The Strongest Franchises

October 20, 2021
  

            There is a difference between a strong team and a strong franchise.   There are weak organizations that produce World Championship teams.  From a distance this is easy to see.  The Florida Marlins somehow produced World Championship teams in 1997 and 2003.  The Diamondbacks won in 2001, and the Kansas City Royals in 2015.  None of these are strong organizations, or were strong organizations at the time of those championship. 

            When the Championships are more near at hand, this may be more difficult to accept.  In a minute, I am going to tell you that the Washington Nationals and the Tampa Bay Rays are two of the weakest franchises in baseball.  You are free to accept this conclusion or reject it.  The point is, I have an analytical approach to the issue, and I have run the analysis, and this is what I concluded.  If you can come up with a stronger method, that would be wonderful; it’s not like I have years of research invested in this.   I was just interested in a couple of issues, and this is what I came up with.  I’ll start with the conclusions, and as I explain the conclusions, I’ll gradually explain the methodology. 

 

The Weaker Franchises

 

30.  Miami Marlins (358)

            The Marlins were born in 1993.  There were 26 franchises before them; the 1993 additions of Colorado and (as they were then known) the Florida Marlins brought the number to 28, and, since the Rockies won 67 games in their first year and Florida only 64, the Marlins ended the year as the 28th ranked franchise.  They started with four straight losing seasons, then won the World Series in their fifth season.  This lifted them to 27th place.   The next year they lost 108 games, and went back to 28th

            By 2001 they had been passed by one of the 1998 expansion teams, the Diamondbacks (who won the World Series that year), which dropped them to 29th place, out of (by then) 30 teams.   They won another series, got back to 28th, but never crawled any higher than 28th.   By 2018 they were down to 30th.

            I am not pessimistic about the future of the franchise.  I think the Derek Jeter operation has done a lot of good things, and I suspect that within a few years, they will get something going on the field.   But they haven’t shown us very much yet.

 

Method Notes 1

            The indicators of a strong franchise are (1) putting winning teams on the field consistently over a period of time, and (2) building a fan base.  Attendance.  Those are the two things that we’re looking for. 

            Every organization starts out with a low number, and then improves that number when they (1) win games, and (2) draw fans.   Every organization is assigned a "Success Number" for each season, and then the Franchise Strength Index is adjusted for the season’s success. Over time, the numbers work gradually higher, but not that much higher.  Since 1955 the major league average Franchise Strength Index has increased by .0035 percent per season, compounding to .0039 percent per season. 

 

29.  Tampa Bay Rays (387)

            The Rays, of course, have put out a series of good and pretty good teams, winning 100 games this year, but their fan base is completely pathetic.   This year they drew 761,000 fans, third-lowest in baseball; in 2018 and 2019 they were second-lowest, ahead of Miami.  Over time, you can’t sustain success without money, and you can’t bring in money without fans.  

            One of the key things that builds a fan base is winning, of course—one of them.   There are others—a good stadium, a good network of transportation options to bring fans to the game, community support, and a strong marketing effort.  The Rays have been winning games pretty consistently now since 2008, based on building and sustaining baseball’s best front office.  At some point that has to pay off in fan support.  But until that happens, they’re a hamster in a wheel. 

 

Method Notes 2

            A team’s success score for a season is:

(1)  One point for every ten full wins for the team, plus

(2)  One for every five full games over .500, plus

(3)  One for every 500,000 attendance, plus

(4)  5 points if you win the league, plus

(5)  Another 5 points if you win the World Series, plus

(6)  1 point for the first 100,000 fans, plus

(7)  1 more point for the second 100,000 fans (200,000 total), plus

(8)  1 more point if you get 300,000 fans, plus

(9)  1 more point if you get 400,000 fans.

(10)         When a franchise relocates, we reduce the Franchise Strength Index by 15%.

The first two points create an ascending curve, so that 100 wins isn’t worth twice as much as 50 wins, but much more than that.  If you finish 50-112, that’s 5 points; if you finish 100-62, that’s 17 points. 

The small attendance bonuses (Points 6 to 9) are in the system to make it work in the early years.   I started the system at 1876, but teams didn’t draw 500,000 fans a year until the early 1900s, and most teams didn’t draw 500,000 a year until the Babe Ruth era.   Even in 1951, three major league teams didn’t draw 500,000 fans.  There has to be some way to distinguish low levels of attendance success one from another.  Most 19th century teams have unknown attendance, but that has negligible impact on any set of rankings since 1905 or earlier.

The Tampa Bay Rays this year had a success score of 22

            10 for their wins, plus

              7  for their wins over .500, plus

1        for drawing 100,000 fans, plus

1        for drawing 200,000 fans, plus

1         for drawing 300,000 fans, plus

1         for drawing 400,000 fans, plus

1         for drawing 500,000 fans.

 

This increases their Franchise Strength Index from 378, where it was last year, to 387.  With another good year in 2022, they could move up as much as three spots, into 26th place on the Franchise Strength Index. 

 

28.  Washington Nationals (392)

            Within the last ten years the Nationals have won 98, 96, 95, 97, 93 games and a World Championship, so I can understand why many people would regard them as a strong franchise.  But they have now had two straight poor seasons, and their attendance was OK when they were winning but it wasn’t great.  It was middle-of-the pack. 

            I would agree that the Nationals could very plausibly be ranked much higher than I have them ranked.  If there is any team’s ranking that I would say that I disagree with, this is the one.  But this is the way the system works. While the Montreal Expos did have some good teams in the 1980s and early 1990s, their history was short and their attendance after the first five years of good teams was not good, so their Franchise Strength never rated higher than 21st out of 28 teams.  They ended their Montreal years with five 90-loss seasons in seven years, which dropped them to 27th out of 30 teams. 

            When the franchise transferred that pushed the re-set button on the fan base, so there’s a 15% penalty in the ranking score for that, and then they lost 100 games in 2008 and 2009, so that dropped the Nationals all the way into last place.  They have been rebuilding since then.

 

Method Notes 3

            One of the first questions we have to answer is, "How rapidly do we decay the past in our rankings?"

            To rank franchises realistically, it is necessary to gradually wipe out the records of past seasons, and give more weight to what a franchise has done in 2021 than to what they did in 1947.   If you don’t do that, if you don’t decay the past at all, then, for example, an expansion team can never catch up to a team that existed prior to 1961.   The strongest of the expansion franchises—the Astros—would still rank as a weaker organization than the weakest of old 16 franchises (the Pirates).   

            If you don’t decay the past, then the numbers only go up over time, never down.   If you don’t decay the past, what you are saying is that franchises can never get weaker over time; they can only get stronger.   That’s obviously not true; franchises DO get weaker over time sometimes.  On the other hand, if you decay the past too rapidly then what a franchise did 20 years ago shows as not relevant to the current strength of the franchise, and that, too, is clearly not true.   The teams that were strong 20 years ago are still, in general and in the main, strong franchises today.  If you look at the standings, most of the teams that were not good 20 years ago are not good now—and that is true in almost any 20-year gap in baseball history.   Most of the franchises that were weak in 1920 were either still weak in 1940, or had had a good run and had fallen back to weakness.  If you look at the franchises that were weak in 1940, by 1960 many of them had picked up and left town. 

            So what is the right decay rate?   I experimented with different numbers, and settled on 3.5% per season.   If you use 3%, then something that happened 23 years ago counts about 50% as much as what happened last year.   If you use 4%, then something that happened 17 years ago counts about 50% as much as what happened last year.  If you use 3.5%--as I did—then what happened 20 years ago counts 50% as much as what happened last year.  

            The experience of expansion franchises is that it takes about 40 years for them to become substantially equal to the established franchises.  After 40 years they are not PERFECTLY equal, not completely equal; their teams after 40 years do not win as many games or draw as many fans—but they’re close.  

            It takes a long, long time to build a fan base.  People in Boston and Pittsburgh and Detroit, their grandfathers and grandmothers went to the team’s games with their parents.  The Kansas City Royals were founded 52 years ago. They haven’t QUITE reached that point yet; sort of, but not fully.  That’s part of what it means to have a mature fan base—that people root for your team because their families have done so for time out of memory.

 

27.  Kansas City Royals (393)

            Founded in 1969, the Royals exploded out of the gate.  They won more games the first year than any of the other 1969 expansion teams, which put them in 21st place overall (behind the 20 pre-existing teams, but ahead of the other three 1969 expansion teams.)  By 1980, when they played in the World Series after a string of very successful seasons, they ranked as the 16th strongest franchise out of 26, ahead of all of the other expansion teams and ahead of one of the "old" franchises.  By 1985, when they won the World Series, they were up to 14th

            Then they began a long string of miserable seasons; I remember.  I was a Royals fan at the time.   It was a death march.  By 2009 they had dropped to 27th on the list.  They put together a good team for a few years in the middle of the last decade, relieving the misery.  That pushed them up to 24th, but they couldn’t sustain.

            Their biggest problem has been stupidity.  The population base in Kansas City is small, but the fan base is strong compared to the size of the population.  They just make stupid decisions.  They have done so since the mid-1980s.  They just signed Hunter Dozier to a contract that will pay him $9.25 million in 2024.  It is inexplicable.   He’s not a major league player; he should have been released.  But that’s the Royals for you. 

