In the NBA, any talk of building a superteam usually centers around the notion of a Big Three: a trio of stars so daunting that it can carry just about any roster to a championship. In the past 15 years, we’ve seen that model work for the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors. But in baseball, three players generally aren’t enough to guarantee a World Series bid — even three Mike Trouts at their peaks would not make the playoffs if their teammates were all replacement-level scrubs.
Yet this season has been a banner year for Big Threes in MLB. Almost all of the best teams have their own elite Big Threes, some of which were just formed at the trade deadline. As a result, we might just see a little basketball-style star power carry a baseball team to glory this October — a testament to just how top-heavy MLB has gotten.
To figure this out, I looked at each team’s top three players in total wins above replacement1 (per 162 team games). And aside from the Los Angeles Angels (who perennially waste the talents of Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout) and the José Ramírez-powered Cleveland Guardians, every other member of the top 10 in winning percentage this season overlaps with the top 10 in total Big Three WAR.2
That makes 2022 the first season with so much agreement between those categories since 2007 (and just the fifth this century). If we look beyond just the top teams, WAR from Big Threes also has a 0.801 correlation with team runs-per-game differentials overall this season — the seventh-highest such correlation coefficient in any season since the divisional era began in 1969.
And when it comes to Big Threes, nobody has gotten more production from its top trio of stars this season than the St. Louis Cardinals:
|Team||No. 1 Player||WAR||No. 2 Player||WAR||No. 3 Player||WAR||Total WAR|
Between future Hall of Fame first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, do-everything third baseman Nolan Arenado and under-the-radar infielder Tommy Edman, St. Louis is the only team with two of the top five players in baseball by WAR and one of only two clubs3 with three of the top 17. Yes, the Big Three in the Cardinals’ lineup is surrounded by other contributors, but Goldschmidt, Arenado and Edman have been the primary forces driving St. Louis’s bid for the playoffs — which has a 79 percent probability of success, according to our model. And the trio illustrates the franchise’s current spin on the Cardinal Way: While Edman is homegrown, like so many St. Louis breakouts who preceded him, Goldschmidt and Arenado developed elsewhere and arrived later via blockbuster trades. The approach is working, as St. Louis has won 15 of its past 22 games and recently became favored to win the NL Central in our model.
The next Big Three on our list belongs to the Atlanta Braves and their homegrown trio of third baseman Austin Riley, starting pitcher Max Fried and shortstop Dansby Swanson.4 This threesome carries all kinds of interesting notes — it’s one of only six all-homegrown Big Threes in baseball this season and is the eighth-youngest among all Big Threes, much younger than the other leaders. But what’s perhaps most notable is who’s not on the list for Atlanta: Ronald Acuña Jr., the team’s biggest phenom, and Matt Olson, who made franchise icon Freddie Freeman expendable this past offseason. It’s a statement on the depth of Atlanta’s talent, but also about how much Riley, Fried and Swanson have had to pick up the slack for the big names on the defending champs who have underperformed.
It’s no surprise at all to see the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros near the top of the list, given the amount of star power those teams make a habit out of hoarding. Aaron Judge’s historic season is carrying much of the Yankees’ total; his 48.6 percent share of New York’s Big Three WAR is the highest for the leader of any team with at least 8.0 total WAR per 162.5 The Dodgers’ trio is the opposite of Atlanta’s — Freeman, Mookie Betts and Trea Turner all debuted with other teams, giving L.A. one of only two Big Threes in MLB this season with no homegrown players. (The other belongs to the Texas Rangers.) And the Astros’ group combines one of MLB’s best young hitters (Yordan Álvarez) with one of its best old pitchers (Justin Verlander) and a dash of vintage performance from José Altuve, who is on pace for his best WAR season since 2018.
And there’s even more room for Big Threes to figure into the championship race this October.
The San Diego Padres currently rank ninth on the list above after uniting Manny Machado’s MVP-caliber season (and an underrated performance from Jake Cronenworth) with the numbers Juan Soto produced mostly in Washington before being dealt to San Diego last week. But based on his previous track record — he had 7.1 WAR per 162 last season — Soto is capable of more than the 5.1-WAR pace he’s put up with trade rumors floating over him for most of this season. Furthermore, Fernando Tatís Jr., the Padres’ best player before acquiring Soto (and maybe still afterward), is due to return soon after missing the entire season to date with a wrist injury.
Although Tatís won’t return in time to play his way into San Diego’s top WAR-earners and change our 2022 rankings, a full-strength Padres Big Three is formidable. If we add up the WAR per 162 figures for Soto (7.1), Tatís (7.0) and Machado (4.6) from the 2021 season, the resulting number — 18.7 WAR per 162 — would rank sixth on the list above, putting San Diego in the same pack with the Braves, Yankees, Dodgers and Astros. And if we get even more fanciful, swapping in Machado’s outstanding 2022 for his good-but-not-amazing 2021, only the Cardinals would eclipse San Diego’s 20.8 potential Big Three WAR.
Why are Big Threes having such a moment in baseball? It could be due to the overall aggregation of talent among a handful of the best clubs; the variance in team runs-per-game differential is also the second-highest it’s been in any season of the divisional era, trailing only 2019. The more the best teams claim a disproportionate share of the best players, the better the Big Threes they can form — a cycle of competitive imbalance the NBA knows all too well.
Of course, the inherent differences between the two sports mean baseball will always be more about top-to-bottom team composition than basketball. And in turn, that makes the pursuit of MLB Big Threes a less certain path to championship glory. But this season’s top teams are bucking that rule, to whatever degree is possible in baseball. And that means when the confetti settles on the World Series, the winner will probably have gotten there with an unusually powerful group of top stars carrying the load.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.