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Can We Play NBA Jam … With MLB Teams?

It takes an entire 25-man roster to make a winning baseball team — just ask the defending-champion Boston Red Sox. Sure, Boston had plenty of top-line talent at its disposal, but it also got key playoff contributions from the likes of Steve Pearce and Nathan Eovaldi, neither of whom was especially heralded when the Red Sox picked them up in midseason deals. Postseason history is littered with similarly unsung heroes from down the roster who step up in big moments.

But what if teams didn’t need to rely on all of those non-star contributions? Instead, we want to find the opposite: teams that are too top-heavy, with lots of star power but few quality role players to help fill out the rest of the roster. These are teams who lack for diamonds in the rough — though the stars sure do shine brightly.

For instance, if there was an NBA Jam for baseball, where teams could only use two players (let’s say a pitcher and a hitter), which club would come out on top? Here are the best team hitter-pitcher tandems in MLB this season,1 according to the sum of the wins above replacement2 per 162 games across both players:

Major League Baseball’s most dynamic duos of 2019

MLB teams with the best combination of a top hitter and top pitcher, according to the sum of both players’ WAR per 162 games

Rk Team Top Batter (WAR/162) Top Pitcher (WAR/162) Sum
1 Dodgers Cody Bellinger 10.1 Hyun-Jin Ryu 6.1 16.2
2 Nationals Anthony Rendon 5.9 Max Scherzer 9.0 14.9
3 Brewers Christian Yelich 9.3 Brandon Woodruff 4.3 13.6
4 Diamondbacks Ketel Marte 7.4 Zack Greinke 5.6 13.1
5 Angels Mike Trout 10.5 Ty Buttrey 2.6 13.1
6 Astros Alex Bregman 7.0 Gerrit Cole 5.9 12.9
7 Rangers Joey Gallo 5.1 Lance Lynn 7.6 12.6
8 Mets Pete Alonso 6.1 Jacob deGrom 5.7 11.8
9 White Sox Yoan Moncada 5.2 Lucas Giolito 6.2 11.3
10 Athletics Matt Chapman 7.3 Frankie Montas 4.0 11.3
11 Twins Jorge Polanco 6.7 Jose Berrios 4.6 11.3
12 Red Sox Xander Bogaerts 6.7 Chris Sale 4.3 11.0
13 Cubs Kris Bryant 6.3 Cole Hamels 4.4 10.7
14 Rockies Trevor Story 6.0 Jon Gray 4.6 10.7
15 Braves Ronald Acuna Jr. 5.8 Mike Soroka 4.7 10.5
16 Rays Brandon Lowe 4.2 Charlie Morton 5.8 10.0
17 Yankees DJ LeMahieu 6.7 Masahiro Tanaka 3.1 9.8
18 Indians Carlos Santana 4.9 Shane Bieber 4.6 9.5
19 Padres Fernando Tatis Jr. 5.5 Kirby Yates 4.0 9.5
20 Reds Eugenio Suarez 3.1 Luis Castillo 5.4 8.6
21 Phillies J.T. Realmuto 4.1 Aaron Nola 3.8 7.9
22 Blue Jays Eric Sogard 3.2 Marcus Stroman 4.3 7.6
23 Tigers Nicholas Castellanos 2.4 Matthew Boyd 5.1 7.5
24 Pirates Josh Bell 4.1 Joe Musgrove 3.1 7.2
25 Royals Whit Merrifield 4.5 Brad Keller 2.6 7.1
26 Orioles Trey Mancini 2.7 John Means 4.3 7.0
27 Cardinals Paul DeJong 4.4 Jack Flaherty 2.2 6.6
28 Marlins Miguel Rojas 3.2 Caleb Smith 2.9 6.0
29 Mariners Edwin Encarnacion* 2.9 Marco Gonzales 3.0 5.9
30 Giants Evan Longoria 2.5 Madison Bumgarner 3.1 5.6

* Player is no longer with club. Data through July 23.

WAR is based on JEFFBAGWELL — the Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists.

Source: FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com

In terms of two-man teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ combination of Cody Bellinger (10.1 WAR per 162) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (6.1) is easily the best in baseball this year. The former is having one of the best seasons in baseball history, and the latter has been the surprising pillar of one of baseball’s best rotations. Bellinger’s ability to play three outfield positions plus first base also helps in this hypothetical universe where he has to field all of the balls hitters put in play against Ryu. (In related news, no, I didn’t completely think through the mechanics of how MLB Jam would work.)

Of course, the Dodgers are also arguably baseball’s best team in the real world. So that doesn’t do us much good here; we are, after all, looking for the teams whose fortunes would change the most depending on whether we look at their stars or the entire team. To that end, let’s break down the teams with the biggest differences in WAR ranking between their top hitter-pitcher duo and their full roster.