 

Method Notes 4

            When I started this project, I gave each new franchise a base number of zero.   That doesn’t quite make sense, because that shows each new franchise gaining strength at a phenomenal rate, percentage wise.  It will show a sixth-year franchise as being 5 times a strong as a second-year franchise.   That’s clearly not true.  A six-year-old franchise will not draw five times as many fans as a first-year franchise, or win significantly more games, or give any other evidence of very rapid increases in organizational strength. 

            So I started each franchise off with a starting number of 100.  That works fine for the years just after 1876, but for the later startups and the expansion teams, that doesn’t work, either.  It puts the expansion teams so far behind the established teams that it would take 100 years for them to catch up. 

            Giving all franchises the same startup number is implicitly saying that a 1998 expansion team starts out no stronger than an 1876 team.  That’s obviously not true.  Modern expansion teams are drawing off of the 100 previous years of growth in the game.  A start number of 100 means that a team has to earn 3.5 points per season to sustain their ranking.  If you win 50 games in your first year and draw a million fans, that’s 7 points, twice as many as you need to sustain an FSI of 100.   Expansion franchises are much stronger than that number represents. 

            If you think about it, GETTING a franchise for your city, in modern baseball, is half the battle.  So what is the right number?

            I started with an estimate, for the American League teams of 1901, that they were 70% of the strength of an established National League franchise.  That would place them at about 150 points, but the 70% ratio doesn’t quite work for later teams; almost, but not quite.  I wound up with the assumption that an expansion franchise starts out with a number just a little bit below than the weakest existing franchise. 

The National League teams of the 19th century all started out at 100 points

The American League startups of 1901-1903 started out at 150.

The 1961-62 expansion teams started out at 225

The 1969 expansion teams started out at 250.

The two 1977 expansion teams started out at 260.

The 1990s expansion teams started out at 290.

 

26.  Arizona Diamondbacks (396)

            Three years ago, the Diamondbacks led their expansion partners, the Rays, by 43 points (412-369).  Now it is nine points.  They’re going to have to get going pretty quickly if they are going to stay ahead of them. 

 

Method Notes 5

            I think I have explained everything.  Each franchise starts out at a point explained above, and then you add points for what happens in that season as explained in Point 2, which creates the team’s new score, and then you reduce that number by 3.5% before the next season.  A franchise loses 15% of their accumulated strength when they move to a different town.   Changing a team’s name doesn’t have any impact.   

 

25.  San Diego Padres (402)

            It seems kind of incredible to an old Royals fan that San Diego has now passed Kansas City in the Franchise Strength Index.  The two were expansion partners in 1969, starting at 250.  By 1982 Kansas City led San Diego by 54 points, 347-293. 

            The Padres have never been a strong franchise.  The highest they have ever ranked is 22nd, after the 2010 season in which they won 90 games.

 

24.  Colorado Rockies (405)

            The Rockies ranks 24th, down one place from last season.   A 1993 expansion partner of the Miami Marlins, they have shown good, sustained growth.  They are not in any sense a failing franchise; they are merely still a new franchise, not yet at full maturity.  Their most successful seasons have been 2007 (25 points), 2009 (22 points) and 2018 (22 points).  If you picked up 22 points every year, you would level off over 600. They have never ranked higher than 23rd.

 

23.  Seattle Mariners (408)

            Born with Toronto in 1977, the Mariners stayed very near the bottom of the list until the early 2000s.  In 1989 they had the greatest rookie class of all time, with three Hall of Famers (Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez) as well as Omar Vizquel.  All of those players except Griffey were slow to get moving, however, so the Mariners didn’t get traction for about 25 years after their creation. Their great teams of 2000 to 2003 moved them up to 21st, but they have been drifting since then.  They had a good year in 2021, of course. 

 

22.  Pittsburgh Pirates (410)

            The Pirates have become the weakest of the 16 "original" franchises.  Founded in 1882, the Pirates were generally a weak franchise through most of the 19th century, and ended the 1900 season as the weakest of the eight National League franchise.  Led by Honus Wagner, they had outstanding teams from 1900 to 1913, and ranked as the 3rd strongest franchise in baseball through much of that era.  They slipped a little bit when Wagner grew old, but after appearing in the World Series in 1925 and 1927 they were back in 3rd place. 

            They put out pretty good teams for 10 years after that, not good teams for ten years after that (1937-1946), and perfectly terrible teams for 10 years after that.  They tolerated racists in their lineup after Jackie Robinson, and were slow to integrate their roster.  Their attendance dropped from 1.52 million in 1948 to 469,000 in 1955.   By that time they were the 10th strongest of the 16 franchises.

            But by 1955 they had Branch Rickey, and Roberto Clemente.  In 1960, of course, they won the World Series, which didn’t get them out of 10th place, but certainly improved their rating score.  By 1970 they were a strong franchise.  Two World Series championships in the 1970s moved them up to the 5th strongest franchise in baseball, fifth out of 26 at that time.

            That team disintegrated in a drug scandal.  Their attendance went from 1.6 million in 1980 to less than half of that in 1984-1985.   Their FSI (Franchise Strength Index) dropped to 8th on the list.  Three strong teams in the early 1990s did not move them out of 8th place, although their score moved from 430 to 451, but when the Leyland/Bonds/Drabek/Bonilla/Van Slyke team broke apart, the Pirates began a series of 20 consecutive losing seasons, including 7 straight seasons of 90 or more losses.  Their Franchise Strength Index dropped to 414, in 20th place among the 30 teams. 

            They had three good years (2013 to 2015), but then went back to losing.   Pittsburgh is a great sports town.  There are millions of Pirate fans, and they have a fantastic park.   But they need to put a better product on the field. 

 

21.  Milwaukee Brewers  (424)

            Expansion partners of the Kansas City Royals, the Brewers made steady progress in their early years, ranking as the 18th strongest (out of 26 teams) after the 1983 season.  They were Bambi’s Bombers, and then they were Harvey’s Wallbangers—Yount and Molitor, Cecil Cooper and Gorman Thomas, Mike Caldwell and Rollie Fingers. 

            After 1983 they had three straight losing seasons, and then later, 1993 to 2004, they had TWELVE straight losing seasons, most of them bad losing seasons.  They dropped to 26th place in the Franchise Strength Index.  That’s kind of the nature of this thing.  Expansion franchises from Years 5 to Year 15 often appear to be stronger than they actually are.  The fans are excited to have a team, so they turn out in droves for a few years.  More importantly, an expansion team is a tabula rasa.   They don’t owe anybody anything.  They don’t have any mistakes from the past haunting them.

            Expansion teams in their first ten years often do a fantastic job in the draft.  All four of the 1969 expansion teams had tremendous drafts for their first ten years.  Over time, you accumulate old-time scouts and old-time executives who are running out of energy and have old ways of thinking about things. 

            But over time, also, you accumulate fans, old fans who will come back to you when you play well enough to make it seem worthwhile.  The Brewers are in many ways solid.  From 2005 to 2016 they were better; since 2017 they have been actually good.  They’re not one of the powerhouse franchises in baseball, but they put out some good teams. 

 

Average Franchise Strength Over Time

            In general, the average strength of a franchise tends to go up over time.  Baseball franchises in 1960 were stronger than they were in 1940; they were stronger in 1980 than in 1960.             This is not an artifact of our measurement system; it’s the way it really is.  We don’t capture that perfectly, but we are capturing reality. 

            Average Franchise strength goes up in normal times, when there is clear sailing.  It goes down when:

1)     Attendance goes down,

2)     There are expansion teams (since the new franchises start out as weak franchises),

3)     Franchises move, or

4)     There are schedule interruptions, such as strikes, wars, and national emergencies. 

 

In 1900 the Average Franchise Strength Index as 211.  The founding of the American League, and the War between the leagues, knocked that backward to 190, but by 1910 it was 242.  By 1920 the average was 281 (up 16%). 

1900   211

1910   242 (up 15%)

1920   281 (up 16%)

1930   320 (up 14%)

1940   345 (up 8%)

1950   375 (up 9%)

1960   383 (up only 2%)

1970   360 (down 6%)

1980   384 (up 7%)

1990   411 (up 7%)

2000   422 (up 3%)

2010   456 (up 6%)

2019   470 (up 5% from 2009)

2020   458

2021   458

 

The pandemic is perhaps the greatest setback that baseball has ever suffered.  Major League Baseball wisely decided to field teams in 2020, even though attendance was zero, but attendance in 2021 did not nearly have a complete recovery.  For that matter, attendance wasn’t great BEFORE the pandemic. 

Baseball’s average Franchise Strength Index went down by 6% in the 1960s primarily because of the number of teams expanded by 50%, from 16 to 24, in just 9 years.  That was probably not smart, and the franchise moves of that era (1953 to 1972) were also a drag on the game.  Per game attendance was not good. 

But that was an investment in the future.  Those new franchises made the game stronger over time.   Where we are now is a somewhat perilous moment.  We had subpar attendance before the pandemic, took a serious hit from the coronavirus, and now we are looking at the possibility of a strike.  We have too many non-competitive teams, because player salaries are so high that buying competitive talent just does not pay in some markets. 

