As I sit down to write this entry with the end of the year fast approaching (its likely to have either come or be mere hours away by the time you read this), there is never a better time to give a look back than right now. But rather than look back at the sometimes exhilarating and sometimes dreary timeline that was the 2020 MLB season, I have decided to go bigger.
2020 also caps the end… or beginning, depending on how you look at it, of a decade. No matter your view, the past ten years have been a time that has seen monumental changes in how Major League teams are built. Really, these past ten years could genuinely be looked at from an offensive standpoint as three different eras in baseball.
The early years were marked as the end of the Moneyball era. Teams like the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals leveraged plate discipline and slugging into offense. These strategies were countered in the middle of the decade by the inception of increasingly specialized bullpens. The Kansas City Royals made it to two consecutive World Series, winning one, on the back of a cavalcade of bullpen arms that propelled them to success. A literal arms race was on, later bolstered by how the Cleveland Indians were carried in part by their bullpen to a World Series appearance in 2016 as well. Offenses struggled in the face of new strategy. Deepening bullpens meant not only tougher competition for batters to face in the late innings, but that managers could feel more comfortable replacing their starting pitching early and often when necessary.
Offenses have now countered, and their counter is to get as much bang for each swing as possible. Nearly 50 years after Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver extolled the virtues of pitching and three-run homers, the launch angle era was on. This is where we find ourselves today, with most teams finding that aiming to score with one swing as much as possible is the best way to compete against all the high-level pitching talent that now exists.
So, what about our look back? What way is there to summarize the best of what we have seen? Well, I have meticulously and pain-stakingly gone over the numbers of the past ten years and have compiled the ten best offensive teams of the past ten seasons of Major League Baseball.
In doing this, one thing really jumps out at me as obvious. If you want to be one of the ten best offenses of the past decade, you need to have a designated hitter in your lineup. I did not weight differently for National League teams in my compiling, and it turns out that having your 8 or 9-spot in the order filled with a pitching specialist that looks like he is flailing away with a flyswatter makes it hard to measure up against teams that are able to use nine professional hitters. In short, there are three NL teams that made this list. All of them are from 2020. Is that unfair? Maybe. But its objectively how the numbers work out. I will await hate mail from the purists out there.
Additionally, for each team listed I have put together an approximate starting lineup. I did this by looking at the most common batting orders for that team as found on Baseball-Reference.com and making any necessary edits that I needed to in order for positions to make sense. Teams don’t use the same lineup day after day very often, so this wasn’t as cut and dry as you would think. Still, it’s good for a bit of nostalgia in remembering the names of some of the great lineups from recent history.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the list. We start mid-decade, in a foreign land that no one has traveled to for nearly a year now…
2015 Toronto Blue Jays (93-69, won AL East, lost in ALCS)
They led baseball in:
Home Runs (232): Donaldson (41), Bautista (40) and Encarnacion (39) all had over 30
Runs Scored (891): Donaldson (122) and Bautista (108) had over 100
On Base Percentage (.340): Bautista (.377), Encarnacion (.372), Donaldson (.371) and Chris Colabello were all over .370
Slugging (.457): Donaldson (.568) and Encarnacion (.557) were above .540
Weighted Runs Created+ (117): Donaldson (154), Encarnacion (150), Bautista (148) and Colabello (143) were all over 130
The Blue Jays also scored the 5th most runs of any team during the decade.
This is Josh Donaldson’s MVP year. He slashed .297/.371/.568 while leading the league in runs scored, RBI and total bases. The two guys directly behind him in the lineup, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were a huge part of why Donaldson was able to cross the plate so often. Bautista was in the midst of the last season of a six-year run that saw him as one of the most feared hitters in the league, proven by his league leading 110 walks in 2015. He was an All-Star that finished 8th in the MVP voting himself. Encarnacion also put together arguably the best year of his career. He was the August Player of the Month and finished the season with a .277/.372/.557 slash line to go with a 148 OPS+. This team was also the recipient of an incredible year from one-hit wonder Chris Colabello, who hit. 321 and slugged .520 in about 100 games, got busted for doping in 2016 and never hit above .229 or slugged higher than .380 in any other season of his 4-year Major League career. Even defense-first outfielder Ben Revere got into the action after a mid-season trade from the Phillies. His OPS+ of 101 during his time in Toronto was the best of his career and the only time he was above average offensively.
2016 Boston Red Sox (93-69, won AL East, lost in ALDS)
They led baseball in:
Runs scored (878): Betts (122), Bogaerts (115) and Dustin Pedroia (105) all had over 100
On Base Percentage (.349): Ortiz (.401) and Pedroia (.376) were both over .370
Slugging (.461): Ortiz had a .620 slugging percentage
Weighted Runs Created (113): Ortiz (163) and Betts (136) were both over 130
They also finished 6th in On Base Percentage for all teams throughout the decade.
