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The Anatomy Of An NL Winner – 2018 Update

How many elite and strong tiered players are in this picture?

As TPOP nears the end of its fourth year, I feel like a number of our early posts still have some relevance, but got buried in the archives before a lot of folks who now read the site got a chance to find them. One I often refer back to is my Anatomy of a National League Winner post. It originally appeared on April 1, 2015 and like our prospect valuation, I thought it was due for an update.

I developed the concept for the original piece after hearing one too many conversations where fans complained about all the holes on their respective team while lauding other franchises as if they’re flawless. Here’s how I opened the piece last time around:

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.

The contrarian I am, I felt like every team had areas where they fielded below average or worse players. I wanted to test this hypothesis and designed a research structure to test it out. In order to determine how many holes the average NL winner had, I looked at the last seven years (2008-2014) and grouped teams into three tiers according to their overall performance in the league standings for season — the Top composed of teams with the five best records, the Middle six to ten teams, and the Bottom third.

To set the lineups for each team, I then used Baseball Reference to determine the position 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 due to injury or if a platoon is in place. I then switched to Fangraphs to determine the fWAR for each of the teams players I identified. Based on a player’s fWAR, I broke them down into five categories for each team:

Elite — greater than or equal to 5, All-Star/MVP caliber
Strong — between 3.5 and 4.9, All-star candidates
Good — between 2 and 3.4, average and above average
Weak — between .5 and 1.9, slightly below average
Detrimental — less than or equal to .5, replacement level or worse

The 2015 sample confirmed my theory that even the best teams had at least two to three below average producers in their lineup and more on the bench. Only slightly more than half of the players performed above average. That’s not to say that those players were below average for their entire career, but they may not have produced to that level in a given season. See the below chart for the 2015 results.

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 4.55.50 PM

2015 breakdown of how many players fit in each performance category in the top third, middle third and bottom third of National League teams.

In the same piece, I also had a look at how run production and prevention results affect performance. Turns out, pitching and defense matter more than scoring runs as teams ranked in the top five in runs against are more likely to finish in the top five in the overall standings than teams that finish outside the top five in offensive output.

Rather than adding to the sample of teams to give it an even ten years to draw from, I elected to chop off the first three years (2008-10) and replace them with the past three full season (2015-17). I decided to do so for two crucial reasons. First, I wanted the sample to represent current trends as best it could while still containing more than a handful of seasons worth of data. Old data would dilute any new trends emerging. Second, the NL has changed in one important aspect. The Houston Astros have moved to the American League. Eliminating those first three years eliminates three years of a sixteen National League.

After incorporating the new seasons and updating the numbers, I didn’t find anything ground breaking. Every team, even the Cardinals in 2015, the Cubs in 2016 and last year’s Dodgers all had holes in their lineups. In fact, the total number of holes might still be growing. Teams at the top are still more star heavy though rarely do teams have more than two elite performers on their roster. None have more than three. Top teams have almost twice the elite performers as the middle teams who have over three times the star power of the bottom teams. Strong performances aren’t so sharply staggered between the grades of the clubs but they’re still relatively rare. Good players are almost even between the top and middle teams but the bottom aren’t far behind. The middle teams have the highest total for weak players, and naturally the scale favors the bottom for the most replacement level performances.

Top Middle Bottom
Elite 1.3 0.7 0.4
Strong 1.6 1.1 0.7
Good 2.6 2.5 2.2
Weak 3.3 4.2 4.0
Detrimental 2.1 2.6 3.6

Over the last seven years, half of the players on top teams have been average or better and half have been weak or detrimental. Stated another way, roughly half the players on the best squads still would qualify as role players or guys who a AAAA guy could replace. That means every team has at least a couple of guys that cause their fans to shake a fist at their TV when they appear on screen or to flock to social media to curse their manager for using them instead of player X, who likely is still below average just not as far below.

Top Middle Bottom
Good or Better 5.5 4.3 3.1
Weak / Detrimental 5.5 6.7 7.1

When I look at the 2015 sample of top teams versus the 2018 sample of top teams, the 2018 group is a little less ‘elite and strong’ heavy and they make up entirely with players in the detrimental range. I don’t feel comfortable extrapolating much in regards to the change, but it will bear monitoring in the future. Hopefully, I remember to do this again in 2021.

