Crossed Up: How to Build the MLB Equivalent of the NBA’s Warriors

Dynasties are nothing new in sports, especially baseball. The early 1970s Oakland Athletics, the 1990s Atlanta Braves, and the New York Yankees from 1958 to 1962 are just some of the franchises that found dominant success over a long period of time, often with no true challenger stepping up until the very end of the run.

Major League Baseball does not currently have a dynasty on its hands, as the last two World Series champions had gone a literal century and change without a title (Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros). The National Football League has the New England Patriots, and the National Hockey League sees the Pittsburgh Penguins as their league’s defining team of the recent era, but no major professional sports team has a dynastic juggernaut like that of the Golden State Warriors.

Winners of the last four Western Conference titles and three of the past four National Basketball Association championship trophies, the Warriors boast five 2018 NBA All-Stars including former league Most Valuable Players Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. They recently captured their second consecutive league title in a four-game sweep of LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, which in turn forced James, the game’s best player, to sign elsewhere.

The Warriors were great, winning a single-season NBA record 73 regular season games in 2015-16, but got even better the following campaign with the addition of Durant. They’re a big, evil machine that rivals any professional sports team ever assembled in top-to-bottom talent, and they will rule the NBA for years to come with no end in sight.

Obviously, this is gonna be difficult, but hear me out … what if the Golden State Warriors were an MLB team? Alright, that might sound as stupid to you, the reader, as it does to me, the writer, but I digress. This is an ambitious idea with absolutely no good way to do this, but Crossed Up isn’t supposed to be conventional. We made an MLB team out of hockey players, and we examined who the Alex Ovechkin of baseball was. Just stick with it.

In the third edition of Crossed Up, @TomDorsa builds @MLB's answer to the Golden State Warriors superteam of the NBA.Click To Tweet

We’re gonna make a Golden State Warriors baseball team. Now, my method is going to be a little complex and academic. The Warriors are the Warriors because basically everyone around basketball agrees: they have five top-20 players in the NBA. ESPN.com ranks Durant at number-two, Curry at four, Draymond Green at nine, recently-signed DeMarcus Cousins at 17, and Klay Thompson at 18.

In a sport as individually influenced as basketball, making those top player rankings on the fly is significantly easier than in baseball. No, we’re going to have to go a little more in-depth to find a way to compare the Kevin Durants and Stephen Currys of the NBA to current-day MLB players. Here’s the thing: NBA rosters carry ten fewer players than MLB rosters. We have to account for the larger disparity in talent in baseball (with more players, the separation between the top and bottom is higher) by giving our made-up baseball team a more favorable selection process.

The process will be … hey, ESPN.com also has an MLB player countdown, which makes things significantly easier to put together. Our baseball team, hold on … we need a name for our squad. We named our hockey player baseball team the Kevlar Sox, so let’s give a baseball name a little basketball twist here and call them the Bankees, like, ya know, a bank shot and the Yankees. Let’s continue.

The Bankees get whoever ranks second, fourth, ninth, 17th, and 18th on the ESPN MLB Top 100, and those guys are starting pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, first baseman Joey Votto, right fielder Mookie Betts, and center fielder Charlie Blackmon. Also on the NBA countdown, Warriors reserve Andre Iguodala ranks 43rd, so the Bankees acquire Yu Darvish, the 43rd-ranked baseball player.

But that’s it as far as the countdown goes. Now, things get much more complicated and painful to the brain. We’ve gotta find a way to compare basketball players to baseball players without basing the team’s construction entirely on ESPN’s player rankings. Let’s take two stats from the Sports Reference group of websites — MLB’s wins above replacement and the NBA’s value over replacement player — and create some sort of equivalency model.

Now, any team who has Kershaw, Scherzer, Votto, Betts, Blackmon, and Darvish is probably already killing it. But even the Warriors need a solid supporting cast of guys like Shaun Livingston and David West, so who’s playing the roles of Livingston and West on the Bankees?

I really don’t want to do math and find out what the exchange rate from VORP to bWAR and back is. The equivalency calculation we’re going to put into use is this: [Bill Wurtz musical voice] percentile tiers. Because the NBA has only as many as 450 active players at a time, as opposed to the 1,000+ MLB players that log at least one appearance in a given season, we can’t just compare raw VORP to bWAR standings.

