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Putting the MV3 in Historical Context

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They were clearly great. Were they the best single season trio in baseball history?

MLB 2005: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael Mcnamara/Sporting News via Getty Images

It’s been a fun week looking back on the 2004 Cardinals. They were a juggernaut if ever there was one, even if their excellence will live uncrowned throughout history. I’ve written a bit about this team in the past- specifically how they were built- and we’ve heard all about the games, players, and performances that made them special. The bullpen was deep, the rotation was solid and reliable, and the lineup was full of unheralded contributors. However, we all know the engine behind the 2004 Cardinals was the potent trio in the middle of the lineup. Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds collectively made a power-packed triumvirate, one capable of demolishing opposing pitchers. It earned them an MV3 moniker. Everyone knew it was special at the time, but a little historical context can tell us exactly how special it was to have three players performing at that level in a single season. Fifteen seasons removed, let’s take another gander at the MV3 and compare them to other historically great trios.

First, let’s establish exactly how good these three were in 2004. Pujols collected 7.8 fWAR. Edmonds surpassed him at 8.3. Rolen was the best of the trio, his transcendent glove lifting him all the way up to a 9.0 fWAR season. Since the league integrated in 1947, Rolen is the only Cardinal not named Musial or Pujols to reach 9 fWAR in a single season. Put them all together and they were worth a staggering 25.1 fWAR, worthy of the inclusion of a gratuitous video of an incredible postseason moment. Hey, this can’t all be numbers.

Here’s the list of teams in the history of baseball that had three position players with 7 fWAR or greater in a single season (for a single team):

  • 1929 Yankees (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri)
  • 1948 Cleveland (Lou Boudreau, Ken Keltner, Joe Gordon)
  • 1961 Tigers (Norm Cash, Rocky Colavito, Al Kaline)
  • 2004 Cardinals

That’s it. That’s the whole list. They did something that’s only been done four times in the history of baseball, and they’re the only team to accomplish the feat since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

Now let’s look at every team’s top 3 position players in fWAR. How many wins above replacement were they worth? The MV3 amassed 25.1 fWAR. Here are the teams whose top three position players have more:

  • 1927 Yankees, 32.3 (Ruth, Gehrig, Earle Combs)
  • 1931 Yankees, 26.0 (Ruth, Gehrig, Ben Chapman)
  • 1961 Tigers, 25.9 (Cash, Colavito, Kaline)
  • 1948 Cleveland, 25.2 (Boudreau, Keltner, Gordon)

Again... that’s the whole list. Based purely on fWAR alone, the MV3 is the fifth most productive going all the way back to 1900.

Another area where the MV3 stands out is in how well-rounded they were. The 1927 and 1931 Yankees did considerably more damage at the plate than the MV3 (75 and 39 more offensive runs above average than the MV3, respectively), but they were both negatives in BsR (Baserunning Runs). The 1931 squad was also a negative in Def (Defensive Runs Above Average). Cleveland’s 1948 team and the 1961 Tigers, on the other hand, fell short of the offensive output of the MV3, but made it up with defense. Neither matched the BsR of the 2004 trio. We’ll take every team’s top trio going back to 1900 and give them a percentile rank in Off, Def, and BsR. Here are the percentile ranks for the ten most productive trios by fWAR:

The only team here with all three categories in the upper quartile is the MV3. Every other team either has a massive shortfall somewhere or can’t quite get their weakest category into the upper quartile. The best players on most teams are hitters who provide lots of offensive value. Occasionally, those same three are also defensive wizards smothering balls in play, and sometimes they rack up runs on the bases. Very few teams have their three best players capable of all three of those things. Yet that’s precisely what the Cardinals had in Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen.

There’s something else worth pointing out. If you look at the teams mentioned so far, either in the graph or in the bulleted lists, most were built before free agency and the amateur draft existed, and before several rounds of expansion. Of the top 20 in fWAR from their best trio, only four of them happened in the last 40 years. Aside from the MV3, here are the three others:

  • 1996 Mariners, 24.8 (Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez)
  • 2001 Giants, 24.5 (Barry Bonds, Rich Aurilia, Jeff Kent)
  • 2011 Red Sox, 23.6 (Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez)

The larger point is that it’s much harder these days to collect top-end talent than it was in, say, 1930 or 1948 or 1961. Free agency allows higher quality players to depart via the open market, and the draft levels the playing field in prospect acquisition. Expansion has added competition for talent. It’s much more impressive to find three players, all over 7 fWAR and over 25 total fWAR, in the modern era.

While the 1996 Mariners, 2001 Giants, and 2011 Red Sox are notable, there are other aspects about them that falter in relation to the MV3. The 2001 Giants got more than half of their 24.5 best trio fWAR from Barry Bonds. The Red Sox and Mariners each had a weaker member of their top trio- Adrian Gonzalez (6.2 fWAR) and Edgar Martinez (5.9). Those are fine seasons, but the worst the Cardinals had in their trio was 7.8 fWAR.

We all knew the MV3 was special. The more you look into it, the more you consider the balance between the contributions of the three and their well-rounded contributions, the more you realize their achievements happened in a tougher era for building this type of trio, there’s a very real argument to be made that this is the best season from a trio in baseball history.