Off the back of the trade deadline I have been wondering what is best for fans, a team that wins a singular World Series championship and is bad for 20+ years or a team that is close most of the time but never makes it. To put it simply, over the last 20 years would you rather have been a Royals fan or Indians fan?
That is a very subjective question to answer and we won’t have a definitive answer by the end of this article but I will arm you all with the ability to answer it better, based on your value of winning the World Series.
This question only exists, as it’s clear a fan would prefer to watch a good team compared to a bad team. However, a terrible team can be excused for it’s past by winning the World Series. So, how do we define a good or a bad team?
It is easy to see how many World Series each team has, but it isn’t that simple to see how good or bad teams have been historically. You could look at end of season records but that isn’t detailed enough. I wanted to find something that shows how teams have performed over each day of the last 20+ years, since the 1998 MLB expansion. That way I would know approximately how a fan might have felt watching that team.
There aren’t many ways to do this but thanks to the brilliant work of FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver and Jay Boice there is a way with their Elo ratings. Back in 2006, Nate Silver first wrote a piece for Baseball Prospectus on Elo ratings in MLB, since then the concept has matured. At the start of the 2016 FiveThirtyEight, a site created by Nate, launched an Elo rating system that estimates each MLB teams current skill level. This was going to be part of their prediction modelling of the upcoming season.
Some of you may have heard of Elo ratings before and some of you may be going ‘what are Elo ratings, Russell?’. These are named after the Hungarian-American chess master Arpad Elo, Elo ratings are a simple way to rate competitors that can be tuned and customised endlessly to incorporate available data.
For FiveThirtyEight’s rankings, after every game, the winning team gains some rating points while the losing team loses the same number of points. This is based on the chances their model gave each team to win the game beforehand and the margin of victory. For example, a win by a big underdog results in a bigger exchange of points than a win by a favourite — and the larger the margin of victory, the larger the exchange. If you want to read more about their method you can here.
They also used a simplified version of this rating system to look back at the entire history of MLB, which is what I am going to use to determine how good or bad a team has been since the 30 team expansion.
From the start of 1998 season to end of July 2019 there has been 4,643 days in which an MLB game has been played, be that regular or postseason. I have calculated the ranking of each teams Elo ratings for all of those days. Please note that going forward anything referring to the Nationals includes the records of the Expos from 1998 to 2004.
Simply The Best
One of the first questions I wanted to answer was: “Has every team at some point, since 1998, been the best team in MLB?” Could every fan steak a claim that their team has been the best at some point?
According to the Elo ratings this answer is no, there are 5 teams which have never been ranked highest.
All 25 other teams can say at one point they were, potentially, the best team in the league. The team with the most days at the top should come as no surprise.
The Yankees have spent over 25% (1,097 days) of the time ranked as the top team. The Mariners have the 5th most days but haven’t been ranked best since July 2003 the longest time ago for any team with more than 100 days as best.
Has every team been the worst? Once again no. This time there are 8 teams who haven’t been the worst.The 5 teams with the most time as the worst team combine for 56.6% of all the time since 1998.
The Bigger Picture
Who’s been top and bottom gives us some insight into how a team has been but doesn’t give us the full picture. How much time has each team spent in each position? That is what the graph below shows. The colour scaling is for each team with green showing the ranking with the most days and red the rankings with the least.There is a lot of data here and many things which one could highlight. I will say something about each team but there is plenty more to be found.
AL EastYankees – They have been the best longest and never been a bottom 10 team in 21.5 years of baseball. Unsurprisingly Yankees fans have had it best.
Red Sox – No Boston fan wants to hear this but they have had it second best to the Yankees at almost everything. 2nd most often 1st, 2nd most often a top 10 team, 2nd least often a bottom 10 team etc.
Blue Jays – Toronto fans have had to deal with the Blue Jays pretty much being average most of the time, more time in the middle 10 than any other team. But they have been top 10 much more than they have been bottom 10.
Rays – Very unique profile for the Tampa Bay fans. They have either been one the worst teams or close to being best. Very little time at the top mostly contained to the 2012 postseason and start of the next season.
Orioles – Baltimore fans have had it bad, 1 of only 6 teams to have been in the bottom 10 for more than half the time, but they haven’t been the worst team that often. That being said there probably isn’t much solace in that.
AL CentralIndians – Cleveland fans have generally had it pretty good. The Indians have been above average most of the time with a their largest amount of time being spent in a contender spot. Only one day as the worst team in MLB, 01/04/13.
Tigers – Detroit fans have had a lot of time supporting the worst team in MLB but they have also supported at top 10 team a quarter of the time. That is better than 12 other teams.
White Sox – The White Sox have been just on the worst side of average for most of this time period. But only just, only 4 teams have spent more time in the middle 10.
Twins – The Minnesota fans have either got to watch a very bad team or an average team. They were ranked best on just 2 days, 04/04/07 and 25/09/06 and haven’t been a top 4 team since 2010.
Royals – Man the Royals fans have had to watch a very bad team for a large amount of time. Most time in the bottom 10, lowest median position. Second most days as the worst team in MLB, had no days in the top 10 till June 2014.
AL WestAthletics – Only 5 sets of fans have supported a team that has spent more time as a top 10 team than Oakland fans. A good amount of time as a top 3 teams but then fairly evenly spread between 4th and 24th. Not often been a very poor team.
