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MLB’s Best Players Didn’t Win Much Last Year. This Year Could Be Different.

Last season provided baseball fans with a ton of memorable storylines, moments and individual accomplishments. But one of the more puzzling aspects of 2021 was a lack of alignment between star performances and successful teams. For just the ninth time in history (and the first time since 1987), both leagues’ MVPs — Shohei Ohtani in the AL and Bryce Harper in the NL — played for teams that didn’t make the playoffs. While part of that speaks to a growing disconnect between team status and personal awards in the minds of voters, there was also something larger at play that Ohtani and Harper were merely indicative of.

According to MLB’s Sarah Langs, 2021 was the first season ever in which none of the MVP finalists in either league played in the playoffs. (This was despite a 10-team postseason field, much larger than in previous eras of the sport.) Relatedly, four of the top 10 players on FanGraphs’ combined wins above replacement leaderboard1 played for sub-.500 teams — the first time since 2002 that so many elite players were on losing teams — and the average team winning percentage for the WAR top 10 was just .524, the 10th-lowest for any season in the NL plus AL since 1901.

2021 featured plenty of great players on bad teams

MLB seasons with the lowest average team winning percentage for members of FanGraphs’ top 10 in wins above replacement, 1901-2021

WAR Leader WAR Top 10
Season Player WAR/162 Tm W% Sub-.500 Tms Avg. Tm W%
1959 Ernie Banks 10.1 .481 5 .508
1992 Barry Bonds 9.6 .593 5 .509
2008 Albert Pujols 8.7 .531 2 .509
1987 Roger Clemens 9.0 .481 4 .511
1996 Ken Griffey Jr. 9.8 .528 4 .514
1919 Babe Ruth 12.0 .482 4 .514
1989 Bret Saberhagen 8.4 .568 3 .516
2009 Zack Greinke 9.2 .401 2 .517
1947 Ted Williams 10.8 .539 2 .521
2021 Shohei Ohtani 8.6 .475 4 .524

Includes AL plus NL only. Does not include statistics from the Negro Leagues.

Source: fangraphs

So where did all the great players on great teams go? And will 2022 see more of the same?

One driving factor was that 2021 was a down year for elite performances in general. Although Ohtani had one of the greatest years baseball has ever seen, playing at a historically high level as both a pitcher and a hitter, the average member of the FanGraphs top 10 actually had just 6.9 WAR per 162 games, marking the worst season since 1901 for AL plus NL players who ranked so highly in that value metric:

The top stars of 2021 were less productive than past stars

Fewest average wins above replacement (WAR) per 162 games for the top 10 in FanGraphs’ WAR in a season, 1901-2021

WAR/162 Leaders
Season No. 1 No. 2 No. 3 Top 10 Avg.
2021 Shohei Ohtani (8.6) Zack Wheeler (7.1) Corbin Burnes (7.0) 6.9
1950 Eddie Stanky (8.1) Phil Rizzuto (7.2) Al Rosen (7.2) 6.9
2006 Albert Pujols (8.2) Grady Sizemore (7.9) Carlos Beltran (7.8) 7.0
1983 Cal Ripken (8.5) Wade Boggs (7.7) Dickie Thon (7.2) 7.1
2010 Josh Hamilton (8.4) Carl Crawford (7.7) Evan Longoria (7.5) 7.2
1926 Babe Ruth (12.5) George Uhle (8.5) Lou Gehrig (7.3) 7.2
2017 Aaron Judge (8.3) Corey Kluber (7.9) Jose Altuve (7.6) 7.3
1962 Willie Mays (10.3) Frank Robinson (8.2) Hank Aaron (8.1) 7.3
2016 Mike Trout (9.7) Mookie Betts (8.3) Kris Bryant (7.9) 7.3
2014 Clayton Kershaw (8.6) Mike Trout (8.3) Jonathan Lucroy (8.2) 7.3

Includes AL plus NL only. Does not include statistics from the Negro Leagues.

Source: fangraphs

Injuries to big-name players surely played a role in this, as superstar WAR-compilers such as Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber, Anthony Rendon and Ronald Acuña Jr. all missed extended periods of time last year. While a stat like WAR is zero-sum — regardless of who plays, somebody has to combine to rack up 1,000 WAR across all of MLB in a full season — the absence of hyper-productive stars can flatten the distribution of those wins.

And the less productive the top stars are, the less they positively affect their teams’ destinies as well. We already know that baseball’s best players exert less influence than stars from other leagues, generally speaking. But fewer WAR from the best players still hurts their teams’ chances to win, feeding into the divergence between individual and team success.

Of course, some of that divergence could have been due to poor luck. The Toronto Blue Jays featured two of the top 10 players on FanGraphs’ WAR list — Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien — plus several others (like Robbie Ray and Bo Bichette) who narrowly missed the list. Based on their talent and even their run differential, the Jays should have won roughly 99 games and made the playoffs with relative ease. Instead, they became one of the best teams to ever miss the postseason, keeping a handful of MVP candidates on the sidelines in the process.

But MLB has long been known for its hard-luck superstars who rise above the lack of talent around them. Just look at Ernie Banks: The Chicago Cubs never made the playoffs in the Hall of Fame infielder’s 19-year career, and they broke .500 in just six of the seasons Banks played on the North Side. Perhaps more so than any other athletes in team sports, baseball players can shine on losing teams. That’s what happened last season in the cases of Ohtani, Juan Soto, José Ramírez, Fernando Tatís Jr. and, slightly further down the WAR list, even more extreme examples like Bryan Reynolds of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cedric Mullins of the Baltimore Orioles — two players who had outstanding seasons despite completely horrible team situations.

Does this year figure to be any different? According to the accurate Average Total Cost projections at FanGraphs, two of the top three in total projected WAR this season (Soto and Ramírez) are on teams tracking for a losing record as of Wednesday morning, and the other (Mike Trout) is on a team more likely to miss the postseason than make it. (What else is new?) But each of the next 13 players on the projected WAR list is on a team we forecast to at least break .500, and all but one of those2 is on a team with at least a 50 percent chance to make the playoffs. The current .551 average forecasted winning percentage for that projected top 10 would be a huge improvement over last season, and would be much more in line with the five seasons leading up to 2021 — when the average member of the WAR top 10 was on a team with a .573 winning percentage.

Between that and this season’s expanded playoff field, it’s fair to expect that 2022 will see more of the best performances happening for contending teams than we saw a year ago. That’s a good thing for baseball. As romantic as the notion of the lone star rising above his circumstances is, sports are always better when the top players get to shine on the biggest stages. And to do that, their individual greatness needs to pair up with team success, too.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Adding together hitting and pitching value, with the latter measured half according to fielding independent pitching and half according to runs allowed.

  2. Sorry, Carlos Correa and the Twins.

Neil Paine is the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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