The Kansas City Royals weren’t particularly lauded as World Series contenders coming into the 2015 season, or the 2014 season for that matter, and yet they managed to not only get there both years, but win it in the latter. Now, baseball is a complicated game, and sometimes you just need to catch some breaks, and have certain things go your way, to the point where a less-talented team is able to win it all.
Or, maybe, there are things that we — as fans, bloggers, analysts, sabermetricians, or whatever — don’t quite understand, don’t adequately value or appreciate. That seems somewhat unlikely with how much research is done on the game, both from a mathematical perspective, and a traditional baseball perspective, but it is possible. We do have plenty of narratives about playoff baseball; how pitching wins championships, previous playoff experience can make a difference, that small-ball teams have an advantage, etc.
All of this made me curious what recent World Series winners seem to have in common that might clue us in to what makes a championship roster, a championship roster. What specific skill, or skills, tend to lead a team to a World Series win most often — pitching? Hitting? Speed? Experience/age?
To examine this, I looked at World Series teams from 2000 to 2015 in the following table (data via Fangraphs):
The average World Series winning team is shown in the last row, and from that, we can get a rough idea of what kind of team tends to win the whole thing. Off the bat, it was interesting for me that the average walk rate of 8.6% is just 0.2% higher than the league average from 2000-2015. Walks tend to be highly regarded in the sabermetric community, which comes along with a higher emphasis on on-base percentage, but World Series winners in general don’t tend to walk all that much more than the average. Walk rate has dropped from 2000 to 2015, from 9.6% to 7.7%, and this is fairly well reflected in our World Series teams, with the 2000 Yankees walking at a 10% clip, and the 2015 Royals walking at just a 6.3% clip, the lowest on the list.
Most telling, though, is the wide range in that category. The 2013 Red Sox walked 9.1% of the time, but the aforementioned Royals won it two years later despite having the lowest BB% in the league. It seems pretty clear that walk rate isn’t particularly meaningful when it comes to the World Series.
I expected the same might be true for K-rate, and for the most part it is. The average rate from 2000-2015 was 18%, and the World Series average was 16.8%, not too far off. We already know that strikeouts probably aren’t as detrimental as many think they are, and as long as you are still limiting your total outs (in the form of a higher on-base percentage), it isn’t that big of a deal.
As might be expected, power and on-base percentage seem to be fairly important. The .162 ISO average above is a bit above the .153 overall average from 2000-2015, and World Series winners got on base at a .338 clip, compared to the .329 overall average from 2000-2015. Again, though, there is a bit of a range here, and teams have won the Series with just a .311 OBP as recent as 2014, a year after the Red Sox won it with a .349 OBP.
I’m seeing a bit of a theme here, so let’s move on to some of the more all-encompassing metrics. The average wRC+ of the World Series winners sits at 104, while the overall 2000-2015 average is 96. For those who are unfamiliar, that essentially means World Series winners are 8% better offensively than the league as a whole. The worst wRC+ on the above list is the 2005 White Sox, and even they are still at 95, right there with the rest of the league, and three of the World Series winners above also led the league in wRC+ (2004 Red Sox, 2009 Yankees, and 2013 Red Sox). This is not surprising.
Next up is overall defense, or DEF, which combines Fangraphs UZR with positional adjustments. The average above is a robust +27.5, over double the overall 2000-2015 average of 11.8. And while we do have some significant outliers, with the 2000 and 2009 Yankees as well as the 2004 Red Sox posting ratings well into the negatives (-39.5, -24.8 and -66.6 respectively), every other team has positive defensive numbers, and all but two others are in double digits, stretching all the way up to a 107.5 mark from the 2008 Phillies.
All of that is to say, strong defensive teams seem to have a leg up when it come to the World Series. There are exceptions, but overall, preventing runs seems to be just as important as scoring them. And while that sounds intuitive, it seems defense still remains undervalued, at least compared to offense.
The next column, Wins Above Replacement, works out as expected. The average team will have a 19 WAR from position players, but our World Series winners are all the way up at 26.8. This measures both offense and defense, so we are essentially combining our last two columns. Ultimately, if you want to win, have good offense and good defense, is what this tells us. Yay.
I think we are coming close to a conclusion, but lets take a look at pitching first. Our first pitching metric, K/9, shows a 7.10 average among World Series winners, and the average from 2000-2015 was just a touch below at 6.95. So, WS winners generate more strikeouts, than the average, but not to a particularly significant degree. BB/9 isn’t much different, with the WS average coming in at 3.10, with the overall average at 3.25. Again, less walks is beneficial, but not to an unexpected or game-changing extent.
Looking at ERA, the pattern I briefly alluded to earlier continues. The WS average sits at 3.90, while the overall average is up at 4.24. The mean World Series winner allows .34 fewer runs per game than the average team. Again, not surprising. Giving up fewer runs is advantageous.
So, if I were to draw a conclusion here, it would be that there isn’t any one way to win in Major League Baseball. Teams can have varying strengths and find ultimate success. There doesn’t appear to be one way to win, and maybe not even a best way, apart from the obvious “score more runs that you allow, and in turn win baseball games.”
You need a level of balance, to be sure. A team can’t be completely inept offensively and rely solely on pitching and expect to have great success. As mentioned before, the White Sox were the worst offensive World Series winner from 2000-2015, and they were still in the middle of the pack, right around league average. Similarly, it doesn’t appear a great offense and no pitching will get it done. The 2000 Yankees 4.76 ERA may look high, but the league ERA was 4.77 for that year. A team can have one be stronger than the other, but you need a bit of both.
There is more to look into here. This wasn’t a totally conclusive and comprehensive study. But I think it tells a meaningful story nonetheless. Ultimately, having the best overall team you can appears to be far more important than any single factor. Nothing here suggests pitching wins championships, for example. Teams just need the best roster possible, and there is an uncountable number of ways to get that done.