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.
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.
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.
|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|
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.
|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.