We haven’t had an expansion in almost a quarter of a century, which means that we have not been investing in the future, and also that we are likely to have expansion within the next ten years.  It would appear to me that it is fairly likely that the average Franchise Strength Index by the year 2030 will be lower than it is now. 

 

 

The Mid-Level Franchises

 

20.  Minnesota Twins (432.6)

            The Twins were, of course, originally the Washington Senators, and they were always one of the weakest of the "Old 16" franchises.   For most of their history they were the 7th strongest of the 8 American League franchises, occasionally 6th and occasionally 8th, but mostly 7th, ahead of the St. Louis Browns and, through the 1950s, ahead of the Baltimore Orioles. 

            In their last year in Washington they had a Franchise Strength Index of 314, 69 points below average, and the 13th highest of the 16 teams.  When they moved, we lower that by 15%, to 270, just 20 points above the level of the 1960 expansion teams.  That put them in 15th place.

            They put out good teams and drew decent attendance in the 1960s, however, so by 1966 they were up to 317, higher than they had been in Washington, and in 12th place among 20 franchises.  Like an expansion team, and like most franchises that move, they appeared for a time to be stronger than they really were.  From 1971 to 1983 they were never in competition, never winning more than 85 games, and they dropped back to 16th place among 26 teams, as their FSI had near-zero growth.  

            They opened a new park in 1982.  It turned out to be a terrible park, which was ultimately a setback for the organization, but they came up with a bunch of good young players—Kirby Puckett, plus Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Greg Gagne, Frank Viola and others.  Those teams won a couple of World Series and moved up a little bit in the standings, although honestly those teams were not great, good-not-great, and their two World Championships were a little bit of a fluke.  From 1993 to 2000 they had eight straight losing seasons and four straight 90-loss seasons, dropping them to 19th out of 30 teams. 

            From 2001 to 2010, led by Ron Gardenhire on the field and backed by a strong front office, the Twins played good baseball with a low payroll, but it gradually became more and more apparent that the Humpdome was a drag on the effort.  A new and much better park, Target Field, opened in 2013, and the franchise has had some good teams since then, but has struggled to find consistency.  They are currently 25 points below the major league average FSI.

 

19.  Toronto Blue Jays (432.9)

            Born in 1977, the Blue Jays have generally done very well by the standards of an expansion team, and are a mid-level franchise.  Winning consecutive World Series in 1992 and 1993, they climbed to 13th among the 28 franchises at that time.  They drew four million fans a year from 1991 to 1993, but their attendance fell 30% after the 1994-1995 strike.  Pat Gillick, one of the greatest General Managers of all time, left the organization in 1994, going forward to build periods of great success in Baltimore, Seattle and Philadelphia. 

            Since 1994 the Blue Jays have had 13 winning seasons, 13 losing seasons and one at .500.  They appear to have a great young team, and they appear to be on the way up. 

 

18.  Texas Rangers

The Rangers limped into town from Washington as the worst franchise in baseball, having dropped below even the 1969 expansion teams.   They lost 100+ games their first two seasons, but invested heavily in the free agent market at its onset, when free agents only seemed expensive, and put together competitive teams from 1977 to 1979, rising to 21st in the standings. 

            Building around free agents is not a long-term strategy, and the Rangers, although ahead of the curve in the sabermetric movement, drifted aimlessly from 1980 to 1995, dropping to 24th out of 28 teams.  In the late 1990s they had pretty good teams led by Pudge Rodriguez and Juan Gone, but then lost 89 to 91 games every year from 2000 to 2003, despite putting out huge dollars for players like Alex Rodriguez.  They had good lineups in the steroid era, led by A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Rafael Palmeiro and Michael Young, but no pitching.  

            That era was led by owner Tom Hicks.  Hicks committed quite a lot more money to bring Alex Rodriguez to Dallas-Ft. Worth than A-Rod—or any player—was actually worth.  Hicks was worth a billion dollars in 2007, but suffered financial reverses from 2007 to 2010, putting the Rangers into bankruptcy and a forced sale.  The new owners (led by a man named Bob Simpson, who stays in the background and doesn’t do stupid stuff), led the Rangers to their most successful era ever, 2010 to 2013, when they won 90+ games every year and appeared twice in the World Series.  They moved from 23rd to 17th on the list in just six seasons, which is not easy to do, and stayed in 17th place until the team lost 102 games in 2021. 

 

17.  Baltimore Orioles  (439)

            After spending one year in Milwaukee, the franchise now located in Baltimore moved to St. Louis in 1902.  By 1913 the Browns had established themselves as the weakest franchise in the American League, claiming that title from 1913 to 1921 and then from 1924 until 1953.   They moved to Baltimore in 1954 and did not show immediate improvement, although the franchise was improving; it just takes a while for things to turn around.  They remained as the #8 franchise in the American League until 1966, when they won the World Series.  They had actually had good teams since 1960, but poor attendance. 

They were the Tampa Bay Rays of the 1960s and 1970s, a smart organization that furnished executives to teams all around baseball, but were dragged down by poor attendance until 1979.   They gradually improved their Franchise Strength Index, from 16th out of 16 teams through all of the 1960s to 5th out of 26 teams in 1983, when they appeared in their sixth and final World Series.

They had some good teams after that and some bad teams; they lost 107 games in 1988 but won 98 in 1997.   Through 1998 they were still an elite franchise, ranking 5th out of 30 teams. 

They had a long series of losing teams then, interrupted the losing with good teams from 2012 to 2016, then fell off the face of the earth after they signed first baseman Chris Davis to perhaps the worst contract in baseball history, paying him $23 million a year for a long time to hit less than .200.  They’re not a terrible franchise; they’re a mid-level franchise with a terrible team.

 

16.  Chicago White Sox (440)

            An original American League franchise, the White Sox were the strongest franchise in the American League from 1906 to 1909, led by Ed Walsh.   Though they could not keep pace with the Red Sox through the teens, they remained the second-strongest franchise in the league until devastated by the fallout of the Black Sox scandal, which broke in 1920.  Our system, probably in error, actually shows them as the strongest franchise in the league in 1924, as the Red Sox had fallen apart by then and the Yankees’ FSI was still being dragged down by their failures from the years before Babe Ruth.

            As a methodological aside, if I was re-starting this project tomorrow I would give double credit in the FSI for a team’s most recent season.  This would improve the scores of teams like Tampa Bay and Toronto, which have good teams right now, and make the system react more quickly to changes on the field.  It’s a little more complicated to do, but you know. . .it’s not really hard.  It would make the position ratings slightly more volatile.  I should have done it that way.

            Anyway, the White Sox then had a period of 30 years of non-competitive teams, although they were never terrible at the level of the Red Sox before Yawkey bought the team or the Browns or Philadelphia A’s.   From 1934 to 1953 they were generally the 6th strongest franchise (out of 8) in the American League. 

            A series of spectacularly good trades by Frank Lane in the late 1940s and early 1950s and strong field management by Paul Richards and then Al Lopez led the White Sox to winning teams every season from 1951 to 1967—one of the longest streaks of consecutive winning seasons in baseball history.  They climbed gradually from 12th place out of 16 teams to 6th place out of 20, going from -47 compared to the major league average to +42.  Those were all close-to-the-vest, pitching-dominated teams, not especially successful at selling tickets, but successful on the field.

            The team stopped winning in 1968.  From 1968 to 1980 they had only two winning seasons.  Tony LaRussa took over as manager of the White Sox in mid-season, 1979, and Jerry Reinsdorf bought the team in 1981.  The team played well until LaRussa left in mid-season, 1986, then drifted back into 30 years of directionless lethargy, although they did win the World Series in 2005; they had a decent run from 2000 to 2010, mostly under Ozzie Guillen. They have a good young team now, and appear to be headed back to the World Series within a few years if they can hold the nucleus together. 

 

15.  New York Mets (446)

        ​;    The worst team in baseball from their founding in 1962 until the Miracle Mets of 1969, the Mets stayed above .500 most of the time 1969-1976—but barely over .500, and that was entirely because they had Tom Seaver.  After they traded Seaver they were terrible until Davey Johnson and Dwight Gooden arrived in the mid-1980s.   Johnson, Gooden and others (Keith Hernandez, Daryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson, Howard Johnson, etc.) lifted the franchise to 13th out of 26 teams, the highest they had been up to that point. 

            Johnson was a terrific field manager and a fantastic judge of who can play and who can’t, but he wears on your nerves.  Johnson quit or got fired in mid-season, 1990, and the Mets went back to being terrible.  They had very good years under Bobby Valentine (1998-2001) and Willie Randolph (2005-2008), and I never did understand why they fired Randolph, but anyway they did.  They reached as high as 11th in the FSI.    

            Beginning in 2009 they won 70 games, 79, 77, 74, 74, 79, then 90 and 87, then 70 and 77. 

            The Mets’ attendance, over four million in Willie Randolph’s last year, has stayed over two million since then despite disappointing won-lost records.  There are things about the franchise that just stick with them. They always have highly touted young pitchers, a few of whom turn out to be really good, but most of whom turn out to be Bill Pulsipher.  There is always a lot of drama driven by the New York media, which inflates their good young players into superstars and their failures into catastrophes.  Their lapses in judgment become scandals. They’re a mid-level franchise.    