With fewer players, the NBA’s replacement level is higher than MLB’s. For example, the NBA had just three players with a VORP score better than 6.0 in their most recent full season, whereas 21 MLB players were worth six wins or more by bWAR in theirs. The stats aren’t comparable in anything besides league-relative value, so to transcend the leagues and compare athletes from both, we’ll round every player out into standings percentiles. When we’re finished, we’ll find the most directly comparable player from the two league’s standings percentiles and assign a counterpart to each Warriors role player.

For example, Jose Altuve and LeBron James would each be in the highest percentile (whether that’s the 100th or 99th, I don’t know, math folks like to argue about that) and the number-one tier. They each led their league in the stats we’re using (WAR and VORP) in the most recent complete season. However, the number-one tier is larger for baseball because there are far more players.

1,358 different players appeared in the major leagues in 2017, compared to “just” 540 in the NBA. The math here is very friendly, as we’re dividing by 100, so every tier for the NBA fits 5.4 players; to keep it even, we’ll round it out to six for the first 300 players and five per tier for the final 240. MLB tiers are trickier, as they allot for 13.58 players in a group, but we’ll do something similar here and round it out to 14 for the first 1,260 and then 10 each from 1,260 to 1,350 and a final, eight-player tier to end at 1,358.

When we get down to the 14 players in a tier, we’ll decide on which one makes the Bankees roster on their 2018 season bWAR. For example, if one baseball player in the 27th tier (a tier one of the real-life Warriors players made) has a 4.3 bWAR this season in a group full of 0.8s and 1.2s, that guy is going on the Bankees.  The objective is to create a team as dominant as the Warriors are in the NBA, but when we’re finished selecting players directly from statistical methods, we’ll tack on some replacement-level guys to fill in the available positions.

Have you stopped reading yet? I promise, we’re getting to the fun part. We need a Livingston, a West, a Nick Young, a Zaza Pachulia, a Quinn Cook, a Kevon Looney, a Jordan Bell, a Damian Jones, and a Patrick McCaw. So let’s get down to business.

THE VORP/WAR CALCULATIONS

This is where all the Warriors reserves from their tentative 2018-19 roster placed in Basketball-Reference VORP, complete with percentiles and percentile tiers. David West placed highest after the six aforementioned Warriors, so let’s find his baseball counterpart first. This is who ended up in the 15th percentile tier of all MLB players who appeared and garnered a WAR score in an MLB game in 2017, like West did in the NBA’s VORP.

Of these 14 players in the same percentile tier as West, the highest bWAR in 2018 belongs to Shin-Soo Choo, the Texas Rangers outfielder/DH whose 44-game on-base streak (active at the time of writing) is the longest in baseball this season. Choo is now a member of the Bankees based on our process listed above.

Here’s how all 14 players in the 85th percentile of bWAR have sized up this season. By the way, when a player’s bWAR is listed as “N/A,” it means they haven’t played in MLB this season.

PLAYER2018 bWAR
Shin-Soo Choo2.9
Albert Almora2.3
Scott Schebler1.8
Johan Carmargo1.6
Evan Gattis1.2
Asdrubal Cabrera1.0
Leury Garcia0.8
Brian McCann0.7
Omar Narvaez0.2
Nick Delmonico-0.1
Travis d'Arnaud-0.1
Jordy Mercer-0.3
Colby Rasmus-0.3
Daniel NavaN/A

Alright, so you get it now, right? Let’s fast-track this and see how the team forms out. Now we turn to Jordan Bell, who finished 91st in the NBA in VORP and landed in the 16th percentile tier.

Here are the baseball players in the adjacent tier.

The highest 2018 bWAR of this group belongs to Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, who will now play the infield for the Bankees.

PLAYER2018 bWAR
Tim Anderson2.2
Marcus Semien1.7
Chad Pinder1.5
Jon Jay1.2
Ketel Marte0.9
Randal Grichuk0.7
Billy Hamilton0.6
Ben Gamel0.3
Lucas Duda0.2
Ryon Healy0.0
Guillermo Heredia0.0
Boog Powell-0.4
Christian Vazquez-0.6
Cameron RuppN/A

The next tier gets interesting. Tier 28 in the VORP metric features both Kevon Looney and Zaza Pachulia, who each scored 0.7 VORP in the last NBA season. That means out of the following group of MLB players, we’ll need to select the two highest players in bWAR.

WHOA, Corey Kluber, Kenley Jansen, and Raisel Iglesias? Actual, talented All-Star caliber pitchers? How did this happen? Well, when I ran the Baseball-Reference play index that counted down the bWAR standings, it was for batting WAR only. Kluber and Jansen each had a few at-bats and held their own, so they’re showing up here.