Angels – These LA fans have supported a generally above average team which has spent an almost even amount of time being ranked anywhere from 2nd to 18th. Have only been a bottom 10 team for 27 days since 2002.
Astros – It isn’t that surprising that Astros fans have either had to watch trash or stars. The four ranks they have had most are, in order, 30th, 3rd, 2nd & 1st. Otherwise there team has generally been above average.
Rangers – Texas fans have had the same middle of the road experience that the Blue Jays have had with a few more days as being a poor team.
Mariners – Great, bad or average. That is what the Seattle fans have seen over the last 20 odd years but that great period was over 15 years ago now. They have eked into the top 10 at some point each of the recent seasons but not been top 5 since 2007.
NL EastBraves – Atlanta fans have generally had it good, 3rd highest median position behind only the Yankees and Red Sox. So, best in the NL. More recently thought they did have to suffer 200 mostly continues days of being the worst team from late August 2015 to September 2016.
Phillies – The Philadelphia fans have a had a little bit of everything, they have spent at least 99 days ranked in each spot and at most 230. These are both the highest minimum and lowest maximum of any team. This is reflected in their median ranking of 16th.
Mets – Everything I hear about the Mets is that they are a poorly run team but they have never been truly poor on the field. They have spent most of their time being slightly below average with flashes of brilliance but not 2007 have they been the best.
Nationals/Expos – These Washington and Montreal fans have been through a lot, nearly 50% of the time as a bottom 10 team but recently things are much improved. They only have 3 days as bottom 10 team in the last 7 seasons with them briefly hitting the top spot in June 2017.
Marlins – Less than 5% of the past 20 years have the Marlins been a top 10 team in MLB. They haven’t been a top 10 team since a brief 5 day stint in April 2009 if you ignore that you have to go back to May 2005. But although the Marlins haven’t been good there are two teams who been worse more often.
NL CentralCardinals – St Louis like the Yankees have spent the more time ranked as the best than any other ranking but unlike the Yankees they have also had a fair amount of time as mid 10 team. The St Louis fans have had it better than any other National League team fans.
Cubs – Like Astros fans these Chicago fans have spent most of their time supporting a great team or a very bad team. Which makes the team on the whole a median team but unlike the White Sox they have had the extremes both good and bad.
Reds – The Cincinnati fans have had it rough over 50% of the time they have had a bottom 10 team to support. Spent most of 2010-2014 as a top 10 team but either side of that it has been rough.
Brewers – The fan experience for Milwaukee natives isn’t that dissimilar to those from Cincinnati. Just a little less time being good and bad. Brewers have only been a top 5 team for 22 days in 21.5 years of MLB, 18 of which came from the start of this season.
Pirates – The plight of the Pittsburgh MLB fan, was not something I had truly realised until I saw their Elo rankings. Like Kansas City they have spent an inordinate amount of time being one of the worst teams in MLB but unlike Kansas City they have never been the best team.
NL West Dodgers – In the last 2 decades, these LA fans have watched an above average team 80% of the time but they have really been ranked as the best team due to one of the AL powerhouses being above them.
Giants – Just as the Red Sox didn’t like what I said the Giants fans won’t like it when I say that their rankings is similar to the Dodgers but with a longer tail into being a poor team for a quarter of the time.
Diamondbacks – Like the Phillies fans, the Arizona fans have supported a team with varied performance levels. They skew a bit more to the poor but they have on the whole be a fairly average team.
Padres – The San Diego fans haven’t had much to cheer for, never ranked as a top 3 team and more than half the time a bottom 10 team. There only long stint in the top 5 was in the later half of the 1998 season.
Rockies – Colorado fans have watched a below average team for 75% of the time and have only watched a top 5 team for 34 of the 4,643 days. These were short stints in 2007, 2008 & 2011.
Without accounting for any postseason performances the Royals, Pirates and Marlins fans have had it the worse. So, how do we include postseason performance to give a fuller picture and what parts of the postseason should we include?
I will answer that second question first, only World Series wins matter. As a fan, if you have won it you can overlook some of the poor performances before or after it but you don’t if you don’t win. The question is how much?
I have built the following matrix to answer these questions and it works as follows. I summed up all of the rankings of the 20+ years for each team to give an overall good to bad ranking for each team (with the good teams having a low number and the bad ones a higher number). The zero column in the table below shows those ranks.
Then each subsequent column removes a bad year (being on average 25th ranked for a season) for each World Series win. So, if you think that you would take a 5 years of being bad for a World Series win you should look at the 5 column, if you think 10 years then look at column 10, and that tells you which teams have had it best or worst bad on your view.
Lets use this to answer our original question, Royals fan or Indians fan who has had it worse? If you believe that winning a World Series cancels 10 or more years of being bad then to you the Indians fans have had it worse. If you think it is less then the Royals fans have had it worse.
If you think anything beyond 10 years the output of this matrix is the same, teams are ranked by their number of World Series wins and then by the Elo rankings.
The Yankees unsurprisingly have had it best and if you place any value on the World Series the Pirates have had it worst. Sorry Pirates fans, the last 20 years hasn’t been kind on you and this article wasn’t meant to be a dig on you but that is just what the data shows.
I began researching and writing this article looking for some numbers to help with the Royals fan or Indians fan question. But in doing so I have come to find that the fans of either can take solace in the fact they aren’t Pirates fans.