Could a Tom Brady and Bill Belichick Exist in Baseball?
I know what you’re going to say before I even get past the headline, “…but what about the Yankees!” Before I get to the point, let me address that from the beginning. The Yankees from 1995 to 2012 are an anomaly of modern sports, for sure, and their run is one of the best one could ever see. But, there are key differences: there is no salary cap in baseball, for one. The Yankees paid excess luxury tax so they could buy in on their stars, while also signing their homegrown players to lucrative contracts. This is impossible in the NFL, because there is constant turnover.
Anyway, to my point. The Super Bowl is over now, and baseball season is almost upon us. Before we get there I want to sit back and marvel at what the New England Patriots have done since 2001, because it really can’t be believed. In that span, they have accumulated: fourteen division wins and playoff appearances, seven conference championships, and five Super Bowls. 41% of Super Bowls in this century have had Tom Brady at the center. And yeah, Brady is remarkable as well.
Intelligent people may disagree, but he’s the best football player in the history of the sport–period. Five championships, for starters, combined with twelve Pro Bowl’s, two MVP’s, 456 touchdown passes, 61,582 passing yards, and fourth all-time in Approximate Value. One could certainly make the argument that Peyton Manning was better on paper, but Brady’s Super Bowl Probability Added, a theoretical stat I suppose, likely puts him at the top.
Bill Belichick, as well, cannot be believed. He has put together team after team of high performance, and while Brady absolutely helps, there are plenty of teams with great quarterbacks that have brief or intermittent success.
The question, then, as this is a site on baseball: could this happen in baseball today? Could there be a legendary manager/GM and a legendary player on the same team for 15+ years that could do the thing the Patriots have done? Is it even theoretically possible?
To do this you need to define how great the player has to be. That’s easy. They have to average ~6 WAR a year for 15+ years. Those players in recent history occupy a small list, featuring Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Ricky Henderson, Mike Trout, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Clayton Kershaw, just to project on a couple of those.
Trout is a good example. He has averaged about 8 wins a year for five years, and if he stays healthy, he probably hits 100 WAR at some point. Now, you need an executive. In this era it’s Billy Beane or Theo Epstein, but I take the latter. Beane is a Hall of Famer, but he has never dealt with juggernauts; I just can’t imagine him feeling comfortable or being successful on a team with wealth. He has even turned it down himself because that’s just not in his skill set.
So, let’s see on this thought exercise. Epstein, a legendary GM and executive, has averaged 89 wins a year as an executive on the Red Sox and Cubs, for what that’s worth. Sometimes he deserved less credit, like when the ’03-’04 Red Sox were basically built before he got there, and then got the credit he deserved, both by maintaining success in Boston, and building a championship Cubs team for scratch. Now, plug in Trout into this scenario. If we assume a three-to-four win spike with his addition, you’re looking at teams that average 93 or so wins a year. They are guaranteed a playoff spot almost every year, basically.
That obviously doesn’t guarantee a ring, of course. The Cubs were a heavy favorite going into the playoffs at around a 7/4 odds to start the playoffs, but that wouldn’t be the norm on such an imaginary team. Let’s say, 1/4 odds on average? The Rangers, a 95-game-winner but slightly weaker team than the Cubs, were at 1/5 odds to start the playoffs.
So, you’d expect a World Series once every four or five years on such a team, even with the best executive and the best player in the game. Over 15 or so years, that equates to about three World Series wins. So, it’s possible.
But does that make it as remarkable than the Patriots? If they hit the best case, with something like five to seven World Series wins (a few of them being classics) and Trout gracefully sliding to the Hall of Fame, then it probably stacks up. It’s also fair to say that the salary cap has gotten a little harder than the usual luxury tax hit, with the new CBA instituting harsher penalties for repeat offenders.
Nonetheless, there just isn’t the same kind of concentration of talent in baseball as there is in football. There are just 16 games, with a quarterback who controls every snap, with a manager who controls every play call and every transaction. It’s different. Baseball has the complicated and distributed structure of layers of farm systems, multiple executives, a manager with a different mind and agenda, and the absolute fact that one single baseball player cannot have as much of an impact as a quarterback in football. The game is designed that way; you can’t have Trout bat nine times a game. This makes it possible to marvel at what the Patriots have done in context of the sport and its own difficulties, and it gives us the ability to understand, as baseball fans, that a dynasty like that is theoretically possible, so we should watch every minute of it if we’re lucky enough for it to happen.