Major League Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Teams

Not about “English” per se, this is for my fellow baseball fans.

There are at least two easy ways of answering the question of which are the all-time greatest teams:[1] (1) the teams who were most dominant in particular seasons, and (2) the teams who have won the most World Series. The second criterion is easy, the New York Yankees have won by far more World Series than any other team in MLB history.[2]

As for the first criterion, I have employed three easy, objective criteria to rank the top ten teams—those that were most dominant relative to the rest of their respective leagues in individual seasons. The three criteria are as follows:

  • A winning percentage of .650 or higher. This means that for a 162-game season they won a minimum of 105 games; for a 154-game season, at least 100 games.
  • They won the World Series (WS) that year. This criterion excludes several great teams that had phenomenal, league-dominating seasons; however, if a club fails to continue that dominance all the way to a championship, can I honestly rank them among the best-of-the-best all-time teams? I debated this at some length and decided I could not.
  • Their Delta score ranking. (Their what score?) The first two criteria whittled down the possibilities tremendously. The teams meeting those minimum qualifications were then ranked according to a very simple statistic I devised: the Delta score. (It needed a name, right? Why not Delta (∆), the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, which happens to be the first letter of the author’s name. (Disclaimer: I wrote originally wrote this long before the delta variant of COVID-19 had raised its ugly head.)

The Delta is a simple statistic that describes the ratio between a team’s offensive production and their pitching prowess—or, in other words, between their potential to get on base and generate runs, represented by team OPS (i.e., batters’ on-base percentage + slugging average) and their potential to prevent opponents from getting on base and scoring runs, represented by team WHIP (i.e., pitchers’ walks + hits allowed divided by innings pitched).[3] This rather unsophisticated statistic correlates strongly with winning percentage.[4] I don’t expect the Delta to compete with some of the advanced, and much more complicated, stats devised by gurus such as Bill James and the fine folks of SABR. But it works for my purposes.

I computed the Delta for each of the following teams (and many others) and then adjusted it to the league average for that season to produce a Delta+ score, much like the era+ and ops+ statistics. The Delta+ is a measure of how much potential for both scoring and preventing runs a team has relative to other teams in the league that season, with 100.0 being the league average.[5] So, for example, a team with a Delta+ stat of 120.00 is 20 percentage points higher than the league average that season, among the greatest of all time. (Trust me, it works. See below.)

Are you still with me? Good. So I’m going out on a limb here with my list of the top ten teams of all time, based entirely on the three criteria above. Ready? Here we go:

  1. 1927 New York Yankees – Most lists of all-time great teams put the ’27 Yanks at or near the top. The fabled “Murderers Row” of Ruth, Gehrig, Meusel, and Combs led the Yanks to a dominating 110-44 won-lost record (.714 winning percentage) and the American League championship, followed by an easy four-game World Series win vs. the Pirates. They easily rank number one, with a Delta+ of 130.09.
  2. 1939 New York Yankees – 106-45 (Delta+: 125.46). The Joe DiMaggio-led Yanks dominated the AL and then steamrolled over Cincinnati in the World Series.
  3. 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates – 110-42 (123.70). Honus Wagner powered the club to an NL championship and then to victory over the great Ty Cobb’s Tigers in the WS.
  4. 1998 New York Yankees – 114-48 (122.49). One of the most dominating teams ever. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and company flattened the Padres in four games in the WS.
  5. 1912 Boston Red Sox – 105-47 (120.57). League MVP Tris Speaker batted .383 and pitching ace “Smokey” Joe Wood won 34 games before leading the Red Sox to a WS victory over the New York Giants.
  6. 1942 St. Louis Cardinals – 106-48 (120.50). Pitching ace Mort Cooper led the NL in wins (22), ERA (1.78), and WHIP (0.987) in winning the Most Valuable Player award. Rookie Stan Musial and veteran Enos Slaughter led the offense, and the Cards beat the vaunted Yankees 4 games to 1 in the World Series.
  7. 1970 Baltimore Orioles – 108-54 (117.01). After a stunning WS loss to the “Miracle Mets” in 1969, the Orioles, led by Frank and Brooks Robinson and AL MVP Boog Powell, crushed the Reds 4 games to 1 in the WS.
  8. 1961 New York Yankees – 109-53 (116.71).The mighty Yankees boasted the dynamic duo of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle (61 and 54 homers respectively) and 25-game-winner Whitey Ford, who pulverized the Reds 4 games to 1 in the WS.
  9. 1936 New York Yankees – 102-51 (115.69). The Yankees show up again on the list, powered by AL MVP Lou Gehrig, a rookie outfielder named Joe DiMaggio, and all-star catcher Bill Dickey.
  10. 1929 Philadelphia Athletics – 104-46 (115.67). Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, and pitcher Lefty Grove ignited the first of three consecutive AL championship seasons for the A’s. The 1931 team ranked higher in Delta+ (119.73) but lost the World Series. The ’29 club rolled over the Cubs in five games.

Fun fact: (1) If we counted the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the LA Dodgers would be ranked number one all-time, with a record of 43-17 (.717), a victory over Tampa Bay in the World Series, and a Delta+ of 138.81. Although they meet all three criteria, I won’t include them in the greatest teams list because we can’t know if they could have sustained their dominating performance for a full 162-game season.

[1] There are other, more complex, ways of ranking the all-time best teams, involving both quantitative and qualitative analyses, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.

[2] See World Series entry above.

[3] Calculating the Delta score is simple: 100*(team OPS/team WHIP).

[4] The Pearson correlation of Delta scores to winning percentages is typically around .90, an extremely strong positive correlation.

[5] The formula for the Delta+ is 100*(Delta/LeagueDelta)

This article was first published in my book Nothing About Baseball Is Trivial: Essential Terms, Rules, Stats & History for Fans and Wannabe Fans, 2nd ed. (2021), 123-126. (Available on Amazon.)

Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, baseball bug, word lover, book hound, guitar picker, classical music aficionado, classic rock 'n' roll and movie buff, sinner, saint, former this, used-to-be that, and future who-knows-what. Every day is an adventure in learning how to make the world a better place--grammatically, anyway.

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