Dr. Strangeglove: On Historical Greatness

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, September 09, 2011 06:45 AM | Comments: 17
Analysis, Dr. Strangeglove, Opinion, Posts

The overriding emotion I get from watching the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies is not excitement or happiness so much as slack-jawed amazement. It’s remarkable what this team is doing, expected by Coolstandings to win 105 games or more at this point, with a winning percentage that extrapolates out to a shade over 106 by the time all’s said and done. That mark would shatter the Phillies’ all-time franchise record for wins, set in 1976 with 101 and matched the next year. I know beating a record by five games doesn’t sound like much, but a five-game lead in the standings is “take the last two weeks of the season off” territory, unless you’re the 2007 Mets (or the 1964 Phillies, for that matter, in case any of you were thinking about snickering.

A won-loss record like that (and nothing’s certain; the Phillies could win five games the rest of the year and still probably make the playoffs) calls into mind not just “best team this year” questions, but questions of historical greatness.

Pat put it to me this way: could it be that this year’s Phillies are the greatest team in the history of the National League? Short answer: I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t laugh you out of the room for making the argument.

Here’s my take on greatness, from a team standpoint. What defines greatness? Here are my answers, and if you don’t like them, you can go get your own blog and make your own list.

1) Won-loss record

If the goal of a professional sports team is to win games, it makes sense that the best teams will do succeed the most. I feel like this is uncontroverisal.

2) Run differential

A lot of wins are kind of flukey. If you’re a great team, you’ll not only win consistently, you’ll beat up on your opponents consistently. A single game is, frankly, kind of a small sample size, so taking aggregate run differential shows whether a team has been lucky or unlucky over the course of a season.

3) Historical Adjustments

There are fewer people playing professional baseball now, per American citizen, than perhaps ever before. Standards for player fitness are higher than ever before. Gone are the days when the 1949 Red Sox had to have their ace reliever, Ellis Kinder, run in heavy sweatclothes before each game so he wouldn’t be too hung over to pitch.

What’s more, baseball is a more inclusive game. If the 1906 Cubs had to play the 2011 Phillies in a hypothetical fantasy game, could they demand that Ryan Howard, John Mayberry, and Jimmy Rollins sit out? If the 1953 Dodgers played the 2011 Phillies, before international scouting was common, could they demand Carlos Ruiz, Placido Polanco, and Antonio Bastardo sit out? Even then, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the introduction of Korean and Japanese players to the major leagues made it possible for the majority of baseball-playing nations to send ballplayers to the majors.

For the purposes of this exercise, I’m discounting teams before 1947 entirely.

Notice two things I’m not putting on this list:

1) “Flukiness”

All great teams are built on fluke seasons. For a great elucidation of this argument, go here and scroll down to “Were the 1994 Expos Just Lucky?” It’s great logic from a man, Phil Birnbaum, who knows far more about this subject than I do.

I don’t care. We’re taking this one season in a vacuum, so it doesn’t matter that Shane Victorino has never (and likely will never again) have a season like the one he’s having now. They say it’s better to be lucky than good. Well, it’s best to be both.

2) Playoff Performance

Yeah, flags fly forever, and championships are all that matter, and so on. If I ask you if a coin is unbalanced and show you one two records: one covering five flips and one covering five hundred flips, which one will you find more convincing?

What do the playoffs prove? That one good team can beat another good team three out of five or four out of seven proves nothing conclusively. Last year, the Astros swept the Phillies in four straight in a midseason series. If that had been the NLCS, would that have proved conclusively that the Astros were the better team? Certainly not. The playoffs are ridiculously entertaining, and because they crown the champion, they’re a level of excitement and intensity unknown to regular season play. But they’re a lousy way of determining who’s the better team.

Put it this way–if you had your life on the line, which team would you bet on in a football game: the 2007-08 Patriots, who went 18-0 in dominating fashion, then lost the Super Bowl on a series of fluky last-minute plays, or the deeply flawed, 14-6 Giants team that beat them? One game, or one series, proves nothing.

With those caveats, here are the three main contenders. Apologies to the 1953 Dodgers, 2004 Cardinals, and 1962 Giants.

1986 New York Mets (108-54, +205 Run Differential, 103-59 expected record)

If all you remember is Game 6 of that year’s World Series, you’re inclined to think of this as a fluky team, but 14 of the top 15 position players on that team in plate appearances had an OPS+ of 93 or better. Eleven of those had an OPS+ of 115 or better. The pitching staff was led by the young Dwight Gooden, and Bob Ojeda and Ron Darling were just as good as Doc was that year. This team had only one Hall of Famer, catcher Gary Carter, who was at the very tail end of his prime, but it had almost literally no weaknesses. The only drawback is that their record, tied for the best by a National League team since World War II, outpaced their actual run differential by five games. Still, by any measure an all-time great team.

1975 Cincinnati Reds (108-54 record, +254 run differential, 107-55 expected record)

Four Hall of Fame position players. Four. The two regulars who didn’t have an OPS+ of 100 or better, Dave Concepcion and Cesar Geronimo, were both outstanding defensive players. Then again, so was Joe Morgan, who had a .466 on-base percentage and stole 67 bases. All eight position players were worth at least three wins above replacement, led by Morgan, who had a WAR total of 12. TWELVE.

