Major League Baseball’s long-standing policy requiring the All-Star rosters to include a representative from every team has helped to produce some pretty questionable selections over the years. Because let’s be honest: Some teams just don’t have any All-Star-worthy players on the payroll some seasons.
But this year, that’s less of an issue than usual. According to Baseball-Reference.com’s wins above replacement metric, the worst of the lone-team-representatives in Denver this week will be Detroit Tigers reliever Gregory Soto — but even he is on pace for 2.0 WAR per 162 team games, a perfectly respectable tally when compared with some of the most egregious picks from years past.
The lack of unworthy All-Stars points out a different problem in MLB this season: It’s been a banner campaign for players having great seasons on bad — or at least mediocre — teams:
When great performances happen on bad teams
Players with the most wins above replacement per 162 games for teams that have either less than a 50 percent playoff probability or a losing record
|Best on likely non-playoff teams||Best on sub-.500 teams|
We’ve talked about the two-way brilliance of Shohei Ohtani at length, but it bears repeating that he is on pace for a 10-WAR season with a Los Angeles Angels team that will almost certainly miss the playoffs and is tracking for an 80-82 record. If all of those trends continue, it would be the sixth time since 2012 (joining five Mike Trout seasons) that an Angels player had at least 8 WAR in a year when the team failed to make the postseason. And yet, Ohtani is the front-runner in the odds to win the American League MVP award, which would also continue a Trout-led trend of voters considering individual brilliance independent of team success.
At least Ohtani’s team is currently above .500, with a record of 45-44. But that puts him in a club with a bunch of other players who are having great seasons on teams in the no-man’s land between a .500 record and solid playoff position.
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For instance, Zack Wheeler has put everything together for the Phillies this year to the tune of a 175 ERA+ and a 9.2-WAR pace. While Philadelphia isn’t quite evoking the memories of Steve Carlton in 1972, when the team went 29-12 in its ace’s starts and 30-85 in all other games, the Phils remain perfectly .500 despite Wheeler’s greatness, and they have only a 23 percent playoff probability.
Meanwhile, Marcus Semien, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Robbie Ray and Bo Bichette are each having stellar campaigns for the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Jays are a few games above .500 at 45-42. But with the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays both playing well in the first half, and even the listless New York Yankees showing some signs of life recently, the Blue Jays have just a 34 percent playoff probability despite their stars’ collective shine.
A similar tale could be told about those Yankees, with Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge leading the way for a New York squad that has been simultaneously decent and disappointing. Both starred in a victory Saturday night over the Houston Astros, with Judge hitting a towering blast that provided the game’s lone run and Cole throwing a complete-game three-hitter to answer critics who wondered whether he could still be effective after MLB’s crackdown on spin-enhancing substances. But their production hasn’t been enough to elevate the Yankees’ playoff odds higher than 36 percent, barely better than the Blue Jays’ chances in the same division.
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As the author of one of this season’s six individual no-hitters back in early May,1 veteran pitcher Wade Miley has been excellent so far in this first half; he boasts a 3.24 fielding independent pitching and a 165 ERA+ to go with the sixth-most pitching WAR of any player. In turn, that effort has helped the Cincinnati Reds put together the most valuable rotation in baseball and a 48-42 record overall, but they trail the Milwaukee Brewers by four games in the NL Central race and sit 3½ games back of the talented San Diego Padres for the league’s final wild-card slot. With a 32 percent playoff probability, the Reds might end up squandering Miley’s career-best performance.
Those are the best players on some teams that aren’t totally bad, though they probably won’t make the playoffs. But there are just as many outstanding individual seasons happening for outright losing teams.
The 42-47 Washington Nationals are mostly wasting a great year from shortstop Trea Turner, for example, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are extremely bad despite outfielder Bryan Reynolds playing at a 5.8-WAR pace. Their pitching counterparts might be Trevor Rogers of the unlucky Miami Marlins and Germán Márquez of the eternally cursed Colorado Rockies, neither of whom have been able to lead their teams to within 10 games of .500 at the midway point.
Before his heartbreaking season-ending injury on Saturday, Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Atlanta Braves was also having the best year of his career with a 156 OPS+ and 6.6 WAR per 162 games. But because the rest of Atlanta’s best players have largely underperformed, the team is just 44-45, winning at a rate well below last season’s .583 clip. Without Acuña in the second half, the Braves’ current 20 percent playoff probability overstates their chances of sneaking into the postseason.
And a special mention goes to the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles, who have somehow managed to post terrible records despite possessing multiple players who rank among the best in baseball this season. For Texas, pitcher Kyle Gibson has inexplicably emerged from two bad seasons to produce a 195 ERA+ and 7.4 WAR per 162 games this year, while right fielder Joey Gallo has improved his WAR per 162 for the third consecutive season. Both are in the top 15 in total WAR this year, with teammates Adolis García and Isiah Kiner-Falefa also lurking around the top 50. (Seriously, how has a team as crummy as Texas played host to so many good individual performances?) And Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins has been roughly as valuable as Gallo by WAR, to go with the standout pitching season compiled by teammate John Means — another member of the no-hitter club — despite Means being on the shelf with a shoulder injury since June.
To complement the actual All-Star teams, we can honor all of these great-player-on-a-bad-team stars by picking an All-MLB roster of players who have outplayed their teammates by the widest margins. Here’s how it works: For each player, we compute his WAR per 162 team games and his share of team playing time (between appearances as a position player and as a pitcher).2 We also calculate those numbers for everyone on a team other than the player in question and find how many WAR per 162 the player’s average teammate would generate in the same amount of playing time. The players with the biggest gaps between their production and that of their average teammate make our 26-man All-Star roster of those who rose above their teammates the most:
MLB’s 2021 All-Better-Than-Their-Teammates Team
The best roster of 2021 MLB players according to how much they outplayed their teammates in wins above replacement per 162 games
|1B||Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||TOR||7.88||+4.88|
|SS||Fernando Tatís Jr.||SDP||7.93||+5.74|
Baseball is one of the ultimate team sports, and all of these players have proven once again that individual greatness doesn’t automatically lead to team success. That can make baseball an exercise in frustration for standouts on bad clubs, but it also gives us a chance to celebrate the players whose personal performances have transcended the team losses they’ve had to endure.
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