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What is a Championship Window?

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They keep talking about it, but what is it really?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There has been a lot of discussion over the past few months about the mythical “window of contention” in connection to the Twins. Fans say it’s open, Falvine says it’s shut, and everyone says the Pohlads are cheap. But what if the front office is actually right to take this wait-and-see approach?

In order to determine whether our “window” is open or not (and what constitutes an open window), I researched the past five World Series champions. For our purposes, we’re going to assume it is World Series-or-bust (losing in the Wild Card game isn’t good enough). I looked at six criteria: payroll, average age of roster, previous year’s result, strength of division, number of players above 5.0 and 3.0 WAR, and five-player “core”. In this article I’ll discuss my findings and conclude what makes an “open window”, and in a second article I’ll use those findings to speculate whether the Twins’ “window” is open, or if the front office is right to wait and see.

First, I looked at the estimated payroll of each World Series champion in their championship season.

World Series Payrolls

Year Team Payroll Ranking
Year Team Payroll Ranking
2018 Boston Red Sox $222 million 1st
2017 Houston Astros $158 million 13th
2016 Chicago Cubs $176 million 8th
2015 Kansas City Royals $122 million 12th
2014 San Francisco Giants $163.5 million 5th

Drawing from this, it appears that it isn’t too important to be in the top 5 of spending, but it is a must to be in the top half of the league.

Next up is the average age of the complete roster.

World Series Average Age

Year Team Average Age
Year Team Average Age
2018 Boston Red Sox 28.3
2017 Houston Astros 28.6
2016 Chicago Cubs 28.6
2015 Kansas City Royals 29.6
2014 San Francisco Giants 30.2

This is interesting in the light of the free agent situation these days. The league has shifted from valuing pricey free agent veterans to cheaper, team-controlled talent in the past few years, and the trend of average age getting younger on these teams illustrates that. However, I would expect that trend to reach a limit sometime soon, as I cannot imagine teams with average ages in the pre-”prime” years having this level of success.

Looking at how these teams fared in the years prior to reaching the mountaintop, it was a mixed bag. The Red Sox lost in the ALDS in 2017 (to the Astros), the Cubs lost in the NLCS in 2015, and the Royals were downed in the World Series in 2014. However, the Astros and Giants both missed the playoffs in the year prior to their championships. All of these teams did have vets with playoff experience, whether with that team or another. I’d conclude that it isn’t necessarily important for a team as a whole to be experienced in the playoffs, but it is important to have some veterans who have been there before.

The next criteria we’ll look at in this article is the strength of division. The Red Sox compete in the AL East, the Astros in the AL West, the Cubs in the NL Central, the Royals in the AL Central, and the Giants in the NL West. To determine strength of division, I calculated the average wins of the teams excluding the World Series champion in the division, and then found the difference between that average and the amount of wins the World Series winner had.

World Series Division Strength

Year Division Avg. Wins WS Champ Wins Diff
Year Division Avg. Wins WS Champ Wins Diff
2018 AL East 77.75 108 30.25
2017 AL West 77.75 101 23.25
2016 NL Central 76.25 103 26.75
2015 AL Central 78.5 95 16.5
2014 NL West 75.25 88 12.75

This particular category has driven the thinking behind the Twins’ window being open probably more than any other single criteria, so let’s see what we can learn from it. For reference, the strongest division in 2018 (excluding division champion), was the AL West, with an 83.25 win average. The league-wide average is always 81 wins. So while it appears that the teams in each of these divisions were below-average (on average), you kind of get into a chicken-or-the-egg paradox. There’s a limited amount of wins to go around, so if one team (such as the World Series champion) is winning a well-above average amount of those games, then it stands to reason that their are less wins to go around for the rest of the teams in its division. So is a low divisional win average a product of a dominant team being present, or is a team with lots of wins a product of a weak division? However, it is interesting that the difference seems to be trending upward. This would seem to be due to the roster-building trends these days, as competing teams trade and sign players to build “super-teams”, while other teams are happy enough to lose games and tank for high draft picks. For example, the AL East had 2nd & 3rd place teams that cleared 100 and 90 wins, respectively, but the abysmal Orioles brought the average way down.

Now we’ll get more into roster makeup and what kind of stats players put up in order to reach these win totals. In order to determine what kind of depth these teams had to have to make it to the top, I started by counting how many players above 5.0 WAR (considered All-Star level) and how many above 3.0 were on the team. I also focused on pitching depth by counting how many pitchers they had over 2.0 WAR. Note that, for pitchers acquired mid-season, I took their WAR in the limited innings they had with their new teams and projected what their full-season WAR would’ve looked like had they pitched at that level for 180 innings (starters) and 55 innings (relievers).