The pitching was a little hit-or-miss, so to speak, with young starters Gary Nolan and Don Gullett, and relief ace Rawly Eastwick, a local product from Haddonfield, being the standouts on an otherwise lackluster staff, at least for a team of this caliber. But with that offense, who cares?

1998 Atlanta Braves (106-56 record, +245 run differential, 106-56 expected record)

Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Neagle. Young Kevin Millwood and Young John Rocker. Chipper and Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez, and Ryan Klesko. Great pitching, good defense, good power hitting. Essentially, the only thing that makes this team special is that 37-year-old Andres Galarraga hit 44 home runs with a .397 OBP. Otherwise, this is simply the best of the Bobby Cox Atlanta teams that we all spent 15 years hating.

Projected 2011 Philadelphia Phillies (106-56 record, +217 run differential, 105-57 expected record)

This is assuming the Phillies win games, score runs, and allow runs at the same rate over the last 22 games as they have over the first 140.

By far the worst offensive team out of the four, but with starting pitching that blows even the 1998 Braves out of the water. What’s most amazing about this is that the Phillies have done so well despite trotting the stinking, desiccated corpse of Raul Ibanez out to left field 123 (on pace for 143) times and lost their best position player, Chase Utley, for a third of a season or more due to injury. And while the Phillies aren’t on pace to leap past their illustrious historical competitors, these numbers certainly don’t look out of place, do they?

Here’s the conclusion. In all honesty, I’d pick the 1975 Reds as the greatest National League team of all time. But if the Phillies get particularly hot and maybe get to 110 wins (which, while unlikely, is still possible), we might have to revisit this post in three weeks.

Avatar of Michael Baumann

About Michael Baumann

Michael Baumann has written 229 articles on Phillies Nation.

Michael is a graduate student at Temple University who lost his childlike innocence when, at the age of 6, his dad let him stay up for the end of Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. Unsettled by the Phillies' recent success, he has threatened over the years to leave the team he loves if they don't start losing again, but has so far been unable to follow through. Michael spent 4 years as an undercover agent in Braves territory at the University of South Carolina, where he covered football and soccer for The Daily Gamecock before moving back up north. He began writing for The Phrontiersman in June 2009 before moving to Phillies Nation in January 2010.

  • Posts: 0 bacardipr05

    Well on Victorino 08-09 he was a .290 hitter. In 07 he hit .287 up to know he is hitting .300 so its keeping up in line with his career norms. The one thing the past 2 years is that he is hitting more HR’s. Last year he hit 18 so far 15 but his .BA dropped. Not sure if it was due to injury or because he got a little homerun happy. This year he has seem to find a balance between been able to hit for average an hit them out the park as well. To me that was the big difference this year for him. I hope he keeps it up. Not sure but he seems to have been cooling off just a little last few games.

    • Posts: 33 Michael Baumann

      Avatar of Michael Baumann

      Before, Victorino would either hit for average or power, but never both. This year he is, and he’s getting on base more AND playing better defense. All told, this is what a career year looks like. And I hope he keeps it up as well.

  • Posts: 1376 Pat Gallen

    Avatar of Pat Gallen

    I would say, clearly, the Reds had the best team in NL history, followed by that Braves team. The Phillies may be better than that Mets team, however. So 3rd best team in National League history is fine by me.

    Hope everyone realizes the historical importance of this year. We’re seeing something not many get to see.

  • Posts: 77 branderson925

    Avatar of branderson925

    “Gone are the days when the ox fall down, take up the yoke and plow the fields around”

    never heard it called a Won-Loss record before though. Nice article. I think the 75 Reds and 62 Giants have it.

  • Posts: 0 Ryan H

    I really appreciate the argument about the playoffs and sample size. I have been trying to get that point through people’s heads for years now. It also reinforces mine and others’ points about the Giants NOT NEARLY being the best team in baseball last year. The Phillies were a far superior team. but unfortunately teams lose to inferior teams in the playoffs every single year.

  • Posts: 2896 Chuck A.

    Avatar of Chuck A.

    I might have included the 1970 Baltimore Orioles – 108-54 record, 218 run differential. While I didn’t dig into each and every stat, this team merits consideration since it was the 69-71 run of greatness that saw this team as the AL champ each year with a title in ’70.


    The ’69 team was 109-53 with a run diff of 98 and the ’71 team was 101-57 and had those 4 20 gane winners (Palmer, McNally, Cuellar and Dobson).

    But the ’70 team won it all and dominated.


    Also, can we please just stop it with the absolutely incredible hate of Raul Ibanez?…. “stinking, dessicated corpse” …. Is that really necessary??

    • Posts: 0 SavannahPhilliesPhan

      I agree with you Chuck….I understand that Raul has slowed down quite a bit….we get it, but your description is totally ridiculous and insulting to a guy who has given us 110% of himself. He’s getting older….he’ll be done soon enough!! In the meantime, have some respect!!!

