Who is the best team in baseball?

Posted: 05/25/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

In many ways, the theme of this 2014 season has been a word that is normally so overused in sports: parity. Only four teams, one of whom is amazingly the Boston Red Sox (who have been terrible since my post about them), have won fewer than 44% of their games. On the flip side, just four teams have a winning percentage higher than .563, including the surprising Brewers who have slumped of late. With that being said, I’m not sure there is a clear “best team in baseball” right now, as there has been in years past. Neither the Yankees or Red Sox are dominant. Neither are perennial powerhouses St. Louis and Atlanta. So who are the candidates for “Best Team in Baseball”? And who is the best team?
I think there are three legitimate candidates for best team in baseball, and the three are basically even: Detroit, Oakland, and San Francisco. Let’s look at the argument for each team.
*These stats do not include today’s games.

Detroit: The Tigers have a legitimate claim to the best all-around team and the team with the most talent in baseball. Even before Prince Fielder went down with a season-ending injury (even a guy who has been the mostdurable player in baseball over the past decade can get hurt. Baseball is weird), the Tigers’ trade of Fielder for Ian Kinsler had been a clear win. Kinsler, who has slotted in at the leadoff spot and already racked up 2.1 Fangraphs WAR, is hitting .333 and has been the perfect addition to an offense that had been rather top heavy. Along with Chase Utley, he’s been one of the top two second baseman in baseball. The Tigers also have the best 3-4 hitting combination in baseball in Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Those three players, each of whom has played every game, have been the key to a good offense. And the offense also has clear room for improvement. Cabrera has been great, but he’ll get even better. Third baseman Nick Castellanos has struggled in his first year of starting, but he’s a good hitter who should bounce back.
The Tigers also have a heck of a rotation. Although Justin Verlander has had some worrying starts, that’s been hardly noticeable given the talent he has around him in the rotation. Max Scherzer has a legitimate shot at back-to-back Cy Young awards, Anibal Sanchez is the best #3 starter in baseball when healthy, while Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello have made the step up and are now above average starters. There are just no holes in the rotation, and it’s probably the best in baseball.
Based on just offense and the rotation, the Tigers are the best team in baseball. The bullpen, however, has some big holes. Their bullpen has a 4.31 ERA, fifth worst in all of baseball. Joe Nathan, the expensive closer they signed in free agency, has an ERA of 4.08 and has blown the same number of saves (3) as he did all of last season.
In the end, when a team’s biggest concern is its slightly below-average and under-performing bullpen, the team is doing pretty will. Even the fielding, which was terrible last year, has improved with the move of Cabrera from third to first. The Tigers probably have the biggest hole of any team in this discussion: shortstop. Tiger shortstops have been terrible, and although that hasn’t been fatal for the offense yet, it will be if they don’t find a suitable shortstop. Stephen Drew is gone now, so the solution might have to be internal or come from a trade. For now, the Tigers are good enough to be considered one of the best teams in baseball. I think it’s fair to say that, because of their offense and the fact that they have some clear fixes, they have the most upside in baseball.

Oakland: The Athletics are the prototypical regular season team in that year after year they have put up great win totals but have failed to produce in the playoffs. This year, they have the best run differential in baseball, and it isn’t even close. Their +92 is 43 runs better than any other team, and the Athletics have the second most runs scored (behind the Colorado Rockies) and second fewest runs allowed (behind the Braves). They are again led by a bunch of misfits: Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp, Jed Lowrie, and the amazing catcher combination of John Jaso (.373 OBP) and Derek Norris (.430) that has been the best in baseball. The pitching has been even more incredible. Despite being saddled with the Tommy John surgeries of projected starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, the Athletics’ starting pitchers have the best ERA in the MLB. Sonny Gray has a sub-2 ERA, and it appears as though they have found another diamond in the rough in former Rockies’ prospect Drew Pomeranz. Of 17 pitchers who have made an appearance for Oakland, only two have an ERA above four. With the exception of Jim Johnson, this bullpen has been lights out. Sean Doolittle, Fernando Abad, Luke Gregerson, and Dan Otero have been the four most used relievers (96 innings total) and have a cumulative 2.63 ERA. The money spent on Johnson appears to have been spent poorly, but the message is clear: the Athletics have found another competitive advantage by valuing their bullpen. That’s where they have the biggest edge over the Tigers, and that’s why I think they are slightly better than Detroit at the moment. They still don’t have the big-name pitchers to compete with Detroit, but if they keep playing this way they will be a nightmare for opposing teams, both in the regular season and in the playoffs.

San Francisco: In 2010, the Giants won the World Series. After slumping in 2011, they won it again two seasons ago before finishing 76-86 last season. Now it’s another even year, so the Giants are good again. Makes sense! I don’t know how they do it, but the Giants have actually followed this silly and lazy analysis put forward by many baseball analysts. They have the best record in baseball right now at 31-18, but this isn’t the same team that won in 2010 and 2012. While those teams were built around pitching, this is built around hitting and specifically the homer. It doesn’t make sense, because in AT&T Park the Giants play in one of the most spacious parks in the National League. It hasn’t mattered this season; the Giants have hit 58 homers, third most in baseball behind just the Blue Jays and altitude-aided Rockies. They also haven’t been led by the usual suspects. Pablo Sandoval has had a very poor year, while Buster Posey has also been well below average. The leaders offensively have been none other than Michael Morse, who was signed to a small one-year deal before this season and now has 10 homers, and Angel Pagan, who missed half of last season. The result has been an offense that has been good but not great, and one that also has a lot of potential. Meanwhile, the pitching has also been good, albeit without much help from former aces Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Free agent signing Tim Hudson has been magnificent, and Ryan Vogelsong has bounced back from an injury-plagued year. Sound familiar? It should, because the offense has had basically the same success stories. I really don’t know how this team is 31-18, and they’ve probably been a bit lucky. But that’s probably a good thing, and they also could become a dominant team when Sandoval, Posey, Lincecum, and Cain, the stars of the team in 2010 and 2012, improve. Will they win another World Series? The odds are obviously against it, but at this point, I really wouldn’t be surprised.

Verdict: In the end, this isn’t a simple answer. The Athletics have been the best team so far, while I’d bet on the Tigers to end the season with the best record in baseball. Meanwhile, the Giants have somehow gotten past the quarter point of the season with the best record in baseball despite not performing anywhere near their potential. So the answer, for now, is the Athletics, but they could be third in the pecking order very soon. That’s how close this is.

Here are the other teams I considered for best team in baseball. In the end, these teams were two one-dimensional (either pitching heavy or hitting heavy) to compete with these three strong all-around teams:
Toronto Blue Jays
Los Angeles Angels
Atlanta Braves
Colorado Rockies


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