But since we’re forming the Bankees off of overall 2018 bWAR, Kluber and Jansen are fair game. The Cleveland Indians ace is a shoo-in for a spot in an already stacked Bankees rotation, but Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, whose presence in left field fills the final spot in the grass, has a higher 2018 bWAR than the Los Angeles Dodgers closer.

Here’s how the Bankees nailed down two All-Stars in the place of Kevon Looney and Zaza Pachulia in the 72nd bWAR percentile.

PLAYER2018 bWAR
Corey Kluber3.9
Alex Gordon1.6
Seth Lugo1.4
Michael Lorenzen1.3
Kenley Jansen0.9
Rasiel Iglesias0.9
Craig Gentry0.8
Derek Holland0.2
Ian Kennedy0.1
Erik Kratz0.1
Jordan Lyles0.0
Brad Hand-0.3
Rymer Liriano-0.5
Sean GilmartinN/A

Now we turn to Quinn Cook, a good player in his own right, but by VORP, literally the most average player possible. He landed in the 50th tier and the 50th percentile, meaning he’s exactly a league-average player.

The highest 2018 bWAR of these 14 belongs to Sean Manaea, who now plays with the Bankees as their fifth starter. That’s right, the Bankees are so good and deep that their fifth starter is a 2.1-bWAR starter who threw a no-hitter for the A’s this season. WELP.

Here’s the remainder of tier 50 in bWAR.

PLAYER2018 bWAR
Sean Manaea2.1
German Marquez1.2
Tyler Mahle1.0
Phil Maton0.5
Cory Mazzoni0.3
Mike Mayers0.3
Tim Mayza0.1
Bruce Maxwell-0.1
Dillon Maples-0.2
Zach McAllister-0.4
Brandon Maurer-0.5
Francis MartesN/A
Jhan MarinezN/A
Nick MartinezN/A

Now we’re at Damian Jones, and as we start to drift into the bottom half of the NBA’s VORP rankings, the talent of comparable MLB players will lessen considerably. For example, Jones placed in the 62nd tier, 38th percentile, and the baseball players that did the same are here.

The first guy on the list turns out to be the guy with the highest bWAR in 2018, and that’s Pedro Strop of the Cubs. This is fine, even with solid starters like Brent Suter and Masahiro Tanaka on the board, because Strop becomes the Bankees’ first reliever.

As you can see in the top right corner of the graph, we’re getting way up there in the list of 1,358 MLB players. Here’s what’s left of tier 62.

PLAYER2018 bWAR
Pedro Strop0.9
Ryan Tepera0.9
Brent Suter0.7
Masahiro Tanaka0.4
Ben Taylor0.0
Jake Thompson-0.1
Anthony Swarzak-0.2
Daniel Stumpf-0.3
Blake Swihart-0.7
Josh Tomlin-0.8
Junichi Tazawa-1.0
Albert SuarezN/A
Nick TepeschN/A
Ashur TolliverN/A

Bear with us, this is about to get ugly. We’re at the Patrick McCaw level of this experiment, and the 14 players in the same tier as McCaw ended up in are as follows.

As someone who grew up in the Albert Pujols MVP era, it’s just kind of weird to see Pujols this far down the bWAR list. He literally was the worst everyday player in MLB last season, which is kind of amazing. Anyways, the Bankees get Jorge Soler, and with three outfielders already, they obtain a serviceable bench player.

Here’s the rest.

PLAYERMLB bWAR
Jorge Soler0.8
Jose Bautista0.6
Albert Pujols0.5
Jose Alvarado0.5
Anthony Bass0.5
Matt Andriese0.2
Jeff Beliveau-0.3
Blaine Boyer-1.7
Raul AlcantaraN/A
Victor AlcantaraN/A
Miguel AlmonteN/A
Dario AlvarezN/A
Mike BolsingerN/A
Michael BradyN/A

Just two more remain, Shaun Livingston’s counterpart is next. Livingston is one of Golden State’s top bench players and has long been a go-to option, but his VORP was awful and he placed 497th overall and in the 90th tier. At this point, like stated before, the tiers hold ten players each rather than 14. The same will be done with the Nick Young category.

Things are thinning out. However, White Sox relief arm Jace Fry is having a pretty solid season, and the fact that he’s a lefty helps us make our bullpen a little more versatile.

Fry is a Bankee. The rest, seen here, are not.