This great BoSox group is led by the first real prime-time season for Mookie Betts. The now-Dodger finished 2nd in MVP voting while bringing home a Silver Slugger Award, slashing .318/.363/.534 out of the leadoff spot and leading baseball in total bases with 359. Still, this season might be best known as the David Ortiz farewell tour, and quite the farewell tour it was. The 40-year-old DH continued to hit at an elite level, leading the league in doubles, OPS and slugging percentage while playing in 151 games. He also finished 6th in the MVP vote. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts was another great contributor, accumulating a career high 115 runs scored while hitting directly in front of Ortiz. He was an All-Star and Silver Slugger Award recipient as well.
2019 Minnesota Twins (101-61, won AL Central, lost in ALDS)
They led the league in:
Home Runs (307, an MLB record): Cruz (41), Kepler (36), Sano (34), Rosario (32) and Mitch Garver (31) all had over 30
The Twins finished 4th in runs scored (937), and 2nd in slugging percentage (.494) for the entirety of the decade and finished 1st in home runs for the entirety of… eternity.
There was power potential in every single spot of this lineup, and that’s the reason these Twins hold the single season record for homers as a team with 307. The cream of the crop for this squad appeared in the top four spots of the order. Max Kepler put together the best season yet of his career, finishing 7th in the AL in homers with 36 and accumulating an OPS+ of 123. Jorge Polanco was an All-Star shortstop who finished 6th in the American League in offensive WAR. Nelson Cruz at age 38 put together his best season in over a decade, finished 9th in the MVP voting and won the Silver Slugger Award at DH while slashing .311/.392/.639, his best numbers since 2008. Lastly, Eddie Rosario hit clean-up and drove in 109 runs on a career-high 32 longballs. Contributions from CJ Cron (78 RBI), Miguel Sano (139 OPS+ in 105 games) and Byron Buxton (30 doubles in just 87 games) sustained the effort throughout the lineup.
2020 New York Mets (26-34, 4th in NL East)
They led the league in:
Weighted Runs Created+ (tied with the Dodgers, 122): Smith (165), Conforto (157), Nimmo (148), Robinson Cano (141) and Jeff McNeil (130) were all at or above 130.
The Mets finished 6th in On Base Percentage (.348) and tied for 2nd in wRC+ for the entirety of the decade as well.
These Mets are probably the biggest surprise on our list, and that’s understandable as they weren’t a very successful team either in wins or run scoring, but their advanced metrics jump off the chart. Further, they were a team buoyed by a lot of young talent really beginning to bare fruit. Brandon Nimmo put together the best slash line of his career (.280/.404/.484) while finishing 9th in On Base Percentage and 10th in walks in the National League. Right behind him in the order was Michael Conforto, who hit .322, was 10th best in the league in Offensive WAR while riding a career high 156 OPS+ to a second team All MLB award. “The Polar Bear” Pete Alonso might have had a down year compared to his previous campaign but was on a 43-home run pace if not for the shortened season. He also punched in an OPS+ of 123. Again, this was a down year for him. Still, any missing production from Alonso was found in the bat of Dominic Smith. Smith joined Conforto in the top 10 in batting average at .316 while finishing in 4th place in both Slugging (.616) and OPS (.993). The scary part? The new Mets owner is only looking to add to what is already a vaunted lineup.
2011 Boston Red Sox (90-72, finished 3rd in the AL East)
They led the league in:
Runs Scored (875): Ellsbury (119), Gonzalez (108) and Pedroia (102) all scored over 100.
On Base Percentage (.349): Gonzalez (.410), Ortiz (.398), Pedroia (.387), Ellsbury (.376) and Youkilis (.373) were all over .370.
Slugging (.461): Ortiz (.554), Ellsbury (.552) and Gonzalez (.548) were all over .530
Weighted Runs Created+ (117): Gonzalez (155), Ortiz (154), Ellsbury (150) and Pedroia (133) were all over 130
They also finished 3rd in On Base Percentage and 6th in wRC+ of all teams within the last ten years.
For those that remember, this is the season that Jacoby Ellsbury looked like he might be the next big thing in baseball, and he catapulted this team’s lineup from great to spectacular. Little did we know that this season would be the only big highlight of his career. It was his only All-Star appearance and Silver Slugger Award, but he did so well that he finished as the runner up in the MVP race as well. His OPS+ of 146 was far and away the highest of his career. He would never go higher than 113 (2013) in any other season. Moving down a spot in the order, while this wasn’t Dustin Pedroia’s own MVP season (2008), it might have been his best one on offense. He hit a career high 21 homers, drove in 91 while stealing 26 bases and posting an On Base Percentage of .387. He finished 9th in the MVP vote. The heart of the Red Sox order was stellar as well with prime Adrian Gonzalez and his league leading 213 hits, and two All-Stars in the Greek God of Walks Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz who contributed just another ho-hum All-Star/Silver Slugger level season in his career.
