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The Anatomy of A National League Winner

Let's reflect on how NL teams are in good, average, and bad tiers Photo by Aleshia Miller for TPOP

Let’s reflect on how NL teams are in good, average, and bad tiers
Photo by Aleshia Miller for TPOP

If you asked the average fan, they’d be able to find at least five or six things they’d improve about their favorite National League team’s lineups. Other teams, the ones they don’t pine over day in and day out, have it all. Not a hole in the lineup or rotation. Here’s a little secret: Every single team has flaws, but how GM’s limit those flaws and prioritize where to spend separates the winners from the losers.

The flaws a fan feels weigh their team down are not unique to just their franchise. Every team in the National League has flaws. Some have fewer than others for sure, but not one goes one to nine without a hole in the lineup with players on the bench to spare.

In order to determine how many holes the average NL winner had, I looked at the last seven years and grouped teams into three tiers according to their overall performance in the league standings — the Top composed of teams the five best records, the Middle six to ten teams, and the Bottom which includes the five or six teams with the worst record depending on which league Houston was in any given year. Even though there hasn’t been a second wild card awarded in each of those years, the top tier represents the teams who would presumably qualify under the current playoff structure. To set the lineup, I then used Baseball Reference to determine the players with the most at bats by position as well as each team’s three most used bench players. I included the bench because very few teams make it through the season unscathed and often times, reserves get more plate appearances than the designated starters at some positions. With the frequency of platoon usage the last few years, we’d also be leaving out half the equation at certain positions for certain teams. Based on a player’s WAR, I broke them down into five categories:

Elite — greater than or equal to 5
Strong — between 3.5 and 4.9
Good — between 2 and 3.4
Weak — between .5 and 1.9
Detrimental — less than or equal to .5

The samples contained 35 top and middle teams and 40 bottom teams with 385 individual player seasons each in the top and middle and 440 for the bottom. I averaged the number of each performance category by each lineup and of each tier to determine the normal roster make up for each grouping of teams. Here are the results:

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Every team has roughly the same number of Good players and there really isn’t much deviation between the number of Weak players. The difference comes at the top and the bottom. Elite players are a rarity for everyone, but top teams have an extra star compared to the bottom. They have nearly an extra Strong player as well. The difference in the good turns up in the bad for the weak teams with the bottom teams averaging an extra 1.6 Detrimental players compared to the top.

It’s important to note, though, that the top teams still have almost two Detrimental players on their roster and three and a half Weak players. That’s five holes in every lineup even on the best teams. Not a single team among the 110 I analyzed had fewer than four Weak and Detrimental players combined. That means that even if all three bench players struggled, at least one regular did as well.

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Generally, the average line is set at 2 WAR. In the end, good teams had only a hair more position players with an above average WAR than they had under it. In the end, you don’t need a murderer’s row to make the playoffs. If your team has six solid position players to build around, you’re ahead of the curve.

Of course, offense is only half of the equation. As it turns out, defense and pitching is what separates the contenders from the pretenders. Not a single team that finished in the top five ranked higher than 9th in the league in runs allowed and only four teams that would have made the current playoff structure ranked higher than seventh. The team with the fewest runs allowed in the National League only finished outside of the top five once. No team that finished in the top six in runs allowed finished in the bottom.

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In general, teams that allow fewer runs finish better. Of course, teams that can hit still do well, but there isn’t as much variability. Scoring a lot of runs is no guarantee of any success at all if the pitching isn’t there. Take for example the Colorado Rockies. They finished first and second in the league in runs scored in 2014 and 2013 respectively, but finished in the bottom. Again, the best pitching teams simply don’t finish there.

It feels odd that the conclusions of a piece, where much of the research provided breaks down the lineups of National League teams, suggests that the best investments a team can make are in pitching and defense. The key to a lineup is for it to be good enough and it’s good enough when your team has five to six above average players. If an organization has that, they should prioritize investing in defense or pitching. Given the choice between a weak player at a position who provides an OK bat or strong defense, it’s better that the modest value come from the defensive side.

Offense is exciting. While chicks dig the long ball, as the saying goes, so do old men. In the end, fans get so caught up in the offensive production that they ignore that what really separates winners from the losers is preventing runs. Winners need to hit some, but they don’t need flawless lineups. What they need is a balance of offense and defense that tips in favor of the latter. If a team can achieve that, they generally are good enough to compete, but are mediocre at worst.

Steve is a naturalized yinzer hailing originally from just north of Allentown, PA. He came to Pittsburgh to attend Duquesne University and decided to stick around after graduation. Steve is best known for his contributions to Duquesne hoops community as the owner of the Duquesne Dukes forum on Yuku and as the former editor of We Wear the Ring on the Fansided network. He is an avid Pirates fan, home cook and policy nerd. He is the co-founder of the Point of Pittsburgh. Easily irritated by people who misuse the word regress.