Can We Play NBA Jam … With MLB Teams?

It takes an entire 25-man roster to make a winning baseball team — just ask the defending-champion Boston Red Sox. Sure, Boston had plenty of top-line talent at its disposal, but it also got key playoff contributions from the likes of Steve Pearce and Nathan Eovaldi, neither of whom was especially heralded when the Red Sox picked them up in midseason deals. Postseason history is littered with similarly unsung heroes from down the roster who step up in big moments.

But what if teams didn’t need to rely on all of those non-star contributions? Instead, we want to find the opposite: teams that are too top-heavy, with lots of star power but few quality role players to help fill out the rest of the roster. These are teams who lack for diamonds in the rough — though the stars sure do shine brightly.

For instance, if there was an NBA Jam for baseball, where teams could only use two players (let’s say a pitcher and a hitter), which club would come out on top? Here are the best team hitter-pitcher tandems in MLB this season,1 according to the sum of the wins above replacement2 per 162 games across both players:

Major League Baseball’s most dynamic duos of 2019

MLB teams with the best combination of a top hitter and top pitcher, according to the sum of both players’ WAR per 162 games

Rk Team Top Batter (WAR/162) Top Pitcher (WAR/162) Sum
1 Dodgers Cody Bellinger 10.1 Hyun-Jin Ryu 6.1 16.2
2 Nationals Anthony Rendon 5.9 Max Scherzer 9.0 14.9
3 Brewers Christian Yelich 9.3 Brandon Woodruff 4.3 13.6
4 Diamondbacks Ketel Marte 7.4 Zack Greinke 5.6 13.1
5 Angels Mike Trout 10.5 Ty Buttrey 2.6 13.1
6 Astros Alex Bregman 7.0 Gerrit Cole 5.9 12.9
7 Rangers Joey Gallo 5.1 Lance Lynn 7.6 12.6
8 Mets Pete Alonso 6.1 Jacob deGrom 5.7 11.8
9 White Sox Yoan Moncada 5.2 Lucas Giolito 6.2 11.3
10 Athletics Matt Chapman 7.3 Frankie Montas 4.0 11.3
11 Twins Jorge Polanco 6.7 Jose Berrios 4.6 11.3
12 Red Sox Xander Bogaerts 6.7 Chris Sale 4.3 11.0
13 Cubs Kris Bryant 6.3 Cole Hamels 4.4 10.7
14 Rockies Trevor Story 6.0 Jon Gray 4.6 10.7
15 Braves Ronald Acuna Jr. 5.8 Mike Soroka 4.7 10.5
16 Rays Brandon Lowe 4.2 Charlie Morton 5.8 10.0
17 Yankees DJ LeMahieu 6.7 Masahiro Tanaka 3.1 9.8
18 Indians Carlos Santana 4.9 Shane Bieber 4.6 9.5
19 Padres Fernando Tatis Jr. 5.5 Kirby Yates 4.0 9.5
20 Reds Eugenio Suarez 3.1 Luis Castillo 5.4 8.6
21 Phillies J.T. Realmuto 4.1 Aaron Nola 3.8 7.9
22 Blue Jays Eric Sogard 3.2 Marcus Stroman 4.3 7.6
23 Tigers Nicholas Castellanos 2.4 Matthew Boyd 5.1 7.5
24 Pirates Josh Bell 4.1 Joe Musgrove 3.1 7.2
25 Royals Whit Merrifield 4.5 Brad Keller 2.6 7.1
26 Orioles Trey Mancini 2.7 John Means 4.3 7.0
27 Cardinals Paul DeJong 4.4 Jack Flaherty 2.2 6.6
28 Marlins Miguel Rojas 3.2 Caleb Smith 2.9 6.0
29 Mariners Edwin Encarnacion* 2.9 Marco Gonzales 3.0 5.9
30 Giants Evan Longoria 2.5 Madison Bumgarner 3.1 5.6

* Player is no longer with club. Data through July 23.

WAR is based on JEFFBAGWELL — the Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists.

Source: FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com

In terms of two-man teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ combination of Cody Bellinger (10.1 WAR per 162) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (6.1) is easily the best in baseball this year. The former is having one of the best seasons in baseball history, and the latter has been the surprising pillar of one of baseball’s best rotations. Bellinger’s ability to play three outfield positions plus first base also helps in this hypothetical universe where he has to field all of the balls hitters put in play against Ryu. (In related news, no, I didn’t completely think through the mechanics of how MLB Jam would work.)

