How many big bats does it take to win?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It pays to have a few of the league's best hitters rather than many good hitters when trying to be a World Series team ... at least that is what the past 10 seasons have taught us.

It is a topic of conversation in every MLB city during the offseason. Fans in Los Angeles and Kansas City alike plead to their general managers to add just one more bat to their lineup. In some cases, like the Mets, to add several more bats. The point is that fans always want more offense. Whether coming from a standpoint of strength, like the Red Sox or Cardinals, or from less powerful offenses, like Seattle or Houston, nothing makes an offseason more satisfying than the addition of a big bat.

As the offseason peeks into January, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the proficiency of "big bats" on successful teams. In other words, how many "big bats" does a team really need? Does it help to have a few of the game’s best hitters to carry the rest of the lineup, or does a more evenly distributed offense breed success?

In order to compare batters across different ballparks, leagues, and seasons, I used OPS+ for my analysis. OPS+ is adjusted to league average, so a player with an OPS+ over 100 means that their OPS was above average for the given year. I split the ranges of OPS+ into four categories: the super hitters (OPS+ greater than 150), very good hitters (OPS+ between 125-150), good hitters (OPS+ between 100-125), and below average (OPS+ less than 100). I focused on the past ten seasons (2004-2013).

Since a lineup consists of nine batters, I used plate appearances of at least 300 per season to generate a list of 2600 player seasons. Over ten seasons, with thirty teams, that equates to roughly nine player seasons per team per season. Player seasons meaning a season a player had at least 300 plate appearances, which over several seasons may be the same player in the same lineup.

The table below displays the OPS+ distribution across the four OPS+ categories for the past ten seasons. With the exception of 2008-2009, an OPS+ season above 150 translated into being a top 10-13 hitter in the league, with an OPS+ between 125-150 translated into a top 35-50 hitter.

Season OPS+ >150 OPS+ 125-150 OPS+ 100-125 OPS+ <100
2004 13 36 105 109
2005 13 41 90 127
2006 11 36 85 116
2007 11 30 116 109
2008 6 50 91 123
2009 6 45 97 119
2010 10 44 92 110
2011 13 34 90 113
2012 11 39 91 105
2013 11 39 97 116
Total 105 394 954 1147

The question is whether the best teams had a greater concentration of the best hitters than the rest of the league. To find this out, the table below shows the percentage of hitters in each OPS+ category who played for a World Series team in the given season. For example, in 2004, the Cardinals won the National League Pennant with three hitters having OPS+ seasons of at least 150: Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, and Scott Rolen.

Season OPS+ >150 OPS+ 125-150 OPS+ 100-125 OPS+ <100
2004 30.8% 2.8% 5.7% 3.7%
2005 0.0% 7.3% 4.4% 8.7%
2006 9.1% 8.3% 5.9% 8.6%
2007 18.2% 10.0% 6.0% 4.6%
2008 0.0% 10.0% 6.6% 6.5%
2009 0.0% 15.6% 6.2% 2.5%
2010 10.0% 9.1% 7.6% 3.6%
2011 23.1% 11.8% 5.6% 6.2%
2012 36.4% 5.1% 3.3% 7.6%
2013 9.1% 20.5% 8.2% 2.6%
Total 15.2% 10.2% 6.0% 5.5%

World Series teams represent two of the thirty teams in baseball, or roughly 6.7% of MLB players. Yet, over the past ten seasons, 15.2% of the game’s best hitters were found in World Series teams’ lineups. Since 2004, a hitter has earned an OPS+ of at least 125 in a season 499 times. 25% of those player seasons occurred on World Series teams. Put simply, teams who made it to the World Series tend to have a large percentage of the league’s best hitters in that given season.

How do less successful teams compare? The final table below compares the five best teams versus the five worst teams in terms of combined regular season winning percentage over the past ten seasons. It is clear to see that the best teams have a higher concentration of production in their lineups.

Rk Team W-L% OPS+ >150 OPS+ 125-150 OPS+ 100-125 OPS+ <100
1 NYY 0.587 4.71% 25.88% 40.00% 29.41%
2 BOS 0.562 12.09% 16.48% 41.76% 29.67%
3 STL 0.558 13.19% 21.98% 19.78% 45.05%
4 ANA 0.556 4.49% 12.36% 46.07% 37.08%
5 PHI 0.547 1.12% 25.84% 31.46% 41.57%
26 BAL 0.455 2.27% 10.23% 44.32% 43.18%
27 HOU 0.453 3.61% 12.05% 31.33% 53.01%
28 SEA 0.443 0.00% 6.33% 39.24% 54.43%
29 PIT 0.436 3.70% 11.11% 38.27% 46.91%
30 KCR 0.42 0.00% 10.99% 31.87% 57.14%

It makes sense that teams with better hitters have success. Of course, pitching and defense offset the degree of which teams need to rely on their offense to win. For fans, big bats are always appealing. None more than Seattle Mariners fans, who have not had a super hitter in the past ten seasons, and only five player seasons with an OPS+ of at least 125. Their $240MM investment in Robinson Cano should help; he has had five seasons of OPS+ production of at least 125 in the same span by himself.

How many big bats does a team need? It’s not an exact science, but it's very rare for a successful team to reach the World Series without three or more hitters having very good seasons -- 2005 was the only season in the past decade that the World Series had two teams without at least three hitters having OPS seasons 25% above the league average. Baseball fans may be unreasonable in their expectations to acquire big bats, but they may be on to something, too.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Jeffrey Bellone is a contributor to Beyond The Box Score and can also be found writing about New York sports at Over the Whitestone. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter @OverWhitestone.

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