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Were the 2009 Yankees be the greatest team of all time – or is it still the 1998 Yankees? How do they compare to the 1975-1976 Big Red Machine? The 103 game wining 1968 Tigers beat the National League dominating 1968 Cardinals in the last World Series before the 2nd wave of expansion and divisional play. Were they even better than the 1967 Cardinals who did win the World after winning 101 games during the season? And, were those Cardinals better than the 1961 Yankee champions who won 109 games the first year of expansion – or the mythic 1927 Yankees? These questions propelled me to work on a history of baseball exploring which teams were the greatest compared to all teams before them. While working on this project, I had to make reasonable estimates as to how much to penalize (or reward) a team’s accomplishments in one league to make it a reasonably fair comparison to another team in the other league.

 

Mostly all I had to go by are All-Star game and World Series results. However, we have had 14 years of interleague play now to give us a good idea of the current balance between the two leagues. During the first four years of interleague play 1997-2000, the leagues alternated with the National League winning more often against the A.L. in odd years and the A.L. besting the N.L. in the even years. However, the difference – 20 games when spread across the 14 or 15 teams doesn’t merit crediting all the teams in that league with an extra win for their superiority. After that, the American went back to unbalanced schedules. From 2001 on, we can narrow the appropriate handicapping down to the specific division. I calculated that for every 17 games an entire division is above .500, each team in that division deserves an extra game (+1 W – 1 L). So, here are the number of games to be awarded or shaved from each candidate for best team over the past decade:

 

2001: A.L. East -1, A.L. Central -1, A.L. West +2

2002: A.L. East   E, A.L. Central -3, A.L. West +3

2003: A.L. East +1, A.L. Central -2, A.L. West +1

2004: A.L. East +1, A.L. Central -1, A.L. West   E

2005: A.L. East +1, A.L. Central   E, A.L. West   E

2006: A.L. East +1, A.L. Central +2, A.L. West +1

2007: A.L. East +2, A.L. Central   E, A.L. West   E

2008: A.L. East +2, A.L. Central   E, A.L. West   E

2009: A.L. East +1, A.L. Central -1, A.L. West +1

2010: A.L. East +2, A.L. Central   E, A.L. West -1

 

Using Two League Players to find differences (Cross-League Study)

Besides just relying World Series results and All-Star game results to find league superiority in the years before interleague play, another method is to look at the players who changed leagues. Joseph Reichler’s The Baseball Trade Register lists every trade of the 20th century up through 1984. Let’s look at the players who had unexpected improvement or disappointment after they changed leagues. I will start from 1962 when leagues first expanded (and when I became a baseball fan) and end in 1979 which I marked as the last year of National League dominance. Listed below are the two year ERA+ or OPS+ in one before or after the player changed leagues along with the number of games/innings and his age followed by the same stats in the league he switched to. Due to mid season trades, injuries, and brief stints in the minors, I don’t always have exactly two years of data, but I came as close as I could. Note that park factor, change in strike zone are accounted for in ERA+ and OPS+. Those are their ERA and On-Base Average + Slugging Average normalized by their park to the league average that year as 100. So, 75 is considerably below average and 125 is well above average. The player has to have played, at least, a year and a half in opposite leagues surrounding league switch in order to be included.

 

They are sorted roughly by how unexpected the differences are given their age and history. I did not base those rankings strictly on their two year data as I found players are much more inconsistent than I thought. Sometimes, you have to look at further back in his career to notice he had the potential to be that good, although, I do consider that the older the player is and further back in history his comparably good season was, the more we need to recognize that the league switch may have helped or hurt him. In order to best measure these league differences, I divided the list in two, so the players in the upper list get credit for a more solidly based improvement (or decline) following their league switch. Really, even the most pronounced differences look plausibly coincidental, so I give the upper list only 2 points worth of credit and the lower list 1 point. Nolan Ryan was the hardest throwing pitcher in baseball during his first few seasons with the Mets. He just learned to pitch, however, when he came over to the Angels. If a player was a full timer and had a whopping career year or a major comeback after several lesser years or has a more consistently improved or degraded level in the new league, he generally makes the two point list. Players who have those attributes, but do not quite play every day – as well as full timers who’s improvement or decline is less pronounced get one point.

