The 2018 calendar year has been pretty incredible for sports fans. We saw a Winter Olympics and a World Cup, with Norway setting a new record for medals in the former and France’s young stars bursting onto the scene in the latter. In America’s professional ranks, some teams won their first-ever championships, while others kept winning so much we wondered if they’d broken their sport. And in college, the usual suspects continued to dominate.
In commemoration of all the athletic feats we witnessed this year, we wanted to highlight the good (and the bad) of 2018 from a statistical perspective — to put everything into one bucket and see which performances, regardless of sport, will really stand out 10 or 20 years from now. I’ll mainly be sticking to the sports for which we have game-by-game Elo ratings and predictions, so that means a focus on men’s pro and college football and basketball, plus Major League Baseball. (Unfortunately, our club soccer data only goes back to 2016, so it’s difficult to put those numbers into historical context.)
Even using Elo, it isn’t easy to judge teams across sports. In baseball, an Elo rating north of 1600 makes you an all-time great club; in the NBA, it makes you the sixth-best team in the Western Conference. So, to put all the teams on a similar scale, I gathered end-of-season1 Elo marks for every team going back to 2000,2 then ranked how 2018’s crop (any team whose season began or ended in this calendar year)3 ranked relative to their sport’s best of the millennium.
That process forms the basis of my best and worst team calculations. We also derived the best players of 2018 using a similar approach and determined the best upsets in the same manner, but we’ll save both of those groups for a follow-up article. OK, here goes … (Note: All data is as of Dec. 25, 2018.)
Best team of 2018
Boston Red Sox (No. 1 season in MLB since 2000)
As we noted after the Red Sox won the World Series in October, Boston’s championship squad belongs squarely in the conversation about the best teams in baseball history. They won 108 regular-season games, then stormed through the playoffs with an 11-3 record against a pair of 100-win American League opponents and a 92-win Dodgers team in the Fall Classic. The Red Sox’s year-end Elo rating of 1610 was easily the highest achieved by any baseball team this millennium, coming in 12 points ahead of the No. 2 team, this year’s Houston Astros — who Boston just happened to defeat in the ALCS. (Yes, it was a banner year for dominant baseball teams in 2018.)
|Rank||Season||Team||Sport||Elo Rating||Relative Rank Since 2000|
|1||2018||Boston Red Sox||MLB||1610||1|
|3||2018-19*||Alabama Crimson Tide||CFB||2229||3|
|5||2017-18||Alabama Crimson Tide||CFB||2211||6|
|6||2017-18||Golden State Warriors||NBA||1745||11|
|7||2018-19*||New Orleans Saints||NFL||1730||11|
|8||2017-18||New England Patriots||NFL||1724||16|
In terms of pure Elo rating, the most dominant pro team of 2018 was the Golden State Warriors, who finished their own championship season with a 1745 mark. That was enough for us to anoint them the NBA’s greatest-ever dynasty, since it was their third title in four years. That said, the 2018 Warriors were also a victim of their own previous success. One reason they ranked “only” 11th in the NBA in Elo since 2000 was that three previous Golden State teams rate among the top 10 (the 2016-17 team came in first, the 2014-15 team was second, and the 2015-16 team was ninth). Also, their high raw Elo doesn’t earn them as high a rank as it would in other leagues because the best NBA teams tend to have much larger Elo ratings than their counterparts in other sports, which we adjust for by measuring each team relative to the best teams in its own sport.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Villanova Wildcats’ NCAA championship season ranks ahead of the Warriors by this accounting. That’s because ’Nova — on the heels of its second national championship in three years — was more dominant relative to other recent champs. Other than Villanova’s own 2015-16 team (which ranks second-best among college basketball teams since 2000 by Elo), no other college team this decade cracked the top seven in Elo. By contrast, a number of recent NBA teams finished their seasons with better Elo marks than Golden State.
You’ll notice a few teams listed above are still in the middle of their seasons. The Alabama Crimson Tide are rewriting their own considerable record books this season, currently forging the third-best college football Elo season since 2000. And although the New Orleans Saints are far from a Super Bowl lock, they have separated themselves from the pack more than we might be inclined to think, with a more than 80-point lead over the No. 2 Chiefs.
Before we move on to the worst teams, I want to at least acknowledge a big omission in the rankings above: hockey! (We don’t have Elo ratings for hockey.) No 2017-18 NHL team was especially dominant,4 but I’d be curious where the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning would stand in Elo. According to goal differential, they’re currently off to the league’s sixth-best 37-game start to a season since 2000, and they have an SRS score of +1.20 — a mark no team has matched over a full season since 1996.
Worst team of 2018
Baltimore Orioles (6th-worst season in MLB since 2000)
If it wasn’t already apparent that MLB was an unbridled tankfest in 2018, the table below should underscore just how terrible this season’s crop of bad MLB teams were (mostly by design). Five of the 21 worst MLB seasons by Elo since 2000 all came in 2018, and none of this year’s teams were worse than the 47-win disgrace that played out the summer in Baltimore. Although my colleague Travis Sawchik and I concluded that the O’s could probably beat a bunch of minor leaguers, it wasn’t totally clear-cut — and that’s a ridiculous thing to be able to say about a major league ballclub. The 2018 Orioles were nothing more than a soul-crushing exercise in total futility, and it earned them the honor of our worst team of 2018.
|Rank||Season||Team||Sport||Elo Rating||Relative Rank from bottom|
|4||2018||Chicago White Sox||MLB||1434||17|
|5||2017-18||Alabama A&M Bulldogs||CBB||908||17|
|7||2018||Kansas City Royals||MLB||1438||21|
|10||2018-19*||New York Jets||NFL||1332||44|
The UTEP Miners’ nightmarish football season is over,5 with the Miners having somehow beaten Rice in early November to stave off a second consecutive 0-12 campaign. The 2017-18 Phoenix Suns are done too, having put the finishing touches on a 21-win season that earned them the top pick in this summer’s draft. (They took DeAndre Ayton, who seems like the real deal even if his team’s record is still horrific.)
That leaves this season’s Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets, who are racing to the bottom of the NFL’s Elo rankings, as the only epically bad teams still playing. Arizona is in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft; despite their dismal play, the Jets aren’t even currently in line for the second overall pick because they are narrowly behind in a strength-of-schedule tiebreaker with the San Francisco 49ers.
That does it for the teams; we’ll be back before New Year’s with a look at the best individual players and most amazing upsets of 2018.