Of course, the Dodgers are also arguably baseball’s best team in the real world. So that doesn’t do us much good here; we are, after all, looking for the teams whose fortunes would change the most depending on whether we look at their stars or the entire team. To that end, let’s break down the teams with the biggest differences in WAR ranking between their top hitter-pitcher duo and their full roster.

According to that method, the team that would most benefit from an MLB Jam-style roster construction is the Chicago White Sox, whose top pairing of pitcher Lucas Giolito (6.2 WAR/162) and third baseman Yoan Moncada (5.2) is ninth among pitcher-batter combos. That placement for Giolito and Moncada is much higher than the White Sox’s overall team ranking in WAR (No. 26), making them baseball’s top-heaviest team in terms of leading twosomes. The Pale Hose edge out the Texas Rangers, whose top combo of pitcher Lance Lynn (7.6) and Joey Gallo (5.1) ranks seventh in MLB despite the team sitting only 15th in WAR overall.

The Tampa Bay Rays, meanwhile, are on the opposite end of the spectrum to the White Sox and Rangers. Their leading duo of pitcher Charlie Morton (5.8 WAR/162) and second baseman Brandon Lowe (4.2) ranks just 16th among MLB’s top 1-2 hitter-pitcher punches, but Tampa as a whole is fourth in WAR on the basis of its impressive depth. Eleven different Rays are on pace for at least 2.0 WAR — the mark of a solid season — and, perhaps more importantly, only 10 Rays have 0.0 WAR or fewer (which is tied for the fewest of any team). Although Tampa Bay lacks star power, it has been able to build its 47 percent playoff probability by avoiding what Jay Jaffe calls “replacement-level killers”: players who produce little or no value in substantial playing time.

Expanding the scope to the top five players on each team — and now looking at the ranking irrespective of positions — the Colorado Rockies emerge as another markedly top-heavy team. Colorado has four players on pace for at least 4.0 WAR — shortstop Trevor Story (6.0), third baseman Nolan Arenado (5.2), and pitchers German Marquez (4.7) and Jon Gray (4.0) — which helps to drive a top five tally that ranks 14th in the league. However, the Rockies also have 22 players producing at or below the replacement level. Several of those players were expected to have much better seasons (most notably Kyle Freeland and Daniel Murphy), but their actual performances have left Colorado ranking 22nd overall in spite of its productive core.

A similar top-heavy split applies to the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals. Milwaukee‘s top five is led by reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich (9.3 WAR/162) and rounded out by Brandon Woodruff (5.0), Mike Moustakas (4.6), Yasmani Grandal (4.3) and ghost-ball master Josh Hader (2.8). Given that group, it would seem impossible that the Brewers are merely an average team (14th in MLB) according to overall WAR. Milwaukee’s problem isn’t even that the team uses a ton of replacement-level scrubs — it’s just that the Brewers lack solid role players beyond their top handful of stars. (In no small part due to down years from Lorenzo Cain, Jesus Aguilar, Jhoulys Chacin and Travis Shaw.)

The Nationals are in a comparable situation. In terms of star-level production, you’d take Washington’s top-line group — Max Scherzer (9.0 WAR/162), Stephen Strasburg (6.8), Anthony Rendon (5.9), Patrick Corbin (5.1) and Juan Soto (3.6) — against just about anybody’s in baseball. By WAR, only the Dodgers have a better top five than the Nats, and only the Dodgers and Houston Astros have a better top 10. Yet Washington only ranks 10th in total WAR because the supporting cast has largely failed to meet expectations. (Trea Turner counts among that group, though his recent hot streak — highlighted by hitting for the cycle Tuesday — could at least signal another top performer reemerging in Washington’s galaxy of stars.)

Finally, you have the New York Yankees who, like the Rays, consistently show up as a better overall team than their top performers would indicate. For instance, New York leaders DJ LeMahieu (6.7 WAR/162) and Aaron Judge (4.2) only rank 15th in tandem WAR — and the team’s top 10 also ranks just 15th — despite the Yankees ranking fifth in overall WAR. Some of that is a bit misleading because of the Yankees’ injury problems: Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks and Miguel Andujar have all missed significant playing time this year, among others. But it also speaks to how deep the Yankees’ roster truly is, with lesser-known contributors such as Luke Voit, Mike Tauchman and Gio Urshela keeping the team afloat in the face of so many star absences.

