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Examining the 2015 Diamondbacks' surprisingly rare feat

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The 2015 Diamondbacks featured two players who produced at least six and a half wins, and won only 79 games - how unusual is that?

Paul Goldschmidt produced 7.4 fWAR in 2015, while A.J. Pollock produced 6.6 fWAR.
Paul Goldschmidt produced 7.4 fWAR in 2015, while A.J. Pollock produced 6.6 fWAR.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Despite only winning 79 games, the Arizona Diamondbacks exceeded expectations in 2015. While largely retaining the same roster as their first-overall-pick earning 2014 squad, and seeing their lone major off-season signing earn -1.3 fWAR in his Major League debut, the team added 16 games to the win column.

The team gave playing time to young players acquired through prudent trades, has Dansby Swanson in the pipeline, only $25.33 million committed to 2016 payroll, and under-performed their Pythagorean Win-Loss total by three games. Add in some interesting high-minors arms, and some hard-throwers in the Majors, and the Diamondbacks might be surprisingly relevant in 2016.

However, I noticed something a bit peculiar on Arizona's 2015 team page on Baseball Reference. For a team that ended up below .500, it seemed a bit unusual to still have two different players (first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and center fielder A.J. Pollock) worth 8.8 and 7.4 WAR. That's a massive amount of production out of only two roster spots, earning $3.6 million - how does a team with that much of a head start still end up in the red?

FanGraphs likes each player a bit less than rWAR, to the tune of 7.4 fWAR for Goldschmidt and 6.6 fWAR for Pollock, but fundamentally the question still stands. Without getting too far into the Diamondbacks situation in particular, I was curious about how frequently teams could have two players worthy of down-ballot MVP votes, while still not getting close to a playoff spot.

I decided to examine how often teams have more than one player (hitting or pitching) that produces at least 6.5 fWAR in a single season, and how often those teams were still bad. FanGraphs' custom leader-boards seemed to be the simplest and most straight forward way to tackle this question, and all of my data come from the four queries below.

It turns out that since 1969, 405 of 1288 individual team seasons (31.4%) have featured at least one 6.5 fWAR (or better) player. That figure drops to exactly 75 instances (5.8%) where a team has multiple players of that caliber. Sorting those 75 cases by overall winning percentage, we can see where the 2015 Diamondbacks rank among these teams.

Win % Pyth %
1 2001 Rockies 0.451 0.509
2 1998 Phillies 0.463 0.443
3 1998 Mariners 0.472 0.502
4 1992 Cubs 0.481 0.477
5 1987 Red Sox 0.481 0.509
6 1984 Expos 0.484 0.506
t-7 2015 Diamondbacks 0.488 0.504
t-7 1971 White Sox 0.488 0.515
9 1996 Marlins 0.494 0.490
10 2008 Indians 0.500 0.526
11 1969 Astros 0.500 0.505
12 2000 Angels 0.506 0.497
13 1993 Mariners 0.506 0.502
14 1974 Twins 0.506 0.503
15 2011 Dodgers 0.509 0.523

The 2015 Diamondbacks are tied for 7th since 1969 for the worst winning percentage with two players of MVP vote-caliber on the roster, and the worst since the 2001 Rockies. By Pythagorean winning percentage, the team ranks 8th worst in the same time frame, and the worst since the 2000 Angels.

An interesting trend that appears in the small sample size theater of individual team seasons is the lesser frequency of both (1) seasons where teams feature multiple stars at this level, and (2) instances where such teams are bad. What the Diamondbacks did this season has been at least slightly less frequent since the new Millennium.

Teams w/ Min. One Teams w/ Multiple Under .500 Combined
1969 – 1999 31.8% 6.3% 13.7% 0.9%
2000 – 2015 30.8% 5.0% 8.3% 0.4%
Total 31.4% 5.8% 12.0% 0.7%

Over the last 16 seasons, the rate of 6.5 fWAR players on a single team has dropped slightly overall. It's possible that this roughly one percent dip is completely noise. However, there are a couple potential explanations that I will at least mention.

One could be that it is an illustration of what Stephen Jay Gould referred to when he hypothesized that the disappearance of .400 batting averages in recent decades indicated that the pool of baseball talent was actually improving. Due to advancements in conditioning and understanding of the game, it is possible that slightly fewer players are 6.5 wins better than the replacement level, because the bar for replacement level is moving up. Another reasonable explanation for this might just be that more teams are trading stars mid-season, so good players aren't accruing all of their season's value in any one place.

In total, past decades featured more than double the number of bad teams with multiple MVP-caliber players than in the last 16 seasons. I would guess that the reason for this change is mostly the relatively recent trend of rebuilding and mediocre teams selling off assets for prospects, or at least mid-season trades breaking up a player's production among different teams. This would mean that talent is concentrated among fewer, but better, teams.

I think Arizona's baseball future might be more bright than some will give them credit for. However, their 2015 season features the dubious distinction of being one of a shrinking number of teams to be bad while featuring multiple MVP-caliber players. Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, both of those players are inexpensive, under multiple seasons of team control, and likely to be franchise cornerstones for the years to come.

. . .

Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.