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The Best MLB Teams Of All-Time, According To Elo

One hundred and 10 years ago, the Chicago Cubs ended the regular season with a 116-36 record. That .763 winning percentage is the best in modern baseball history by a comfortable margin, but the Cubs went on to drop the World Series to the White Sox in six games. Might they still be the greatest team in baseball history?

We recently calculated historical Elo ratings for every team after every game as part of our Complete History Of MLB interactive graphic. (We’ve done the same for the NBA and NFL.) Elo ratings are one of our preferred metrics at FiveThirtyEight, because their simple inputs make them useful for comparing the relative strengths of teams across the entire history of a league. We can also use Elo to calculate season ratings for every MLB team since 1903, when the first modern World Series was played.1 We arrived at an overall season rating — what the table below calls “composite” Elo — by blending each team’s peak, average and final Elo for each season. This lets us take into account a team’s highest level of performance, its sustained performance throughout the season and, broadly, how well it did in the postseason.2

So who comes out on top? The 1906 Cubs have the highest peak Elo, but because of their World Series loss, they rate as the second-best team since 1903, behind the 1939 New York Yankees. We ranked all 2,374 team-seasons from 1903 to 2015 — you can explore them below:



Our Elo ratings find that the league was a bit more top-heavy in its earlier decades. If you scan through the top of the list, you’ll notice that most of the best seasons since 1903 happened more than 50 years ago — in fact, 71 of the 100 best seasons fall before 1960. The New York Yankees’ insane dominance in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s is responsible for a lot of this imbalance. Twenty-five of the 100 best seasons are Yankees seasons from those decades:

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After the Yankees dynasty declined, MLB’s best teams started to be a lot less good. The 1960s were understandably weak — with just two teams in the Elo top 100 — because MLB expanded by eight teams during this span. The 1980s don’t have the same excuse, and the decade’s best squad — the 1986 Mets — rates as only the 62nd-best team ever. The first six seasons of the 2010s were similarly middling; of the teams from those years, the 2011 Phillies rank the highest on the all-time list, at No. 76.

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GRAPHIC: We calculated Elo ratings after every game in MLB history — more than 400,000 ratings in total. Explore every team’s history »

Although that Philadelphia team lost in the division series, it still rates as the best Phillies squad in history. Here’s every franchise’s best team ever:

FRANCH. TEAM COMP. ELO WON WS? RANK AMONG BEST TEAMS EVER
NYY 1939 New York Yankees 1623 1
CHC 1906 Chicago Cubs 1620 2
PIT 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates 1609 4
OAK 1911 Philadelphia Athletics 1607 7
STL 1942 St. Louis Cardinals 1605 8
SF 1905 New York Giants 1601 13
BAL 1970 Baltimore Orioles 1600 19
CIN 1976 Cincinnati Reds 1595 23
CLE 1954 Cleveland Indians 1594 24
SEA 2001 Seattle Mariners 1590 34
LAD 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers 1586 40
ATL 1998 Atlanta Braves 1586 42
DET 1935 Detroit Tigers 1585 43
BOS 1912 Boston Red Sox 1584 46
NYM 1986 New York Mets 1580 62
CHW 1917 Chicago White Sox 1579 68
MIN 1933 Washington Senators 1577 74
PHI 2011 Philadelphia Phillies 1577 76
LAA 2002 Anaheim Angels 1576 81
HOU 1998 Houston Astros 1572 110
TEX 2011 Texas Rangers 1568 141
TOR 2015 Toronto Blue Jays 1565 161
ARI 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks 1564 166
WSH 1994 Montreal Expos 1561 * 208
KC 1977 Kansas City Royals 1560 213
TB 2012 Tampa Bay Rays 1558 237
MIL 1982 Milwaukee Brewers 1558 246
SD 1998 San Diego Padres 1543 480
COL 2007 Colorado Rockies 1537 596
MIA 2003 Florida Marlins 1537 601
Every MLB franchise’s best season, 1903-2015

