It is, like the story began, the best of times and the worst of times -- an era received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There are three major league teams on pace to win 104 or more games -- a mark reached by only 10 teams in the past 40 years -- and another two on pace to win 99.5. (There have never been four 100-win teams in a single season.) There are three teams on pace to lose 104 or more games, another on track to lose 101 and a fifth on pace to lose 99. (There has only once been four 100-loss teams in a single season.) Fully a third of the league could end up at one of the two triple-digit extremes that typically would mark The Best or The Worst team in baseball.
How to put the gap between, say, the Yankees and, say, the Orioles, in context? A simple way is to note that the Yankees are 17-2 when the two clubs play. Or to note that the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers -- the three 104-wins-or-better clubs -- are collectively 41-12 against the Orioles, Tigers, Royals and Marlins, the four 101-losses-or-worse clubs.
A more complicated way is to ask this: How many of these bad teams would it take to make up one of these great teams? Would a playoff superteam of the Royals, Orioles, Tigers and Marlins be able to hang with the super playoff teams in Houston, New York and Los Angeles? In an era of total teardowns on the bleak side of the standings and insatiable depth hoarding on the bright side of them, is there room for any good players on a last-place roster?
To answer this question took 17 tabs in a spreadsheet.
Here were the rules: We built 25-man rosters for the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers and Tigeroyiolins -- on second thought, that's the only time we'll attempt to call them that. Henceforth, they will be the Superteam -- based entirely on 2019 stats: a starter at every position, four bench players covering infield, outfield and catcher, a four-man starting rotation (because only four are needed in the postseason) and an eight-man bullpen. We prorated each player's 2019 WAR for a full, healthy season in the role he is assigned to: 600 plate appearances for starters (except 500 for the catcher), 250 for bench players, 175 innings for starting pitchers and 65 for relievers (except 95 for one designated swingman).* The plan was to see how many bad teams it takes to compete with the Astros, Dodgers and Yankees.
We'll start the bidding at four teams, do I hear four teams?
The best player on any of the Orioles, Royals, Tigers or Marlins, by total WAR, has been Jonathan Villar, acquired in a midseason trade by Baltimore last summer. At the time, the competitive Brewers were trying to upgrade at second base, so they traded their second baseman (Villar) and a couple of prospects for the non-competitive Orioles' second baseman, Jonathan Schoop. Since then, Villar has been the 42nd-best player in baseball, just ahead of Trea Turner, Paul Goldschmidt and Manny Machado. He has been the ninth-best second baseman, while Schoop is 42nd. It was a masterful trade by the Orioles: 21 homers, 33 steals, 3.8 WAR this year.
So, there are good players on the Superteam, of which Villar is undeniably one. Soler has 44 homers, Alberto is hitting .320, Mondesi has 39 steals, Dozier is slugging .550. But the fact that Villar is the best player that the four teams can produce puts the Superteam's uphill climb in perspective: Teams who are committed to losing don't keep MVP candidates around. Villar is not an MVP candidate, the way Cody Bellinger and Alex Bregman are. He is not even above-average by the standards of the other three teams' rosters: There are 21 Dodgers, Astros or Yankees who have produced more WAR than Villar on a per-plate-appearance level this year. Villar is cast here as the best player on any of four major league rosters.
The Superteam might make it up on depth or pitching, but its nine best players simply can't compete with the nine regulars on any of our three historically great teams:
Superteam: 175 homers, .281/.341/.474, 26.4 WAR (scaled to 600 plate appearances per player)
Dodgers: 199 homers, .276/.361/.532, 42.3 WAR
Astros: 210 homers, .293/.372/.544, 46.2 WAR
Yankees: 206 homers, .279/.355/.519, 39.7 WAR
(Note that all of these teams' WARs are exceptionally high, even higher than the Astros, Dodgers and Yankees' lineups have actually produced this year. That's because we're picking only their very best player performances, after the fact, giving the teams full health and awarding nearly all playing time to those nine best players. Real life doesn't go this smoothly.)
