Diamond Dominance: Ranking MLB’s Best Teams of the Wild Card Era

Posted on Oct 29 2013 - 2:00pm by Jake Menashi
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trophy585_640214aTo the delight of America (okay, only Boston and St. Louis), the Red Sox and Cardinals are squaring off in the 2013 World Series. The match-up presents two teams at very different points in their story. The 2013 Red Sox bear little resemblance to the 2012 version of the team, even though many players are the same. Thanks to fresh faces like Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and Mike Napoli, and inspired play by the incumbents, the Red Sox have been rejuvenated as a baseball-mashing, beard-growing force of nature.

The Cardinals? Yawn. They’ve been here before. Quite a lot in fact. This year marked their eighth appearance in the NLCS since 2000 – the most appearances in the majors. This will be their fourth World Series appearance since the millennium began as well. Even though the Redbirds have an impressive group of rookies like Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, and Matt Adams, to the outsider this just seems like the same old team making another run.

That, of course, got me thinking. The Cardinals have been on an impressive streak of winning – but just how does it stack up historically? Is this one of the best runs of all-time? If not, what is it?

May I now present to you, Jake Menashi’s rankings of the Most Impressive Team Stretches in (Recent) MLB History – but first, a couple rules:

  1. Only teams from 1995-2013 count. The Wild Card Era seems like a fair cutoff for this exercise, considering the strike of 1994 meant no postseason runs at all. The pre-’95 list? That’s a whole ‘nother column.
  2. The run must last at least five years and no more than eight. The length is arbitrary yes, but I wanted to make sure that teams had an extended period of success, but not too long that the team at the end looks nothing like the team at the beginning. Sorry to the 2010-12 Giants and 1999-02 D’Backs on this one.
  3. No overlapping runs in this list. This prevents the list from only being Yankees and Braves teams (spoiler alert!). You’ll see this come into play as we get high up in the rankings.
  4. Here’s the criteria I based it on: Regular season success/consistency, Postseason success, Peak players (MVPs/Cy Youngs/All-Stars), Player Continuity (does the beginning of the run look like the end?) and, Hindsight Bias – when you think of this stretch, does it conjure up happy or disappointing memories (a surprisingly huge factor).

The 97-03 Giants, 08-13 Rays, 98-05 Astros, and 95-01 Mariners were just a few of the great stretches that couldn’t make the cut for this list. Maybe it was a lack of a championship, a dearth of notable players, or a general “whatever”-ness about them, but they just weren’t good enough.

Now on to the Top 10 (with nicknames!):

Disclaimer: Brad Pitt was not actually a member of the Oakland Athletics.

10. 2000-06 “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics: 94.9 WPA, 5 PA, 0 Pennants, 2 MVPs (Jason Giambi, 2000, Miguel Tejada, 2002), 1 CYA (Barry Zito, 2002). Peak: 2002

You knew the Moneyball team had to get a mention in here somewhere. Billy Beane’s squad racked up five playoff appearances in seven years, including back-to-back 100 win seasons in 2001 and 2002. But two big knocks on the A’s – they only won one playoff series (the 2006 ALDS), and they had a lot of player turnover because of all the Moneyball madness.  I had to rank them in the Top 10 regardless, mostly because so far they are the only team with a Brad Pitt-starred movie made about them.

9. 2006-13 “Verleylanders” Detroit Tigers, 87.5 WPY, 4 PA, 2 Pennants (2006, 2012), 3 MVPs (Miguel Cabrera, 2012-13 (probably), Justin Verlander, 2011), 2 CYA (Verlander, 2011, Max Scherzer, 2013 (probably)). Peak: 2012

As you can probably figure out from the nickname, this stretch got started when manager Jim Leyland and rookie Verlander came to town. They made the World Series in their first year, and have been in contention ever since. Big bonus for star power here, as assuming Cabrera and Scherzer take the trophies this year, their five MVP/CYA is the most for any run. But they never could win that championship ring, winning only one game total in their two Series appearances. With Leyland retiring, this could be the end for this Tigers itineration.

8. 2004-11 “A-Roid” New York Yankees, 96.4 WPY, 7 PA, 1 Pennant (2009), 1 WS Title (2009), 2 MVPs (Alex Rodriguez, 2005, 2007). Peak: 2009

On the rudimentary scoring system I made for this list, this was the third highest scoring team. They consistently made the playoffs, won a championship, and had numerous All-Stars like A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Robinson Cano. But that doesn’t account for how this team will forever be perceived – as disappointing. Coming off an incredible run (more on that later), the Yankees were supposed to make it to the World Series every year. But starting with their 2004 collapse, there were more first round exits than championships. Combined with steroid controversy, the negative vibes from this stretch was enough to knock them down a few spots.

The Indians could’ve been higher on this list, if it weren’t for those meddling Marlins.

7. 1995-01 “Cuyahoga Crushers” Cleveland Indians, 93.1 WPY, 6 PA, 2 Pennants (1995, 1997). Peak: 1995

The best team on this list to never win a title, I think people tend to overlook the Indians. But they made the playoffs six times in seven years and won two AL pennants in a very competitive American League at the time. In 1995 they went an incredible 100-44, kicking off this stretch. Behind the big bats of Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Eddie Murray, and the speed and defense of Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton, Cleveland was in the Top 3 of the American League in runs scored every year but one. They caught a couple of bad breaks in the ’97 Series against the Marlins – a victory in that legendary game seven might have meant a Top 5 finish on these rankings.