The number five spot on our list unfortunately has been vacated as it was originally to go to the 2017 Houston Astros who finished the regular season with a 101-61 record and won the World Series under the unsavory conditions of a sign stealing scandal that has now come to light. This scandal is also the reason for the vacation of their spot on this list. I could tell you all about how Jose Altuve had an MVP year, Marwin Gonzalez and Josh Reddick had career years of their own, how they led the league with the best K rate and had 4 guys with wRC+s of over 140. I really could. I went ahead and typed it out and everything.
But I’m not going to. They cheated.
2019 New York Yankees (103-59, won AL East, lost in ALCS)
They led the league in:
Runs scored (943): LeMahieu (109) and Torres (96) had more than 90 each
The Yankees not only led 2019 in runs scored, but led baseball in runs scored in a season for the entirety of the time between 2011 and 2020. If your barometer for best offense is the basis of “did they score more runs than anyone else?” then look no further. They also finished 3rd in Slugging (.490) and 6th in wRC+ (117) for the decade while coming only one homer short (306) of the Twins single-season record posted in the same year.
This was a concerted team effort from a Yankees squad that was plagued by injuries all season but just kept finding new and exciting players to plug into place and keep their lumber company in business. DJ LeMahieu put together the first of two MVP level seasons while scoring 109 runs, hitting 33 doubles, 26 homers and driving in 102 RBI out of the leadoff spot. Youngster Gleyber Torres led the team in games played while putting together an All-Star season where he smashed 38 homers, drove in 90 and slugged .535 as a second-year player at just 22 years old. On the veteran side of things, Brett Gardner had probably the second-best offensive year of his career with 26 dingers and a slugging percentage of .503. Still, they did it all with contributions from relative unknowns and journeymen like Mike Ford (12 homers in 50 games), Mike Trauchman (18 doubles in 87 games), Cameron Maybin (.364 OBP in 82 games) and Luke Voit (71 walks in 118 games). And just as notably they did it with just 82 games from Didi Gregorius, 102 from Aaron Judge, 59 from Aaron Hicks and 18 from Giancarlo Stanton.
2020 Los Angeles Dodgers (43-17, won NL West, won the World Series)
They led the league in:
Runs Scored (349): Betts (47) and Seager (38) were both on pace for over 100 runs in a 162-game season
Home Runs (118): Betts (16), Pollock (16), Seager (15), Bellinger (12), and Max Muncy (12) all were on pace for more than 30 homers in a 162-game season
Slugging (.483): Seager (.585), Smith (.579), Pollock (.566), and Betts (.562) were all above .540
Weighted Runs Created+ (tied with Mets, 122): Smith (163), Seager (151), Betts (149), Turner (140), Pollock (132) and Taylor (131) were all above 130
The Dodgers also were on pace for the most homers in a season and the 2nd most runs had they played a full 162-game season. They registered the 2nd best wRC+ and 4th best Slugging Percentage since 2011.
And it all started at the top of the order with the newly traded Mookie Betts and Corey Seager. Betts was the NL MVP runner-up for 2020 while making first team ALL-MLB and having the second-best OPS+ of his career at 149. Seager also finished in the top ten of the MVP vote and was named second team All-MLB while slugging .585 from the shortstop position. His efforts also brought him the World Series MVP Award, and an array of very nice words written by him by our own Francisco Rojas. Meanwhile, Justin Turner was his usual consistent self, slashing .307/.400/.460 and AJ Pollock put together his only season with a Slugging Percentage over .500. Part-time catcher Will Smith took great advantage of the DH being brought to the National League by having an On Base Percentage of .401 and 8 homers in just 37 games. Not to be outdone by their previous selves, this Dodgers squad had reigning MVP in Cody Bellinger hitting in the 6-spot during the World Series, a testament to the depth of their lineup.
2020 Atlanta Braves (35-25, won NL East, lost in NLCS)
They led the league in:
On Base Percentage (.349): Freeman (.462), Ozuna (.431), Acuna (.406), and d’Arnaud (.386) were all above .370
The Braves also were 3rd in runs scored, 3rd in On Base Percentage, 4th in Slugging and 4th in wRC+ for all teams within the last 10 seasons.