But those are just the starters. In theory, depth could benefit the Superteam. There's no Cody Bellinger on a 100-loss team, almost by definition, but there might be a whole lot of Mike Fords.
On the other hand, depth is part of what makes these Dodgers, Astros and Yankees so incredible. They're not building nine-man lineups, but 13-man lineups -- players able to platoon, to move around the field and to not just fill in but very nearly replicate injured starters. Over the course of a full season, when 50 or 60 players might be called upon, the Superteam's depth almost certainly would win out. But for just a 25-man roster, the good teams are nearly as deep:
Superteam: .276/.330/.437, 4.6 WAR (scaled to 250 plate appearances per player)
Dodgers: .254/.331/.434, 4.1 WAR
Astros: .251/.322/.425, 3.9 WAR
Yankees: .260/.318/.473, 3.6 WAR
The Superteam inches up, but barely.
As to starting pitchers:
The Superteam's staff has one All-Star appearance (Means, this year) and zero Cy Young votes. The other three teams' pitchers have won five Cy Youngs and appeared in 31 All-Star Games. But it's not quite as bad as it looks. The Superteam's rotation actually has been better than the Yankees' rotation, despite a 28-48 combined record this year (thanks to terrible offenses behind them and terrible bullpens protecting their leads). Still, it's not great:
Superteam: 4.24 ERA, 4.31 FIP, 12.0 WAR (scaled to 175 innings per pitcher)
Dodgers: 2.84 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 15.6 WAR
Astros: 3.08 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 17.0 WAR
Yankees: 4.45 ERA, 4.62 FIP, 10.5 WAR
Again, in a longer season the Superteam might benefit. It's fair to say the Superteam's eighth- and ninth-best starters -- Daniel Norris and Jakob Junis, maybe? -- are better than Houston's. But Houston isn't going to need eight starters to get through October, and at the top of the staffs it's a huge mismatch.
For bullpens, we chose to limit our options to actual relievers, so unused starting pitchers (for example, Daniel Norris, Jakob Junis) were not generally considered for the Superteam's bullpen. Pitchers such as Ross Stripling and Kenta Maeda, who have both started and relieved this year, and who are likely to be in the Dodgers' actual postseason bullpen, were:
Superteam: 3.96 ERA, 3.90 FIP, 7.3 WAR (scaled to 65 innings per pitcher)
Dodgers: 3.74 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 7.9 WAR
Astros: 3.24 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 6.9 WAR
Yankees: 3.15 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 8.4 WAR
Add it all up:
Superteam: 50.3 WAR
Dodgers: 69.9 WAR
Astros: 74.0 WAR
Yankees: 62.2 WAR
To repeat something from earlier: 74 WAR is a crazy-high total for the Astros, and it would equate to about a 120-win team in real life. But it assumes almost perfect health and almost perfect decision-making by the Astros, funneling nearly all of their playing time to the players who actually were the best this year.
But the same applies to the Superteam. The ex post facto nature of this exercise benefits them most of all, because it allows us to accurately pick, from the 215 or so mostly anonymous players these four teams will field this year, the 25 who actually had the best years -- in many cases, career years, years unlike any they've ever had or will have again.
Indeed, if we were to use not actual, observed WAR to measure each roster's strength, but projected, future WAR, the Superteam would fall even further behind. In that case, team strength would look something more like this:
Superteam: 30.9 total projected WAR
Dodgers: 54.4 WAR
Astros: 54.3 WAR
Yankees: 54.1 WAR
The Superteam built above, in other words, projects to be somewhere around a .500 team, assuming good health, while the others project to be around 100-win teams. I think we can say, conclusively, that four teams put together still aren't as good as the Astros, the Dodgers or the Yankees. Wild.
Do I hear five teams?
Total WAR: 58.1.
Do I hear six teams?
