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.

Why Is Bryce Harper’s Old Team Ahead Of Bryce Harper’s New Team?

For seven years, Bryce Harper was an integral part of the Washington Nationals both on and off the field. Harper remains the team’s fourth-best player by wins above replacement5 since the franchise moved from Montreal to Washington in 2005, trailing only Ryan Zimmerman, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. In 2015, he had one of the all-time great individual seasons by a batter, notching 9.7 WAR. At the same time, Harper was the face of the franchise in the press and probably the most famous player in baseball. When it became clear that Harper was leaving D.C. last winter, it looked like Washington had a huge void to fill — a concern only exacerbated when Harper went to the division-rival Philadelphia Phillies in a record-setting deal.

And yet, more than halfway into the Nationals’ first post-Bryce season, they appear to be just fine. While the Atlanta Braves are very likely to win the National League East, Washington is on track to snag the NL’s top wild card slot with 87 projected wins (according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast) and a 66 percent playoff probability. The Phillies, meanwhile, are only tracking for 83 wins and have just a 31 percent chance at the postseason. How is it possible that Harper’s old team has not only survived without him, but outperformed his new team up the Northeast Corridor?

For one thing, Washington always had a very underrated core outside of Harper — starting with future Hall of Fame pitcher Max Scherzer, who currently leads the major leagues in pitching WAR6 after finishing second in each of the previous two seasons. Scherzer began 2019 somewhat slow, but he’s been building a truly dominant campaign ever since; his fielding-independent pitching of 2.02 is 54 percent better than the MLB average and his strikeout rate of 12.6 per nine innings is one of the best in baseball history. If Scherzer maintains his current pace for a 9.6-WAR season — once he returns from injury — he would have the majors’ best pitching season since Randy Johnson in 2001 (and one of the 40 best of all-time).

Scherzer isn’t Washington’s only stellar starter, either. Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are on pace for 5.8 and 5.3 WAR, respectively, helping make the Nationals’ rotation the most valuable collection of starting pitchers in baseball this season. Add in a strong group of position players — including veterans such as Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick, plus up-and-comers like 20-year-old phenom Juan Soto (whose late home run stunned the Phillies in a Nationals win last week) and rookie Victor Robles — and the talent cupboard was far from bare in D.C. despite Harper’s exit.

Not everything is going perfectly right for the Harper-less Nats, of course: 26-year-old shortstop Trea Turner, who played like an All-Star (4.4 WAR) last season, is having a down year due to an early season injury and poor performance on defense. (Blending together the defensive metrics from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, Turner grades out as -9.2 runs worse than an average shortstop this season, after being basically average over the previous two years.)7 Outfielder Adam Eaton has been mediocre at the plate (.752 on-base plus slugging), and veteran second baseman Brian Dozier, who signed with Washington in the offseason, is hitting .231 and appears to be well past his prime. The team’s defense remains a weakness, and its bullpen has been very shaky (24th in relief WAR) beyond closer Sean Doolittle.

But all told, the Nationals have only suffered slightly on offense — their hitting WAR has gone from ninth last year to 13th this year — without Harper’s presence at the plate, and they’ve actually improved their leaguewide ranking in overall WAR from 11th with him in 2018 to 10th without him in 2019:

If the talent surrounding Harper in Washington was always underrated because of the gravitational pull of his star power, Harper’s own impact was probably always a bit overstated. That isn’t to say Harper is not a very good player; at age 26, he has already been roughly as good in his career as, say, Harold Baines (who at least some people thought should be in the Hall of Fame). But as my colleague Travis Sawchik and I wrote in March, Harper is also a flawed superstar — and he has played almost precisely to that form this season.

Looking at his previous three seasons, a reasonable expected baseline for Harper’s 2019 value for Philadelphia could have been set at about 3.1 WAR — three times his WAR from 2018 (2.4), plus two times his WAR from 2017 (4.7), plus his WAR from 2016 (2.2), divided by six. And lo and behold, if you prorate Harper’s current output (1.9 WAR in 95 games) to a full season, it comes out to … 3.2 WAR. Although there is a growing feeling among some Phillies observers that Harper’s Delaware Valley debut has been a disappointment, he has performed almost exactly how you might have predicted.

The only letdown might be this: Harper’s monster 2015 season did still imply some probability of an MVP-caliber performance — moreso than from the typical 26-year-old who’d had 9.3 WAR over his previous three seasons. So 2019 appears to be another season of Harper not converting what small chance there was of him ever reaching that hyper-productive ceiling again.

Harper’s path to that 3.2-WAR pace has been slightly different than usual. His strikeout rate continues to climb (somehow much faster than the MLB-wide rate), from 18.7 percent of plate appearances in 2016 to 26.2 percent so far in 2019, and his isolated power (.220) is the lowest it’s been in three seasons. Harper’s walk rate, which ballooned to 18.7 percent last season, is back down to 15 percent — more in line with his career rate of 14.8 percent. But his StatCast batting metrics have stayed relatively steady; his average exit velocity is actually up from MLB’s 82nd percentile to its 90th. Harper’s OPS has dropped from .889 to .845 on the season, thanks in large part to the decline in plate discipline, but he’s also hitting the ball just about as hard as ever. (He’s also heating up in July, with a .885 OPS this month, so we’ll have to keep an eye on Harper for a potential second-half surge.)

The best sign for Harper might be that his defense — which was conspicuously bad last season according to the advanced metrics — is back to being solid. Again averaging together the fielding values at FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, Harper was 20.2 runs worse than average while playing mostly right field last season. That number was way out of step with his previous track record (4.3 runs above average over the previous two seasons) and easy to identify as a place for positive reversion to the mean in 2019. So sure enough, Harper has been 4.7 runs better than the average right fielder this season, which is enough to offset his OPS drop and leave him on pace for slightly more WAR in 2019 than in 2018.

Despite playing almost precisely to expectations, Harper is still just the fourth-best player on the Phillies, however, behind catcher J.T. Realmuto, first baseman Rhys Hoskins and pitcher Aaron Nola. (Shortstop Jean Segura and surging jack-of-all-trades Scott Kingery aren’t too far behind, either.) Philadelphia also has had its share of legitimately disappointing players, from starters Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez to outfielder Odubel Herrera (who was suspended for the season for domestic assault earlier this month), while injuries have largely robbed Philly of expected contributions from relievers David Robertson, Pat Neshek and Seranthony Dominguez.

The Phillies started the season with more (healthy) talent on paper than its current 83-win trajectory would suggest. But not by much. Harper’s fame always made his departure from Washington — and arrival in Philadelphia — feel more consequential than it actually was. The Nationals have survived without their erstwhile star because they made years of shrewd decisions filling out the roster around him. The Phillies have held steady this season8 in part because of bad injury luck and other underwhelming performances — but Harper can’t be included in that group, even if he isn’t playing to his ceiling. He’s been about as good as usual, and that was neither enough to tank Washington’s season in absentia or save Philadelphia’s by addition.

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