 

Players who played unexpectedly worse or better after changing leagues

Largest improvements or declines (2 points)

Mo/Yr Player    ERA+/OPS+ G/I ages  Who E/O+ G/I ages  Who  Win Pos

12/71 Nolan Ryan      100 284 23-24 NYM  125 610 25-26 Cal  AL  SP

06/77 Mike Caldwell    80 295 26-28 Cin  143 388 28-29 MBw  AL  SP

12/65 Phil Regan       72 198 27-28 Det  143 213 29-30 LAD  NL  P

12/62 Felix Mantilla   89 186 26-28 NYM  141 199 28-30 Bos  AL  IF-OF

11/72 Oscar Gamble     77 166 21-22 Phi  130 248 23-24 Cle  AL  OF

05/79 Champ Summers    74  99 30-32 Cin  155 210 33-34 Det  AL  OF

11/76 Andre Thornton  131 216 25-27 Mon  150 276 27-29 Cle  AL  1B

12/76 George Hendrick 117 294 25-26 Cle  134 290 27-28 SD   NL  CF-OF

12/71 Gaylord Perry   125 609 31-32 SF   137 687 33-34 Cle  AL  SP

12/77 Jon Matlack     101 431 26-27 NYM  143 355 28-29 Tex  AL  SP

12/63 Jim Bunning     105 506 30-31 Det  133 284 32-33 Phi  NL  SP

12/78 Floyd Bannister  79 253 21-23 Hou  115 400 23-25 Sea  AL  SP

12/65 Frank Robinson  155 312 28-30 Cin  193 284 30-32 Bal  AL  OF

12/71 Dick Allen      148 277 28-29 LAD  191 220 30-31 ChW  AL  3B-1B

01/74 Jay Johnstone    85 269 25-27 Oak  132 315 28-30 Phi  NL  OF

04/70 John Briggs     110 234 25-26 Phi  142 270 27-28 MBw  AL  OF

12/74 Ken Singleton   130 310 25-27 Mon  143 309 27-29 Bal  AL  OF

12/74 Mike Torrez      95 394 26-28 Mon  124 537 28-30 Bal  AL  SP

12/72 Jim Rooker       88 330 27-29 KCR  124 433 30-31 Pit  NL  SP

10/72 Ken Brett        68 192 22-23 Mil  108 403 24-25 Phi  NL  P

12/65 Milt Pappas     127 473 24-26 Bal  101 427 26-28 Cin  AL  SP

12/68 Mike Cuellar    108 417 29-31 Hou  123 588 31-33 Bal  AL  SP

02/71 Al Downing      104 266 27-29 Mil  117 465 30-31 LAD  NL  SP

08/73 Joe Niekro       82 169 26-28 Det  107 155 28-30 Atl  NL  P

12/75 Jim Kaat        127 581 35-36 ChW   88 388 37-38 Phi  AL  SP

12/77 Bert Blyleven   137 532 25-26 Tex  116 481 27-28 Pit  AL  SP

12/78 Jerry Koosman    99 462 34-35 NYM  119 507 36-37 Min  AL  SP

12/73 Nelson Briles   117 414 28-30 Pit   93 215 30-32 KCR  NL  P

12/76 Johnny Grubb    113 253 26-28 SD   139 168 28-30 Cle  AL  OF

04/75 Earl Williams   112 250 23-25 Bal   87 233 26-27 Atl  AL  C

11/72 Davey Johnson   112 260 28-29 Bal  127 293 30-31 Atl  NL  2B

10/72 Don Money        76 273 23-25 Phi  117 304 25-27 MBw  AL  3B+

 

Smaller improvements or declines (1 point)

