2016 Positional Power Rankings: Introduction

We’re now officially two weeks from Opening Day, which means you’re about to be inundated with season previews. Some places will go team by team, others will group by divisions, but basically every outlet that covers baseball will roll out overviews of the 2016 season. In an attempt to provide something a little bit different here at FanGraphs, we do our season previews on a positional basis, and we call them the Positional Power Rankings. This is now our fifth crack at these things — you can see the archived versions of 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 by clicking on those links — and we hope that they’re getting better each time we do them.

From my perspective, one of the primary benefits of previewing the season from a positional perspective is that we can spend a bit more time discussing a team’s overall depth. Most team-based previews aren’t going to spend a lot of time on the bench pieces or the minor leaguers who will get first crack at playing time should an injury occur, especially on a contender; no one clicks on a story about the Nationals 2016 season to read about Jose Lobaton, for instance. But depth matters, and often times, the difference between making the postseason or watching October baseball from home is the performance of a team’s role players, and with many teams moving towards a balanced roster approach over betting on a few big-name stars, we think breaking down every team’s projections at each position on the field gives you guys a better understanding of where the various strengths and weaknesses lie.

How does a platoon stack up against having one regular everyday guy? What is the magnitude of the improvement a team will get from swapping out a veteran placeholder with a top prospect in May or June? These are the kinds of things we think the Positional Power Rankings are helpful at identifying, and because our previews are based on strength at a certain spot, non-contenders get a chance to shine if they have a particularly strength as well. So we know it’s different than most places, but hopefully it’s different in a good way, providing you with information you won’t get elsewhere, or at least provides information in a format that makes you see a team’s pros and cons in a different light.

Now, for some groundwork, especially for those of you who may not have read these pieces in the past. Keep in mind that this is a 2016 preview, so we’re only concerning ourselves with the expected performance of players in this upcoming season. You might be really high on your team’s toolsy young center fielder, but if he hasn’t shown he can hit big league pitching yet, our forecasts might not grade your team’s expected production all that highly. The future may indeed by bright for some of the teams who grade out towards the bottom of these positional rankings, but this isn’t a series about long-term value; we’re just looking at short-term production.

Speaking of forecasts, I should note that the numbers you’ll see for each player are from our Depth Charts, which are a combination of the ZIPS and Steamer projections combined with manually curated playing time estimates, based on the information available to our team of writers. Certainly, playing time estimates are more art than science at this point, and with two weeks left of spring training, there are positional battles that have yet to be decided. We do our best to allocate playing time proportionally when there isn’t a clear starter and backup, but we’re going to be wrong about how some of these things shake out. Try to keep in mind that these are a snapshot in time, and we’re doing our best to forecast a season’s worth of at-bats in mid-March, so there’s always room to see things a bit differently.

And in many cases, it’s not really worth getting worked up over a team’s ordinal ranking, because in many cases, the difference between a mid-tier and bottom-tier ranking is going to be fractions of a win. For instance, as I write this post, the difference between the #11 and #23 team in projected shortstop value is half a win. Try to keep in mind that this series is more about providing information than it is about arguing over which team should be a few places higher or lower on a list.

And because we go positionally, there are going to be some players whose value isn’t entirely represented on any one list. We used Ben Zobrist as the example of this type of player forever, but now that he’s probably going to play a lot of second base in Chicago, maybe Enrique Hernandez is a better example of a guy who won’t show up as a prominent piece on any of these lists, but could provide enough value at multiple positions to be a valuable contributor. We’re not ranking players here, so there are going to be instances where the best player at any single position won’t be in the top spot, because a team with an almost-as-good option might have a better bench player who will generate some value there as well. This is about a team’s overall production at a given position, not just who has the best starter.

Of course, ZIPS and Steamer aren’t perfect projection systems — though they’re among the top-tier of publicly available forecasts, at least — and there will almost certainly be some projections that you don’t agree with. That’s perfectly reasonable, and feel free to let us know which of the projections you think are missing the mark, but try to remember that we’re not manipulating the numbers to produce a desired result, nor do the algortihms get coded with any kind of team favoritism. If a team rates highly on these lists, it’s because the numbers think the players are going to perform well, and not because the guy who put the list together likes that team more than another. In fact, the authors of the lists themselves have no control over the rankings; they’re just providing commentary on the results of the forecasts.

So my overall point is something like this: we do these Positional Power Rankings because we think they’re a bit unique, perhaps even helpful, and may allow you to see some aspect of a team that you might have otherwise overlooked. They’re not perfect, and we’re not attempting to make any grand statements about the 2016 season based on the data as of March 21st; we just want to give you guys a look at where teams are strongest and weakest heading into the season. Or heading into the final two weeks of spring training, anyway.

In terms of a schedule, we’ll do the position players this week, with Jeff Sullivan providing his overview of the catching landscape in MLB later this afternoon; Tuesday through Friday, we’ll publish two lists a day to cover the remainder of the hitter/fielder spots. Next week, we’ll do four lists, breaking the starting pitching and bullpen rankings in half, and then we’ll have a wrap-up overview at the end of the series. So with that, let’s rank some positions.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

Love this series, looking forward to it!