If you had the choice, clearly it’s ideal to be a team like the Dodgers, who have the best star power and the best supporting cast. But teams like the Rays and Yankees prove that a deep stable of contributors can outperform more star-powered teams such as the Nationals, Brewers, Rockies, White Sox and Rangers — even if the latter group of teams would be a lot better if we could just play baseball using “NBA Jam” rules.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

The Teams That Should Be Buying And Selling At This Year’s Baseball Trade Deadline

Major-league teams are on the clock and must decide whether they want to buy or sell — and this decision comes with perhaps more urgency than in any previous July. MLB’s annual trade deadline is one week away, and the deadline carries a new sense of finality this season, as baseball eliminated August waiver trades in favor of a single July 31 cutoff for deals. Although the early read on the market has been one of uncertainty, at the very least we should see an intriguing chess match develop between rival general managers in the leadup to next Wednesday afternoon.

Granted, we don’t exactly know how those GMs will react to the compressed timeline when making deals this year. But here at FiveThirtyEight, we do have a tool to help assist with the overall deadline decision-making process: the Doyle Number. (So named for an infamous 1987 Detroit Tigers deadline trade when they shipped future Hall of Famer John Smoltz to Atlanta for pitcher Doyle Alexander.) Basically, Doyle measures the amount of future talent (i.e., total projected wins above replacement added over the next six seasons) a team should be willing to give up — in the form of prospects or other team-controlled assets — in exchange for adding an extra WAR of rental talent in 2019, with the goal of maximizing its total expected championships in both the short and long term.

In other words, Doyle is all about the tradeoff between how adding talent improves a buyer’s present-day championship odds and reduces those odds in the future.1 So when we say the Los Angeles Dodgers have a Doyle Number of 2.17, it means they should be willing to sacrifice 2.17 future WAR in exchange for every WAR of talent they add at the 2019 deadline. (This is a textbook definition of a buyer; the Dodgers’ Doyle Number is the highest in baseball.) Meanwhile, the lowly Tigers are clear sellers: They have a Doyle of 0.00, meaning there is literally no amount of rental talent they could add this season that would justify giving up any future WAR.2

Those are the easy cases. A team with a Doyle Number around 1.00 has a tougher choice, and would essentially be equally served by either buying or selling, depending on the particulars of a given trade. Here are the Doyle Numbers for each of 2019’s MLB teams, taking into account games played through July 22:

Who are 2019′s trade-deadline buyers and sellers?

Postseason chances (according to the FiveThirtyEight prediction model) and Doyle Numbers* for 2019 MLB teams

ODDS FOR… ODDS FOR…
TEAM PLAYOFFS WIN WS DOYLE TEAM PLAYOFFS WIN WS DOYLE
Dodgers >99% 26% 2.17 Angels 5% <1% 0.16
Yankees >99 19 2.16 Giants 8 <1 0.13
Astros >99 17 2.09 Rockies 5 <1 0.07
Twins 94 6 1.70 Reds 5 <1 0.06
Braves 96 6 1.64 Pirates 5 <1 0.06
Indians 70 4 1.48 Padres 2 <1 0.04
Cubs 63 4 1.34 Mets 4 <1 0.03
Athletics 49 3 0.95 Rangers <1 <1 0.03
Nationals 62 3 0.92 White Sox <1 <1 0.00
Cardinals 44 3 0.86 Blue Jays <1 <1 0.00
Red Sox 35 2 0.76 Mariners <1 <1 0.00
Rays 48 2 0.75 Royals <1 <1 0.00
Brewers 40 2 0.73 Marlins <1 <1 0.00
Phillies 35 1 0.48 Orioles <1 <1 0.00
Diamondbacks 31 1 0.31 Tigers <1 <1 0.00

*The Doyle Number represents how many wins of future talent a team should trade away now for one extra win of talent in 2019.

Playoff and World Series odds are as of July 22.

Source: FanGraphs

One of the key lessons from Doyle is that the best candidates to buy at the deadline aren’t the ones that conventional wisdom might suggest. Instead of teams that are on the cusp of the playoffs, the most committed buyers ought to be teams whose playoff odds are already solidified — but whose World Series chances could get a big boost with a few important additions. This is a consequence of how talent relates to winning championships in baseball: Because even the best teams usually only have a 15 to 25 percent chance at the title, a mega-talented roster can still get a sizable increase in World Series odds by adding extra star power. As long as it doesn’t create too many positional logjams (and even those can be worked around), there are effectively no diminishing returns between your team’s talent and its odds of holding a parade in November.

Of course, you also have to possess prospects that will convince sellers to part with veteran talent. Among the teams with the highest Doyle numbers, the best farm systems belong to the Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, Dodgers and — to a lesser extent — Cleveland Indians, according to FanGraphs’ estimates of total farm-system value. (The Tampa Bay Rays also have an incredible amount of prospect talent in their pipeline, though their Doyle of 0.75 suggests a slight preference towards selling, not buying, despite the team’s position in the thick of the American League Wild Card race.)

