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Welcome to Baseball’s Temporary Superteam Era

Led by the World Series–winning Astros, last season’s playoff teams kept their rosters uncommonly intact. Familiarize yourself with the 2017 standings, because you might see them again in 2018.  

There’s a sense that not much has changed from the last baseball season to this one, at least regarding the World Series conversation. None of the top 2017 contenders has fallen from that perch, and none of the non-contenders has risen to meet the reigning favorites.

FanGraphs’ early projected standings peg the four LCS teams from 2017—the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs—to have the four strongest rosters this year, and teams five through seven are the remaining division winners from 2017—the Indians, Red Sox, and Nationals. Put another way, the projections feature 90-plus-win forecasts for seven teams: the six division winners from last year and the Yankees, who reached the ALCS and added NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton in December.

A number of factors contribute to this burgeoning “superteam” era, such as a widened gap between the league’s best and worst teams as more clubs tackle full-on rebuilds, which already produced the most loaded playoff field in decades last October. But at least at the outset of the 2018 season, another basic explanation arises: The best teams from a year ago didn’t lose any of their best players. Of the 58 players who were worth at least three WAR for a playoff team last year, just one—Carlos Santana for Cleveland—isn’t back on that team this season. And besides Santana, each of the 10 playoff teams returns at least its eight most valuable players from 2017.

Consider the Astros, who didn’t lose a single notable contributor the offseason after winning 101 regular-season games and the World Series. MVP José Altuve is still around. So are World Series MVP George Springer, former no. 1 pick Carlos Correa, former no. 2 pick Alex Bregman, and the rest of the October lineup. So is the whole October rotation, which includes former Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel. Here is a much less prestigious list, of every member of the 2017 Astros who produced positive Baseball-Reference WAR and isn’t returning this year:

  • Nori Aoki: 0.6 WAR in 2017, traded last July
  • Joe Musgrove: 0.1 WAR in 2017, traded in January for a better pitcher in Gerrit Cole
  • Colin Moran: 0.1 WAR in 2017, also traded in January for Cole

Not counting negative totals from sub-replacement-level players like Tyler Clippard and 40-year-old Carlos Beltrán, the Astros amassed 58.7 WAR as a team last year. That’s an impressive total but not a historically commanding one; 27 other teams in MLB history finished higher, including Cleveland last year and the Cubs in 2016.

But Houston rises in the historical rankings when exclusively calculating the value it retained over the ensuing winter. Again counting only positive contributions, players who accounted for 57.9 WAR are back on Houston’s roster in 2018. That figure is the ninth-highest for any team in league history and the third-highest for any team since 1977, when free agency began and made it harder for teams to retain their best players year after year. The year-after Murderer’s Row Yankees top the list, which contains seven World Series winners in the top 10.

Historical Returning-WAR Totals

Year Team Returning WAR Prev. Year WAR % Returning Won World Series?
Year Team Returning WAR Prev. Year WAR % Returning Won World Series?
1928 Yankees 66.4 69.4 95.7% Yes
1940 Yankees 62.1 62.2 99.8% No
1970 Orioles 61.8 62.8 98.4% Yes
1911 Athletics 61.2 61.4 99.7% Yes
1930 Athletics 58.4 58.9 99.3% Yes
1932 Yankees 58.2 58.3 100.0% Yes
2002 Mariners 58.2 70.1 82.9% No
1986 Mets 58 58.8 98.7% Yes
2018 Astros 57.9 58.7 98.6% ???
1999 Yankees 57.7 66.5 86.7% Yes

Houston has company, albeit not quite so highly ranked, in 2018. Cleveland has the eighth-highest returning WAR total (55.5) in the free-agency era, and the Yankees (51.6), Nationals (51.3), and Dodgers (50.6) are also in the top 40 out of a sample of more than 1,100 teams. But of course, it’s generally easier for good teams to return more production because they have a higher baseline to begin with, so to compare the reigning playoff teams with their predecessors, it’s also useful to look at the percentage of returning WAR, not just the raw total. That’s where the whole 2017 playoff class really stands out as an outlier in recent history.

The average playoff team in the free-agency era has brought back 83.7 percent of its positive WAR, ranging from the 1978 Phillies (who returned 100 percent of their previous year’s production) to, unsurprisingly, the 1998 post-championship-fire-sale Marlins (just 44.6 percent). In 2018, nine of the 10 reigning playoff teams are well above average, with only the Cubs a hair below.