 

14.  Detroit Tigers (449)

            An original American League franchise (1901), the Tigers were essentially always a first-division franchise until the early 1970s. They were led by Ty Cobb for many years, which was good and bad; Cobb was a fantastic player but a divisive personality.  They lost three straight World Series (1907-1909), never won one in that era, but ranked as the number four franchise in the American League from 1907 to 1920, generally behind the White Sox, Indians, and either the A’s or the Red Sox.  In the 1920s they dropped down to fifth, sixth in the league, but put together an outstanding team in the 1930s, led by Mickey Cochrane and Hank Greenberg, winning the American League in 1934, 1935 and 1940, and the World Series in 1935.  

            From 1940 to 1952, with Hal Newhouser, they ranked as the #2 franchise in the American League, behind, of course, the Yankees.  A power struggle in the organization in the early 1950s weakened them for a time, but by the mid-1960s they were back to the #2 position in the league.

            The Tigers were the team that kept their stars forever.  They had many, many stars over the years who stayed with the team for a decade or more—Kaline, of course, and Norm Cash and Bill Freehan and Hal Newhouser and Hank Greenberg and Sam Crawford and Charlie Gehringer and Willie Horton and Mickey Lolich and Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell and Jack Morris and Dick McAuliffe.  They pop up in the World Series once in every 15 years, more or less—1968, 1984, 2006, 2012.   There’s a long-term consistency in the organization.  They’ve been down since 2017, but they were better in 2021, and they may be coming back.  With a little luck.

 

13.  Oakland A’s (454)

            The A’s, of course, were always the team that was either great or terrible.  The Charley Finley era is now much closer in time to Connie Mack than it is to the present.  In my youth, when I rooted for them, they were the weakest of the old 16 franchises, or one of the two weakest.  What they are now, what they have been now for decades on end, is a smart, well-managed organization in a run-down stadium in a city that doesn’t love them.  Their hard-core fan base is one of the best in baseball, but just not big enough.  They stay in contention, but they haven’t drawn two million fans in a season since 2005, the Moneyball era. 

            They’ve been involved in a long, long battle to get a new stadium, been trying to do that since the 1980s, at least.  Oakland now is a very different city than it was just 20 years ago, brighter and prettier.   Their crime rates have fallen tremendously since 2005.  It’s a different population.  The old population didn’t love the team, and the new population doesn’t either. 

 

12.  Cincinnati Reds (463)

            In contrast with the A’s, the Cincinnati Reds from 1900 to 1970 were never great and never terrible.  They would win a pennant occasionally (1919, 1939, 1940, 1961), but less than their fair share.  But whereas the Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland franchise has lost 100 or more games 16 times in their history (11 times in Philadelphia, 4 times in Kansas City, once in Oakland), the Reds, somewhat incredibly, have lost 100 games only once in all their long years, that being 1982. 

            They had a great team in the 1970s, of course, and were very good again in the 1990s, and were good again from 2010 to 2013.  They had a string of bad years from 2015 to 2018, but are struggling back to their feet, working mostly with cast-off talents.  Kids who grow up in Cincinnati always seem to come back to Cincinnati.  Buddy Bell did, and Dave Parker did, and Ken Griffey Jr.  I figure that Andrew Benintendi will come back to Cincinnati once he becomes a free agent.  Over time, they’ve been a solid organization with a very loyal fan base.    

 

11.  Philadelphia Phillies (464)

            The Phillies’ history parallels the Red Sox on many points.  The Phillies and the Red Sox met in the 1915 World Series, after their crosstown rivals, the Athletics and the Braves, had met in the 1914 World Series.  As the Red Sox cratered after they sold/traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees, the Phillies collapsed after they sold/traded their superstar, Pete Alexander, to the Cubs.   By 1930 both teams were losing about 100 games a year, both teams finishing exactly 51-103 in 1927 and 52-102 in 1930, and with similar records in surrounding seasons. 

            After a change of ownership, the Red Sox began to rebuild in the early 1930s.  After a change of ownership, the Phillies began to rebuild in the early 1940s.  By 1950 both had very good teams on the field, the Phillies winning the NL Pennant at 91-63, the Red Sox finishing third at 94-60. 

            Both teams had city rivals who were, at times, also the worst teams in the league.   With their strong teams in the 1950 era, both the Phillies and the Red Sox won the battle for their towns, the Braves leaving Boston for Milwaukee, the Athletics leaving Philadelphia for Kansas City.  After 13-year stays, both of those outfits moved on again, to Atlanta and Oakland.

            There is a difference between having a strong team and having a strong franchise.  By 1960, both the Red Sox and the Phillies had fallen back on hard times, the Red Sox posting losing records from 1958-1966, the Phillies from 1954-1961, except for two years at exactly .500.   Both teams touched the 100-loss wire just before they began to recover. 

            The Phillies finished 92-70 but lost one of the most famous pennant races ever in 1964; the Red Sox finished 92-70, but won one of the most famous pennant races ever in 1967.  By the late-1970s, both franchises had built up to the level of producing consistently excellent teams. 

            The Phillies were always on the same track as the Red Sox, but their Franchise Strength Index was always lower than Boston’s.  The Phillies ranked as the worst or second-worst organization in baseball from 1921 to 1952.   They won the World Series in 1980, lost it in 1983, but by that time they ranked as the 10th strongest of 26 franchises.   Although they have had ups and downs since then, they have stayed in that range ever since, near the top 10 and sometimes in the top 10, but never really becoming an elite franchise.  At the moment, they are 11th

 

 

Comparative Strength of the Leagues

            It would be nice if our system provided insight as to the comparative strength of the leagues, but it doesn’t really.  Since the system is primarily based on team wins and one league wins as many games as the other through most of history, the scores mostly compare a franchise to their in-league competitors.

            There are, however, several features within the system which can cause one league to move upward faster than the other.  Those are:

            The age of franchises.   This one is problematic, so I’ll save the discussion for the end of the list.

            Attendance.  If one league has higher attendance than the other, their franchises will get higher Franchise Strength Indexes.

            Expansion.  Effects the average age of franchises.

            Winning the World Series.  It’s small, but if your league wins the World Series, there’s an edge for the teams there.

            Interleague competition, since that began in the 1990s.  If one league wins more games than the other, their franchises will be ranked as stronger. 

            The National League franchises are of course older than the American League franchises, which gave them an edge in the early years of the 20th century.  In 1905 the American League average was 185, the National League average 235.   I don’t know that that is an accurate measurement.  I’m pretty sure that it isn’t.  

            It isn’t that SOME of the National League stars jumped to the American League when the American League started; it is rather than MOST of them came over, particularly the young stars.  Nap Lajoie, Ed Delahanty, Cy Young, Rube Waddell, Jack Chesbro, Sam Crawford, Jimmy Williams, George Davis, Bill Dineen, Buck Freeman, Jimmy Collins, Lave Cross, Topsy Hartsell, Bill Bradley, Jesse Burkett, Bobby Wallace, Wee Willie Keeler, Socks Seybold.. . ..they all came over.  Find a comparable list of NL stars who DIDN’T jump to the AL.  There isn’t one; not even close. 

            In addition to that, the American League in its first 15 years did a far better job of acquiring and developing their own stars.  Coming into the American League were Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Eddie Collins, Home Run Baker, Tris Speaker, Joe Jackson, Addie Joss and others.  The National League also produced young stars, but they didn’t keep up.  By 1910 the American League began winning the World Series basically every year.

            So there is a mathematical edge for the National League built into the system in its early years, but it wasn’t a real thing.   Although this mathematical edge evaporated over the years, the system still shows the NL with a 40-point edge per team in 1912, 30 points in 1916, 20 points in 1922, and 10 points in 1933.   It isn’t a real thing, so for that reason we can’t really rely on league-to-league strength comparisons. 

 

 

The Strongest Franchises

 

10.  Cleveland Indians/Guardians/Naps/Wimps/Whatever (465)

            You probably know that I have done this kind of research before, using slightly different methods.  In 1979, the first time I met Dan Okrent, Dan was telling me about a guy he had worked with on a book, who argued that the Indians were the worst franchise in baseball.  His argument was that the Indians were ugly bad at that time and had been for almost 20 years, but that even before then, when they were "good", they weren’t really good; they were just sort of good.  I believe that that conversation planted the seed for this kind of research in my head.  I knew intuitively that the Indians were not the worst franchise in baseball, but how do you decide?   How do you rank them?

            The Indians were never the worst franchise in baseball.  For most of their history before Bobby Feller, they ranked as a midlevel American League franchise, the 4th/5th/6th strongest franchise in the league, winning only one pennant in 47 years, but they were never the St. Louis Browns or the Washington Senators when the Senators were down or the Red Sox or A’s when the Red Sox or A’s were down. 

            When Bill Veeck bought the team in 1946, they started to move up immediately, reaching the position of 3rd in the American League by 1948, second by 1953.   They were then the third-strongest franchise in the majors, behind the Yankees and the Dodgers. Their ranking number peaked at 433 in 1956, then started to slide almost annually.  It slid for a long time, reaching 378 in 1990-1991.  That ranked them 10th in the American League, which had 14 teams, and 18th in the major leagues.  By 1993 they had slid to 19th.  Their attendance was up, but everybody else’s was, too.

