Guest Post: Did the 2009 Yankees Produce the Greatest Infield (Plus Catcher) in MLB History? (UPDATED)

 Mar, 10 - 2010   no comments   Uncategorized

This is a guest post from friend of the blog Jamal Granger. It is a meticulous piece of research and we are proud to be running it here at TYU.

Endless thanks to Eric Seidman of Baseball Prospectus, who devoted his valuable time to supplying with me with the essential data for this post, and introduced me to the wonders of SQL (though, as I begin to immerse myself, I question whether “thanks” is the appropriate term …).

The 1975 Cincinnati Reds were the topic of a recently published novel by celebrated sports journalist Joe Posnanski. In the book, titled The Machine: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, Posnanski “… captures all of the passion and tension, drama and glory of this extraordinary team considered to be one of the greatest ever to take the field,” says; however, based on a recent discussion that Mike Francesa had with his listeners on his radio show – Mike’d Up – about the greatest infield-plus-catcher units in baseball history, I decided to take a statistical look at things and discovered how the ’75 Reds arguably boasted the greatest quintet of players to ever take the baseball diamond.

Using weighted Equivalent Average (EqA), total Equivalent Runs (EqR) and Rally’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) data that dates as far back as 1969 for the former two, a likely indubitable argument can be made that Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and All-Stars Dave Concepcion and Pete Rose combined to not only lead their 20 teammates to a 108-win season and a World Series victory over the Boston Red Sox but, statistically, became the greatest infield-plus-catcher unit, or Diamond Unit,  in the past four decades.

While the aforementioned Reds squad may very well be the greatest Diamond Unit in the past forty years, arguments can be made for almost a handful of other teams. If you go by EqA, the 2009 Yankees are the best; EqR says that the 1974 Reds – with third basemen Dan Driessen replacing Pete Rose of the ’75 team – beats the bunch; Rally’s WAR has the ’75 version of The Big Red Machine as the alpha dog since 1969. While your opinions may vastly differ from mine, I say that the 1975 Reds are the top unit because WAR factors in all aspects of a player’s production – which is something that EqA and EqR do not.

By WAR, here is the leader board for the best Diamond Units since 1969:

The Year of the Green Wood Rabbit: The 1975 Cincinnati Reds – Morgan’s Magnificence

The 1975 Cincinnati Reds – led by a 12-win season by second basemen Joe Morgan – hit to the tune of a .305 EqA and 504.9 EqR, and produced a grand total of 29.4 WAR, a full three wins above the next closest quintet, the 1976 Reds. Morgan, posting career highs in batting average (.327), stolen bases (67, tied with his ’73 mark), on-base percentage (.466), weighted Runs Created (138.2) and wOBP (.463), was the near-unanimous winner for the first of consecutive NL MVP awards (Charlie Hustle stole two votes), and actually stole more bases (67) than he struck out (52). Also, not only did Morgan’s .360 EqA and 136.9 EqR pace the majors, the next closest qualifier (at least 300 plate appearances) for EqA was the Royals’ John Mayberry (.329).

Following Morgan’s stupefying campaign, Hall of Fame backstop Johnny Bench produced an astounding 6.5-win season, which, amazingly enough, is just the fourth-highest mark of his career. Bench, a MVP candidate in any other year (well, more on that later), did not produce any career-high marks but was part of a tremendous offensive trio of catchers that included Oakland’s Gene Tenace (.316 EqA and 107.4 EqR; why is he not in the Hall?) and St. Louis’s Ted Simmons (.311 and 106.4; another questionable HOF exclusion). Although Bench’s .308 EqA trailed both Tenace and Simmons for the lead amongst MLB catchers, he trailed only Joe Morgan for the team lead in what made a devastating two-three combo in Cincinnati’s lineup.

Pete Rose put up a .317/.406/.432 vital in 1975 and his 4.4-win season was just a stepping stone in a 12-year period from 1965-1976 that saw him produce at least four wins above replacement in every season but his 3.6-win campaign in 1970. Rose, known for his trademark hustle on the base paths, produce just two runs above replacement in that regard; and it makes you wonder: how much of that storied hustle actually helped his teams instead of just showing a lot of heart? Earning All-Star and Gold Glove (Total Zone had him as ten runs below replacement, but whatever) honors in 1975, Mr. Hustle was the lone National League player earn any first-place votes in the MVP race, as teammate Joe Morgan deservedly ran away with the title.

