EconoBall: What Separates a Playoff Team?

All of us want the Cubs to be winner.  But what exactly goes into being a winner?

Is a successful baseball team due largely to some great stars, or is it a true team game?

In the past, I've been vocal that a good team is 25+ players deep.  However, I decided to go to the data to test this.

For this work, I'm going to be using a stat called RE24.  It isn't used very often, but I've become a big fan of it for evaluating past offensive performances.  While the full calculation is described here, essentially what it does it calculate's a players contribution to the offense every time up.  Situations matter.  A strikeout with a runner on third and one out is much worse than a strikeout with nobody on and two outs.  For those who like WAR, there is a very strong relationship between RE24 and WAR, as shown in the chart below (the guy all by himself on the far right is Barry Bonds in 2004):

re24 vs war

I started by collecting RE24 data for every non-pitcher who had at least one at bat in the last 10 seasons.  I then assigned a 1 to players whose teams made the playoffs.

The first thing that comes out is that, while having elite players is helpful to a team, there is no guarantee that an elite player will make the playoffs.  Looking at the top 10% of players by RE24, only 37% of them made the playoffs, compared to 25% of all players.

Next, I looked at the difference in RE24 between the average player on a playoff team and the average player on a non-playoff team.  The player on the playoff team, not surprisingly, had an RE24 6.5 points higher.  One way to think of that is that every player on the team created 6.5 runs or gave other players a better opportunity to create an additional 6.5 runs.  Simply: teams that win tend to take advantage of opportunities.

However, this still doesn't answer the question: is this caused by superstars or by solid team play.  To answer that, I broke the players into quartiles based on RE24.  I find that players in the middle two categories are pretty much the same on playoff and non-playoff teams.  However, playoff players in the highest category tend to have a higher RE24 than those on non-playoff teams.  Interestingly, the same is also true for the lowest category.

What this implies is that playoff teams tend to have better superstars -- or superstars having a better year -- than non-playoff teams.  In this sense, free agency can help significantly if its used to get impact talent.  (Of course, this is increasingly difficult.)  However, the other key to a good team is to have as few bad players on your team as possible.  This second piece can often be lost in team building discussions.  These are the guys on a team that won't be making $10 million a year.  However, their at bats are important and filling these holes in, with either value free agent signings or a productive system, is very important to team success.

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  • I have never heard of RE24 it looks like a great stat. Great article, I can't wait until they start playing.

  • So it's WAR weighted by leverage?

  • My guess would be the bottom of the roster is what has separated the Red Sox from the Yankees in the last decade. Both have made the playoffs nearly every year and I would bet the top 3/4 of their rosters have received similar production in that time, but I bet the Sox have managed to get cheap production from the bottom of their roster more frequently than the Yankees and their floundering farm system.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Great point-the Red Sux had players like Carp, Gomes and Ross who were real c ontributors who didnt start often. The Stankees had little depth, period. Guys like Cano carried them farther than what the entire teams numbers warranted.

  • Interesting, I guess 'RE24 is statistical proof that baseball is a team game. An organization could have an all star team of players padding their states and win nothing if they do not do the little team first things.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    A lot of the "team first" stuff are things that sabre heads generally hate, like sac bunts, hitting behind the runner on first, swinging at a bad pitch to protect a base stealer, etc, you know, basic baseball strategy. RE24 is the first stat I've heard of that kind of analyzes team performance.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Like the '69 Cubs for example?

  • Interesting stuff. Thanks. I really think that having as few bad players on a team is the quickest way to become competitive. Could this be where the Cubs are heading in the next 1-2yrs? Eliminate bad players and then get one or two impact players

  • In reply to Cuyler:

    Could be. Although the team is going to be relying on so much youth, the chances are some of them will struggle and put up the numbers of bad players even though long term we would expect better. The Cubs should end up with plenty of impact hitters. We'll see about impact pitchers (though I think at worst we can have a couple impact relievers out of Vizcaino, Rondon, Grimm, Ramirez, Rivero, Black, Cates relatively soon).

  • In reply to Cuyler:

    This year is a good test of that theory. With the exception of Barney, the Cubs are not likely to have any "black holes" in their lineup, but few to no stars. If they replace Barney, or if Barney rebounds, it will be interesting to see how far they can go.

    Of course, the above study totally ignores pitching and defense. I wonder if there is a way to equalize for these things. I can't think of any.

  • Love the way that mind works Mike! I think it would be interesting to compare the 2013 Boston team and some team of super-stars of the past. I think Boston only had 3 top tier players on offense; Ortiz, Ellsbury, and Pedroia. They had a huge number of role players who all seems to perform better than their superficial stats.

  • "What this implies is that playoff teams tend to have better superstars -- or superstars having a better year -- than non-playoff teams."

    Hopefully this will be us pretty soon.

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    Very interesting, Mike -- appreciate the analysis!