According to that method, the team that would most benefit from an MLB Jam-style roster construction is the Chicago White Sox, whose top pairing of pitcher Lucas Giolito (6.2 WAR/162) and third baseman Yoan Moncada (5.2) is ninth among pitcher-batter combos. That placement for Giolito and Moncada is much higher than the White Sox’s overall team ranking in WAR (No. 26), making them baseball’s top-heaviest team in terms of leading twosomes. The Pale Hose edge out the Texas Rangers, whose top combo of pitcher Lance Lynn (7.6) and Joey Gallo (5.1) ranks seventh in MLB despite the team sitting only 15th in WAR overall.

The Tampa Bay Rays, meanwhile, are on the opposite end of the spectrum to the White Sox and Rangers. Their leading duo of pitcher Charlie Morton (5.8 WAR/162) and second baseman Brandon Lowe (4.2) ranks just 16th among MLB’s top 1-2 hitter-pitcher punches, but Tampa as a whole is fourth in WAR on the basis of its impressive depth. Eleven different Rays are on pace for at least 2.0 WAR — the mark of a solid season — and, perhaps more importantly, only 10 Rays have 0.0 WAR or fewer (which is tied for the fewest of any team). Although Tampa Bay lacks star power, it has been able to build its 47 percent playoff probability by avoiding what Jay Jaffe calls “replacement-level killers”: players who produce little or no value in substantial playing time.

Expanding the scope to the top five players on each team — and now looking at the ranking irrespective of positions — the Colorado Rockies emerge as another markedly top-heavy team. Colorado has four players on pace for at least 4.0 WAR — shortstop Trevor Story (6.0), third baseman Nolan Arenado (5.2), and pitchers German Marquez (4.7) and Jon Gray (4.0) — which helps to drive a top five tally that ranks 14th in the league. However, the Rockies also have 22 players producing at or below the replacement level. Several of those players were expected to have much better seasons (most notably Kyle Freeland and Daniel Murphy), but their actual performances have left Colorado ranking 22nd overall in spite of its productive core.

A similar top-heavy split applies to the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals. Milwaukee‘s top five is led by reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich (9.3 WAR/162) and rounded out by Brandon Woodruff (5.0), Mike Moustakas (4.6), Yasmani Grandal (4.3) and ghost-ball master Josh Hader (2.8). Given that group, it would seem impossible that the Brewers are merely an average team (14th in MLB) according to overall WAR. Milwaukee’s problem isn’t even that the team uses a ton of replacement-level scrubs — it’s just that the Brewers lack solid role players beyond their top handful of stars. (In no small part due to down years from Lorenzo Cain, Jesus Aguilar, Jhoulys Chacin and Travis Shaw.)

The Nationals are in a comparable situation. In terms of star-level production, you’d take Washington’s top-line group — Max Scherzer (9.0 WAR/162), Stephen Strasburg (6.8), Anthony Rendon (5.9), Patrick Corbin (5.1) and Juan Soto (3.6) — against just about anybody’s in baseball. By WAR, only the Dodgers have a better top five than the Nats, and only the Dodgers and Houston Astros have a better top 10. Yet Washington only ranks 10th in total WAR because the supporting cast has largely failed to meet expectations. (Trea Turner counts among that group, though his recent hot streak — highlighted by hitting for the cycle Tuesday — could at least signal another top performer reemerging in Washington’s galaxy of stars.)

Finally, you have the New York Yankees who, like the Rays, consistently show up as a better overall team than their top performers would indicate. For instance, New York leaders DJ LeMahieu (6.7 WAR/162) and Aaron Judge (4.2) only rank 15th in tandem WAR — and the team’s top 10 also ranks just 15th — despite the Yankees ranking fifth in overall WAR. Some of that is a bit misleading because of the Yankees’ injury problems: Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks and Miguel Andujar have all missed significant playing time this year, among others. But it also speaks to how deep the Yankees’ roster truly is, with lesser-known contributors such as Luke Voit, Mike Tauchman and Gio Urshela keeping the team afloat in the face of so many star absences.

If you had the choice, clearly it’s ideal to be a team like the Dodgers, who have the best star power and the best supporting cast. But teams like the Rays and Yankees prove that a deep stable of contributors can outperform more star-powered teams such as the Nationals, Brewers, Rockies, White Sox and Rangers — even if the latter group of teams would be a lot better if we could just play baseball using “NBA Jam” rules.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Through games on July 23.

  2. Using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), our custom average of the WAR versions found at FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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