In terms of his non-offensive production, Dave Concepcion was a stalwart – his base running and defense made him produce to a level approaching that of a league-average player (17 RAR). However, Concepcion came to the plate 762 times in 1975, and as his .257 EqA and 64.5 EqR will tell you, he was a below-average hitter in every sense of the term. The beauty of analysis is that everything is relative, and in Concepcion’s case, he was among a group of shortstops (Larry Bowa of the Phillies; Bert Campaneris of the Athletics; Chris Speier of the Giants) that could lay claim to being the best offensive performers of that position in the non-Toby Harrah (.398 wOBA) division.

After enjoying a six-year stretch from 1968-1973 in which his WAR ranged from 4.2 to 6.7, Tony Perez’s 1975 campaign saw him deliver a 3.1-win campaign as the weakest link of the Machine’s Diamond Unit. Although this was in the midst of quite a prolonged decline phase, Perez’s 83.7 EqR and .288 EqA placed him in the top 33 percentile in an environment that saw the Royals’ Mayberry pace the field with a .329 EqA, 124.9 EqR and a robust .427 wOBA.

The Year of the Red Fire Dragon: The 1976 Cincinnati Reds – Morgan’s Magnificence (Again)

The final year of the Machine’s dynastic reign over the early-to-mid-1970’s National League, 1976, saw the runner-up of the bunch. The same cast of characters – Bench; Concepcion; Morgan; Perez; Rose – produced a 505.4 EqR and .302 EqA, and returned to lead the Reds to a 103-win campaign, preceding a post-season run that saw the team sweep both the Phillies (3-0) and Yankees (4-0) for the franchise’s fourth title and second straight. Although their collective 26.2 WAR was a distant second, this Diamond Unit is unquestionably one of the greatest groups to ever take the field.

Do you remember when I wrote that Bench would have been a MVP candidate in any other year? Well, 1976 was not that year as Morgan’s 10-win season would have made it exceedingly difficult for any group of rational minds to hand the NL MVP award to anyone other than the reigning recipient. In fact, left field teammate George Foster was the only other Senior Circuit player to receive first-place votes. While posting a .367 EqA (47 points above runner-up Royal Hal McRae) and 139.4 EqR is amazing by itself, Morgan contributed a full win just by his efficiency on the basepaths.

The Red Fire Dragon Year would be the last campaign of greatness for should-be Hall of Famer Pete Rose. His 6.7-win campaign saw him post the highest .126 ISO and .392 wOBA would be highest marks he would ever post throughout the rest of his career in either category since 1970 (.154 ISO) and 1969 (.412 wOBA), respectively; in fact, his next four overall seasons would produce just 7.6 WAR, not even a full win over his ’76 season. His .314 EqA and 126.6 EqR not only led all Reds that were not named Joe Morgan, but all major leaguers as well. 1976 was Rose’s Godfather II, i.e., the last great performance in a series where future releases could not ever live up to its predecessors.

Bench, Concepcion and Perez all had average- or –better campaigns, but nothing too spectacular. Collectively, the majority of this Diamond Unit was responsible for just 36% of the total 26.2 WAR, but all three made the All-Star squad and all but Perez took home the undoubtedly prestigious Gold Glove award. Just like Charlie Hustle, Perez’s .352 wOBA would be the highest of the rest of his career as a full-time starter. The same can be said of the glove-first short stop whose seven runs saved above average begat a precipitous decline that would see him recover – albeit briefly – in 1983 with another plus-seven performance before plummeting finally to -16 the following season. On the other hand, Bench’s .348 wOBA would be the lowest in an eight-year stretch that saw him post an average of .371 and range from .348 to .392 (1975).

The Year of the Green Wood Tiger: The 1974 Cincinnati Reds – Bench’s Best

The 1974 Reds produced the least WAR (26.1) of any Cincy team on this list, but also racked up the most EqR (512) of any Diamond Unit over the past 40 years. Boasting an aggregate .300 EqA, third basemen Dan Driessen joined Bench (7.6 WAR), Concepcion (5.1), Morgan (9.1; damn, this guy was good) and Perez (2.1) as a core that led the Red Stockings to a 98-win season and a non-playoff-eligible, second-place finish to the 102-win Los Angeles Dodgers – who actually underperformed their Pythagorean record by four frickin’ wins.

Again, Morgan led the team and MLB in WAR, EqA (.344) and EqR (131.7) despite placing eighth in the MVP voting (undeservedly, Steve Garvey took home the crown) behind such stalwarts like Mr. Al Oliver of the Buccos. Despite what the fatuousness of the Baseball Writers Association of America may lead you to believe, Joe Morgan’s 1974 was one of his best. He hit to the tune of a .293/.427/.494 vital line and a .432 wOBA, and the latter mark was part of a co-median (.463 in ’75) during a six-year stretch that saw him average a .434 measure. All in all, Morgan was the HBIC (Head Bonhamian (TX) in Charge), yet again.

