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Remembering the regular-season champions

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Should we take a cue from the English Premier League and do more to recognize each season's best teams during the first 162?

Michael Thomas

I remember a lot of baseball things. I remember the year Bernard Gilkey was one of the best players in baseball (1996). I remember how many times Brett Lawrie tried to steal home in 2012 (three -- he was the league leader). I like baseball, I'm a scourge of Sporcle quizzes, and I remember a lot of stuff.

I don't remember which team had the best regular-season record in almost any previous season. I'm not sure most anyone does.

So when I was listening to Effectively Wild on the past Thursday morning, I wasn't surprised when Ben couldn't recall 2013's regular-season champs right away (it was a tie between the Red Sox and Cardinals), and I spent some time racking my brain, trying to remember who was best in any previous seasons. I failed, as I am wont to do.

At any rate, on EW, Ben and Sam (or, conversely, Sam and Ben) read a listener email suggesting that baseball might benefit from a shift to a system more similar to what happens in the English Premier League. In the EPL, there's a playoffs -- the FA Cup ... and the Champions League -- but there's a lot of pride and purpose put into being the regular-season champion as well. In fact, many consider the regular-season crown even more prestigious than playoff glory.

No one would make the argument that regular-season wins is comparable to winning the World Series. There's far too much history behind the Fall Classic, and I don't think -- even if the mighty Baseball Twitter demanded it -- there'd be any desire to diminish it.

But we can add new. Perhaps there should be a trophy for the regular-season champions? Perhaps it should be considered comparable to winning the World Series, or the AL / NL Pennant?

It's hard to imagine this ever really taking off in baseball, for the simple reason of tradition. Traditionally, it's the World Series winner that is considered the best team in the world, and it's hard to get past more than 100 years of tradition. But at the same time, it's not completely out of left field* to consider rewarding a team for their regular-season contributions.

* - Note: Baseball term.

Today, I'd like to start the process of recognizing -- if not rewarding -- the top teams in the league in terms of regular-season win-loss records, retroactively. What you'll find below is the regular-season AL, NL, and major-league champions -- what I'll tentatively call the MLB Season Champion, AL Season Champion, and the NL Season Champion.

By recognizing these teams, comparing them to the ALCS, NLCS, and World Series champions for a given year, we can see how things have differed over the last few seasons, give credit to teams for excellent regular-season performance, and -- maybe -- find a way to rewrite some old narratives in the process.

Oh, for the record, here's how things are breaking down this season.

The 2014 Regular Season / Postseason

MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Angels Washington Nationals Unknown Orioles / Royals Giants / Cardinals

Woof. We'll start to discover which teams will come out in the ALCS and NLCS, but there's no chance at all that the winners will be the best teams during the regular season. The Angels and Nationals both went out in their respective League Division Series.

The 2013 Regular Season / Postseason

MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
Red Sox / Cardinals Boston Red Sox St. Louis Cardinals Boston Red Sox Boston Red Sox St. Louis Cardinals

Well, this is -- as we'll discover in this article -- kind of an outlier. The two "best" teams in the regular season met in the playoffs, and there was rather little rejoicing. After all, it'd been a whole TWO YEARS since the Cardinals had won the World Series. Meanwhile, Boston Fatigue is still a thing, and few people outside of New England were clamoring for MOAR SOX.

The Red Sox and the Cardinals tied for the Season Championship, with both teams sharing 97-win seasons. Maybe we can push the Cardinals ahead, if one were to use Pythagorean record as a tiebreaker (the Cards had 101 pythag wins, the Sox 100). This one was as chalk as it gets -- and this did not happen again in the 11 years in my sample.

The 2012 Regular Season / Postseason

MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
Washington Nationals New York Yankees Washington Nationals San Francisco Giants Detroit Tigers San Francisco Giants

Now it's time to get weird. First and foremost, please remember that in 2012, the New York Yankees were the best team in the AL during the season. After two seasons of no Yankees in the playoffs, it feels like it has been forever since they were good.

It has not.

The Yankees were, and perhaps are, extremely real. This was also the season that made many pundits think that the Washington Nationals were an unstoppable juggernaut to come. Guess what? They kind of are. They had the best record in the NL in two out of the last three seasons, despite not having as much success in the playoffs.

The Giants won the World Series against the Tigers, which was pretty orange, in my opinion. We are at risk of another, slightly different, Orange World Series this year.

The 2011 Regular Season / Postseason

MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
Philadelphia Phillies New York Yankees Philadelphia Phillies St. Louis Cardinals Texas Rangers St. Louis Cardinals

The 2010 Regular Season / Postseason
MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
Philadelphia Phillies Tampa Bay Rays Philadelphia Phillies San Francisco Giants Texas Rangers San Francisco Giants

I'm lumping these two together because, well, the Phillies. The Phillies were the best team in the bigs during the regular season both in '10 and '11, but they never managed to make it out of the NLCS. Instead, the other teams that made it out of the National League took home the World Series crown. Seeing how bad both the present and the future looks in Philadelphia might make one think this: how on earth did things turn for Philadelphia so quickly? The team is only three seasons away from being a regular-season juggernaut, but they're now a punching bag in the mediocre NL East.

Also, and this isn't a small thing, the Phillies didn't wait even two years after this run of dominance to fire their manager. Charlie Manuel's never been a sabermetric darling, but I'd think that if the Phillies' regular-season championships had been celebrated as much as their NLCS pennants, perhaps the guy would have been given a little more leash by his front office.

2010 was also the only season in which the Tampa Bay Rays won the AL Seasonal Championship. 2011 saw the Yankees win the seasonal crown, which was the first year of a two-year run atop the standings. The Yankees show up quite a bit in the seasonal championships.