  • Avatar of The Original Chuck P

    We’re talking about single season greatness, correct?

    This team belongs right up there… the rotation is the best on this list and the there are at least four or five position players that have a real chance to play themselves into Cooperstown.

  • Posts: 1376 Pat Gallen

    Avatar of Pat Gallen

    Chuck A. we are only doing NL, no AL teams in this one. There were plenty of good Yankees teams that would be on there.

    • Posts: 2896 Chuck A.

      Avatar of Chuck A.

      Oops. My Bad. If I would have clearly read paragraph 3, I would have caught that.

  • Posts: 5383 Lefty

    Avatar of Lefty

    Good point about playoff performance. Playoffs are the way all major pro sports determine champions. And I have called into question many times that it is the wrong way. The winner of a playoff series, or single elimination tournament is not necessarily the best team for that particular season. They are the best/ luckiest team at that point in time only. They are the team with the hot goalie, the scrub that plays out of his mind, the team that scores on the bloop single, fumble, or bad call.

    Case in point – The San Francisco Giants last season simply were not baseball’s best team.

    But this is how we determine champions, and I don’t see it changing. If you spend 5 or 6 months depending on the sport, playing games to determine playoff seeding, why not just skip the playoffs completely and declare the winner at the end of that season? Answer- Because it’s more exciting this way, and as usual, “it’s all about the money, it’s always about the money”.

  • Posts: 1110 Manny

    Avatar of Manny

    Great article except for the predictable Rauuuuul bashing.

  • Posts: 5383 Lefty

    Avatar of Lefty

    In terms of historical greatness, I really don’t think you can make a fair comparison for many of the reason you listed. But this is without a doubt the greatest team I have ever supported, in any sport in my lifetime.

  • Posts: 0 loupossehl

    Good pitching beats good hitting. A Carl Hubbell will go through Murderer’s Row and strike them all out. A bit of an over-statement, but this timeless axiom holds true. Using the ’75 Reds as an example, would our Aces have any particular problem dealing with Cesar Geromimo or Davey Conception – or Johnny Bench, for that matter? I don’t think so. On the other hand, could the ’11 Phillies score a few runs against the likes of Don Gullett and Gary Nolan? I think so.

    Given this reality, I’ll take the 1998 Braves or this year’s Phillies in a matchup against any of the other great NL teams mentioned here. It comes down to, for example:

    Game 1: Maddux vs. Big Roy
    Game 2: Glavine vs. Cliff
    Game 3: Smoltz vs. Cole
    Game 4: Neagle vs. Little Roy

    Let the games begin; I like our chances. Unfortunately – as pointed out by others – the playoff system is a great leveler that often times allows mediocrity to rise to the top, and once we go to the playoffs it’s a whole new ballgame, often times not rewarding the best. This having been said, I posted here, back in April, that the Phillies would win over 100 games – based on their unmatched pitching and the projection that they would never incur a losing streak of any consequence – a projection now proven as a reality over 140 games. Who knows what the Fates will have in store for us in October but, over 162 games, no one is capable of dealing with us.

  • Posts: 0 Andrw from Waldorf

    The historical greatness of this team will be determined next month. Before we discuss it really need to see if they win it all.

    Howard has an OPS over 1.100 this month. Ironicly it is also the only month he has more walks than strikeouts.

    If he did that for a season. You start talking 1927 Yankees good.
    May still be that good. Proof will be in october.

  • Posts: 0 bacardipr05

    All this will be for not if we dont at least make a World Series appearance. Of course we will want to win it all. As stated the best team doesnt necessarily win it all luck plays a good part of it. Specifically in baseball when one lucky swing just as the wind is picking up can change the whole place of a game.

  • Posts: 548 Brian Sr. of CO

    Avatar of Brian Sr. of CO

    I find it uttely amazing the blatent hatred with zero research as it pertains to Raul Ibanez…”Phillies have done so well despite trotting the stinking, desiccated corpse of Raul Ibanez out to left field 123 (on pace for 143) times” If you looked at the recent stats, Raul has done well recently.

    April – .161 AVG, .466 OPS
    May – .315 AVG, .941 OPS
    Jun – .211 AVG, .569 OPS
    Jul – .284 AVG, .878 OPS
    Aug – .210 AVG, .576 OPS
    Sep – .350 AVG, 1.009 OPS

    We all know that Raul is VERY streaky. What is find amazing is that the bash fest always seems to happen when he is doing relatively well. This season he is an every other month streak. At this rate, bench his butt in October. LOL. Why say he is a “corpse” when he is currently doing well. It isnt even just Sept. The end of August he started doing better. From about the 20th of August he started doing better. Bash him when he deserves, not when he is actually doing well.

    May also want to look at the Magic Numbers as well “the Phillies could win five games the rest of the year and still probably make the playoffs”. The Phillies Magic Number to clinch a playoff spot is 5 games. If the Phillies only win 5 more games they will DEFINATELY be in the playoffs, and may still win the division is the Braves choke further.

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