Bench’s year was arguably one of the three best in his HoF career. His 124.1 EqR and .387 wOBA placed him fourth and eighth, respectively, amongst all major leaguers in’74, and the .310 EqA placed him within the top 15 of that leader board. Certainly not on par with his MVP-winning seasons (’70 and ’72), I’m still sure that Sparky Anderson did not mind handing out 708 plate appearances to a .280/.363/.507-hitting backstop.

Concepcion had the best season of his career in 1974. His 5.1 WAR and +12 runs saved were the best marks that he ever posted, and his .279 EqA and 91.2 EqR led all MLB short stops by a considerable margin in the latter category. Although he would post an All-Star level 4.4-win season in 1979, nothing would ever approach the level of this season for Dave Concepcion.

Driessen and his 2.2 WAR joined Perez as the virtually average links in this unit. Because Pete Rose would become the full-time third basemen next season, the 22-year-old Driessen would not play for the Reds in a full-time role again until 1977. As his 117 wRC+ and .341 wOBA (NL average was a paltry .319) portrays, young’n was a solid contributor to a 98-win team, and only is looked upon as the “weak link” in this Diamond Unit because of the Hall of Fame talent that he shared the infield with.

Perez’s 1974 was the beginning of a steep decline for the Hall of Fame first basemen. Averaging 5.5 WAR over the prior six seasons, Perez would only average 2.6 WAR over the next five years before becoming a replacement-level producer for the *remainder of his career. Still, his 89.6 wRC was 26% of the National League average and his 97.5 EqR was second amongst all major league first basemen (the Dodgers’ Steve Garvey led with a 109.2 total). Although this was the starting point of a Hall of Famer’s decline phase, Perez still provided league-average production and plus defense (+3 TZ) to a playoff contender.

The Year of the Ox – The Year of the Brown Earth Cow: The 2009 New York Yankees – Kate Hudson > All

The 2009 World Series Champions, New York Yankees (for someone who will be following the team for just his 8th year in 2010, you have no idea how good it feels to read that over), rank fourth on this list with their 24.1 total WAR. Unfortunately, the 2009 Bombers contain the majority of the players that amassed the three fewest plate appearances over the course of a listed campaign: Alex Rodriguez, 535; Dan Driessen (’74), 523; Jorge Posada, 438. Still, their combined 506.3 EqR and .309 EqA ranked second and first, respectively, on this list, and they also boasted both a top-five Cy Young candidate in Carsten Charles Sabathia and a top-three MVP candidate in Derek Jeter.

Speaking of the kid from Kalamazoo, the team captain led the Yankees with 6.5 WAR, and has the unpleasant distinction of essentially being the worst team leader in this category of all five teams. Still, do not let that fool you into thinking that Jeter did not set the American League on fire with his MVP-caliber season. Leading the league at the position in EqA (.310), EqR (115.6), HR (18), batting average (.334), OBP (.406) and wOBA (.390), he arguably had his best season since his back-to-back 1998 and 1999 seasons. Shifting to the defensive side of the game, his +5 TZ is the best he has recorded in his future HoF career. In 2009 at short stop in Major League Baseball, there was Hanley Ramirez, Derek Jeter and everyone else.

Although Yankee fans and some others felt the need to boo Mark Teixeira at the beginning of his Yankees career, the Georgia Tech alum did not let it hurt his game in the long haul. However, producing the fourth-best EqA (.318) that the entire Junior Circuit (the best amongst AL first basemen) had to offer, and surpassing the .400 wOBA tier for the third season in a row does well in quieting your detractors. Also, even though his 2009 was not as great at his 2008 split-season with the Braves and Halos (7.3 WAR), Tex’s 5.9 WAR, league-leading HR total of 39 and team-leading 124.2 EqR made for one of the deadliest bats a major-league pitcher had to face that year.

Proving the idiots his detractors wrong in regards to his on-field play suffering due to the absence of Larry Bowa and looking to rebound from a heinous 2008, second basemen Robinson Cano posted an elite 5.1-win season in 2009. No matter the angle in which you choose to view it, Cano was an elite performer with the stick last season: he placed third on the MLB-leading Yankees (898.1 EqR; the Dodgers were next at 821) with 103.3 equivalent runs; and his .293 EqA, .370 wOBA and 23.1 weighted runs above average was bested only by Chase Utley’s .321, .402 and 41.5 marks, respectively, among all MLB second basemen (sorry, Ben “Zorilla” Zobrist, but your 344 plate appearances as a 2B does not qualify you to be labeled as a full-time 2B in 2009). In addition, proving that his “smooth,” “relaxed” and non-white approach to defense can work, Total Zone saw the Dominican Cano as a +10 defender in the field. His 5.1 WAR was an integral part of this Diamond Unit.