Houston and Minnesota are in particular need of pitching, in a year when the most desirable trade targets are disproportionately pitchers. So if the Astros deal for, say, Texas Rangers starter Mike Minor (whose long-term track record is that of about a 5-WAR pitcher3 per 162 games), Doyle says the Astros should be willing to part with as many as 12 wins of future talent to add Minor’s five wins to their current talent level. Each amount — five wins now or 12 over the next six seasons — is worth about 0.071 expected championships added.

Not every team has such a stark split between the importance of present wins and future ones. The Washington Nationals, for instance, are one of the teams whose Doyle is currently closest to 1.00, the point of true indifference between buying and selling. They could buy 5 WAR of current talent and have it be worth the equivalent of 1.3 additional WAR in the future, so it would still make sense in terms of balancing expected championships. But they could also sell 5 WAR of current talent, and get back the equivalent of 2.3 extra future WAR if we again assume the championship odds are balanced. This is a delicate situation, although it also can give a team many options in the trade marketplace. Here are all of the 2019 teams who could either add or subtract players — in increments of either 2 WAR (a solid regular starter, per Baseball-Reference’s WAR guide), 5 WAR (an All-Star level player) or 8 WAR (an MVP-level player) of present-day talent — and still potentially create a surplus in total wins after balancing the championship odds:

Time to switch up the roster

After adjusting for the effect on championship odds, net equivalent wins gained if a team buys or sells 2, 5 or 8 WAR at the trade deadline for teams on the buy/sell fence

Net WINS FOR TALENT SOLD Net wins FOR TALENT BOUGHT
Team Doyle 8 WAR 5 WAR 2 WAR 2 WAR 5 WAR 8 WAR
Cubs 1.34 +1.0 -0.2 -0.3 +1.0 +3.7 +8.4
Athletics 0.95 +5.4 +2.1 +0.4 +0.1 +1.4 +4.3
Nationals 0.92 +5.8 +2.3 +0.4 +0.1 +1.3 +4.1
Cardinals 0.86 +7.1 +2.9 +0.6 +0.0 +0.9 +3.6
Red Sox 0.76 +8.8 +3.8 +1.0 -0.3 +0.2 +2.1
Rays 0.75 +9.4 +4.1 +1.0 -0.3 +0.2 +2.1
Brewers 0.73 +10.1 +4.4 +1.1 -0.3 +0.1 +2.1

The Doyle Number represents how many wins of future talent a team should trade away now for one extra win of talent in 2019.

Source: FanGraphs

When it comes to teams on the buy/sell fence, the details of their trade options are important. The Milwaukee Brewers — who have just 84 wins of talent on their roster, a 40 percent chance of making the playoffs and 2 percent World Series odds — could only get a big surplus from buying if they were to somehow land an MVP-caliber player4; otherwise, they’d get a lot more out of just selling assets and reloading for the future. By contrast, the Chicago Cubs would only make sense as sellers if they blew up everything and got a massive haul of prospect value back in return. But the Oakland A’s, St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox, in addition to the Nationals, could benefit from either buying or selling, as long as they commit to a strategy.5 In fact, for all of these teams, some kind of activity at the deadline is better than standing pat and doing nothing.

A few interesting teams are not on that list of on-the-fence clubs. The San Francisco Giants have played themselves into the larger deadline conversation in the media, thanks to a recent stretch of surprisingly good play (they’re 15-3 in July). But Doyle says holding onto rumored trade candidate Madison Bumgarner would be a big mistake. With 77 wins of underlying talent (according to Elo) and a still-slim 8 percent playoff probability, even a massive 10-WAR improvement in current talent (think trading for Mike Trout) would result in a net long-term loss of expected championships if bought at a fair price.6 Just let the dynasty end already!

Likewise, the Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks — all teams with .500 records or better — are logical candidates to make a deadline push based on traditional baseball thinking. But similar to San Francisco, Doyle sees the Rangers as a team with 75-win talent who has overachieved to its current record and, trailing three division rivals in the standings, possess less than a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs. With attractive trade assets such as Minor and fellow starter Lance Lynn potentially on the block, Texas would be well served to sell. Philadelphia and Arizona have better talent than the Rangers, but neither has much chance of winning their respective divisions, so the wild-card game appears to be each team’s ceiling. Doyle explicitly accounts for how much that fact slices into a team’s World Series odds, which helps explain why each team has a Doyle Number under 0.50. (Then again, I would have considered the Phillies a good candidate to buy a month ago, so these things can change quickly.)