            And then Jacobs Field was built, and they started winning.  The team won 100 games in 1995 in a strike-shortened season, 100-44.  They won 99 games the next year, and had a streak of positive seasons. The had a record streak of sold-out games, sensational attendance.  They won 93 games in 2005, 96 in 2007.  By that time they had an FSI of 463, 9th highest in baseball.   They were bad from 2009 to 2012, hired Terry Francona and began to win again.  We have them now at the doorstep of the "strong" franchises. 

 

9.  The Los Angeles Angels (472)

            An expansion franchise in 1961, the Angels won 86 games in their second year of play.  They were the strongest of the first four expansion teams in the early years, and for many years.  In 1967 the Angels won 84 games and drew 1.3 million fans.  The Kansas City A’s won 62 games and drew 700,000.   The Angels passed the A’s in the Franchise Strength Rankings, the first time that an expansion team had moved ahead of an old franchise. 

            From 1968 to 1977, which included Nolan Ryan’s greatest years, the team had only one winning season, that one not much of a winning season.  Through 1976 they never drew as many as 1.3 million again. They slid backward to 19th on the list.  When free agency arrived (1977) they were one of the most aggressive buyers in the early years.  The team got a little bit better, and their attendance got a lot better.  From 1976 to 1985 their FSI increased from 293 to 343, but they were still 19th on the list. 

            The franchise was only 25 years old.  It takes longer than that for a fan base to mature, but gradually it began to happen.  The Angels won their division in 1986 and drew 2.7 million.  They moved up to 16th.   From 1998 to 2002 they drew over two million every year.  In 2002 they won the World Series.  From then until 2020 they drew more than three million every season, making them one of the highest-attendance teams in baseball. 

            The Angels have been baseball’s cursed franchise, suffering repeated tragic deaths for many years.  The one that really hit me hard was Nick Adenhart.  Adenhart pitched the best game of his major league career hours before his death.  I watched that game on TV, closely, and I thought Adenhart was sensational.  I absolutely thought that he would be one of the best pitchers in baseball.  I got up in the morning and he was dead.  I was just stunned.  It hit me harder than Lyman Bostock. 

            They have sustained their media appeal by signing the most visible free agents in more seasons than not—Albert Pujols, Anthony Rendon, Josh Hamilton, Shohei Ohtani—and, of course, by coming up with the best player in baseball for the last ten years.   The money has not been well spent, and they are now working on a streak of six straight losing seasons.   But they are not in any sense a light-weight organization.  I really don’t know who the best free agent on the market this winter is, but there’s a really good chance that the Angels will sign him, whoever he is.  They are players on the biggest stage.  They have the stars, but not the script. If they can mix the money with a little more judgment, they will become the dominant team in the AL West. 

 

8.  Chicago Cubs (473)

            The Cubs entered the 20th century as the second-strongest franchise in baseball, behind the Boston Bean Eaters (Braves), who were the best team of the 1890s.  They quickly passed the Braves, and ranked as the strongest franchise in baseball from 1906, when they won 116 games, until 1915, when they had their first losing season since 1902.  Their attendance fell by 50% from its peak in 1908, but they remained the #2 franchise in baseball through 1932, winning the World Series in 1918 and winning NL pennants in 1929 and 1932.   They continued to win pennants regularly through 1945. 

            The Cubs owner for decades, Philip Wrigley, refused to put In lights, out of loyalty to the neighborhood or loyalty to the past.  Of more consequence, he also refused to build a farm system.  The old system, which preceded the farm systems, was that minor league operators would develop stars and sell them up the ladder toward the major leagues, and the major league teams would buy them when they were ready to play in the majors.  Wrigley, out of loyalty to the minor league operators or because he just could not see the future coming if it wasn’t chewing bubble gum, continued to try to operate as they had operated in the past.  That way of doing thing was on its way out by 1935 or before, but Wrigley continued to try to play it that way until after the war.  He had no talent coming along.  His teams became non-competitive, his attendance fell to the bottom of the league or very close to it, and his team began to slide in the standings.  Their FSI dropped from a peak of 450 in 1938, 445 in 1946, down to 386 in 1966, and they dropped from the third strongest franchise in baseball to 9th out of 20. 

            The Cub farm system got organized by the mid-1950s, and started producing major talent about 1960 (Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ken Hubbs, Lou Brock), and the Cubs had a relatively strong team by the late 1960s.  The amateur draft, beginning in 1965, helped them stay competitive.  Their FSI began to move up, but slowly, and they continued to slide in the standings for a long time.   They continued to slide, frankly, until they got lights.  From 1996 through 2001 they ranked as the 8th strongest franchise in the National League, and 16th strongest in baseball (out of 30). 

            They won 88 games in 2003, 89 in 2004, played in the post-season in 2007 and 2008.    Their attendance was over three million every year from 2003 to 2011.   The Theo Epstein era did not start well; they took a step backward before they took a step forward, but, of course, they won the World Series in 2016, and their attendance went back over three million a year. 

 

7.  Houston Astros (474)

            The Astros and Mets were baseball’s 19th and 20th franchises, and the Astros, being better than the Mets in the early years, started out in 19th place.

            And stayed there.

            They stayed there for a long, long time, treading water at 81 wins a year for 35 years.  They won between 77 and 85 games in 1969, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 76, 77, 82, 83, 84, 85, 88, 92, 93, 96 and 97.   Through 1997 they ranked as the 22nd strongest franchise in baseball.

            Then several things happened.  Two of their young players developed almost simultaneously into Hall of Fame level stars.  They got a new park, originally called Enron Field.  The city of Houston, and all of Texas, experienced explosive growth, which hasn’t really ended although it may have slowed down.  Houston became one of the nation’s largest cities. And the Astrps passed that magic level, where they were no longer a startup operation, a commercial product; they were a tradition.  They were a part of the community for as long as anyone born after 1955 could remember.  And, like the Angels about the same time, they started to move up through the rankings. 

            Once they started winning games, they never really stopped.  They had a little down period from 2011 to 2013, losing 100 games a year.  They’re in the playoffs every year now. 

            Everything they do is a scandal now.  What people don’t get is, the repeated scandals are making them stronger.  There’s a community circling-the-wagons effect.   It’s like Brooklyn in the Jackie Robinson era; these are OUR boys, and we have to stand by them.  You can like it or not, but that IS what is happening.  They are the strongest of the expansion franchises. 

 

            The Six Elite Franchises

6.  Atlanta Braves (508)

            In short form, the Braves were:

1)     The best franchise in baseball in the 1890s,

2)     One of the three worst franchises in baseball from 1920 until 1952,

3)     The Milwaukee Braves from 1953 to 1965, and

4)     A self-proclaimed America’s team in Atlanta when nobody actually believed that they were.

That covers their history from 1876 until they hired John Schuerholz in 1990.  In ranking numbers, the Braves started at 100, and reached a peak of 299 in 1899.  They dropped as low as 241 in 1912, leveled off for decades in the 260s, and didn’t get back to 299 until the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series in 1957.  They reached a peak of 360 in Milwaukee, dropped to 311 in Atlanta based on the 15% relocation penalty, and didn’t produce consistently good teams in Atlanta for a quarter of a century. 

Schuerholz put together the greatest pitching rotation in baseball history.   They got a new park, and then they got another new park.  The Braves made very, very rapid progress up the list; unusually rapid.  This is designed to be a conservative system.  If you’re behind, it takes a LONG time to catch up.  It’s designed to be that way.

The Braves cut through the ranks like butter.  They were 23rd in 1990, 20th in 1991, 17th in 1993, 12th in 1995, 7th in 1996, 5th in 1997.  And that’s basically where they have been ever since; 4th, 5th, 6th.  They are one of the elite franchises in baseball, producing consistently strong teams for 30 years now. 

 

5.  San Francisco Giants (520)

            Tracing their origins to New York City in 1883, the New York Giants were not a front-line franchise in the 19th century.  They had a half-crazy owner in the 1890s, Andrew Freedman, who retarded the growth of the franchise.  By 1902 they were rid of Freedman and managed by John McGraw, the greatest manager of the time, and moved quickly up to the position of the National League’s second-strongest operation, behind the Cubs.   In 1916, when the Cubs faded a little bit, they moved into the #1 position.  They were the strongest franchise in baseball at that time.

            From 1916 to 1938 they were the glamour team, the team that everybody wanted to be a part of. The last time I studied this issue, by a slightly different method, I came to the same conclusion.  When the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth in 1920, that—and a series of other good moves--made the Yankees the "hot" team, the team that was surging through the ranks, but it did not immediately make the Yankees the stronger franchise in New York.  The Giants had been around for a long time by then.  They had many championships behind them, many dedicated fans.  The Yankees had been drawing larger crowds since Ruth’s coming, generally, but it was more Ruth than the Yankees.  The Yankees won the World Series in 1932, the Giants in 1933.  In 1934, when neither team won their league, the Giants drew 730,000 fans; the Yankees, 728,000.  It was near a tipping point, but it wasn’t clear that it had tipped. 

            But the Yankees played the Giants in the World Series in 1936 and 1937 and won both decisively, without Ruth, and that did it.  They were still a very strong franchise, from 1937 until they left New York, but they were #1 in their own league, #2 in New York, #2 in baseball.   Then the Cardinals passed them for a few years, and then the Cardinals faded and the Dodgers passed them, so they had been baseball #3 franchise for about ten years by 1957, but still in the World Series in 1951 and 1954.

