Rating the Playoff Teams by Jeff Sullivan October 14, 2015 The Cubs won the third-most games in baseball. In the first round — a round some people don’t even consider the playoffs — they eliminated the team that won the second-most games in baseball. Just Tuesday, in the other first round, they eliminated the team that won the very most games in baseball. Very good accomplishment! Exciting times for the Cubs. It makes it worth wondering: who’s really the best at the moment? We know that the playoffs don’t always ultimately crown the best team in baseball. There’s just way too much room for randomness, and sometimes superior teams do get toppled. Really, it’s part of the fun. But at the same time, that “best team” label is more complicated than it might appear. Because: when? If you’re trying to figure out the best team, do you mean the best team overall, or the best team at the moment, or what? The Cardinals were just the only team in baseball to win 100 games. They also went into the playoffs without, say, Carlos Martinez, or a healthy Yadier Molina. So what should one make of the playoff Cardinals, relative to the overall regular-season Cardinals? This is at risk of going too long. I tried to rate the playoff teams. And I mean the teams as they’re built today. I tried to rate the best baseball teams, right now. What I did, basically, just re-created what’s already going on on our depth-charts page. But one of the big differences: I used playing time as it’s actually been given out. For these purposes, I considered just the eight teams in the Division Series round, because everyone in this round has played four games, so there’s some playing-time consistency. I understand that the Cardinals are dead, as of yesterday, but I still decided to include them. The long and short of it: for position players and pitchers, I calculated WAR per plate appearance, weighted by postseason playing time. I ran two sets of calculations — one using actual 2015 performance, and one using updated projected performance. When I added the numbers together for position players and pitchers, I arrived at a team rating. The units are weird and we’re looking at some decimals, but the actual rating isn’t important; what matters are the relative ratings, between teams. I have no sense of how well I’ve explained this. Results might help. First, here are the team ratings, based on how the players actually did this past season: The best playoff team, by this: the Dodgers, who tomorrow will play an elimination game against what this says is the second-best playoff team. Meanwhile, by the time you’re reading this, the third-best playoff team will be underway in an elimination game against the worst playoff team. Before going into a little more detail, here’s the same plot, but using player projections instead: You get the same top three, in the same order. You also again get the Rangers in last. The Cubs and Cardinals are almost exactly tied. The Astros fall from fifth to seventh, but the gap between seventh and eighth, here, is bigger than the gap between second and seventh. An obvious point: to some extent this is going to overrate the Dodgers, because they just started Clayton Kershaw on short rest, messing with the playing-time distribution. Kershaw isn’t actually going to account for 38% of the Dodgers’ total postseason plate appearances. Depending on how you adjust for that, the Dodgers fall back some, but it seems they remain in first place, at least by a hair. And Kershaw apparently can go on short rest and be effective. The Dodgers look like the best, but they’re probably not much better than the Mets or the Blue Jays. As for everything else, it just comes down to whether you think WAR does an adequate job of capturing the players and teams. If you don’t agree with WAR, you won’t agree with this, and that’s fine. There’s no guarantee WAR has a good built-in league adjustment. It doesn’t adjust for opponent quality. Maybe some of the adjustments it does make are wrong. Clearly, it’s far from perfect on the defensive side. I’m not going to lie to you about WAR’s accuracy, and I used it here because it’s the best we’ve got, and it’s super convenient. These ratings aren’t definitive; they’re just for fun. Probably, there are Rangers fans who are upset. No one wants to be told their favorite team is the worst in a group. Plenty of Rangers fans have accused FanGraphs of a bias over the course of the season, and there’s nothing for me to do about that but try to assure you this isn’t an attempt to push some sort of agenda. The ratings above are just where the numbers led me. I didn’t manually adjust anything. It’s absolutely within the realm of possibility that as far as the Rangers are concerned, WAR is just clueless, and that’s why the team is still alive today. I don’t have all the answers, and that’s what keeps baseball analysis so addictive. There’s always something new to try to explain, even if you’ve gotten a bunch of things wrong in the past. Like Sam Dyson. I love Sam Dyson. WAR, less so. It’s a small factor, but it’s something. I won’t keep you. That’s what I wound up with. That’s my attempt at rating the playoff teams, right now. Now to sit back and find out who actually plays the best over a three-game sample of first-round fifth games. That’s the more fun part.