The Best One-Two Punch in Baseball

Mike Trout plus almost anybody else seems like a fair answer to the question of which team has the best 1-2 punch in baseball. I probably wouldn’t fault anyone who was willing to trade their best two players for just one Mike Trout, even if it was just for this season. Looking at the question a little more objectively, however — with this year’s projections — reveals that Mike Trout plus nobody would rank (a) in the top half of major-league teams’ best duos, but also (b) nowhere near the top. Also Trout doesn’t play with nobody, as the Angels have a few other decent players and might contend for a playoff spot if things break right.

As for the best one-two combo in terms of combined WAR, a reasonable person could make a few other reasonable guesses. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo form an impressive pair. Mookie Betts and Chris Sale are fantastic for the Red Sox. And then there’s Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. All of those are good guesses, but it’s actually the Dodgers who occupy the top spot, with Clayton Kershaw and Corey Seager barely edging Mike Trout and the still very good Andrelton Simmons.

As great as Mike Trout is, Clayton Kershaw’s 7.4 projected WAR is less than a win from Trout’s 8.2. While the Angels’ shortstop has a good 3.4 projected WAR, Corey Seager’s 4.5 WAR makes up for the difference between Kershaw and Trout.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to measure these duos? We can take another crack at it using the geometric mean, where we multiply the two numbers and then take their square root. Doing this helps both to emphasize the importance of the second player and reward the relevant team for employing two of the best players in baseball as opposed to one great player and one who is merely above average.

The Dodgers still occupy the top spot by this methodology, but the Red Sox and the Nationals move ahead of the Angels. In this case, having two five-win players distributes the talent more evenly. It probably isn’t a surprise, but most of the best teams in baseball are on the higher side of the chart, while most of the teams not expected to contend are on the lower side. There are 16 teams in baseball right now that possess at least a 20% chance of making the playoffs, per our odds. The top-12 teams above are in that top 16, with Texas still in the top half. Only Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Seattle appear outside the top half of teams above and yet appear likely to contend for a playoff spot.

This information has some relevant beyond just serving as a bit of trivia. There are a couple conclusions we can glean from it. First, based on the information above, if the only thing you knew about a team was the WAR of its best two players, you would have an inside track on guessing the contenders for this season.

Second, it gives us some idea about team depth. While depth can be measured in many different ways, one of those way is to take the top-two players on every team and look at the percentage of a team’s total WAR for which those two players are responsible. This gives us a sense of the most top-heavy teams in baseball. Given that Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Seattle don’t rate highly when it comes to the top-two rankings — and yet are nevertheless expected to contend — we would expect those teams to have a pretty low percentage of their WAR coming from their two best players. Here’s what we find.

As expected, the Cardinals, Mariners, and Pirates all have a fairly low percentage. St. Louis appears at the bottom, at around 16%.

This graph also gives us an idea of which clubs are most vulnerable to injuries or poor performance from their best players. The Angels would be absolutely hopeless without Mike Trout, for example, so it isn’t really a surprise how highly ranked they are here. We saw what happened last season to the Arizona Diamondbacks without A.J. Pollock. Another injury to Pollock or star Paul Goldschmidt would torpedo whatever small chance the team has this season. The Marlins need Yelich and Stanton in the same way. The latter’s absence for part of last year hurt, and the Tigers have to have Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander performing well or else.

As the chart above only illustrates the best duos’ percentage of total WAR, it doesn’t reveal as much about contention. Milwaukee, Oakland and San Diego are less reliant on any one player — not because they have a lot of depth, but because they don’t have very good players. The White Sox, meanwhile, aren’t overly reliant on Jose Quintana: they’re roughly as likely to reach the postseason with him or without him, which is why he’s on trading block. The above is going to approximate how even the talent level is throughout the team compared to their best players, but doesn’t completely tell us about depth.

Let’s take some of the information above and try to measure depth one more way by removing the top-two players and seeing how the teams rank according to projected WAR if the best players are removed.

There’s a reason the Cubs, Dodgers, and Indians are supposed to be really good this year, and it isn’t just because they have great players at the top. If you took away Kershaw and Seager from the Dodgers and Bryant and Rizzo from the Cubs, they would still be among the top-10 teams in baseball — at a talent level, that is, roughly equivalent to the New York Mets. While looking at a team’s two best players will give you a decent idea on if a team will make the playoffs, removing a team’s best players and looking at what’s left shows even more. That’s why building a team is difficult, stars and scrubs is hard to pull off, and while having great players helps, having a lot of good players is better.

For reference, here is all of the above-graphed information in one chart.

