Over a decade and a half, the constant in Yankee championships has been the home grown quartet of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera: The Core Four, as the papers (among others) have it. From one angle, this is evidence of the strength of the Yankee Way; from another, it's proof that the Yankee Way is a synonym for money. (Retaining the services of those four players has cost the team about a half billion dollars over the course of their careers.)
As the Yankees try to defend their World Series title, a striking bit of evidence for the second possibility is that despite their many virtues, it could be argued that none of the team's Core Four are among their actual core four -- i.e., their best four players -- something having less to do with their still-considerable powers than with how strong the rest of the team is.
Such at least is a conclusion that one might reach after playing around a bit with analyst Sean Smith's fascinating CHONE projections, which may be the best publicly available forecasts of what players are likely to do this season. Curious which foursomes might be baseball's best this year, I used Smith's projections to score each team's Core Four. The top finishers aren't terribly surprising -- but they're still telling.
The method here was to count only the four players on each team who project to be worth the most runs, which takes defense into account, and to weigh their value so that the fourth-best player counts for four times as much as the best, the third-best for three times as much, and so on. The idea was to reward depth of talent -- the White Sox don't have a player as good as Joe Mauer, for example, but their second-, third- and fourth-best players project to be a bit better than their equivalents on the Twins, and so the two teams score as equals.
By this reckoning, the top five quartets in baseball are as follows:
1. Yankees (CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson)
2. Phillies (Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins)
3. Mets (David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Jason Bay)
4. Red Sox (Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett)
5. Cardinals (Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina)
As noted, there's nothing too surprising here. The most significant placing may be the Mets -- that they do so well here despite seeming like poor bets to finish much above .500 really tells you a lot about how badly that team has been mismanaged. The sixth-best core grouping is the Rays', which includes Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, James Shields and Carl Crawford -- further proof that there's a reason why people are always going on about what a brutally tough division the American League East is.
If there's any real surprise at all, it may be on the other end of the scale. The five worst finishers are who you'd expect -- the Blue Jays, A's, Padres, Pirates and Nationals, all rebuilding teams without significant major league star talent. Right ahead them, though, come the Angels, a perennially terrific team that most would expect to do very well this year.
Once you think this through, it isn't shocking. Under Mike Scioscia, the Angels have usually been more about the ensemble than about individuals, and this year they're taking that to something of a logical extreme -- other than Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu, whose reputations exceed their likely performance by quite a bit, there really aren't any stars on the team. What this highlights, though, is perhaps the most interesting thing about an exercise like this, which is that it reveals a fairly noticeable difference between teams on the East Coast and those on the West Coast.
Almost as a matter of philosophy, teams in the West seem to be built more around depth and the absence of glaring weaknesses than around core groups of truly dominant players. This isn't to say that they don't have stars -- the Mariners boast the best starting duo in baseball as well as Ichiro Suzuki, the Giants are structured around Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and so on -- but with the exception of the A's of a decade ago, it's hard to think of any recent Western teams as reliant on their front-line talent as, say, the Phillies are on theirs.
Obviously a lot of this is just down to most of baseball's biggest spenders being sited on the East Coast, but there may be something else at play, too. Because the very richest teams, the Yankees and Mets, are built around players who can be counted on for MVP- and Cy Young-caliber play year in and year out, to consistently compete against them, teams need to be able to count on having players of their own who can do the same.
On this line of reasoning you would expect to see East Coast teams tend to focus a bit more on developing and acquiring truly outstanding talent rather than on emphasizing a certain style of play, and in fact that is what you see. The Rays, for example, are very much keyed in on star players rather than on implementing a system the way the Angels or Mariners have. They have to be. Want to know perhaps the most notable thing about this exercise? Jeter, Posada, Robinson Cano and Javier Vazquez would rank as the eighth-best quartet in baseball. That's the Yankee Way.