At the start of the 2009 calendar year, these were the words that were commonly written in articles and blog posts about Alex Rodriguez: steroids, primobolan, torn labrum, arthroscopic hip surgery, June return. By the time Mark Teixeira caught Robinson Cano’s flip to first base for the 27th out of the World Series and the Yankees’ 27th title, fans of baseball were more accustomed to the following: walk-off home run versus Craig Breslow and the Twins; walk-off home run versus Junichi Tazawa and the Red Sox; game-tying home run versus Joe Nathan and the Twins; game-tying home run versus Brian Fuentes and the Angels; go-ahead double against Brad Lidge and the Phillies; Kate Hudson’s magic ladyparts. Quite the 360 degree turn, eh (that’s Jason Kidd math for you)? Despite coming to the plate just 535 times (good for 17th amongst his MLB brethren at the hot corner), A-Rod’s 93.6 EqR and 50.3 runs above a replacement player placed him seventh and fourth, respectively, on the MLB 3B list. Oh, and his 3.9 WAR, team- and –position-leading .320 EqA, best OBP (.402) in a non-MVP campaign and career-high BB% (15%) weren’t too shabby, either.

Jorge Posada’s 2.7 WAR was the lowest mark he posted since a most-of-the-time starting role in 1999 (0.7 WAR). Likely, 2009 begat the erstwhile All-Star’s decline phase, but that doesn’t mean that he was Varitek-like with the stick, either. Posada (.301) and Joe Mauer (.346) were the only backstops in the game to post an EqA above .300, and while the former suffered through an injury during the early portions of the season, his .238 isolated power ranked second in his career (.240 in 2000). Posada may have not contributed much with the glove-TZ has him as three runs below replacement-but getting your starting catcher to accumulate 2.7 WAR in his age-37 season breeds an enormous advantage over your competition.

The Year of the Black Water Horse (Best. Name. Ever.): The 2002 New York Yankees – Giambi’s Wood

The only teams in the era of Fangraphs to produce at least 150 batting runs above average and 250 pitching runs above replacement were the 2002 New York Yankees (150 and 291.2) and 2003 Boston Red Sox (180.7 and 256.5). As dominant as the 2002 Bombers were, their bid for a fifth American League pennant fell short at the feet of the eventual champions, Anaheim Angels. Despite being a magnificent team, they are arguably the worst Diamond Unit of the top five since 1969 – the 2002 Yankees’ 23.4 WAR and .298 EqA ranked last amongst the five units. Also, they are the only team of five to not have an up-the-middle player lead them in wins above replacement.

After the 2001 Yankees failed to capture a fourth Fall Classic (classic, indeed), they inked former Oakland A’s first basemen Jason Giambi to a seven-year, $120M contract. In his inaugural campaign, the Giambino did not disappoint:  7.3 WAR; .314/.435/.598 vital line; .439 wOBA; 147.1 weighted runs created (77% above the league average). Also, his 132.7 EqR paced the following: MLB first basemen; the 2002 Yankees; everyone in MLB, non-Paula Abdul division. The Big G’s .341 EqA was bested by only Barry Bonds (.451), Jim Thome (.353 … 98 points behind!) Manny Ramirez and Brian Giles (.350 each), and led the Yankees by a non-Bondsian margin (next closest Bomber was Bernie Williams’ .311). So, yeah, Jason Gilbert Giambi hit the crap out of the baseball in 2002.

A year prior to when he would frustrate every Yankees fan by seemingly striking out in every plate appearance against Pedro Martinez in the American League Championship Series, second basemen Alfonso Soriano was a major piece of one of the top-five Diamond Units since 1969. Armed with a 4.7-win year, the former Hiroshima Toyo Carp led all major-league second basemen with 39 HR, finished third in the team rankings with a .291 EqA, and placed second in the team rankings and positional rankings with 115.9 EqR (Jeff Kent paced all second basemen with 124). Despite his lacking on-base skills (just a .032 isolated discipline), Soriano’s elite power at such an offensively domicile position were of great benefit to the 2002 Yankees and their quintet on the diamond.

