When it comes to team building there are many different processes and general ideas about how you should, or could, go about doing it. You can build your team through the draft, free agency, or even trades. You can use a combination of the three, just two, or even use just one of them depending on what the market looks like or you general philosophy.
What I’m taking a look at are the teams that decided to build around a superstar player, or two, and then surround that player, or those players, with slightly above average to fringe guys.
Here is what I will be using to classify superstar and fringe players:
League-average WAR rates vary. An average full-time position player is worth +2 WAR, while average bench players contribute much less (typically less than +1 WAR). Average starting pitchers also are worth around +2 WAR, while relief pitchers are considered superb if they crack +1 WAR.
For position players and starting pitchers, here is a good rule-of-thumb chart:
Note: All stats and rankings compiled using FanGraphs version of WAR
What I’m curious about is whether you can build a winning team on the back of one or two superstar players and then fill in the rest with whatever else is out there or already on your team. The filters I am putting in place for this study are as follows:
- A team must not have more than two superstar level performers in that season.
- A team must not have more than four other players that produce more than two WAR in a season but less than four.
In order to find out which teams utilized this particular strategy, intentionally or otherwise, I pulled data for every player from 2003 to 2012 and then sorted by WAR. There have been 232 performances of 5+ WAR by position players (some of which had multiple 5+ WAR seasons – Barry Bonds) and there were 101 performances of 5+ WAR by starting pitchers.
All-in-all we’re left with 27 teams that meet the criteria set forth and I’m not sure if I should be surprised or not by the results, but they were quite telling. Just seven of the teams posted .500 or better records during the seasons in which they built around a superstar or two, or they had a player develop into performing like one, and just one of those seven made the playoffs (2007 Arizona Diamondbacks). Even though a quarter (25.9%) of the teams in the study produced .500 or better records only one (3.7%) actually made the playoffs.
Is there one particular area the teams that finished at or above .500 excelled at when relying on superstar level performances from a player or two?
The 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks won 90 games and went to the NLCS (and lost), for example, while relying heavily upon a top 10 pitching staff that put up a team ERA/FIP of 4.13/4.52, which was pretty good during that particular run scoring environment. Their rotation was anchored by Brandon Webb and his 236.1 innings to go along with a 3.01/3.24 ERA/FIP line and a 61.8% ground ball rate. They also had two other pitchers that eclipsed 190 innings in the rotation.
Their offense was the exact opposite as they were second to last with an 82 wRC+ effort and were 26th in total runs scored with 712. So it seems that for the lone team that made the playoffs they did it on the backs of their starting rotation and bullpen.
What about the rest of the teams that at least finished at or above .500 - did they also rely more heavily on their pitching staff than their offense?
The 2004 San Francisco Giants, who won 91 games but missed the playoffs, had a pitching staff that was in the bottom third of baseball but their offense was fourth overall with the assistance of one Mr. Barry Bonds and his 11.6 WAR. We also shouldn't discount the contributions of starting pitcher Jason Schmidt, though, as he posted a 6.4 WAR and had a 3.20/2.92 ERA/FIP line.
These are the only two teams that won at least 90 games and they did it in completely different fashion with rosters constructed, or developed, around specific players (Brandon Webb for the Diamondbacks and Barry Bonds for the Giants).
The other teams that finished with .500 or better records didn't seem to have one philosophy that they favored over another in regard to building around their superstar, or superstars. Some seemed to be built around or focused on offense and others were geared more towards pitching. Whether it was a matter of the players they were successful in developing or simply had an opportunity to sign or trade for I don’t know, but that strategy could simply indicate these teams were working with what they had.
That being said, the teams that did finish at or above .500 didn't necessarily excel in any one facet of the game aside from the 2004 Giants, who were fourth overall in offense, and then the 2007 Toronto Blue Jays, who were fourth overall in pitching. Other teams were middle of the road on offense and pitching and others were closer towards the bottom third in each.
When it comes to building up your team it doesn't seem as if counting on just one or two players performing at a superstar level is enough to carry you to the playoffs, or even a winning record, the large majority of the time.
Even the teams that had two total superstar level performers on their team for this study didn't seem to fare any better or worse than the rest because four of those eight teams had winning records while the other four did not.
Of course it’s nice to have that one player, or even two, on your team that you feel like you can count on in any situation during the season but having that doesn't guarantee you anything in baseball -- at least from the 10 years of data I pulled. The other strategies used to develop teams and build rosters could be more successful than the one I just looked at, and I believe it’s certainly worthwhile exploring this subject further.
We can at least say with a bit of certainty that having that superstar player on your team doesn't make you an instant winner.