FiveThirtyEight followed their fascinating NBA and NFL franchise value Elo Ratings by introducing such ratings for MLB franchises. Their published results are fascinating because they blend zero-sum judgments of each team (when the Brewers beat the Nationals, for example, the Nationals lost exactly the same number of points that the Brewers gained) with weighted predictions of team performance (here, starting pitching match-ups and home field advantage, among other aspects, can impact a team’s rating). The ratings appear to be quite intuitive, since the more a team wins, the stronger their rating becomes (in the NBA, a good comparison would be the Cleveland Cavaliers’ absurd climb in Elo Ratings as that team won three consecutive improbable games. Their three consecutive victories earned them 42 Elo points and solidified the Cavs’ position atop the NBA). Compared to Elo Ratings from the NBA, the MLB ratings also give a sense of the true slog of 162 games, as most franchises truly do not waiver terribly far from the average rating of 1500; in this case, one can gauge a truly elite dynasty, such as the Big Red Machine, by their ability to transcend the 1520 Elo Rating for more than a decade (1972-1982).
One of the benefits of using a statistic like Elo is that it places in hard-and-fast language the often tricky narratives of weighing franchises and eras against one another. Since each team is scaled against an average of 1500, and each team is readjusted toward the mean after each season, each franchise faces the same conditions of measurement throughout each season. Therefore, the strength of a given league can be measured by each team’s ascending, descending, or consistent performance, and the strength of a team’s opponents are built directly into each measurement (since each team can only be judged against the predictions for those games).
I am planning on working with some Elo Rating statistics here at BPMilwaukee, in order to reframe some of the debates about the club’s rebuilding path, and rebuilding paths in general. I am also interested in how Elo Ratings, over time, will correlate with team TAv, FRAA, DRA (or cFIP), and run differential performances. If there are divergences or similarities between these measurements, analysts will have additional tools at their disposal to judge each team within the context of its league. It will also be interesting to attempt to judge the strength of each league, again comparing that data with metrics like TAv and DRA.
The Expansion Blues
Elo assigns a rating of 1450 to each expansion team, which places those teams significantly below the league average threshold of 1500. The Brewers franchise received such a rating for their 1969 season in Seattle, and the Pilots did not disappoint with their expansion moniker. The Pilots closed their lone season with an Elo rating that fell to 1431, which pushed their rating “below expansion” performance. Once Bud Selig purchased the team and moved them to Milwaukee, the club ascended back to 1450, but they still could not reach that league average mark for several years. In fact, the team had to bottom out to 1436 once more before reaching the 1500 mark during their shockingly successful 1978 season.
|Brewers Elo by Decade||Average||Start / End||Best / Worst||Standard Deviation|
|1969-1979||1474.3||1450 / 1538||1538 / 1431||28.5|
|1980-1989||1513.6||1527 / 1523||1555 / 1464||26.8|
|1990-1999||1497.8||1517 / 1472||1558 / 1460||24.1|
|2000-2009||1477.85||1483 / 1491||1513 / 1426||23.2|
|2010-2015||1500.9||1496 / 1476||1527 / 1476||16.1|
Under the watch of Harry Dalton, the Brewers embarked on their best stretch of seasons. The 1980s Milwaukee Brewers were consistently better than average, as the glorious Wallbangers also gave way to quite a successful set of clubs to close the decade. Without the pressure or glory or heartbreaking memories of the playoffs, Brewers fans will not necessarily remember the late-1980s clubs for being as good as Harvey’s Wallbangers, but those late-1980s clubs were juuuust a bit behind the recognizably great Brewers squads. In fact, while the 1978-1983 Brewers posted an average Elo Rating of 1521.86 (25.7 Standard Deviation), the 1987-1993 Brewers posted an average Elo Rating of 1518.71 (22.4 Standard Deviation). The late-1980s to early-1990s Brewers arguably wasted one of the strongest standpoints in franchise history , even moreso than the recent competitive surge of 2008-2014 (1504.79 Elo Rating, 13.6 Standard Deviation).
Incidentally, the Brewers’ Elo rating progression aligns quite well with the stories told by their run differentials over the years. Here and there, one might note that the best run differentials mimic the best Elo Ratings, but the advantage of the Elo rating is that there are closing and opening stories to each decade that can add to the stark reality of runs scored and allowed. On average, both stats show that the 1970s were a bad decade for the Brewers, but the development of the strong 1978 and 1979 clubs results in a positive decade-closing Elo rating of 1538.
