitter in the league at third base and a darn good hitter just across the diamond from him.
The fact that the numbers after the Tigers are relatively low is yet another symptom of the strong pitching environment that has gripped baseball these last few years. It was basically the norm for corner guys to combine for big power numbers for years—and it's worth noting that the 2011 Cardinals managed to pull off the .470/100 combination—but now it's a lot harder for them to do so.
If we narrow our focus to what things are like now, some number-crunching revealed that the average team is getting a mere .425 slugging percentage out of its corner spots. Since several of the 15 contenders are doing better than that, that leaves us...
Looking Good: Tigers
Passable: Rangers, Orioles, Cardinals, Nationals, Rays, A's, Braves, Red Sox and Reds
Not So Good: Pirates, Dodgers, Royals, Indians and Yankees
8. Talent Up the Middle
Just as conventional baseball wisdom holds that power belongs on the corners, it also holds that a club needs to be strong up the middle.
Of all the things conventional baseball wisdom has ever held, this notion is perhaps the wisest. The most talented players on the diamond indeed tend to be located at catcher, shortstop, center field and (to a lesser degree) second base. And what the last 10 World Series champs showed is that it is indeed important to have plenty of talent up the middle.
What I did was round up the players each club was working with up the middle and used Wins Above Replacement as a measuring stick for their collective talent. Using both Baseball-Reference.com WAR and FanGraphs WAR, true "strength" up the middle as defined by the last 10 World Series champs came out to somewhere around 12 Wins Above Replacement.
Doing the same thing for this year's contenders...
Some further clarification before we move on. What I did was take the WARs of the primary starters each club has at catcher, shortstop, second base and center fielder and added them together.
For platoons, I incorporated the WARs of the two main players involved in the platoon, though I disregarded players who are no longer around (i.e. Elliot Johnson in Kansas City and Kurt Suzuki in Washington).
As for that asterisk, the Tigers present a dilemma because of Jhonny Peralta. He's been replaced by Jose Iglesias during his suspension, but he's not entirely out of the picture either. The figures in the table are with his WARs included. Take those away, and what you're left with are 8.2 bWAR and 8.3 fWAR.
However, since Iglesias injured his left hand in Thursday's contest against the Mariners, for now we'll entertain the notion that Peralta may yet find his way back into the shortstop picture in Detroit.
In which case...
Looking Good: Cardinals, Dodgers, Indians, Pirates, Red Sox and Tigers
Passable: A's, Rangers, Rays and Royals
Not So Good: Braves, Reds, Nationals, Orioles and Yankees
So Which Team Is Looking the Best?
To make sense of all of this, I devised a simple scoring system that awarded two points for every "Looking Good," one point for every "Passable" and zero points for every "Not So Good."
Here are the results:
- Tigers: 14
- Cardinals: 13
- Dodgers: 12
- Pirates: 12
- A's: 11
- Braves: 11
- Rangers: 11
- Royals: 11
- Rays: 10
- Red Sox: 10
- Reds: 9
- Nationals: 8
- Indians: 7
- Yankees: 7
- Orioles: 5
Welp, looks like the Tigers are going to win the World Series. They have a rotation that can eat innings and strike guys out, a lefty who can handle lefties (Drew Smyly, for the record), a lights-out closer, productive table-setters, strength up the middle, and they were the only team to get two points for having power on the corners.
...But if we were to take Peralta back out of the equation, Detroit's score for the strength-up-the-middle category would be lowered to zero, and the club would be left with 12 total points. That would tie them with the Dodgers and Pirates, and the lead would pass to...
The Cardinals, who have everything the blueprint asks for except for a full load of innings-eaters in their starting rotation.
Now, it is indeed a fact that your can't predict baseball. That reality prevents me from making any guarantees about the Tigers, the Cardinals or anyone else in their vicinity. But I will say this:
Hey, this stuff worked well enough for the last 10 teams to go all the way.
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