There’s been some discussion in recent years about the prospect of super teams in the game, about the ingredients necessary for their development and the respective ETAs of certain specific super teams. The Cubs of 2016 created a road map for others to follow: begin with a collection of young talent, wait for it to arrive in the majors, and supplement it with big-ticket free-agency items. The Cubs are a big-market club that maximized its smarts and financial might. The result? A World Series championship.
I think just about everyone has speculated about whom the Yankees might add in the historic 2018-19 free-agency class, one that will permit them to add to their already impressive collection of young talent. The Yankees have perhaps arrived ahead of schedule, although Indians manager Terry Francona suspects the Yankees themselves don’t believe they’ve arrived ahead of schedule given the contract they handed to Aroldis Chapman this past offseason.
The Astros voluntarily elected to become the DisAstros, tanking with mediocre rosters to collect premium picks and young assets, then rising to become one of the preeminent teams in the game. It was an NBA-type model, this idea that the easiest, most predictable path to becoming really good is first to become really bad, to acquire premium picks and create financial flexibility. This plan has apparently inspired other teams in the game to actively pursue failure.
The Dodgers are another big-market team now being run like a savvy small-market one, enjoying elite pre-arb talent, innovative practices, and elite expensive players. They were being characterized on at least one magazine cover this summer as possibly the best team ever before their late-season slide.
The Nationals were, in some ways, the Astros before the Astros. They used (or, fell backward into) back-to-back No. 1 overall picks that netted them Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. They then signed Max Scherzer to give them two of the game’s best pitchers. Now, they’re one of six teams to have recorded a run differential of 147 runs or greater this season. That does not include the Cubs, who rank seventh in run differential (+127) after producing a MLB-best run diff of 270 last season.
This season marks the first time this century that six teams have produced run differentials of 140 runs or greater, and it’s just the fourth time since 2000 that more than four teams have reached that number in a lone campaign. There haven’t been more such teams to eclipse that run-differential figure since seven teams accomplished the feat in 1999.
Of course, it’s difficult to predict the future, but it appears that we’re in an age when super teams have been planned, some having already arrived, some perhaps have arrived ahead of schedule. The Indians-Yankees ALDS series has a later-October feel to it, which makes sense: it matches the game’s top-two run-differential teams against each other. In fact, all four division series pairings feature teams with +100 run differentials
In 2011, 2012, and 2014, only four teams had exceeded +100-run differentials.
Of course, these run differentials at the top end are, in part, also being fueled by teams in rebuild mode — or even tank mode — and by a greater run-scoring environment. There’s an argument to be made that the talent at the bottom end of the game’s rosters is weaker than in past years.
In 2014, for instance there were eight teams with run differentials of negative 60 or worse; in 2011, there were seven. This season, there are 12. This isn’t meant to represent an exhaustive study, but the trend upon which the Division Series pairings are perhaps shedding light is that a group of super teams has maybe been created, teams that are benefiting not just from their own talent and roster-building philosophies, but a greater separation between the Haves and the Have Nots.
And among the eight teams left standing in 2017, only Cleveland is a true small-market club, though perhaps Arizona can be regarded as part of the lower end of the middle class of clubs.
Earlier this year, Craig Edwards wrote about the increasing correlation between payroll dollars and wins. In that excellent post, Edwards wondered if baseball’s age of parity is over .
Perhaps these run differentials, these large markets rising to power, suggests that the age of parity is over, or at least is on sabbatical. Perhaps this postseason indicates we’ve entered an age of super teams and those teams aren’t going to be distributed equally by market size.
Maybe this season is just an anomaly, or maybe it’s the beginning of something new.