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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.