WS War Depth

Year Team Players w/ 5+ WAR Players w/ 3+ WAR Pitchers w/ 2+ WAR
Year Team Players w/ 5+ WAR Players w/ 3+ WAR Pitchers w/ 2+ WAR
2018 Red Sox 3 8 6
2017 Astros 4 9 3
2016 Cubs 4 9 5
2015 Royals 1 4 4
2014 Giants 1 5 3

After seeing these results, it is definitely evident that the power of the league has shifted in the past few years to mega-deep “super-teams”. It is also telling to see the amount of good pitchers each of these teams boasted. The Astros and Giants appear to be rather thin, but the Astros had three pitchers with 1.8-1.9 WAR, and the Giants had one with 1.9. Houston also had another pitcher with a lower WAR (Lance McCullers) get unreasonably hot in the playoffs (as well as, notably, one of the best offenses in league history). All of these teams had at least three starting pitchers clear 2.0 WAR and at least one ace reliever at 1.9 or above. It is also interesting to note that four of the five recent champions all made mid-season trades for key pitchers (Eovaldi, Verlander, Chapman, and Peavy).

Narrowing the focus on roster construction from depth to the core, I picked the top five players by WAR on each team and explored their WAR from that season and from the season prior. Again, pitchers acquired mid-season have projections across 180 or 55 innings.

WS Core War

Year Team Player 1 (Age) WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired Player 2 (Age) WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired Player 3 (Age) WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired Player 4 (Age) WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired Player 5 (Age) WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired
Year Team Player 1 (Age) WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired Player 2 (Age) WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired Player 3 (Age) WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired Player 4 (Age) WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired Player 5 (Age) WAR Previous Year WAR Acquired
2018 Red Sox OF Mookie Betts (25) 10.9 (AL MVP) 6.4 Amateur Draft SP Chris Sale (29) 6.9 6 Offseason Trade 2016 DH JD Martinez (30) 6.4 4.7 Free Agent 2018 SP David Price (32) 4.4 1.6 Free Agent 2016 OF Andrew Benintendi (23) 3.9 3.6 Amateur Draft
2017 Astros SP Justin Verlander (34) 9.5 7.2 Midseason Trade 2017 2B Jose Altuve (27) 8.3 (AL MVP) 7.7 Amateur Free Agent SS Carlos Correa (22) 6.3 6.1 Amateur Draft CF George Springer (27) 5 5.1 Amateur Draft UT Marwin Gonzalez (28) 4.3 1.3 Offseason Trade 2011
2016 Cubs 3B Kris Bryant (24) 7.4 (NL MVP) 6.1 Amateur Draft SP Jon Lester (32) 5.6 2.7 Free Agent 2015 1B Anthony Rizzo (26) 5.5 6.4 Offseason Trade 2012 SP Kyle Hendricks (26) 5.4 1.6 Midseason Trade 2012 SS Addison Russell (22) 4.1 3.5 Midseason Trade 2014
2015 Royals CF Lorenzo Cain (29) 7.2 4.9 Offseason Trade 2010 3B Mike Moustakas (26) 4.4 0.4 Amateur Draft 1B Eric Hosmer (25) 3.6 0.8 Amateur Draft RP Wade Davis (29) 3.5 3.7 Offseason Trade 2012 OF Alex Gordon (31) 2.8 6.5 Amateur Draft
2014 Giants C Buster Posey (27) 5.4 5.3 Amateur Draft SP Jake Peavy (33) 4.6 1.7 Midseason Trade 2012 SP Madison Bumgarner (24) 3.9 4 Amateur Draft RF Hunter Pence (31) 3.8 3.8 Midseason Trade 2012 3B Pablo Sandoval (27) 3.4 2.3 Amateur Free Agent

I think that this is probably the most telling criteria I looked at. First, let’s break down how these core players were acquired. We find that 17 of the 25 players were acquired as prospects (1 following his rookie season). Five players were acquired as established major leaguers in trades, and only three were acquired via free agency. So it seems that it is actually more key to success to have prospects pan out in a big way than to sign big free agents.

Looking at the ages of the cores, we have a range from 22 to 34. However, a majority of the players are grouped around the expected “peak” age. The average age comes out to 27.56 years.

The really interesting part of this, to me, is the “Previous Year” WAR values. We find that only 6 of the 25 players performed to a tune that was less than 2.0 WAR the year before. Among these six players, two were veteran pitchers who were just coming off of down years (Peavy and Price). So regardless of age, we find that 84% of these core players had already established themselves as above-average MLB ball-players.

So in conclusion, here’s how I’d define an open championship window. We’re looking at teams that have a payroll in the top half of the league. The teams should have an average age that is in the midst of a player’s “prime”. The teams do not need to have made the playoffs in the years prior, but they do need to have some playoff experience on the roster. Division strength (or lack thereof) is not a huge factor, but the teams should be able to reach 95 wins and win the division (no wild card teams have won since the play-in game was instituted). In this super-team era, the teams should have at least two above-average starting pitchers, a dominant starting pitcher, and a dominant relief ace. They will need to have an MVP-caliber position player, a couple more All-Star-level players, and a handful of above-average guys as well. Finally, the teams should not be counting on their key players to have breakout seasons.

All data and information is courtesy of baseball-reference.com.

Check back later this week for an analysis of what this means for the Twins!