The Memphis Redbirds are in the midst of a historic season. On Sunday, they became the first Pacific Coast League team to win 90 games since 2006. On August 29th, Memphis manager Stubby Clapp won the PCL Manager of the Year Award. They clinched their division more than three weeks ago. The Memphis Redbirds are a great AAA team.
On Sunday against the San Francisco Giants, the St. Louis Cardinals trotted out a starting nine that looked like a AAA lineup. This prompted the official Viva El Birdos twitter account to look back upon Memphis’ opening day lineup and conclude it would be “a not terrible major league lineup.” It got me wondering how Memphis would fare against MLB teams. This wasn’t the first time I’ve considered this hypothetical, and I’m sure others have wondered the same.
So, how many games would the Memphis Redbirds win in the Majors?
*Note that all data used in this post is current through September 2nd.*
To answer this question, we’ll start at Wins Above Replacement (WAR). The definition of replacement level, according to FanGraphs, is a “freely available minor leaguer or a AAAA player” off the bench. Furthermore, also according to FanGraphs, a team full of replacement level players would project to win 29.4% of their games, or 47.7 in a full season.
To estimate how many games a hypothetical team would win, we can simply add that team’s WAR to those 47.7 replacement level wins. While this isn’t perfect – it doesn’t account for scheduling or sequencing – it works extremely well.
The data above is from 2012 to 2016. There’s a very tight relationship between a team’s WAR and the number of games they win. That makes sense – teams with better players who generate more value win more games.
Now we have a proxy to translate WAR to wins. Next, I needed to determine Memphis’ best 25 man roster.
I considered each player that spent time with the team. From that list, I selected five starting pitchers, seven relievers, and thirteen position players. I made these selections in good faith, trying to pick the best players while also fitting traditional roster needs. I didn’t include players who weren’t intended to spend significant time in Memphis, like Aledmys Diaz or Stephen Piscotty. Additionally, I assumed everyone I selected remains healthy through the whole season to simplify the roster construction. My finalized roster is below:
Memphis would be worse than every single team except the Chicago White Sox, a team actively trying to lose by trading away any of their MLB pieces with value and promoting minor leaguers.
Let’s break it down further. Here’s how the Redbirds non-pitchers would rank at the plate.
Memphis is ahead of only three teams, and only one National League team. Not good! Here’s how the pitchers look.
Even worse. Dead last!
We could also do this exercise with wOBA for hitters and FIP for pitchers. Doing so, the hitters rank third worst, ahead of only the White Sox and Padres, while the pitchers rank 7th worst. The bottom three teams in the pitching projections are cellar dwellers (Reds, White Sox, Padres). The next three, however, are wild card contenders: the Brewers, Rockies, and Twins. I’m not sure what that says about those teams, but it’s probably not good.
These Memphis rankings shouldn’t come as a surprise. As great at the Memphis Redbirds have been in AAA, they’ve been playing AAA teams. There’s a large gap between AAA and MLB. As much as fans (myself included) gripe about the Cardinals front office, they are very good at evaluating players. They aren’t leaving many MLB-ready or better players in AAA while keeping replacement level or worse players in the Majors.
The Memphis Redbirds have won 90 games this season. If they played MLB competition, they’d struggle to win even 70 games. Even if we gave the Memphis Redbirds lineup an MLB average pitching staff (14.3 WAR), they’d project for only 72 wins. Maybe being projected for 66 to 72 wins is impressive for a AAA roster, but it’s certainly not good. To an eye that cared about MLB wins and losses, they’d look terrible.
This is to take nothing away from the Memphis Redbirds season, the players, or Stubby Clapp and the coaching staff. They’ve all done a terrific job to win their division and position themselves for a playoff run. My work today is just an exercise living entirely in the land of hypotheticals. It’s probably oversimplified, but it’s still a good estimation. And based on that estimation, the Memphis Redbirds would be a last place MLB team. Shocking, I know.