Onwards and upwards

I’ve said it elsewhere, but it bears repeating. The team that wins the world series is not always the best team in baseball. In fact, it very rarely is. As shown in that amazing graphic, the team with the best record in baseball has won the world championship just twice since the introduction of the wild card–the 1998 Yankees and the 2007 Red Sox. You have to be good to get to the rodeo, but you have to be some combination of good and lucky to win it. The Yankees teams of the 40s and 50s? They had a full season to punch their ticket to the world series, whereas now teams have to both get to the playoffs, and then win two individual series.

To make this clearer, note that the best teams in baseball win about 60% of the time, and the worst teams win about 40%. If you model that out, it comes out that the best team in baseball will win a best of five series against the worst team in baseball 68% of the time. A full 32% of the time, the worst team in the league will win against the best! The odds improve a bit in a best of seven series–but not as much as could be hoped (71% to 29%).

One step further, that means that entering the current playoff structure, if the Nationals were introduced into the picture, they would win the world series 2.7% of the time. That’s a small number, no doubt, but wouldn’t you hope that the number would be a lot closer to 0%?

So, when you listen to Yogi joking with Jeter about not being able to win five world series in a row, just to be clear, that got a whole lot harder to do (several magnitudes) when the playoff process expanded into its current binary three round structure.

But enough with looking back, let’s take a crack at the current team.

The pitching has been very good–the Yankees starting ERA ranks 4th in the AL; their FIP 3rd. The bullpen has been a bit suspect, with a number of notable failures being shipped out–the current plan includes Mo, Hughes, Robertson, Aceves and (hopefully not much of) Coke, along with assorted detritus such as Bruney, Marte and Melancon who shouldn’t get a lot of innings in October.

The defense is also a bit improved from last year, mostly on the shoulders of Jeter’s incredible defensive surge and the difference between Mark Teixeira and the big G (though Damon and A-Rod have both been significant negative contributers).

The offense, however, has been historically good. In wOBA terms, no team in the current millenium has equalled their current mark of .367. That means that the average player on the Yankees (including plenty of plate appearances from Cody Ransom, Angel Berroa, Jose Molina and assorted youngsters) is offensively equivalent to Ichiro Suzuki, David Wright and Adam LaRoche, the only three players currently wOBA’ing .367. Moreover, that dominance isn’t limited to a few special players–the Yankees have 7 players with 20 or more HR (and Jeter’s not far off the mark, either). If Damon and Swisher notch one RBI each in this series, the Yankees will have seven players with at least 80 RBI. Four have scored 100 runs. Five players have double digit steals (and Jeter has 30!) and their collective success rate of 81% ranks 3rd in the majors.

The 1998 Yankees is still the best overall Yankees team in recent memory. But offensively, the 2009 Yankees are the best MLB team in at least a decade, and that’s pretty special. Looks like we’ll continue to be spoiled for at least a little while longer.