The Best MLB Teams According to Bill James' Commandments
Prior to 1977, baseball was a dark, sad world where knowledge went to die. The people were ungoverned, unruly heathens without a set of laws to dictate their actions.
Then Bill James wrote his first Baseball Abstract. Sure, the underlings were slow to adopt the views of this visionary, but the table had been set for a new age of managerial strategy.
Historians should include James's name among the others associated with "Enlightenment" such as Locke, Voltaire, Newton and Wale. He brought with him ideas that had the potential to break baseball from its inefficient, tradition-centric ways in the form of his "Ten Commandments."
James allegedly first penned these edicts on his website, BillJamesOnline.com, but I’m a college student who can’t afford the subscription for three dollars per month. So, naturally, I heard of them through the Twittersphere (where else does one find life-altering declarations of how humans should behave?). If you, too, are operating at a salary less than three dollars per month, you can see the commandments here.
With James enlightening the world with his orders, it only seems natural that we should try to find out which teams are heading to the promised land of baseball heaven and which will forever be stuck on the Astros bench (the closest thing to Hell I have ever seen).
To do this, I will rank teams based on some (admittedly) arbitrary statistic that best quantifies each of James’s commandments. At the end, I will find the average ranking of each team to see which best adheres to the laws. For parity’s sake, I separated the teams into American League and National League, so there will be two winners. This is in no way a scientific method, but let’s rumble, anyway.
1. Thou Shalt Not Bunt
AL Champ: Chicago White Sox
NL Champ: Chicago Cubs
Bravo, Chicago. Despite rampant political corruption and violence that would make Frank Lucas blush, you have resisted the temptation of the sacrifice bunt. This should be right up there on the city’s wall of achievements between deep dish pizza and giving the world Kanye.
The method for this one was fairly simple. I just ranked each league based on the raw number of bunts each team had. In a development that surprises nobody, the Athletics and Rays finished second and third respectively in the AL. Honestly, the White Sox were probably only there because you generally need people on base to drop down a sac bunt.
2. Thou Shalt Have No Low On-Base Percentages Before the Cleanup Hitter
AL Champ: Detroit Tigers
NL Champ: Cincinnati Reds
For this one, I simply took the sum of the on-base percentages for each team’s top three hitters (based on all 162 games, meaning the player in that slot may have varied from game to game). It helps when you have a dude that drops a .442 on-base percentage usually hitting in your three-hole, Detroit.
The strange thing about this one is the Reds. Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo finished first and second respectively in the NL in OBP, and they hit third and first in Cincinnati order. The two-hole, however, saw nine different players throughout the season, led by Zack Cozart and his .284 OBP, who hit second in 64 games. No bueno. Yet they still led the league in 1-3 OBP, a testament to how ill Votto and Choo were.
3. Honor the Lead-off Walk
AL Champ: Oakland Athletics
NL Champ: Cincinnati Reds
"Seventy percent of lead-off walks score." – Bert Blyleven, +/- 70 million times in his career as the television color commentator for the Minnesota Twins. I have no idea how far this stat is from the truth, but it does illustrate the point that lead-off walks are important. Bert only walked the lead-off guy in the inning 259 times, which is actually pretty impressive when you consider that spans 5,119 plate appearances.
For this one, I used the walk percentage of the team’s lead-off hitter. I used this because it’s the only position in the batting order that is guaranteed to lead the inning off at least once each night. In other words, I’m not going to punish Joe Maddon for the 95 times Kelly Johnson (a known nemesis of the sacred walk) led off an inning this year. The Rays finished second in this category behind Mr. Moneyball himself, Billy Beane.
4. Thou Shalt Not Steal at Anything Less Than a 70 Percent Success Rate
AL Champ: Boston Red Sox
NL Champ: Colorado Rockies
This category was determined by each team’s stolen base percentage. I know, I’m really thinking out of the box with these.
The Red Sox didn’t just finish first in this category; they took the rest of the league behind the woodshed. Their 87 percent success rate was nine percentage points higher than the NL-leading Rockies. Dustin Pedroia led the team in times caught stealing at five. Even Jacoby Ellsbury, who finished with 52 steals, was only caught four times. I award them seven smiling puppies.
5. Thou Shalt Make No Idol of the Light-Hitting Middle Infielder
AL Champ: Boston Red Sox
NL Champ: Arizona Diamondbacks
The methodology here was the combined OBP of a team’s second baseman and shortstop throughout the course of the year. Again, this is in no way scientific.
As previously mentioned, the Red Sox were kind of okay last year. When you have Pedroia and Stephen Drew as your everyday middle infielders, you’re going to win a few games. I guess you could say they did that.
The D’Backs used more of a conglomerate to wind up on this list. Didi Gregorius had the most middle infield starts for Arizona at 97, Aaron Hill had 82, and Cliff Pennington had 66. Hill led the charge with a .356 OBP, but none of the players really blew the league out of the water. It was more just a tip-of-the-cap to Kirk Gibson for finding pieces that performed at an above average pace on a consistent basis.
6. Thou Shalt Not Count to the Credit of the Pitcher That Which Is Done by His Fielders or by His Hitters, nor Charge Him with Their Failings
AL Champ: Detroit Tigers
NL Champ: St. Louis Cardinals
As a Twins fan, I’m glad this statistic ignores a pitcher’s record. Unfortunately, it involves a pitcher’s ability to, you know, pitch, so the Twins still suck.