Returning WAR, 2018

Year Team Returning WAR Prev. Year WAR % Returning
Year Team Returning WAR Prev. Year WAR % Returning
2018 Astros 57.9 58.7 98.6%
2018 Red Sox 44.8 46.2 97.0%
2018 Dodgers 50.6 54.0 93.7%
2018 Nationals 51.3 54.9 93.4%
2018 Twins 38.2 41.0 93.2%
2018 Indians 55.5 62.4 88.9%
2018 Yankees 51.6 58.1 88.8%
2018 Rockies 38.2 44.3 86.2%
2018 Diamondbacks 44.8 52.0 86.2%
2018 Cubs 38.2 45.7 83.6%

As a group, last year’s playoff teams are returning 91.7 percent of their positive WAR in 2018, a proportion the league hasn’t seen since the 1980s.

And rather than filter down to less talented teams, many of the valuable players who did leave their 2017 playoff teams are playing for a different 2017 playoff team this season. Tyler Chatwood (2.1 WAR for Colorado) and Brandon Morrow (1.1 for the Dodgers) play for the Cubs now; J.D. Martinez (2.6 for Arizona after the trade deadline) is on the Red Sox; Wade Davis (1.9 for Chicago) and Chris Iannetta (1.8 for Arizona) are Rockies; Brandon Drury (1.6 for Arizona) is a Yankee; and so on.

This recycling rather than redistribution of wealth could stem from the very gap between the league’s contenders and many rebuilding teams. Few of the latter held interest in the sort of short-term, high-cost upgrade represented by the likes of Martinez and Davis, and the very dominance of the former, who are all returning their top stars from last October, offered less incentive for those in the league’s lesser tiers to try to compete for a division title.

That development might seem scary for proponents of parity, but it’s likely that the best teams’ hoarding of all their best players will prove unique to 2018 and that as soon as next winter, the 91.7 percent figure will fall back to its more typical levels in the low 80s. Bryce Harper headlines a class of six 2017 All-Stars who play for a superteam and are free agents next winter; that list also includes Keuchel, Andrew Miller, Craig Kimbrel, Daniel Murphy, and Michael Brantley. Clayton Kershaw can opt out of his contract, and David Price could join him. A number of other solid starters—from Marwin González to Gio González to Yasmani Grandal—will also hit the market then, and more star-caliber players on current contenders, like Altuve, Chris Sale, Paul Goldschmidt, and Nolan Arenado, are free agents after the 2019 season.

The sport’s best players have increasingly rejected early-career, team-friendly contract extensions in recent years, which is why Harper is poised to become a free agent next winter and none of Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, or any member of the Astros’ core—save Altuve, who signed his extension in the middle of his last season before becoming an MVP candidate—has given his club control of any of his free-agent seasons. So in the near future, as those franchise centerpieces age out of their arbitration years, the market will once again flood with the previous October’s brightest stars.

And even in 2018, the aberrant roster inertia at the top of the standings isn’t guaranteed to produce another predictable regular season. Projections are good but nowhere near perfect—the average team projection is off by six or seven wins—and history suggests that returning a bunch of production isn’t necessarily the best route to returning to the playoffs.

Narrowing the range to just the wild-card era to better control for the number of playoff teams each year, exactly 50 percent of clubs that make the postseason in one season do so again the next season. And that number doesn’t vary heavily based on how much production a team returns; the top third of reigning playoff teams in percentage of WAR retained have reached the playoffs at a 48 percent rate, the middle third 47 percent, and the bottom third 54 percent.

For raw WAR totals rather than WAR percentage, there is a very slight relationship—58 percent of teams in the top third return to the playoffs, versus 48 percent of teams in the middle third and 44 percent in the bottom third—but still nothing strong enough to suggest that Houston and its 2017 playoff fellows are locks to reach the 2018 postseason. In the wild-card era, the 2006 Astros returned the highest percentage of positive WAR after making the previous season’s playoffs, and they didn’t make it back; the 2002 Mariners returned the highest raw WAR total after making the previous season’s playoffs, and they didn’t make it back, either.

It’s certainly possible that the Astros and the teams they beat last October will use their returning might to stage a series of playoff rematches. Or maybe next winter, there will be a brand-new group of playoff rosters that teams will worry about keeping intact.

Thanks to Dan Hirsch of The Baseball Gauge for research assistance.