Georgie Posada and Derek Jeter both had not-spectacular-but-All-Star-level campaigns in 2002. Posada, posting 4.1 wins above replacement, and a .286 EqA and 82.2 EqR that were second only to Mike Piazza (.306 and 90.8) in a group that includes guys that exclusively wore the tools of ignorance, was the brighter light of the two, but definitely not anything that stood out over his career. Jeter, named team captain just a year later, went on to have a season that easily ranks in the bottom three of his career (1997 and an injury-riddled 2008 being the other two); however, getting 3.4 WAR from your butcher of a short stop (-15 TZ) is not anything to scoff at. Cap’n Jeets’ 98.6 EqR placed fourth amongst MLB short stops (A-Rod, AL MVP Miguel Tejada and Nomar Garciaparra led with 121.5, 102.8 and 101.3, respectively), while his .283 EqA ranked ahead of just rookie Nick Johnson (.258) and neophyte Rondell White (.228) in regards to the team rankings. Were these two the most valuable pieces during the Yankees’ last dynasty? Of course (sorry, Mariano Rivera fans), but just not in 2002.

2002 would witness the last great season of the potential Hall of Fame career (55.1 career WAR) of Nolan Ryan’s personal punching bag Robin Ventura, as his 3.9 WAR was the highest he would post for the rest of his career since his 1999 season (6.7).  Even though he was playing in his age-34 season, TZ still had him as a +4 defender at the hot corner, and his .284 EqA that was tied for fourth among major-league third basemen (Eric Chavez and future Yankee Eric Hinske) and .358 wOBA that ranked 5th in the positional rankings showed that his bat had not slowed too much, either. Ventura sure did not have an everlasting Yankee career, but I know that he definitely is proud of the fact that he can call himself the third basemen of one of the best Diamond Units in four decades.

So, did you get all of that? Of course you did. Well, just in case you were not able to keep up with the over 3,500 words detailing the best groups of catchers, first basemen, second basemen, third basemen and short stops on a single team since 1969 by Equivalent Average, Equivalent Runs and Rally’s Historic Wins Above Replacement, here is a nice leader board for you:

1975 CIN (29.4 WAR): Perez: 3.1 WAR; Morgan: 12 WAR; Concepcion: 3.4 WAR; Rose: 4.4 WAR; Bench: 6.5 WAR

1976 CIN (26.2 WAR): Perez: 1.8 WAR; Morgan: 10 WAR; Concepcion: 3.8 WAR; Rose: 6.7 WAR; Bench: 3.9 WAR

1974 CIN (26.1 WAR): Perez: 2.1 WAR; Morgan: 9.1 WAR; Concepcion: 5.1 WAR; Driessen: 2.2 WAR; Bench: 7.6 WAR

2009 NYY (24.1 WAR): Teixeira: 5.9 WAR; Cano: 5.1 WAR; Jeter: 6.5 WAR; A-Rod: 3.9 WAR; Posada: 2.7 WAR

2002 NYY (23.4 WAR): Giambi: 7.3 WAR; Soriano: 4.7 WAR; Jeter: 3.4 WAR; Ventura: 3.9 WAR; Posada: 4.1 WAR

1) 1974 Reds (Perez, Morgan, Concepcion, Driessen, Bench): 512 EqR, .300 EqA

2) 2009 Yanks (Tex, Cano, Jeter, ARod, Posada): 506.3 EqR, .309 EqA

3) 2002 Yanks (Giambi, Soriano, Jeter, Ventura, Posada): 505.7 EqR, .298 EqA

4) 1976 Reds (Perez, Morgan, Concepcion, Rose, Bench): 505.4 EqR, .302 EqA

5) 1975 Reds (Perez, Morgan, Concepcion, Rose, Bench): 504.9 EqR, .305 EqA

Update: Yesterday afternoon, Moshe Mandel of The Yankee U granted me the opportunity of posting a research piece I had been working on now and again over the past couple weeks. Thankfully, the post was met with endless praise across the blogosphere and Twitterverse (OK, not really, but it sounds nice), but it was actually incomplete. Moshe, by way of the readers at Baseball Think Factory, informed me that the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers’ Diamond Unit (among others) actually had more WAR than any of the five listed squads in my post – 30.3. They were not included in the post because the five teams were identified taking the weighted EqA average of any Diamond Unit that consisted of players that had to play at least 100 games at any of the five positions, not WAR, and the collective EqA’s of Cecil Cooper, Jim Gantner, Paul Molitor, Ted Simmons and Robin Yount were .290. Alas, when I received the necessary data for the post, I was not able to acquire the full database (1969-2009) because the file was too large to send. So, as a result, I just used the top five teams ranked by EqA and calculated their collective WAR totals for the post.
I clearly did not clarify this well in the original post, and I apologize for that.

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