            When they moved to San Francisco (1958) they had to re-build their fan base, so we lower their score in our system, dropping them to #8.   They had really good teams, though, with many Hall of Famers, so by 1965 they were back to 4th, almost where they had been. 

            The glory years got away from them.  All the Hall of Famers were gone by the early 1970s, although McCovey came back for a few years.  People began to see the abundant flaws of Candlestick Park.  Attendance was desultory, and the team never appeared in the post-season between 1971 and 1987. 

            I never lived in San Francisco, but I went to several games there between 1977 and 1987.  The park had a dead feel to it.  The sound of clapping died in the night air as soon as it left your hands.     By 1992 the franchise had dropped almost (but not quite) out of the top 10.  They were 10th and on the way down.

            And then Barry Bonds came to town.

            And they built a new park.

            And everything changed.  You’d go to a game there, it was electric, like a sporting event is supposed to be.  They won the World Series in 2010, 2012, 2014.  They won 107 games this year.  In normal times they draw 3,000,000 fans a year to their beautiful park.   It’s a very strong operation.

 

 

4.  Boston Red Sox (554)

            The 554 could still jump to 559, if the Red Sox make the World Series, or 564, if they win it. 

            The exact thing that provoked me to do this research now was, I was wondering whether it could now be said that the Red Sox franchise was stronger than the Yankees.  No, it can’t, I decided, but it is getting closer. 

            From their startup through 1919 the Red Sox were one of the American League’s strongest teams, the Yankees initially not a strong franchise.  By 1918 the Red Sox had a Franchise Strength Index of 337, highest in the American League; the Yankees were at 223, 6th highest in an eight-team league.  It normally takes decades to overcome a 114-point deficit, but by 1926 the Yankees had the upper hand, 327 to 313. 

            The Red Sox FSI dropped from 337 in 1918 to 293 in 1932.  They didn’t get back to 337 until 1946.  They had some 100-loss teams, and sold off more of their young stars to the Yankees, most notably Herb Pennock and Red Ruffing, but others as well.   The Yankees were 50 points ahead of the Red Sox in the FSI by 1928, 100 points by 1932, 150 points by 1936, 200 points by 1942.   After 1932 the Red Sox FSI was steadily climbing, but the Yankees were a dynasty, winning World Series in their sleep.   The Red Sox had very good teams around 1950, but did not gain significantly compared to the Yankees.  After the Red Sox lost Parnell, Doerr and Dominic DiMaggio in the early 1950s the Yankees began pulling out of sight, getting 250 points ahead by 1956, and 300 points ahead by 1962.  After the 1964 season the Yankees had a Franchise Strength Index of 690, and a 306-point lead on the Red Sox.  690 to 384.

            690 to 384.  Think about it.  Complete domination.  

            That was the widest it ever got, although the Red Sox lost 100 games in 1965 for the first time since 1932, but the Yankees lost their grip on the league, and their FSI began to slip.   The Red Sox have been catching up to the Yankees since 1964, almost 60 years—but they’re still not there.  The 1967 team cut the gap to 266.   Red Sox attendance was higher than the Yankees every year from 1967 to 1975, and their teams generally better.  The 1975 team cut the FSI gap to 177 points, 600 to 423. 

            Steinbrenner put the Yankees back on top, but the Red Sox stayed with them.  By 1985 the gap was still at 177 points, 623 to 446.  The 1986 World Series team cut the gap to 164, and then they cut a few points off of it every year when Clemens was the best pitcher in baseball and the Yankees best pitcher was like Melido Perez.  By 1993 the margin was down to 114 points, 578 to 464.

            The Yankees, however, had another one in them—the Jeter/Rivera teams, the monsters of 1998.  Perhaps the greatest team of all time.  By 2003 the Yankees had stretched the margin back to 174 (661 to 487). 

            Since then the Red Sox have been gaining on them—but the Yankees have still been very good.  With a larger stadium the Yankees draw a few more fans, although the Red Sox attendance is great.   The 2018 Red Sox, also one of the greatest teams of all time, cut the space down to 104 points, which was the smallest it had been since 1931.   At the moment it is 105, but if the Red Sox make the World Series then they will cut it below 100 for the first time in 90 years. 

            It is truly an epic struggle, a battle lasting more than 100 years, trying to atone for the player sales that I guess really began with Duffy Lewis being sold to the Yankees on December 18, 1918.  Harry Frazee tried to turn the team into a Cash Cow.  The Red Sox have now been gaining ground on the Yankees for 57 years, and they still are.   But they are still not even. 

           

3.  St. Louis Cardinals (568)

            The strongest franchise in the American Association in the 1880s, the Cardinals were never competitive once they moved to the National League in 1892.   In the early 20th century they ranked consistently as the weakest franchise in the National League.

            Never competitive, until Sam Breadon and Branch Rickey put the Cardinals on the map.  Their 1926 World Series stunner over the Yankees removed the label as the weakest franchise in the league.  By 1946, and really about five years earlier, they were the strongest.  By the late 1940s they were the second-strongest franchise in baseball.  Rickey was gone by then, building up the Dodgers, but before he left he had developed a system.  Had he stayed in St. Louis, the Cardinals might have supplanted the Yankees as baseball’s strongest franchise, although that is a little bit of a reach considering the gap between them and the difference in population between the cities, and, I guess, the near-Southern racism of St. Louis in that era. 

            But St. Louis in that era was a baseball-mad town, producing Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola and Earl Weaver and Roy Sievers and Elston Howard and others from sandlots scattered across the city.  The Cardinals had up moments and down and were not clearly ahead of the Dodgers through the 1950s and the 1960s, but I have them ranked as the National League’s strongest franchise from 1946-1951, from 1958 to 1964, and from 1968 to 1972. 

            They broke apart.  Bob Gibson retired, and the Gussie Busch didn’t see the difference between Steve Carlton and Rick Wise.   The Cardinals dropped to the third strongest franchise in the NL by 1977, behind the Dodgers and the Reds, but Whitey Herzog moved them back to second in the league in the early 1980s.  And really, they have been good or great ever since.  They haven’t ranked worse than the second-strongest franchise in the league in this century, and actually ranked first (in the league, not in baseball) from 2011 to 2016.   Mark McGwire put their attendance over three million a year in 1998, and it still is, or was until the Pandemic.  

 

2.  Los Angeles Dodgers (622)

            The Dodgers could go to 627, if they make the World Series, or 632 if they win it. 

            As the Cardinals were the weakest franchise in the National League in the dead ball era, the Dodgers were the second-weakest.  An out-of-nowhere pennant in 1920 improved their station in life and in the FSI, but they were a second-division franchise until Larry MacPhail and Leo Durocher pushed them up a couple of notches about 1940.  In 1942 Larry MacPhail resigned as Cardinal GM to enter the US Army, and the Dodgers induced Branch Rickey to jump from the Cardinals.  The rest is history.  Actual history; not just using the expression.

            Although not able to sustain their phenomenal attendance of 1947-48, the Dodgers grew steadily stronger based on their victories on the field.  Their FSI was 300 in 1935, 312 in 1940, 352 in 1945, 399 in 1950, and 461 by 1955.  By that time they were the strongest franchise in the National League, the second-strongest in baseball.

            With the franchise move we set their FSI backward by 15%, perhaps inaccurately in their case, as they seemed to require no time to re-build their fan base in Los Angeles.  It could be said, perhaps, that the nation loved the Dodgers for what they had done, and LA loved them for bringing major league baseball to the West Coast.  We cut their FSI 70 points to 400, but by 1965 it was back higher than it had ever been, and the Dodgers were back to being the strongest franchise in the National League.

            Although they went 30 years without winning a World Series, the Dodgers are the Yankees of the National League, ranking as the strongest franchise in the league continuously since 1973 except for the years 2011 to 2016, when the Cardinals got a little bit ahead of them.   The Dodgers are a formidable organization.  But then, you don’t need me to tell you that.

 

1.  New York Yankees (659)

The New York Yankees have been the strongest franchise in baseball since 1938, 83 years ago, or perhaps even longer than that.  Although I chose a different methodology, it would not be unreasonable to say that the Yankees have been baseball’s strongest franchise for 100 years now.

By the FSI, the Yankees became the strongest franchise in baseball in 1938, but by only two points (486 to 484.)  By 1947 they had stretched the lead to 100 points (556 to 456).  Then they started winning the World Series every year.  By 1958 the lead was 200 points (661 to 447.)    By 1962 it was 239 (681 to 442.)

It has never been 239 points over the field since then.  In the years between the Dan Topping/Del Webb ownership group and George Steinbrenner it dropped to 97 points (1975, 600 to 503). The late 1970s teams, the Bronx Zoo teams, rebuilt the lead to 107, but by 1993 it was down to just 33 points (584 to 551.)

And then they started up again, somehow.  They had the strongest scouting and player development system in baseball, and they knew how to finish a champion with free agents and role players.  By 2009 their lead was back to 132, and they seemed as indestructible as ever.   After the 2011 and 2012 seasons their FSI was 693, the highest ever, and the first new record since 1964. 