MLB Teams’ Best Two Players
Team Players Top WAR 2nd WAR Top-2 WAR Geometric Mean % of Total WAR
Dodgers Kershaw, Seager 7.4 4.5 11.9 5.8 23.3%
Angels Trout, Simmons 8.2 3.4 11.6 5.3 31.0%
Red Sox Sale, Betts 5.5 5.4 10.9 5.4 24.0%
Nationals Scherzer, Harper 5.7 5.2 10.9 5.4 24.9%
Cubs Bryant, RIzzo 5.6 4.7 10.3 5.1 20.7%
Indians Kluber, Lindor 5.2 5.1 10.3 5.1 21.6%
Giants Bumgarner, Posey 5.1 4.8 9.9 4.9 23.5%
Blue Jays Donaldson, Sanchez 6.1 3.4 9.5 4.6 23.6%
Mets Syndergaard, deGrom 5.6 3.9 9.5 4.7 24.1%
Astros Correa, Altuve 5.1 4.3 9.4 4.7 20.5%
Orioles Machado, Gausman 5.9 3.1 9.0 4.3 24.4%
Tigers Verlander, Cabrera 4.6 4.1 8.7 4.3 25.4%
Rays Kiermaier, Archer 4.4 4.2 8.6 4.3 24.3%
Rangers Darvish, Beltre 4.4 4.0 8.4 4.2 23.5%
Diamondbacks Goldschmidt, Pollock 4.4 3.7 8.1 4.0 28.3%
Marlins Yelich, Stanton 4.0 3.9 7.9 3.9 26.4%
Rockies Arenado, Gray 4.6 3.2 7.8 3.8 25.5%
Mariners Seager, Cano 4.0 3.6 7.6 3.8 19.7%
Yankees Tanaka, Sanchez 4.0 3.4 7.4 3.7 19.7%
Pirates Cole, McCutchen 3.7 3.6 7.3 3.6 19.4%
White Sox Quintana, Rodon 4.4 2.9 7.3 3.6 30.3%
Braves Freeman, Inciarte 3.8 2.6 6.4 3.1 27.5%
Cardinals Martinez, Carpenter 3.5 2.7 6.2 3.1 16.3%
Phillies Nola, Velasquez 3.3 2.9 6.2 3.1 21.8%
Reds Votto, DeSclafani 4.1 1.9 6.0 2.8 23.0%
Twins Dozier, Sano 3.3 2.6 5.9 2.9 20.8%
Royals Cain, Duffy 2.9 2.9 5.8 2.9 20.9%
A’s Cotton, Gray 2.6 2.4 5.0 2.5 16.7%
Brewers Davies, Guerra 2.4 2.2 4.6 2.3 18.6%
Padres Myers, Solarte 2.6 1.7 4.3 2.1 18.9%

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

Cool Post!

Pretty wild that Villar or Braun aren’t top 2 for Milwaukee.

7 years ago
Reply to  Eddy

Davies 2.4
Guerra 2.2
Braun 2.0
Thames 1.8
Villar 1.3

1) Oh woe, the Brew Crew 🙁
2) That’s a lot of regression on Villar
3) That’s not starts and scrubs, that’s just scrubs
4) When Matt Garza is your 5th best player, I refer you back to #1

7 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

*When Matt Garza is PROJECTED to be your 5th best player.

I would be willing to bet anyone on the internet any amount of Adult Entertainment Credits that Matt Garza does not finish the season among the top 5 Brewers in WAR.

The youth & accompanying high variability of the Brewers roster is a reason for NO WOE from me. Santana, Broxton, Braun has the potential to be a dangerous offensive OF with Brinson waiting in the wings. Shaw, Arcia, Villar & Thames offer varying degrees of intrigue around the IF with Hernan Perez as a fun UT guy & Diaz/Erceg not all that far off.

Pitching isn’t as pretty but if Davies & Guerra can build off their 2016 success & Peralta/Nelson can get back to their past MOR form with Hader chipping in later in the season you’ve got a decent rotation.

I haven’t been as excited for a Brewers season to start since 2011.

7 years ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

Bless you

7 years ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

I agree–when you aren’t going to be good, the best thing you can do is have a huge range of outcomes, because the off chance you’ll have some guys turn into real 1st-division regulars is more important than treading water. Plus, those guys are fun! Power! Speed! Strikeouts! I love what the Brewers are doing, even if they’re going to be bad this year.
And your bet is cheating a bit. If Garza is anywhere close to the Top 5 in Brewers WAR by the all-star break he’ll be filling out the rotation for a contender.

7 years ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

Also, I think that there’s a decent chance that Broxton or Villar, if not both, are the best two Brewers next year. Mostly because they’re the only ones who have performed at a high level already and aren’t on the wrong side of 30.

7 years ago
Reply to  Eddy

Sort of makes you doubt the underlying program.