* 1994 World Series was not played

The 1939 Yankees and 1906 Cubs are in a league of their own, more than 10 Elo points ahead of the other franchises. The Marlins have only been around since 1993, but it’s still sort of sad that their best team ever (World Series champions no less!) is just the 601st-best team ever. The Colorado Rockies, a franchise that was also born in 1993, are about as sad, but without the World Series rings. The San Diego Padres have had a much longer commitment to mediocrity; the franchise’s best team in its 47 seasons of existence comes in at No. 480. Fans of the Braves, Dodgers, Red Sox, Tigers, White Sox, Twins and Phillies may also be disappointed by their team’s position in this list. All seven franchises go back to 1903, but none of their teams in the last 113 seasons have come close to cracking the top 25.

But great seasons aren’t the only way to be an exceptional baseball team. Here’s every MLB franchise’s worst squad ever:

FRANCH. TEAM COMP. ELO 1ST YEAR? RANK AMONG WORST TEAMS EVER
MIN 1904 Washington Senators 1387 1
DET 2003 Detroit Tigers 1397 2
NYM 1962 New York Mets 1398 3
PHI 1942 Philadelphia Phillies 1400 4
OAK 1916 Philadelphia Athletics 1402 5
ATL 1911 Boston Rustlers 1414 9
BOS 1932 Boston Red Sox 1414 12
BAL 1911 St. Louis Browns 1417 15
PIT 1953 Pittsburgh Pirates 1418 19
TOR 1979 Toronto Blue Jays 1419 22
SD 1969 San Diego Padres 1419 23
WSH 1969 Montreal Expos 1421 25
HOU 2013 Houston Astros 1425 35
SEA 1978 Seattle Mariners 1429 40
TEX 1973 Texas Rangers 1431 44
LAD 1905 Brooklyn Superbas 1431 46
STL 1908 St. Louis Cardinals 1432 51
CHW 1932 Chicago White Sox 1435 61
CIN 1934 Cincinnati Reds 1436 69
KC 2005 Kansas City Royals 1437 71
CHC 1962 Chicago Cubs 1441 94
TB 2002 Tampa Bay Devil Rays 1442 96
MIL 1969 Seattle Pilots 1443 103
COL 1993 Colorado Rockies 1444 105
NYY 1908 New York Highlanders 1449 136
ARI 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks 1449 143
MIA 1993 Florida Marlins 1449 146
CLE 1915 Cleveland Indians 1451 156
SF 1985 San Francisco Giants 1461 251
LAA 1969 California Angels 1464 279
Every MLB franchise’s worst season, 1903-2015

The 2003 Detroit Tigers lost 119 games, winning five of their last six to avoid the 120-loss modern record set by the 1962 Mets in their first season as a franchise. Elo isn’t fooled, though — the 2003 Tigers had a slightly worse run differential than the 1962 Mets and have a slightly lower rating here. The 1904 Washington Senators, now the Twins, were even more terrible according to Elo, going 38-113 (the equivalent of a 121-loss modern 162-game season). Angels fans probably don’t look back on the 91-loss 1969 season too fondly, but, compared with the other franchises’ lousiest seasons ever, it’s not a bad low point, ranking just 279th-worst.

So what will come in 2016? The Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds have had a rough start and could make a run at new Elo lows for their franchises. But the real team to watch is the Chicago Cubs, who have started the season at 24-6 with an incredible +102 run differential. It’s a hard pace to keep up, but if they do, the Cubs could make a run at becoming one of the greatest teams of all time.

See the complete history of every MLB team.

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Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Our interactive goes back a little further, to 1871. The quality of 19th-century baseball teams was pretty uneven — meaning the top teams from that time would dominate historical rankings — so to focus on more recognizable franchises, this piece is looking only at seasons since 1903.
  2. Elo ratings are carried over from season to season, which means that most of a team’s rating at the start of a season is based on its previous season. This is useful when trying to estimate a team’s quality early on, but for assessing individual seasons, it unfairly dings teams that rose to greatness after a terrible year. For our season calculations, “average” and “peak” Elo calculations start at game 40.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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