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    I think the '84 team is a perfect example of winning as a "team." When the season started, there wasn't a single "superstar" on the roster. They were balanced, not a single player on the team had 100 RBI, but six had at least 80, including three who had 90+. Ron Cey led the team with just 25 HR, but five others had at least 14. Three starters drew more walks than K's (Bowa, Matthews and Dernier)

  • In reply to Mike Partipilo:

    That 1984 team was a great team to watch,..... Was a huge fan of Cey at the time. Didn't hurt you anywhere, helped in a lot of ways.

  • What would be the result if you took players who had been on both playoff teams and non-playoff teams either in the same year or over several years time and compared their performance by the RE24 stat? That might provide some further insight into whether a good team promotes good performance or if better role players make for a better team.

  • This is the approach beane has often taken in Oakland. Instead of shelling out $15-20 mil for a star he's made the 15-25 players on the roster better. However, in theory large payroll teams can move higher payed players from starting line up to the bench as they decline in value though this doesn't seem to happen to a positive all that ofent.

  • In reply to beckdawg:

    Mike makes some good points and you're right on the money about the A's. This article basically goes back to the notion that impact talent of 4-6 players is a baseline to becoming a playoff contending team. What Beane has done is concentrate on an overall roster of decent players that will be cost effective and keep Oakland competitive. With the exception of Donaldson, that roster had no real impact players last year and still managed to win their division.

  • The blue dot of Barry Bonds 2004 year ends any discussion about whether steroids make a significant difference.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I'm not so sure about that... if there were other notable players out there with him, or at least out there where they visibly stand alone as well, then I'd say this is substantial proof that steroids do make a significant difference. Barry Bonds, isn't the only player with an asterisk next to his name. As we all know, Barry Bonds wasn't the only one cheating, there were several other players cheating by using steroids & P.E.D.S. as well. IMO... Barry Bonds, was a great baseball player, he didn't need steroids & P.E.D.S. to achieve that status, however, his decision has forever tarnished his name and his place in baseball history. Hitting a baseball at 90-100 mph, is one of the hardest things to do in all of sports. Steroids and P.E.D.S. does nothing to help a player make contact, it may help a player hit a home run, but he has to be able to make contact first. Having said that, this may be showing us how great a hitter Barry Bonds really was and not the results of using steroids. Of course, I don't claim to be an expert, but all I'm saying is, I would expect there to be a few more players separated and out front with Bonds, had this been a direct result of steroid use.

  • In reply to 1CUBFAN1:

    I never bought the rational that peds do not help a hitter make contact. If you are bigger, stronger, and quicker one can wait longer before committing,thus getting that split second is often the difference. Also its not just HRs, but hard hit balls that get through the infield and singles that split the outfield. A review of those caught will show that they were less in all facets of the game including making contact.

  • I want to know who that blue dot is out in space at the other end.

  • Does it? What about the dozens of others who were using steroids but are nonetheless in the paint with everyone else? There's no doubt Bonds was juicing. But there also is no doubt that Bonds is simply one of the greatest of all time.

  • In reply to TTP:

    It proves that he was one of the greatest as well. As far as the others go, it's proves that they were not. Basically, the graph shows that Barry was to good to use peds, but also indicates how skewed all stats were for those who used.

  • I love this notion of making your worst players less bad. It sure seems like the Cubs currently have some pretty bad players. The front office's approach to doing this seems to be taking flyers on previously injured players and signings like Edwin Jackson.

    I guess if guys like Olt and Sweeney hit and prospects like Alcantara and Johnson fulfill their potential, they could help push lesser players off the roster.

    Then we are just in wait-and-see mode on possible impact guys like Baez, Bryant, Almora, Soler and Edwards. If only they would've gone the distance on Tanaka. That is assuming he didn't have is heart set on the Yankees and was just using the Cubs to push the price higher. The chances of getting an impact pitcher through free agency seem to be so low, that trades and the draft are the only way now. That's gonna be tough...

  • Will somebody say something about baseball? Anything! Where is everybody?

  • It's baseball related , I want to start a betting pool for the over/under on upbeat and positive articles written by Wittenmeyer before opening day.
    I'm going to set it at 3. Anybody want the over ?

  • In reply to Cuyler:

    I don't.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Good answer !

  • In reply to Cuyler:

    The next positive article Wittlessmeyer writes will be his first.

  • On an unrelated issue flights are booked as of this morning for Spring Training. 80° in Phoenix today. Aahh, baseball, blue skies, and a beer!

  • I saw a quote about a year ago from someone in the A's front office that revealed that they had caught onto your discovery in this post. The guy (can't remember who) said that a big part of their strategy is not having anyone on the roster who is below replacement level, and being very careful to only use guys in roles in which they can succeed (i.e. platoons when necessary, etc.). Everyone had a very defined role. The point was to eliminate all the below replacement level performances.

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    Like Lee Smith, my question is "What the hell is RE24?"

    Otherwise, it's a damn good article!

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