Steinbrenner died in 2010, with the Yankees at a very high peak, unassailable.  Since then they have become a little more. . .well, assailable.  Their lead is back down to 37 points, 659 to 622.  It will shrink a little more if the Dodgers win the World Series. 

Within five years, it is now possible that the Yankees will not be the strongest franchise in baseball for the first time within the memory of any living fan except maybe Roger Angell, may he live forever.  It is possible, but we have been here before, and the organization before has rallied and taken off again.  Part of the difference between a great team and a great franchise is expectations.  If the Cleveland Indians or the California Angels were where the Yankees are right now, they’d be drinking champagne.  Yankee fans are calling for heads to roll.   The Yankees right now do not have a great team.   But they are still The New York Yankees.  

 
 

COMMENTS (37 Comments, most recent shown first)

hotstatrat
John_Q and Obs.2 -

Right. My dad worked for a New York publishing company. At some point around the early mid 1970s, they had to trim their budgets. The company had season tickets to both Shea and Yankee Stadiums. They took a vote to see which tickets would be reduced from four to two. The seats were excellent at both stadiums, but even closer to the action at Yankee Stadium However, that was at the rare historical moment when the Mets were more popular, so the company kept the four tickets for Shea. How quickly that became a horrible choice!
5:50 PM Oct 24th
 
michaelplank
Forbes does franchise valuation estimates. Huge grain of salt, and not the same thing Bill is measuring, but I think the Dallas Cowboys are usually at or near the top (in the US; it's all soccer clubs internationally).
10:31 AM Oct 23rd
 
jimmybart
I've been keeping a "Historic Power Rankings" spreadsheet since 2006 but it is only based on postseason success, with greater weight for recent success. Top 5 are the same as Bill's, although Dodgers/Cardinals are flipped. Braves in the middle of the pack. Angels/Indians much lower in mine, Marlins/DBacks much higher.

I do it for the other sports, and #1 for NFL is the Patriots, NBA Lakers, and NHL the Lightning. 2020 was the first year the Lakers finished higher than the Yankees.​
10:05 PM Oct 22nd
 
FrankD
re evancurb: of course the Lakers won championships and then left Minneapolis. Just shooting from the hip: I say the tops franchises in each sport are: Yanks in MLB, Canadiens in NHL, Celtics in NBA (or Lakers), Packers in NFL .......
8:01 PM Oct 22nd
 
FrankD
Some questions and suggestions: The ranking based on absolute number is ok, but should there be a +/- band so that teams only a little bit apart are really equal? I'll accept that those in each tier could be considered equal. Given that the population area for each team is not the same, maybe the attendance data should be normalized by the population in each 'teams' area. And, I may have missed it, is their a correction for population growth?
7:45 PM Oct 22nd
 
FrankD
I really like that when you do research, you state your methodology upfront, so anybody else could do the same study. Then you draw conclusions from your study. And you accept that others can draw different conclusions from the same analysis, but at least the debate you have started starts at a common point. Excellent science.
7:19 PM Oct 22nd
 
John-Q
Obs2.0

Just anecdotally my parents were immigrants so there wasn’t anybody interested in baseball or who even understood the game. My older sister was the one who got the family into baseball. I started school in 1971 and I started getting into baseball in 1973. I would guess that 80-90% of the kids in school were Mets fans. Probably 80-90% kids in the neighborhood were Mets fans. The Yankees were this old black and white team because all their highlights were in black and white.

You started to see little rumblings when CAtfish Hunter joined the team because he was so popular. Then Bobby Bonds. Then you started to se more rumblings in 1976 when they rebuilt Yankee Stadium and won the pennant. The real flip came in 1977 when Reggie came and Seaver left. Then all the old Mets were gone after That year like Matlack, Milner, Grote, Harrelson. Kingman was gone. I think only Koosman was left from the WS years. Swan and R. Hodges barely played in ‘73. Then the Yankees won the WS back to back and the school/neighborhood flipped 80-90% Yankee fans.
2:09 PM Oct 22nd
 
evanecurb
How would one measure the strength of franchises across sports? Are the Dodgers a stronger franchise than the Lakers? What is the strongest sports franchise in North America?
6:09 AM Oct 22nd
 
evanecurb
How would one measure the strength of franchises across sports? Are the Dodgers a stronger franchise than the Lakers? What is the strongest sports franchise in North America?
6:09 AM Oct 22nd
 
OBS2.0
That sounds right. Seaver led the first assault, which was pretty amazing, stealing the mantle from the Yanks.

Mantle. Get it?! :-)
5:03 AM Oct 22nd
 
John-Q
More than equality, the Mets took over the metro area back then. They were the most popular team among young people from 1969-76. And then they went into the dumps and the Yankees won the WS and flipped it around. Then the Mets flipped it back around 1984-86 and held it until 1991. Then it all crumbled again and the Yankees took off around 1994-95 and took a stranglehold on the town.
12:32 AM Oct 22nd
 
OBS2.0
@mike. While it didn't set them off on a 40 year string of championships, Tom Seaver....snaked through a supplement draft shootout, came up with the Mets in 1967 and brought a flash of equality with the great Yankees for the hearts of New York.
12:09 AM Oct 22nd
 
dbolnh
Just a correction for the Minnesota Twins: Target Field in Minneapolis opened 2010.
12:01 AM Oct 22nd
 
MWeddell
In a 5/21/21 Hey Bill, I asked about players who permanently positively changed a franchise's fortunes. Babe Ruth and Carl Yastrzemski were my first two nominees. Bill James correctly added Jackie Robinson to the list (and questioned Yaz). This article identifies Mark McGwire as the fourth member of this list.

I agree with McGiwre. Since he joined the Cardinals through 2019, their annual attendance was 2.9 million - 3.5 million. Yes, the Cardinals have been good, but that includes some mediocre years. Just a couple of years before then, attendance was as low as 1.75 million and never above 3.1 million.
1:57 PM Oct 21st
 
evanecurb
Really fun article, and the top four of NY, Bos, StL, and LA are exactly the four that we fans would expect. That's validation for the method, I'd think. I have a couple thoughts about the Orioles. Their attendance jumped with the 1979 team, which was their first great team after the Senators had moved to Texas. It also coincided with a downturn in success for the Colts - they weren't drawing well, then moved to Indy in 1984. So the Orioles not only were the only major league team in Baltimore-Washington from 1972 to 2004, they also were the only major league franchise in Baltimore in any sport from 1984 to 1996. Camden Yards opened in 1992 to rave reviews, and Ripken was incredibly popular - a huge draw by himself - throughout the 1990s. Now, things are different. Washington has its own team, thee Ravens are bigger than the O's, and Cal's been retired for 20 years. Sure, the team stinks now, and they've been stinking for (mostly) 20 years, but I think the franchise has a lot of things working against it in addition to that. They still have the ballpark, though, and it's still a beaut. Hopefully the fans will come back when the team improves.
1:25 PM Oct 21st
 
hotstatrat
Bill is not trying to measure front office acumen here. It's not even just current popularity or popularity per population. It's about how strong their fan base is.
1:14 PM Oct 21st
 
John-Q
The Angels were very lucky by the realignment in 1994. They went from a 7 team division to a 4 team division and it stayed 4 team until 2011 or 12, not sure off the top of head. Then they were a big Market team in a division with smaller market teams. They really made out in the early 2000’s. I think they won that division 5-6 times. Looked at overall, they only went to 1 WS in heir history and they barely won that one. That WS was more about a Giants collapse.

Harry Dalton doesn’t get enough credit for those successful Angels teams. I’m not sure why he’s not in the HOF. He was the GM in Baltimore during the Late 60’s-early 70’s years. Then he went to the Angles and made the Ryan deal. Then he parlayed the other players in that deal into Bobby Bonds. Then he signed Grich and Baylor. Then he was the GM of the Brewers during the 1978-83 period.
12:12 PM Oct 21st
 
3for3
Agreeing with Joe Start. The method seems to place too much emphasis on attendance. I don't think of the Angels as a strong franchise, but a mediocre franchise in a very big market.
10:29 AM Oct 21st
 
CharlesSaeger
1. What is the Rangers' strength? Obviously it's between 433 (Twins and Blue Jays) and 439 (Orioles). Mostly just curious.
2. Another way to group these, using the scores as a guide:

The weak: Marlins through Pirates
The average: Brewers through Astros
The strong: Braves through Cardinals
The elite: Dodgers and Yankees

The gap between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cleveland Cleevies is 1, so drawing the line between them is weird. Cleveland hasn't won a World Series in 73 years; the Phillies won 13 years ago, and another one in that 73 year span.
10:01 AM Oct 21st
 
Gfletch
" Their biggest problem has been stupidity." That line jumped out of the general tone of this enjoyable piece and made me laugh out loud.

***

Many, many years ago I read a biography of Sandy Koufax. I recall it mentioned Koufax taking the rest of the season off, a Dodger coach telling him the year was lost anyway, that it would be best to write it off and come back strong the next year.

I believe that was 1964, or guess it was. The Dodgers were 80-82-2 that season, winning 99 and 102 the previous two years, 97 and 95 the next two.

What struck me at the time was that a bad season (80-82 was really bad by Dodger standards) does not indicate a bad team, and a good season doesn't indicate a good team. More than that, there was a strong sense of confidence conveyed in that passage, a sense of justified entitlement.

