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The Greatest Team of All Time

Applying a defined, logical calculation to a very open question

The 2005 Yankees (NYT)

Greatness is arbitrary. So, when asked which team is the “Greatest Team of All Time”, many different answers will come up, depending on who you ask. The 2001 Mariners were one of the best teams of all time, winning 116 games, but didn’t win a World Series. The Yankees always seem to win a World Series, which one of their teams was the “best”, or the “greatest”?

I decided to modify the usual definition of “greatest” for this, because I think it’s more applicable. Instead of looking for the best team of all time by say WAR, wRC+, wins, or whatever other stat, I asked “which team was the greatest?”. My definition for the greatest team, instead of basing it off of how good the team was that, was how “great” the players on the team were. I want the team with the biggest names, the biggest legacies, and the best careers, not necessarily the team with the best on the field production.

So going back to 1916 (batters faced data available on Fangraphs since then), I looked at every team and every player on those teams, and looked not at their single season fWAR, but at their career WAR. For hitters, I multiplied their career WAR by their PA from that season, added up those values for each on the team, and then divided it by the total number of PA taken by the team that year. I did the same for pitchers, using batters faced instead of PA. It’s weighted, so a Hall of Famer playing a whole season will be much more influential than a couple games from a Hall of Famer.

For reference, think of it like this: if a team has an Offensive Greatness of 30, that means the average plate appearance taken by the team that year was by a player who would finish their career with 30 WAR.

Before you read further, one more thing to further reiterate what I’m going for. Albert Pujols isn’t very good anymore, but in 20 years, it’ll be crazy how at one point the Angels has both Pujols and Trout on the same team at the same time. The team wasn’t necessarily good, but they had legends. They’d likely rate very well in the Greatness category, because of the careers they both had.

Here are the all time team leaders in “Offensive Greatness”:

1933 Yankees (56.9)

1931 Yankees (54.5)

1932 Yankees (53.6)

1930 Yankees (51.1)

2005 Yankees (47.6)

Well, that’s not a lot of variation. Who would’ve thought that a team with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth (among others) would rank so high in this “greatness” metric. The 2005 Yankees, who, I guess are an outlier as they feature neither, had Posada, Cano, Jeter, A-Rod, Matsui, Bernie Williams, Sheffield, and Giambi, all great careers.

Now, for the pitching leaders:

2003 Yankees (55.4)

1998 Braves (52.5)

2002 Yankees (51.3)

1993 Braves (51.2)

1916 Phillies (50.2)

Woah, more Yankees. Who would’ve thought? Also, the 90’s Braves unsurprisingly make a couple appearances, as do a 1916 Phillies team featuring Pete Alexander, Eppa Rixey, and others.

To find the greatest team of all time, I simply took the geometric mean, or a square root of the product of the two values (hitting and pitching). This makes it more important to be balanced, as a team with 40 and 40 is rated better than a team with 60 and 20.

Here are the top 5:

2005 Yankees (44.0)

2002 Yankees (43.6)

1928 Athletics (42.2)

2003 Yankees (42.1)

2001 Yankees (41.9)

Shocker. 1928 Athletics are interesting. They had Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, etc. Unsurprising they had, on average upwards of 40 WAR involved in every play as either the pitcher or hitter. How about the bottom five (pre 2000, as some teams in the last few years have had young players who haven’t played their entire career):

1954 Athletics (4.1)

1962 Colt .45s (4.6)

1972 Padres (4.6)

1930 Red Sox (4.7)

1943 Athletics (5.0)

The worst few Yankees teams were during WWII when their players were fighting; outside of those, their worst comes in at 12.5 in 1990. They went 67–95.

Now, the top team for each franchise:

NYY — 2005 (44.0)

OAK — 1928 (42.2)

ATL — 1997 (41.0)

LAD — 1978 (38.4)

SFG — 1968 (36.4)

BOS — 1976 (36.0)

PHI — 1983 (35.4)

HOU — 2004 (35.2)

BAL — 1996 (34.7)

STL — 1971 (33.5)

DET — 1940 (33.4)

TOR — 1992 (33.1)

TEX — 1977 (32.8)

MIN — 1971 (32.7)

CHC — 1935 (32.4)

CLE — 1996 (32.1)

SEA — 1997 (32.1)

LAA — 1989 (31.8)

ARI — 2001 (31.7)

CIN — 1978 (30.7)

CWS — 1917 (30.2)

WSN — 1982 Expos (30.1)

PIT — 1965 (28.0)

MIL — 1983 (26.9)

KCR — 1988 (26.8)

MIA — 1997 (26.7)

NYM — 1986 (25.9)

SDP — 2007 (25.1)

TBR — 2010 (19.6)

COL — 2001 (16.4)

Note that this metric is biased towards older teams, as more recent teams have players who haven’t yet played a full career and reached their maximum career WAR.

You can view the complete list of teams since 1916 here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1_cA0fHmR4FxJ-HE8E9EpWmIV1sOficGBhnbCQ_U66H4/edit?usp=sharing

Questions about this? Ask me on Twitter.

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