Whatever happens over the next week, it should be fascinating to watch teams react to the finality of this year’s deadline. Even before the new hard July 31 cutoff, deadline activity has been increasing in the past few seasons anyway, and recent history tells us the deals made now could have a significant effect in the postseason. While there aren’t as many massive rental-candidate stars on the market as last year — maybe Arizona’s Zack Greinke qualifies? — the added sense of urgency could keep things interesting, whether teams follow Doyle’s advice or not.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

During Slow Offseasons, The Brewers Keep Finding Deals

The Milwaukee Brewers took advantage of an ice-cold hot-stove season last winter to become the rare team to win in the offseason and in the regular season. By agreeing Wednesday night with free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal on a one-year, $18.25 million deal, the Brewers again took advantage of an opportunity to find tremendous value. As most teams zig in another slow offseason, the Brewers, again, zag.

While Grandal didn’t have a great postseason with the Dodgers last fall, he was one of the best players available on the free-agent market. According to the Baseball Prospectus version of wins above replacement, which includes a catcher’s pitch-framing ability, Grandal was the 14th most valuable position player in baseball last season (5.0 WAR) and the eighth most valuable player per plate appearance (5.8 WAR per 600 plate appearances) among qualified hitters.

That was not a fluke.

In terms of total value, Grandal was the No. 1 position player by WAR per plate appearance in 2016 (8.7 WAR per 600 plate appearances), and he ranked seventh in 2017. Over the past four seasons, he was worth 21.2 total WAR. That’s star-level production. He turned 30 in November, so he’s not ancient in baseball terms. But despite all this going for him, Grandal settled for a one-year deal.

The switch-hitter offers rare power and patience at the catcher position. Over the past four seasons, his walk rate of 12.8 percent ranks 19th among all MLB batters. His .453 slugging mark ranks third among all qualified catchers, and his 116 weighted runs created plus, a measure of offensive ability that adjusts for park and run-scoring environments,1 trails only Gary Sanchez and Buster Posey.

Not only is Grandal’s offense rare at his position, but his ability to frame pitches — to get more borderline pitches called favorably — gives him tremendous value at the plate and behind it.

Grandal led all catchers in framing runs last season (15.7 runs saved above average). He ranked fourth in 2017 and second in 2016. Even as catchers as a group have improved their ability to receive or frame pitches, raising the floor of the skill, Grandal has maintained his edge. By runs saved, framing is more valuable than blocking balls in the dirt, an area in which Grandal is not as adept.

Consider the following visual evidence of Grandal’s magic behind the plate last season. As a Clayton Kershaw slider darted slightly outside the strike zone, Grandal’s glove moved it back to within the confines of the zone. A pitch that should have been called a ball then appeared to be a strike.

Grandal managed to softly absorb this high-and-away Kershaw fastball and make it appear to finish as a strike. It’s a subtle but valuable skill.

Grandal was attached to a qualifying offer, meaning that the team signing him would have to surrender draft-pick compensation. As a revenue-sharing recipient, the Brewers will surrender their third-highest pick in the draft. The qualifying offer slightly diminished Grandal’s value, but qualifying offers are far from the only — and far from the greatest — issue conspiring against free agents. Even after last winter’s lack of free-agent activity, Grandal likely expected that he would be able to do much better than the deal he got. He not only turned down the Los Angeles Dodgers’ qualifying offer earlier in the offseason, but he also reportedly rejected a four-year, $60 million offer from the New York Mets.

Instead, Grandal becomes the latest free agent to receive far fewer dollars and years than he had initially sought.

The average salary in baseball declined last year for just the fourth time in the past 50 years and the first time since 2004, according to the Associated Press.

Through Wednesday, the 73rd day of this offseason, 10.2 percent of available free agents2 had signed for a total of $856.2 million, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of data from The Baseball Cube. While that’s an improvement over the same point of last offseason, when only 6.5 percent of free agents had signed for $550.5 million, the total dollars spent to date are still down from 2016-17 ($1.017 billion through Day 73), 2015-16 ($1.697 billion), 2014-15 ($1.308 billion) and 2013-14 ($1.452 billion).

And the share of free agents signed is trending above the past two offseasons, but it’s still trailing the previous three:

As the free agency landscape changes, some teams seem to be looking for openings to give them an edge. Grandal has been the Brewers’ only guaranteed free-agent signing so far,3 but it’s a significant addition in their quest to repeat as National League Central champs.

Sara Ziegler contributed research.