That's fully in keeping with your article, Bill. The best franchises have that mind-set, not just with the players and managers and coaches on the field, but throughout the entire organization.

***

I'm sure...I guess I'm hoping...someone will take it upon their selves to see if Koufax did indeed take time off at the end of the 1964 season. I gotta get to bed now.
3:58 AM Oct 21st
 
Joe_Start
Is attendance the reason Los Angeles is rated higher than St Louis?

Because 40,000 people attending a game in LA is like a politician going to church in Missouri.

It's not about what's happening, it's just about the chance to be seen.
3:36 AM Oct 21st
 
OBS2.0
Very interesting, but I feel like I'm trying to pick up a bar of soap. I feel like all this should be done and then shoved through an equalizer of market size. And revenue. Is there anything Tampa could do to not be among the weakest franchises? Haven't they done it?

I think.....well....I would ask, is how much of a strength metric is attendance? Is it included as a revenue measure or a barometer of love? Because I am a rabid Mets fan, I buy gear, I watched or listened to at least a piece of 95 percent of games this year, but I rarely go to more than 2 games per year, because it is a PITA. It's three solid hours each way to go 55 miles to CitiField. They get in the playoffs I go, more games than not.

But I lived in Tampa, and shhheeettt. I belonged to a great golf course, I co-owned a fishing boat, beach was fabulous, great music scene. There was huge competition for my attention.

So you mention that the Braves won in the 1890s.....well, they were in Boston, there was no World Series, attendance was the whole enchilada, no cable deals, radio ads. Why compare the 1895 Boston Braves to the, two cities' later, 2021 Atlanta Braves?

I feel like this smooshes together some interesting calculations but the goalposts elude me. If you are measuring financial strength, that is easily done, but it would go well beyond attendance to cable deals advertising, ticket prices,, gear,....and in the real world, revenue sharing flattens that differentiator anyway.

If you are measuring front office strength and acumen, I would suggest a study of success versus expenditures, say wins per payroll dollar. That might flip that list, certainly Tampa in the last decade shines. But....what good is history there, how many teams have the same front office or even ownership of 15 or 20 years ago?
12:49 AM Oct 21st
 
OBS2.0
@JohnQ. The willie got some racism on it, you might recall:

"Willie Randolph apologizes to Mets for racism accusation" https://www.cbc.ca/amp/1.698749
12:24 AM Oct 21st
 
shthar
Should getting a new stadium give a team bonus points?

or is getting a new stadium a sign of a strong team?

It is a sign of confidence in a team. Or that the team is run by a confidence man...


11:40 PM Oct 20th
 
John-Q
Phillies have 7 pennants to the White Sox 6 so that’s a factor.

It’s probably an attendance thing. The White Sox still share a city with another team. The Phillies haven’t shared Philadelphia since the early 1950’s. And then the A’s hadn’t been good for 20 years before that. The Phillies have the South Jersey and Delaware market to go along with central and eastern Pennsylvania.
11:07 PM Oct 20th
 
LoradoTaftWright
It seems counterintuitive that a franchise with a historical won-lost record of 9,935-11,112 and 2 World Championships should rank 11th and a franchise with a record of 9,411-9,309 and 3 World Championships should rank 16th.
10:36 PM Oct 20th
 
John-Q
I think Willie Randolph’s firing was based on couple things.

They had that terrible collapse in ‘07 which still hung over into the ‘08 season.

The team was around .500 in June even though they traded for J. Santana.

Supposedly Randolph lost the clubhouse.

Their was a power dynamic problem between Minaya (G.M), T. Bernard (V.P. Assistant to the G.M.) and Randolph. It was mostly Bernazard who caused a lot of the problems. He had some players that acted as spies for him and he undermined Randolph’s authority. There was a faction of Spanish players who would go behind Willie’s back and deal directly with Bernazard or Minaya. The firing was the worst. They were starting on a road trip to L.A. and they fired him after the first game and a win no less. It was something like 1-2 am on the east coast when the news came out. So then Willie had to take a flight by himself back to N.Y. And deal with the N.Y. Media.

There was a weird thing too at the All Star game 2 weeks later. Randolph was supposed to be an N.L. coach representing the Mets in the all star game at Yankee Stadium. Instead he put on a Yankee uniform and was a coach for the A.L even though he wasn’t currently a coach with the Yanks.
10:26 PM Oct 20th
 
JohnPontoon
If I were Bob Simpson, I’d be sincerely delighted with “stays in the background and doesn’t do stupid stuff.”
10:12 PM Oct 20th
 
John-Q
The Mets were still good after they fired D. Johnson. They won 91 games In 1990 with Buddy Harrelson. They could never catch that Pirate team. I think they had the same amount of wins as the WS champion Reds. Magadan came in 3rd in the batting race. Strawberry had a good year. Jefferies led the N.L. In doubles. Viola won 20. I think Cone led the majors in K’s. The problems really started the following year.

They didn’t resign Strawberry and instead signed V. Coleman. They traded Ojeda for H. Brooks. They had a really bad defensive team with Coleman, Boston, Brooks and Careon in the outfield. HoJo and Jefferies in the infield and Mackey Sasser behind the plate. But they were still 10 games over .500 at the all star break. Then everything fell apart. I think Viola made the all star team but was terrible in the second half. Gooden was hurt. They had traded AGuilera and Tappani in the Viola trade. They were helping the Twins win the WS. Magadan fell back to the Earth after his big ‘90 season. The fans were killing Buddy Harrelson. I think it got so bad that he didn’t go out for pitching changes. They ended up firing him before the season was over. The next year (92) was the infamous “Worst Team that money could Buy”.
10:10 PM Oct 20th
 
John-Q
Good article. I was a bit surprised that the Angels and Astros ranked so highly. I wonder how much factoring in Division Titles would change the rankings.

John Schurholtz did a good job by acquiring Maddux, Pendleton, Mcgriff and Millwood but Bobby Cox and John Mullen were the main guys that built that team. Cox was the G.M. From 1986-90. He was the one who traded for Smoltz, L. SMith and C. Leibrandt. He drafted Avery, J. Lopez, R. Klesko, M. Wholers and Chipper JOnes. Then he fired Russ Nixon and installed himself as the manager. John Mullen drafted Glavine, Justice, Blauser, and R. Gant. Schurholtz got extremely lucky landing in Atlanta after getting fired in KC. The irony with Schurholtz is that he only got the Braves job because he did a terrible job with the Royals in 1990.
9:01 PM Oct 20th
 
willibphx
As always Bill a thoughtful and interesting article. The one item that I would comment on is the adjustment for relocation. I hate relocation and feel it damages baseball's overall image as a sport for the national audience. From a franchise perspective though it is hard not to see where every franchise was better off for having moved. I did a quick comparison of the five years prior to the move and the five years after the move focusing on wins and losses and attendance. The change in wins and losses were mixed and in the short term it could be argued had nothing to do with the move as the majority of the pieces were in place already. From an attendance standpoint improvements were marked.

Orioles up 188%
Nationals up 164%
A's from Philadelphia up 152%
Twins up 137%
Dodgers up 93%
Braves up 59%
Rangers up 31%
A's from Kansas City up 24% (showing Finley was the larger problem rather than location)

Given that attendance (revenue) is a key component of strength a 15% downward adjustment seems excessive without providing an offsetting benefit of the increase in attendance from the move.

Not material for the numbers you have come up with for todays results with the exception of the Nationals. All of the other relocations are outside of the 40 year deterioration life.

Thanks again for another thought provoking analysis.


7:22 PM Oct 20th
 
Marc Schneider
Sorry to say but I agree with you about the Nationals, at least in terms of the fan base. It astonishes me, as a resident of the area, that the Nats had good or very good teams for 10 years and, yet, the attendance has been mediocre at best, despite having a new stadium and good public transportation to get to it. After the Nats won the World Series, Joe Buck went ballistic talking about what a great baseball city Washington was. But it's not. It was a football city until the WFT got terrible and moved to the hinterlands; now it's much more of a hockey and basketball city. They have never drawn 3 million which, I think, is terrible in a large market with good teams. Now they have bad teams as well.
4:00 PM Oct 20th
 
hotstatrat
re: comment I just made below: by "you", I don't mean to imply that you possibly erred in not measuring merchandise. I don't know if that info is even available. I should have written "if that was measured ...".
3:36 PM Oct 20th
 
hotstatrat
I suggest that the Blue Jays are a little under-valued by this system. Perhaps, if you measured merchandise purchases as much as attendence, they would come out with a better ranking. After all, their reach extends 5 1/2 time zones, not just the Toronto area.
3:32 PM Oct 20th
 
gendlerj
Fabulous job!! A great summary of the 65 years of baseball in my memory.
3:11 PM Oct 20th
 
hotstatrat
Thank you. You started giving an era by era history of the franchises a couple years ago, but dropped it for other projects. However, I loved that series. This is a more systematic or rather objective way of summarizing what that series might have been. It's all fun and interesting. Thanks again.
2:40 PM Oct 20th
 
MichaelPat
What a simply wonderful piece... a walk through 120+ years of major league baseball, done in a relatable, readable fashion, and based on clear, solid premises.
I especially enjoyed the way you introduced the method as you introduced the teams... that was an inspired approach.
2:12 PM Oct 20th
 
 
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