The Chicago Cubs won 97 games last season, went to the National League Championship Series, and had one of the top prospects in baseball debut with outstanding success. Many teams might look at such a season, nod their heads with approval, and try to simply maintain a semblance of that high level of achievement when planning and making moves for the following season. The current version of the Cubs, however, are in win-everything mode, and they seem desperate to improve upon a 97-win season. With an aggressive Theo Epstein, deep-pocketed owners, and a clear window to make a run at a long-absent title, the Cubs have already made some of the biggest acquisitions of the 2015 offseason.
The biggest, of course, is Jason Heyward, a top 15 player by Wins Above Replacement during the 2015 season. With his eight-year, $184 million contract, he joins Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant as the young core of a team that could challenge for World Series titles for the foreseeable future. It’s easy to proclaim the Cubs as favorites to win one of the strongest divisions in baseball after this move — they did, in essence, turn one of their rivals’ best players into one of their own — but that idea is cemented by the fact that they now have three of the best 20 position players from last season by WAR. Take a look at the top 20 position players by WAR, with each player’s 2016 team:
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The Cubs head into next season with three out of 20 of this past season’s best players, and that’s the kind of statement that forces everyone to sit up and take serious notice. Having two position players of this caliber is rare enough for a team in a given year; having three is a foundation on which dynasties are sometimes built.
If we assume that all three players will stay healthy and produce at around the same level next year, each will be in the top 20 or better for position players (per Steamer projections on FanGraphs, Rizzo, Bryant, and Heyward are all projected to be top 10 players, in fact). This got me thinking: what is the track record of teams that have this level of talent in their lineup? Have they accounted for a disproportionate number of World Series victories, even if we don’t take into account the strength of their respective pitching staffs?
To answer that question, I’ve pulled data for every team’s position players from 1950 to 2015, narrowing the list down to only teams that had three or more players with greater than 5.0 WAR during a season. For reference, there are usually only 20-25 players with greater than 5.0 WAR in any given year: these are the elite players in the game. In 2015, Bryant produced 6.5 WAR, Heyward 6.0, and Rizzo 5.5.
We’re left with 82 teams that had three such players, starting with the 1950 New York Yankees (Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, and Joe DiMaggio) and ending with the 2013 Boston Red Sox (Shane Victorino, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Dustin Pedroia). Out of those 82 teams, 25 (30%) went to the World Series, and 12 won the whole thing. Take a look at an interactive plot of our 82 teams, with marks on who won the Fall Classic — you can scroll over each point to see each individual team’s record, as well as the three 5.0+ WAR players:
What’s most striking is the high floor for the win total of teams that fit this criteria: with the exception of two clubs (the 1991 Reds and 1998 Mariners), every single one of the teams in our sample was above a .500 win/loss record during the season in which they had three 5.0+ WAR players. The average win total for these teams was just over 94, telling us how successful most of these clubs were during these seasons. Another impressive angle of this exercise is that it doesn’t take into account the strength of each team’s respective pitching staffs. Great rotations, bad rotations — the teams we’ve highlighted won more often than not, and usually posted win/loss records that at a minimum put them into the playoffs.
Really, all of this makes sense. Put at least three elite position players on the same team, and good things happen. There’s a reason we know many of these teams by name: the Cincinnati Reds during the 1970’s were The Big Red Machine, and they had three players with greater than 5.0 WAR in 1970, ’72, ’73, ’74, and ’75. Great teams usually have one or two great players. Dynasties have many.
What sets this current Cubs team apart from the other teams we’ve highlighted?
In a word, youth. The three best players that make up Chicago’s core are all under 27: Rizzo and Heyward are both 26, and Bryant is 23. Even though Rizzo and Heyward won’t turn 27 until early August of 2016 (their birthdays are only one day apart), let’s take our exercise one final step further: we’ll narrow down our 82 teams one more time, this time filtering out any players who were past their 28th birthday during the season they produced 5.0+ WAR. That will give us only clubs that had a core of three players as young as this upcoming 2016 Cubs team.
How many teams since 1950 have had three position players under 28 years old, each with greater than 5.0 WAR? Only 16. The 2016 Cubs are projected to be another, the first since the 2009 Rays. This is rare territory, in which the combination of youth and incredible talent occurs. Based on the evidence here, expectations for the Cubs are probably right where it should be heading into the 2016 season: they just added one of the top 15 players in baseball to a strong, young core that already included two other players that ranked among baseball’s best. Before that happened, they got Ben Zobrist, another player with a proven track record.
How much more can a 97-win team improve itself? We might not think very much, but it’s happening in front of our eyes. That’s domination of the market, and it’s no doubt scary for everyone who has to face them next year. Most of all, though, it’s rare: the whisperings of a potential dynasty built on the work of good scouting, and a few cool December nights in Nashville.