6. 2002-09 “The Scioscial Network” Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels, 92.9 WPY, 6 PA, 1 Pennant (2002), 1 WS Title (2002), 1 MVP (Vlad Guerrero, 2004), 1 CYA (Bartolo Colon, 2005). Peak: 2002

Some of these runs are defined not by the players on the field, but by the men in the dugout. For the Angels of the 00s, Mike Scioscia was the constant that allowed them to make the playoffs six times and win it all in 2002. The Angels never had a lot of star power other than Guerrero, but they had a cavalcade of solid performers like Garrett Anderson, John Lackey, and Frankie Rodriguez. If they hadn’t had to play the Red Sox in the postseason, things might have been different – they lost to Boston in the ’04, ’07, and ’08 ALDS. But they should be lauded for their consistency, and the 2002 Rally Monkey team is one of the most iconic of the Wild Card era.

5. 2006-11 “Always Utley in” Philadelphia Phillies, 93.0 WPY, 5 PA, 2 Pennants (2008, 2009), 1 WS Title (2008), 2 MVPs (Ryan Howard, 2006; Jimmy Rollins, 2007), 1 CYA (Roy Halladay, 2011). Peak: 2008

Now we’re getting into the real powerhouses. This Phillies run was very strong and filled with star power. The Howard-Utley-Rollins-Burrell infield was unmatched during this stretch for solid play, and Cole Hamels was the stalwart in an always solid rotation. They had some memorable postseason clashes with the Dodgers, and of course won their first title in 28 years in 2008 beating the Rays. Despite winning 102 games in 2011 with a revamped Halladay-Cliff Lee-Roy Oswalt rotation, the Phillies fell to the Cardinals in the NLDS and fell off very quickly in 2012 and 2013. Now with the same aging core, the team looks a bit in trouble – but at their peak, this team could beat anybody.

Sure, Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux won a ring. But shouldn’t they have won more?

4. 1995-02 “Team of the ’90s?” Atlanta Braves, 97.5 WPY, 8 PA, 3 Pennants (1995, 1996, 1999), 1 WS Title (1995), 1 MVP (Chipper Jones, 1999), 3 CYA (Greg Maddux, 1995; John Smoltz, 1996; Tom Glavine, 1998). Peak: 1995

It is crazy that a team with this much talent, this much continuity, and this many postseason appearances could only manage one championship – and I imagine Atlanta fans feel the same way. The starting pitching was unparalleled with Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine, while Chipper and Andruw Jones led a strong offense. But after winning it all in 1995, the Braves found a way to always fall in the playoffs. It didn’t help having to face a so-far unmentioned team on this list in the World Series twice, but they also fell to the surprising Marlins (’97) and Padres (’98). To me, this was an underachieving team, which is why I couldn’t rank them in the Top 3 of this list.

3. 2006-13 “The Cardinal Way” St. Louis Cardinals, 87.4 WPY, 5 PA, 3 Pennants (2006, 2011, 2013), 2.5 WS Titles (2006, 2011, 2013?), 2 MVP (Albert Pujols, 2008-09). Peak: 2011

At the time of this writing, this run was still in progress, with the Cardinals tied with the Red Sox 2-2 in the World Series. Another championship puts this team in the #2 spot on this list, but regardless it has been an impressive stretch. Above all else it has been incredible to see the St. Louis organization continue to churn out young talent year after year. From Pujols and Carpenter to Freese and Wacha, it seems like the Cardinals always find the next guy who can contribute. Considering the general youth of the 2013 team, St. Louis could be on the verge of starting another period of dominance – the National League better look out.

This champagne-soaked man was a key figure in the Red Sox run.

2. 2003-09 “The Magic of Theo” Boston Red Sox, 94.3 WPY, 6 PA, 2 Pennants (2004, 2007), 2 WS Titles (2004, 2007), 1 MVP (Dustin Pedroia, 2008). Peak: 2004

When Theo Epstein arrived as a 28-year-old wunderkind GM in 2003, no one knew what to expect. Well what they got was the best stretch of Red Sox baseball since World War I. Theo brought in guys like David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, and Josh Beckett, while drafting future stars Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Jonathan Papelbon. The slew of memorable moments for this team helped them out in the rankings more than anything. From the 2004 ALCS miracle with Big Papi and the Bloody Sock to the 7-0 comeback against the Rays in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS, the Theo-era Sox always seemed to come up when it mattered most, and they have 2 World Series rings to show for it.

1. 1996-03 “The Core Five” New York Yankees, 98.3 WPY, 8 PA, 6 Pennants (1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003), 4 WS Titles (1996, 1998, 1999, 2000), 1 CYA (Roger Clemens, 2001). Peak: 1998

Was there really any doubt as to the #1 team on this list? No other team mentioned even has three championships – these Yankees had four, plus another two AL pennants. People complain about their spending habits, but homegrown players Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera made up the core of this run, which included a 114-win season in 1998. Under the leadership of Joe Torre, they averaged over 98 wins per year during these years, and went a ridiculous 15-4 in postseason series. In the free agency era, which makes it so hard for teams to stay consistent and successful, the Yankees were able to win again and again, and that is why they are the undisputed champions of this list.

These men (plus Bernie Williams) were always in the hunt for a World Series title.

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