The 1924 New York Giants amassed the strongest lineup in the National League that year. They were first in the league in runs, home runs and BA/OBP/SLG. As a team, they had just 12 more strikeouts than walks, including pitcher at bats. The roster included no less than seven Hall of Fame position players; even though many of these players were sub-par Hall of Famers, certainly this was one of the greatest collections of talent ever.
A common debate in baseball is what team is the greatest of all-time. This is an interesting question, but great teams are only a snapshot, a single season statistics consisting of its individual players. What if, instead, we looked at teams based on the sum of its individuals for their entire careers, rather than just a single season? What would be the greatest team assembled in terms of total career contributions?
To answer this question, I looked through every team in baseball history, adding together the career bWAR for each player. This means that no matter how big or how little a player’s contribution was in that particular season, it would not influence the team’s ranking.
For instance, Freddie Lindstrom only played 52 games and was worth just .1 WAR for the Giants in 1924. However, in his career, he amassed 28.3 WAR. Add that to the other 30 players’ career WAR sums of 509.5 WAR.
Referencing the chart above, we can see every single team’s totals. The average has been fairly stable since the early 1900’s, dipping for the introduction of the Federal League and WWII then again fairly recently because players are still accumulating their career WAR.
Surprisingly, the successful ’24 Giants team becomes just an above average team when based on this metric despite having seven HoFers (the mean for teams from 1900-2000 is 483.7 WAR). The solid Hall of Famer was future leader of the veteran’s committee: Frankie Frisch. This is because only one of those seven players had more than 54.2 WAR. The other six were Bill Terry, Hack Wilson, Travis Jackson, Freddie Lindstrom, Billy Southworth and High Pockets Kelly.
The list has an immediately obvious pattern:
|Team||Year||Team Career WAR|
The Yankees claim 11 of the 13 top slots with Derek Jeter’s prime propelling them up the leaderboard.
There are teams from 1927 and 1928 listed, but those are not the expected Murderers’ Row; instead in the top slot is the Philadelphia Athletics. Other teams just outside the parameters of this list are the 1996 Indians, 1933 Yankees, and the 1972 Dodgers.
While I knew that the Athletics teams of the late 20’s and early 30’s were great and had stars like Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons, I had no idea that they would be the team to beat.
To my surprise, I found a 40-year-old Tris Speaker, a 41-year-old Eddie Collins and a 41-year-old Ty Cobb all bringing their bats to this pennant contender. Going by career WAR, Jimmie Foxx was fifth best on that team at 97.4.
The challengers to the throne were the 2005 Yankees, sitting 31 WAR back from the top.
This team had 51 different players and none of them were named Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte. This staff included Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown. The lineup was led by Alex Rodriguez and Jeter, but filled with seven other players with fascinating careers: Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Robinson Cano, Hideki Matsui, Bernie Williams, Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi. There are only four players still on this team in 2016: A-Rod, Cano, Melky Cabrera, and Chien-Ming Wang. If this Yankees team manages to pass the A’s, it is going to be solely because of a fantastic end to Cano’s career.
There is also a slight chance the 2012 Yankees, who still had 22 active players in 2016, could amass another 140 WAR to pull into first. That gang of 22 managed 28.91 WAR last year and will need to sustain that level of production for the next five years to catch up; unlikely, since their average age is around 33-years-old. They do seem like a safe bet to finish third when all is said and done.
On the other end of the spectrum, the most shamefully assembled team would be the 1875 Washington Nationals who finished the season 5-23 and whose team members accounted for -13.65 WAR.
Discounting 19th century and Federal League teams, the worst team would be the 1908 Brooklyn Superbas who combined for 102.55 WAR, or about 1.5 WAR ahead of Albert Pujols. The 2016 Phillies are currently sitting at 105 WAR, but have many players that will be productive in the coming years.
With all due respect to the aforementioned bad teams, the one that really deserves the title of “Worst Collection of Individual Players of All Time” is the 1972 Padres. The player who would go on to have the best career on this team was Mike Caldwell, a 137-game winner (19.7 WAR over 14 seasons). The best position player was Nate Colbert who had a fantastic year in 1972, hitting 38 HR’s, but ending his career posting just 14.3 WAR over parts of 10 seasons. The most well known player was Cito Gaston, future manager of the Blue Jays. As a team, this group managed to put up 120.21 WAR. Unsurprisingly, they finished with the worst record in the NL.
That next June, the Padres selected Dave Winfield with their fourth overall pick. He made his debut two weeks later, lifting the 1973 team’s career WAR total to 180.66 and out of the all-time cellar.
While the 1927 Athletics are not the greatest team ever nor the 1972 Padres the worst, both of them have a special record of their own. If there was a team that you could watch to see as many stars as possible, it is hard not to pick the ’27 Athletics. If you feel like your team has nobody that is worth watching, take heart, because someone on your team is more valuable than Mike Caldwell.Blaine Boyer: A Baseball Unicorn
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A potentially interesting follow-up might be to look at the degree to which these teams overperformed or underperformed their expected win totals in a given year.