Mo/Yr Player    ERA+/OPS+ G/I ages  Who E/O+ G/I ages  Who  Win Pos

12/64 Pete Richert     71 113 23-24 LAD  115 440 25-26 WaS  AL  P

12/70 Tom Phoebus     108 337 27-28 Bal   82 222 29-30 SD   AL  P

12/72 Woodie Fryman    81 311 33-34 Det  113 373 35-36 Mon  NL  P

12/78 Bob Sykes        98 226 22-23 Det   73 193 24-25 StL  AL  P

12/64 Ray Herbert     105 336 33-34 ChW   88 181 35-36 Phi  AL  P

11/72 Del Unser        86 285 26-27 Cle  108 278 28-29 Phi  NL  CF

12/63 Don Demeter     125 307 27-29 Phi  111 256 29-31 Det  NL  CF-CI

05/69 Vic Davalillo    84 314 30-32 Cal  101 174 33-34 StL  NL  CF-OF

12/77 Ken Henderson   117 302 28-29 ChW  101 208 30-31 Atl  AL  CF-OF

12/79 Chris Chamblis  103 311 29-30 NYY  112 265 31-32 Atl  NL  1B

11/61 Roy Sievers     146 268 33-34 ChW  113 282 35-36 Phi  AL  1B

12/65 Jackie Brandt    91 233 30-31 Bal   73 139 32-33 Phi  AL  CF-OF

06/70 Cookie Rojas     60 284 29-31 StL   96 213 31-32 KCR  AL  2B-U

04/77 Lenny Randle     83 298 26-27 Tex  103 268 28-29 NYM  NL  2B

08/73 Denny Doyle      75 239 28-29 Phi   89 244 30-31 Cal  AL  2B

12/75 Milt May         94 238 23-25 Hou   81 226 25-28 Det  NL  C

12/64 Bo Belinsky      85 212 26-27 LAA   76 125 28-29 Phi  AL  P

12/77 Pete Vuckovich   99 258 23-24 Tor  119 431 25-26 StL  NL  P

12/77 Tom Underwood    89 289 22-23 StL  107 425 24-25 Tor  AL  SP

11/72 Roger Nelson    119 207 26-28 KCR  103 140 28-30 Cin  AL  P

12/64 Jerry Arrigo     97 121 21-23 Min   74 105 23-25 Cin  AL  P

12/62 Stu Miller      114 229 33-34 SF   135 209 35-36 Bal  AL  RP

07/68 Lindy McDaniel  108 215 30-32 SF   140 247 32-34 NYY  AL  RP

08/62 Moe Drabowsky    82 194 24-25 Cin   93 371 26-28 KCA  AL  P

 

From 1962 to 1979 thirty-eight cross-leaguers played surprisingly well in the American League; only seventeen played better in the National League. Counting the more pronounced improvements or declines double, the American League earned 60 points, while the N.L. earned 26. Hence, this data certainly backs up the conclusion most of us reached based on all-star game results: the National League was, indeed, a superior league those decades.

 

Was the difference even more pronounced in the 1960s just as I accounted for? Yes, although we have fewer cross-leaguers to go by and the difference relative to the 1970s is not large enough to be completely conclusive. Using the same point system, the 1960s A.L. advantage was 17 to 6 (2.83), while the 1970s advantage was a smaller ratio of 43 to 20 (2.15). Keep in mind that the vast majority of cross-leaguers showed no significant difference, so penalizing A.L. teams two wins and two losses in the 1960s and one win and one loss in the 1970s remains a reasonable estimate.

 

Other conclusions from the cross-leaguer study

There are some interesting observations to make in that data gathered above that are not germane to what I was looking for. Of the pitchers who changed skill levels when they changed leagues, twice as many improved as declined. The position players did even better having a three to one chance of surprisingly improving instead of declining. For both pitchers and batters, the ages where you will most reliably see unexpected improvement is in the 28-33 range. The two catchers in the study were only 25 and 26 and they significantly declined (Milt May and Earl Williams). The two pure relievers in the study were both old (32 and 35) and they both improved (Lindy McDaniel and Stu Miller). However, pure starting pitchers were as reliably successful as position players, while pitchers who moved back and forth from the pen had only a 4 to 3 (8/6) rate of surprising improvement to speedy decline. All five middle infielders in the study improved nicely and they were all in the latter half of their primes (28-31: Felix Mantilla, Lenny Randle, Davey Johnson, Denny Doyle, and Cookie Rojas).