Devoid of a World Series trophy or even a full season that would have allowed them to be better appreciated, this Braves offense might be the most underrated squad in recent history. NL MVP Freddie Freeman didn’t only lead the league in runs scored but was on pace to score 138 times over a 162-game season. No one has scored that often since 2007 when Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins did it 143 and 139 times (and both of them won MVPs too), respectively. His pace of 62 doubles also would have been the most since 1934 (Hank Greenberg) and his RBI total would be extrapolated to 151 runs driven in as well. This wasn’t just the Freddie Freeman show though. Travis d’Arnaud finished 9th in the NL in Batting Average at .321. Marcell Ozuna won the first, and so far, only, Edgar Martinez Outstanding DH Award in the National League and was also named to the first team of the All-MLB team, slashing .338/.431/.636 in the process. Ronald Acuna made the second All-MLB team and sure-handed shortstop Dansby Swanson even got into the mix, finishing 6th in the NL in WAR and putting together the best offensive season of his career. This was an incredibly well-decorated group, home to the MVP as well as nearly half of the National League’s Silver Slugger Awards.
2019 Houston Astros (107-55, won AL West, lost in World Series)
The led the league in:
Walk Rate (10.1%): Bregman (17.2%), Alvarez (14.1%) and Springer (12.1%) were over 12%
K Rate (18.2%): Michael Brantley (10.4%), Gurriel (10.6%), Reddick (12.0%), Bregman (12.0%), and Altuve (15.0%) were all at or below 15%
On Base Percentage (.352): Bregman (.423), Alvarez (.412), Springer (.383) and Brantley (.372) were all above .370
Slugging (.495): Alvarez (.655), Bregman (.592), Springer (.591), Correa (.568), Altuve (.550) and Gurriel (.541) were all above .540
Weighted Runs Created (125): Alvarez (178), Bregman (168), Springer (156), Correa (143), Altuve (138), Brantley (133) and Gurriel (132) were all above 130.
In total, the 2019 Houston Astros had a better On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage and more wRC+ than any other team from 2011 to 2019 while also having the 5th most runs scored.
I feel icky putting them here, especially after I made that spectacle just now of vacating their 2017 ancestors, but there’s no getting around it. Assuming the cheating shenanigans ended (which I admit is a HUGE assumption), this was the best offense of the decade. Springer was an All-Star and a Silver Slugger Award winner while hitting 29 homers, driving in 96 and slugging .591 out of the leadoff spot. Alex Bregman was the MVP runner-up in the AL and led the league with an astounding 119 walks. Carlos Correa slugged .568 and had the second-best year of an injury-plagued career, accumulating an OPS+ of 137. Yuli Gurriel cashed in 40 doubles, finished 9th in the AL with 104 RBI (out of the 6-spot a lot of the time) and slashed .298/.343/.541. Yordan Alvarez came up and gave the team a boost as a rookie, slashing an amazing .313/.412/.655 himself in about a half a season of games, looking almost Bondsian in the process and winning AL Rookie of the Year. One thru nine, this was a fantastic lineup. Even catcher Robinson Chirinos smacked 22 doubles and fringe infielder Tony Kemp had a career best slugging percentage.
It’s easy to see why they are so hard to deny. Without any direct evidence of unscrupulous behavior, I must give them their due and call the 2019 Houston Astros the best offense of the last ten MLB seasons.
So, what did we learn here? For one, this list is a lot harder to discern than one might think. Every one of the top five leaves a seed of doubt about their supremacy. The 2019 Astros have their unsavory history that must be accounted for, the Braves and Dodgers of 2020 have the benefit of a small sample on their side with no regard for having to play through the dog days of the season. The 2019 Yankees, while jammed packed full of talent, did it while cobbling together lineups and missing any number of important cogs on any given day. Really, with the exception of the 5th spot, you could probably make a case for or against any of the top six as the best offense of the past ten seasons.
We also learned that National League teams really need the DH. It’s the difference between futility and being able to have three of the best offenses of the decade in the matter of one season.
We learned that plate discipline might be the great separator. What made the 2019 Astros stand out was their great ability to not strikeout but also take a walk. They’re the only team on this list to lead the league in both walk rate and have the lowest strikeout rate for their season.
Still, we learned that launch angle isn’t going anywhere. Our top four teams came from the last two seasons and all but two in total come from the back half of the decade where swinging for the fences has become oh so prevalent.
At the same time, we learned that home runs aren’t everything. While prolific, the 2019 Twins aren’t quite up to snuff as the best offense of the last ten seasons, even being out paced by a roster from 2011.
Ultimately, we remembered and re-learned about some of the great offensive performances of the last ten years. If your team is going to end up on a list like this, you likely need an MVP level season from one of your best players (Donaldson, Betts twice… for two different teams, LeMahieu, Freeman, etc.) and career years out of your less offensively inclined (Chirinos, Swanson, all those 2019 Yankee guys, Revere, etc.). Those players and the moments and memories they generate are what this game is about as a fan, and the impetus for a list like this.
If you’ve read this far, thanks and I hope you enjoyed it. If there’s something else you learned or if you have a gripe with my choices, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @DJLJR26 and let’s talk about it.
Until next time.
Featured image credit: Salem News