|Decade Ranking||By Run Differential (Best / Worst)||Beginning / Ending Elo (Best / Worst)|
|1960s-1970s (11 seasons)||-700 (85 / -160)||1450 / 1538 (1538 / 1431)|
|1980s (10 seasons)||360 (174 / -112)||1527 / 1523 (1555 / 1464)|
|1990s (10 seasons)||-184 (136 / -105)||1517 / 1472 (1558 / 1460)|
|2000s (10 seasons)||-649 (61 / -194)||1483 / 1491 (1513 / 1426)|
|2010s (6 seasons+)||-64 (83 / -82)||1496 / 1476 (1527 / 1476)|
The recent Brewers teams echo their Elo Rating with their run differential development. The Brewers of the last six seasons largely hung around average (-64 run differential for the decade), and while their highpoint was good (+83 runs), it was not as “elite” as the best Milwaukee teams of either the 1980s or the 1990s. In this case, the rebuilding tenure of GM David Stearns has the clear goal of maintaining that standard consistency of sticking around .500, sure, and then transcending that into an extended run of significantly better than average Brewers clubs. If your instincts as a Brewers fan already told you that Milwaukee has not yet had such a run, the Elo Ratings will verify your intuition.
The Fall of Sal Bando
In terms of long-term GMs, the Brewers have three major GMs in their history. Elo Ratings undeniably uphold Harry Dalton, again reinforcing a common narrative (this one placing Dalton as best GM). Doug Melvin had a solid, if unspectacular, run that vindicates his ability to bring a team out of rebuilding while also reflecting the club’s inability to reach the next level under his watch. However upset one might be with Melvin’s era, his performance positively sparkles next to Sal Bando, who took the reins of the club at the close of its second strong era (roughly spanning the end of 1987 through 1992) and positively ran it back into expansion era mode.
Even if Bando’s overall Elo Rating is higher than Melvin’s, which is quite an interesting fact, there is no question that the trajectory of his administration is much more disappointing. Both Melvin and Dalton basically picked up baseball teams that were below expansion level in terms of outlook and performance, and turned them into contenders (Dalton) or consistently competitive teams (Melvin). On the other hand, Bando took over a club from the franchise’s best GM, and failed to build on a series of good seasons; Bando could not improve upon Dalton’s core, and therefore it is easy to attribute much of his success in Elo Ratings to the strength of Dalton’s clubs (Bando’s only above average Elo Ratings occurred in 1992 and the beginning of 1993; Melvin’s occurred in 2011-2012, after retooling from the rough 2009-2010 seasons). This may update a Brewers narrative: Milwaukee fans would rarely consider saying so, but Bando had a chance to build a dynasty decade, and drove the club in the opposite direction.
Brewers GM (Full Seasons), Previous GM Closing ELO, Exit ELO, Average, Standard Deviation, Four Best (+1500 seasons)
|Long-Term GMs||Previous GM Closing Elo||Closing Elo||Average Elo||Standard Deviation||Best Four Seasons||1500+ seasons|
|Doug Melvin (2003-2015)||1426||1476||1490.8||22.6||1527 / 1523 / 1520 / 1518||5|
|Sal Bando (1992-1999)||1531||1472||1495.6||25.1||1558 / 1540 / 1522 / 1498||1.5|
|Harry Dalton (1978-1991)||1436||1531||1512.8||26.7||1555 /1536 / 1535 / 1534||9.5|
In a juicy factoid, current GM David Stearns took over a club that almost perfectly splits the middle between Dalton/Melvin’s average entry point (1456) and Sal Bando’s entry point (1522). In fact, Stearns picks up the Brewers at one of the strongest points of their franchise history (which is perhaps an indictment of the general inability to compete throughout franchise history). This Elo Rating is one of the first to contrast a common fan narrative, which is that the Brewers are in need of a thorough system rebuild. Even if this statement is true on the surface in some regard (i.e., that the Brewers need to acquire some new talent to compete), the club is swimming closer to “average” than the “expansion level” bottoming out.
|Brewers GMs||Seasons||Debut Elo|
Subsequently, this should vindicate several of Stearns’s moves, where one finds the GM searching for MLB-level second chance players and serviceable veterans than truly tankworthy replacement players. Milwaukee was not in the position to tank, and their front office made the proper decision not to tank. It’s some kind of poetic justice that the Brewers currently sit balanced between average and rock bottom, which effectively explains why fans can have such lively debates about the course of the franchise. Stearns truly has the opportunity to pitch the club in either direction; his competitive legacy (and subsequent Elo Rating) will arguably surge if Stearns is able to continually improve the club’s future contending prospects without tanking the big league club below expansion level. If he accomplishes this task, Stearns will have achieved a franchise first for Milwaukee.
Baseball Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2016.
Boice, Jay. “How Our 2016 MLB Predictions Work.” FiveThirtyEight. ESPN Internet Ventures, 2016 (April 25, 2016). Accessed between June 20 and June 27, 2016.
Boice, Jay and Reuben Fischer-Baum. “The Complete History of the MLB.” FiveThirtyEight. ESPN Internet Ventures, 2016 (Updated June 26, 2016). Accessed between June 20 and June 27, 2016.
MLB Advanced Media, LP, 2016.