 

This entire exercise is part of an effort to determine the best teams ever. I had reported on the years 1892-1946 in two parts earlier this year, but took it down. I was hoping to get it all done by Christmas, but that didn’t happen – and now I am in Scoresheet prep mode. However, I can give you a little cheat . . . Here are the teams that managed to rank as the best of all teams that ever came before them up through the Big Red Machine. Note: The Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 is not the team that eventually became the Big Red Machine. They returned to amateur status after the formation of the National Association in 1871. Their stars essentially formed the Boston Red Stockings which later jumped to the newly formed National League in 1876. That team became the Boston Beaneaters and is now the Atlanta Braves. The only other team to survive from the National Association was the Chicago White Stockings who are known as the Cubs today. The means the 1871 Philadelphia Athletics did not survive but the original American League team of the same name, who now play in Oakland, no doubt named their team in their honor. The Baltimore Orioles listed here are not the franchise we know by that name now. The 1896 Orioles franchise of Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t Wee Willie Keeler’s Baltimore chop fame died in 1899. The original Orioles of the 1901 American League are now the New York Yankees. After a glorious history in the minor leagues, the name came back to the Majors after the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in the 1950s.

 

1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings 57-0-1: George Wright, Harry Wright, Cal McVey, Waterman

1871 Philadelphia Athletics 21-7: LEVI MEYERLE, Fergy Malone, Al Reach, Dick McBride

1872 Boston Red Stockings 39-8: ROSS BARNES, Al Spalding, G. Wright, McVey, Leonard

1875 Boston Red Stockings 71-8: Spalding, Barnes, G. Wright, White, McVey, O’Rourke

1876 Chicago White Stockings 52-14: BARNES, Spalding, Cap Anson, White, John Peters

1880 Chicago White Stockings 67-17: Tom Burns, George Gore, Larry Corcoran, Anson

1985 Chicago White Stockings 87-25 Jack Clarkson, Gore, Kelly, Anson, Dalrymple, Burns

1892 Boston Beaneaters 102-48 (5-0): Kid Nichols, Jack Stivetts, Hugh Duffy

1896 Baltimore Orioles 90-39: Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelly, Willie Keeler, Billy Hoffer

1897 Boston Beaneaters 93-39: Nichols, Jimmy Collins, Billy Hamilton, Duffy

1898 Boston Beaneaters 102-47: Hamilton, Nichols, Collins, Chick Stahl, Ted Lewis

1902 Pittsburgh Pirates 103-36: Honus Wagner, Clarke, Chesboro, Ginger Beaumont

1905 New York Giants 104-48 (4-1): Mathewson, Mike Donlin, Bresnahan, Dan McGann

1906 Chicago Cubs 116-36 (2-4): Harry Steinfeldt, Frank Chance, Mordecai Brown

1909 Pittsburgh Pirates 110-42 (4-3): Wagner, Clarke, Howie Cammitz, Vic Willis

1919 Cincinnati Reds 96-44 (5-3): Edd Roush, Hodd Eller, Heinie Groh, Slim Sallee

1923 New York Yankees 98-54 (4-2): BABE RUTH, Mesuel, Herb Pennock, Bullet Joe Bush

1927 New York Yankees 110-44 (4-0): RUTH, GEHRIG, Combs, Lazzeri, Meusel, W. Hoyt

1932 New York Yankees 107-47 (4-0): Gehrig, Ruth, Lazzeri, B. Dickey, Combs, R. Ruffing

1937 New York Yankees 102-52 (4-1): DiMaggio, Gehrig, Dickey, Lefty Gomez, Ruffing

1939 New York Yankees 106-53 (4-3): Dickey, DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Gordon, Ruffing

1953 New York Yankees  99-52 (4-2): Berra, Whitey Ford, Lopat, Mantle, Billy Martin

1961 New York Yankees 109-53 (4-1): MANTLE, Elston Howard, R. Maris, Ford, T. Kubek

1967 St. Louis Cardinals 101-60 (4-3) Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, O. Cepeda, L. Brock

1968 Detroit Tigers 103-59 (4-3) Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan

1970 Baltimore Orioles 108-54 (7-1) Jim Palmer, Boog Powell, B. Robinson, Dave McNally

1975 Cincinnati Reds 108-54 (7-3) Morgan, Bench, Rose, George Foster, Dave Concepcion

John Carter