This was merely a ranking of each team according to their collective FIP. The Tigers had a gross strikeout rate last year, so it’s not a shock they led the AL here. The Cardinals only allowed 112 home runs on the season, which catapulted them to the top of the NL. The two teams combined to win 190 games, so I’ll go out on a limb and say pitching is important.
7. Thou Shalt Not Abuse Thy Starting Pitchers
AL Champ: Minnesota Twins
NL Champ: Pittsburgh Pirates
I would go into a long ramble about how miracles do happen, but nah, bruh. The determining statistic for this one was a team’s total pitches thrown by a starter. When your ERA approaches minimum wage, you’re probably not going to be in the game very long. I’ll just keep whispering Byron Buxton’s name to make the pain go away.
The Pirates, however, are a different story. Their starters threw the lowest number of pitches in the NL, but they still finished third in team ERA. Oakland was similar in the AL, as they finished fourth in starter pitch count and second in team ERA. This is certainly not the stat I would turn to in order to see whether or not a team is butchering its starting pitching, but it’s something to which even some talented clubs adhere.
8. Thou Shalt Make No Effort to Ride the Hot Hand, for the Hot Hand Is but a Shape in the Wind
AL Champ: Mike Trout
NL Champ: Mike Trout
REVISION: Thou shalt make no effort to ride the hot hand…unless that hot hand belongs to Mike Trout. Even if it’s just one hand. One-handed Mike Trout is better than you.
I had no idea how to statistically quantify this, so I just gave the award to Mike Trout. It’ll act as a consolation for the MVP awards he should have won. I’m sure he’ll be flattered.
9. Place Thy Faith Not in Veterans When Youth Be Available to Ye
AL Champ: Kansas City Royals
NL Champ: San Diego Padres
This was by far the most interesting category to me. The criteria I used was percentage of plate appearances by players 31 years or older. The discrepancies from team-to-team were huge in some instances.
Take Kansas City for example. In the entire 2013 season, they only had 11 plate appearances by players between the ages of 31 and 35. When you add in the 212 plate appearances they had from players 36 or older, these players accounted for only 3.7 percent of their total plate appearances.
Then you get to the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies, the MLB headquarters of AARP. Ugh. The Yankees got 1,845 (30.5 percent) of their plate appearances from players 36 or older. The Houston Astros had exactly zero. Overall, 52.3 percent of the Yankees plate appearances came from players 31 or older.
The Phillies led the league in plate appearances by players 31 or older (53.1 percent), but at least a vast majority of those were by players in the 31-to-35-year-old bracket. That doesn’t mean it’s a desirable situation for a team that lost 89 games last year.
The strangest team of all was the Miami Marlins. They finished 13th in the NL with 35.3 percent of their plate appearances coming from players 31 or older. That’ll happen when you have Juan Pierre and Placido Polanco (an ex-teammate of 55-year-old Gary Gaetti!) both racking up at least 330 plate appearances. On the flip side, the Marlins also got 52.6 percent of their plate appearances from players 25 or younger. Only 726 of their plate appearances came from players between the ages of 26 and 30. It’s genius if your lone goal is to save a whole lot of money, but that’s about it.
10. Thou Shalt Not Pass Freely Thy Opponent’S Number Eight Hitter, nor His Cleanup Hitter, nor His Left-Handed Pinch Hitter, nor Any Hitter That Is Thy Opponent’s
AL Champ: Oakland Athletics
NL Champ: Washington Nationals
Again, no shock that Oakland is on top here. The criteria here was the walk percentage by a team’s pitching staff. If you walk an opposing player in Oakland, you are forced to listen to an entire Bruno Mars album while a masked figure whispers, "This man has won a Grammy," in your ear. I think you’d have a low walk percentage, too.
This statistic is a bit more legitimate because of who’s at the bottom of the list. The two worst teams in the NL were the Cubs and the Marlins (Bless you, Jose Fernandez). The worst in the AL was the Astros. That doesn’t mean having a low walk percentage is going to win you games; the Twins and their 96 losses had the third lowest walk percentage in the AL.
AL Champs: 1. Oakland Athletics | 2. Tampa Bay Rays
AL Chumps: 14. Chicago White Sox | 15. Houston Astros
NL Champs: 1. Colorado Rockies | 2. St. Louis Cardinals
NL Chumps: 14. Miami Marlins | 15. Chicago Cubs
Hey, maybe there’s something to these Ten Commandments! The four best teams averaged 89.75 wins last year, while the bottom four averaged just 60.5. Outside of Colorado (74 wins? Really?), the lowest win total of the top four teams was 92 from Tampa Bay.
Interestingly enough, each of the five AL playoff teams finished in the top six of the final rankings. Who was the lone other team in the top six? The New York Yankees.
Granted, a lot of these categories were based on performance. There aren’t a lot of lineup combinations that are going to get the Marlins a good on-base percentage from their one-through-three hitters. But cheers to the great Bill James for developing something that clearly shows the importance of an old-fashioned base on balls and quantifies the complete ineptitude of the Cubs.