PLAYER2018 bWAR
Jace Fry0.8
Roenis Elias0.3
Brian Flynn0.2
Buck Farmer0.0
Giovanny Gallegos0.0
Jake Faria-0.4
Carson Fulmer-1.0
Ernesto FrieriN/A
Onelki GarciaN/A
Dayan DiazN/A

One more, even worse than the last, but that’s Nick “Swaggy P” Young for you.

Hey, Garrett Richards and Francisco Rodriguez are on this list. They’re notable players (Richards is a former Opening Day starter, Rodriguez was an elite closer for years), but the highest bWAR in the 97th tier belongs to Richard Rodriguez, a Pittsburgh Pirates reliever with a 0.9 bWAR this season.

Here’s the final tier rundown.

PLAYER2018 bWAR
Richard Rodriguez0.9
Randy Rosario0.8
Garrett Richards0.2
Carlos Ramirez0.1
Chris Rowley-0.2
Zac Reininger-0.2
Max PovseN/A
Zach PutnamN/A
Francisco RodriguezN/A
Ricardo RodriguezN/A

But, we’re not set yet. We were able to form a full MLB starting rotation, an entire three-man outfield complete with a sub, and more, but we don’t have it all down thus far. Like you might have read earlier in the piece, the final step is taking replacement-level players in bWAR from 2018 and filling in the remaining empty roster spots. To reach MLB’s standard 25-player roster, we need a starting catcher, second baseman, and third baseman, three more bench players, and four more bullpen arms.

The way we’ll do this? The Bankees will get their final ten guys via another Baseball-Reference play index search, this one for players in 2018 with precisely a 0.0 bWAR or lower. When the grid appears, we’ll fill the positions with the best available players.

A good amount of decent catchers appeared in the search, and the two we’ll choose are former All-Stars Jonathan Lucroy and Jason Castro, both at 0.0. Lucroy will start. As far as second base goes, Jonathan Schoop sits at -0.7 bWAR. Last season, he was one of MLB’s best position players, so we’ll go with him at second.

On the other side of the infield is third baseman Rafael Devers (-0.1) who has quite a bit of potential. We’re also going to need a utility infielder, so Maikel Franco (-0.3) it is, and it’s a good idea to grab Chase Utley (-0.2) as the fourth and final bench player because he’s a lefty hitter, can play multiple positions, and can provide a veteran presence to an otherwise pretty young team.

All we need are four relievers. The search comes in… and we choose, ya know, Zach Britton (0.0), Ken Giles (0.0), Brad Boxberger (-0.1), and Alex Colome (-0.5). All four are established relievers, and heck, WAR is unfriendly to relief pitchers anyway.

THE SQUAD

Here is the Bankees’ rotation, bullpen, lineup, and batting order.

STARTING PITCHING ROTATION:

  1. Max Scherzer
  2. Clayton Kershaw
  3. Corey Kluber
  4. Yu Darvish
  5. Sean Manaea

BULLPEN:

  1. Ken Giles
  2. Brad Boxberger
  3. Zach Britton
  4. Pedro Strop
  5. Alex Colome
  6. Jace Fry
  7. Richard Rodriguez

LINEUP AND BATTING ORDER:

  1. Charlie Blackmon, CF
  2. Jonathan Schoop, SS
  3. Mookie Betts, RF
  4. Joey Votto, 1B
  5. Shin-Soo Choo, DH
  6. Rafael Devers, 3B
  7. Alex Gordon, LF
  8. Jonathan Lucroy, C
  9. Tim Anderson, SS

BENCH

  1. Jorge Soler
  2. Maikel Franco
  3. Chase Utley
  4. Jason Castro

Now, on paper, this team is stacked. The Bankees have a borderline unhittable starting rotation, a formidable bullpen with established closers all around, and a potent offense led by some perennial MVP contenders. The Bankees resemble the Warriors in every way, and to answer the question from way up above, this is how you would hypothetically build an MLB team identical to Golden State’s squad of absolute dominance.

However, baseball games are played for a reason, the game isn’t played on paper, blah blah blah, other cliches and stuff. Well, Baseball-Reference estimates that a zero-WAR, replacement-level team would win 48 games over a season. With our team’s combined bWAR from 2017, the math of how team WAR is calculated shows (and this doesn’t mean anything but a fair guess as to how they should do), a 118-44 record.

Thanks for reading. If you have any ideas for another edition of Crossed Up, definitely shoot them our way. In addition, if my math was wrong anywhere, or you have other questions about the data I used, sound off in the comments.

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