Top -15 Top – 18
Elite 1.4 1.3
Strong 1.7 1.6
Good 2.6 2.6
Weak 3.5 3.3
Detrimental 1.8 2.1

With the exception of the 2017 Colorado Rockies and 2011 St Louis Cardinals blowing the curve, run prevention remains king. They are the only two teams to finish outside of the top six in fewest runs allowed and still finish in the top 5. In 2015 and 2016, the five stingiest teams finished first through fifth. In 2015, only one team outside of the top ten in pitching and defense finished in the top five finished in the top 10 in overall record. Almost every year, an offensive outlier finishes in a playoff position. Of course, 2017 marked the lone exception and while I won’t make anything of one year, it will again make sense to keep an eye on it moving forward.

Top Middle Bottom
Avg Runs Scored Rank 5.3 8.3 10.5
Avg Fewest Runs Allowed Rank 3.7 8.3 12.3

I’ll go ahead and conclude roughly as I did in the last iteration of this piece as it’s no less accurate now than it was three years ago. Offense is exciting. 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. Of course, winners do need to hit, but they don’t need flawless lineups. Often times the difference isn’t quality of depth, but rather the presence of a few elite or strong performers. 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 in the National League.

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.

6 Comments on The Anatomy Of An NL Winner – 2018 Update

  1. Phillip C-137 // August 6, 2018 at 2:39 PM // Reply

    Really good article (and not just because it falls into line with my own thinking on the subject). Now a few things.
    1. How about doing this for just this year’s NLC?
    2. I understand rounding but somehow over the last 10 years the Bottom team’s 11 players only add up to 10.3 guys. (No wonder they’re so bad?)
    3. Do you have a formula for how much extra offense a player (Frazier) has to supply in order to offset substandard, poor and awful defense?

    One more thing. Many years ago I read a BJ piece on how the best Outfields had more impact on run prevention than the Infields. (Has to do with hiding bats but slow movers and iffy gloves in the OF.) Arizona in 2016 and Pittsburgh in 2017 tried getting by with only 1 or 2 OF’ers and an extra bat and had bad Outfields, both improved their OFs the following year and showed improvement. Do you agree that the Pirates improved OF alignments (having actual outfielders play the outfield) are the biggest plus when comparing 2017 to 2018 run prevention?

    • Steve DiMiceli // August 6, 2018 at 6:38 PM // Reply

      1. I could.
      2. Good catch. I didn’t adjust for the 16th team being removed from the sample in the three years I changed.
      3. fWAR accounts for fielding and hitting among position players. Here is an explanation from Fangraphs on how they calculate WAR

      The Pirates defense all around is a big issue for them. They have the 24th team UZR. The outfield is relatively unchanged and neither is their run prevention 4.5 in 2017 and 2018. Unfortunately, they’re not getting better in that department, but they have at least scored almost a half a run more per game.

  2. What I think is notable about this article is that mediocre-to-bad teams always have players who can start on good teams. If you look at the Pirate teams from their 20 year losing streak, there were guys like Kendall, Giles, and Bay who legitimately fine ballplayers– hell, even the ’86 team had Rick Reuschel, who was probably the best starting pitcher in the league last year. It also has the effect of creating the idea in fans’==and, I suppose ,some GM’s–heads that they are just one guy away from being contenders. Archer and Kela were both fine pickups which make the ball club better, but the Pirates are still trotting out a replacement level infield pretty much every night, and they aren’t going anywhere until that is addressed.

    • Steve DiMiceli // August 6, 2018 at 9:45 PM // Reply

      That’s an interesting angle which I hadn’t really considered. Good players do play for bad teams as well .

      As for the infield, Mercer’s below average but he’s consistently better than replacement. Bell and Harrison are struggling but they’re still on pace to be more in weak category than the detrimental. Not a strength, but it’s better than replacement level.

      • Welll…the 2018 infield WAR, as per B-R:

        Bell 0.0
        Harrison 0.1
        Mercer -0.3
        Moran 0.0

        So, at this point in time…

        • Steve DiMiceli // August 7, 2018 at 11:23 AM // Reply

          I exclusively stick with fan graphs for WAR EXCEPT when comparing players to current Hall of Famers and only because they have it spelled out for me. I actually like B-R’s pitching ratings better much of the time, but for consistencies sake I don’t jump. Not that I’m accusing you of doing this here, but I don’t want to be labeled as picking and choosing the numbers that suite my argument. In the end we agree that the Pirates can improve their in field.

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