One thing worth noting, is that the San Francisco Giants show up for the first time (chronologically) here. Despite showing up as World Series Champions in 2010 and 2012, they've never yet won a seasonal title.

The Rangers won the ALCS in 2010 and 2011 without having the best record in the AL, something that the Tigers have done twice times over the past 11 seasons.

The 2009 Regular Season / Postseason
MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
New York Yankees New York Yankees Los Angeles Dodgers New York Yankees New York Yankees Philadelphia Phillies

Here we go. The Yankees had the best record in baseball, and won the World Series. Another team did this in a tie -- twice, actually -- but the Yankees are the only team in the past 11 seasons to be the sole best team in baseball both in terms of regular-season performance and in terms of postseason hardware. #re2pect #r13spect

The 2008 Regular Season / Postseason
MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Angels Chicago Cubs Philadelphia Phillies Tampa Bay Rays Philadelphia Phillies

Hrm. This is kind of the exact same thing that happened in 2014. The Angels had the best record in baseball, which they did again this season. The Cubs were kings of the National League -- I know, try not to laugh.

In the end, the ultimate stats vs. not-stats showdown was the World Series matchup between the Rays and Phillies. The Phillies, by the way, had four straight seasons where they either won the NLCS or had the best record in baseball -- a pretty impressive run of dominance, if you ask me.

The 2007 Regular Season / Postseason
MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
Red Sox / Indians Red Sox / Indians Arizona Diamondbacks Boston Red Sox Boston Red Sox Colorado Rockies

As the regular-season went on, both the Red Sox and the Indians were equals at the top of the wins leaderboard. However, as the playoffs rolled on, the Red Sox moved past the Indians and became one of the two teams (along with the Yankees) to win the Season Championship and the World Series.

This is the first, and only, time that the Diamondbacks and Rockies show up during the 11-year period. These four teams ... the Sox, Indians, Diamondbacks, and Rockies all played in the LCS that year.

The 2006 Regular Season / Postseason
MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
Yankees / Mets New York Yankees New York Mets St. Louis Cardinals Detroit Tigers St. Louis Cardinals

I really, really don't want to talk about the 2006 postseason*, but I guess I have to. The Mets were the best team in the National League, but the Cardinals rushed to the World Series win despite that less-than-optimal regular-season record. This was also the first of the recent seasons where the Tigers made it to the ALCS despite not being the "best" regular-season squad in the AL.

* - Note: I am still angry with Adam Wainwright.

The 2005 Regular Season / Postseason
MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
St. Louis Cardinals Chicago White Sox St. Louis Cardinals Chicago White Sox Chicago White Sox Houston Astros

The 2004 Regular Season / Postseason
MLB Season Champion AL Season Champion NL Season Champion World Series Champion ALCS Winner NLCS Winner
St. Louis Cardinals New York Yankees St. Louis Cardinals Boston Red Sox Boston Red Sox St. Louis Cardinals

In 2004, the Yankees were the best team in the American League, and we all know what happened in the legendary 2004 ALCS. Boston broke the curse, and put aside the regular-season champs. Meanwhile, the Cardinals ran the table until they hit the World Series.

In 2005, the Cardinals were -- again -- the best team in baseball during the regular season. However, the White Sox, -- the best team in the AL -- were the ones able to roll the rest of the league in the playoffs.

And that takes us all the way back to 2004. So, over the past eleven seasons ...

  • Only six of the 22 teams who had the best record in their respective league also won the pennant.
  • Only three of the 11 teams who had the best record in baseball won the World Series ... and the two instances in which the Red Sox won the Series with the best record ('07 and '13), they tied with another team for the best record in baseball.
  • The teams with the most combined success, both in regular-season and postseason terms, are probably the Cardinals (five NL "championships", five league-wide "championships"), the Red Sox (five AL "championships" five league-wide "championships"), the Yankees (six AL "championships", three league-wide "championships"), and the Phillies (four NL "championships", three league-wide "championships").

For a minute, let's look at the Cardinals over the past 11 years.

'04: MLB Season Champ, NL Season Champ, NLCS Winner

'05: MLB Season Champ, NL Season Champ

'06: NLCS Winner, World Series Winner

'11: NLCS WInner, World Series Winner

'13: MLB Season Champ (tie), NL Season Champ, NLCS Winner

'14: still in it for the NLCS and World Series

No other team has shown up on the list as many times as the Cardinals over the past 11 seasons. When you factor in their skill during the regular season in addition to their postseason prowess, I'm not sure any team has been quite as successful in the past decade as the Cardinals.

I guess that's the point here. While flags fly forever and we tend to focus on our pennant and -- especially -- our World Series winners, it's worth our time and effort to reward the regular-season winners too. We have a weird, not-entirely-sane focus on the regular season when we discuss career numbers. For example, everyone talks about Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's record of 714 homers. But Babe Ruth didn't hit 714 homers. He hit 729 -- hitting 15 in games that counted more than any other: postseason games. (Aaron hit six in the postseason. Bonds hit nine.)

There's a weird thing that we all tend to do: we pick and choose which numbers mean what when. Regular-season numbers are the ones that count when tallying career achievements for teams, but regular-season wins (or even Pythagorean wins) don't seem to matter much when discussing how great a season a team had.

All I'm saying is this: there's more room for us to celebrate a team's regular-season success, especially when so much of baseball is played on the margins. The longer of a sample we have the better chance we have to filter out luck and find true talent levels. Celebrating a team's regular-season achievements with a trophy or at least a few words down the line is better than just relegating them to the back fields of history.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.