Total WAR: 64.3, good enough to pass this year's Yankees (who, it's worth noting, are without excellent outfielders Aaron Hicks and Mike Tauchman, both key contributors this year but both out for the season, and Luis Severino and Dellin Betances, who have no statistical records to go on this year but could each return for the playoffs).
Do I hear seven teams?
Superteam 4: Superteam 3 + Rockies. Add Trevor Story, Nolan Arenado, Ryan McMahon, Jon Gray, German Marquez and Scott Oberg. Remove Adalberto Mondesi, Hanser Alberto, Garrett Cooper, Spencer Turnbull, Marco Gonzales and Buck Farmer. Break the rules and move Bo Bichette to second base.
Total WAR: 68.4. Still worse than the Dodgers and the Astros. Do I hear eight teams?
Total WAR: 72.9. Ahead of the Dodgers and somehow still behind the Astros.
Do. I. Hear. Niiiiiiine teams?
Total WAR: 75.7. Phew.
Is the conclusion too hard to believe? Does it seem credible if you simply look at the rosters?
C Tom Murphy, 1B Josh Bell, 2B Bo Bichette, 3B Nolan Arenado, SS Trevor Story, LF Bryan Reynolds, CF Whit Merrifield, RF Hunter Dozier, DH Jorge Soler, UT Tim Anderson, UT Kyle Seager, UT Anthony Santander, UT James McCann, SP Lucas Giolito, SP John Means, SP Jon Gray, SP German Marquez, RP Felipe Vazquez, RP Ian Kennedy, RP Ken Giles, RP Mychal Givens, RP Sam Tuivailala, RP Aaron Bummer, RP Scott Oberg, RP Wilmer Font
C Robinson Chirinos, 1B Yuli Gurriel, 2B Jose Altuve, 3B Alex Bregman, SS Carlos Correa, LF Michael Brantley, CF Jake Marisnick, RF George Springer, DH Yordan Alvarez, UT Aledmys Diaz, UT Abraham Toro, UT Josh Reddick, UT Martin Maldonado, SP Gerrit Cole, SP Justin Verlander, SP Zack Greinke, SP Wade Miley, RP Ryan Pressly, RP Roberto Osuna, RP Will Harris, RP Joe Smith, RP Hector Rondon, RP Chris Devenski, RP Josh James, RP Brad Peacock
The Astros have the two best starting pitchers, maybe the three best. They have, easily, the best player (in Bregman), and by WAR per plate appearance this year they have the three best (Bregman, Alvarez, Springer). They have five of the top seven, with only Trevor Story and Bo Bichette reaching 5 WAR per 600 plate appearances on the Superteam side. While depth eventually will favor the Superteam, all of the 104-win teams have built extremely deep 25-man rosters. Of our original Superteam 1 players, maybe half would have made the Dodgers' Opening Day roster.
The point is, this is really some kind of era we're living in. You're seeing some of the worst baseball that's ever been played. The Tigers actually don't have a single above-average hitter, in any number of plate appearances above two. And you're seeing some of the best baseball that's ever been played. According to Baseball Prospectus' third-order winning percentages, this year's Astros and Dodgers actually are the two best teams since 1950. It's amazing that these teams have coexisted in the same league, occasionally playing against each other, standing next to each other, and had it even look like baseball at all. It's a baseball miracle.
But that's not the payoff for this era. The payoff is the postseason, when as many as five 100-win teams -- and three historically great ones -- are going to smash into each other, with barely a below-average player in the bunch. Truly, it can't get here fast enough.
* In cases of injury, the player was included on the roster if he seemed likely to return sometime this year or if he would return but for his team being out of contention. He was not included if he definitely is out for the year, like the Marlins' Brian Anderson. Players who have been traded away, like the former Tiger Nick Castellanos, aren't eligible. There was some preference to players with more playing time, but mainly we went with the most productive players on a per-PA basis. And players are allowed to play slightly out of position if, as with Whit Merrifield, they've played at least some significant time at the position to which we wish to assign them. We used Baseball-Reference's WAR for hitters and FanGraphs' WAR for pitchers.