With two weeks left until Opening Day, it’s time for the annual FanGraphs season preview series, which we do a little differently around here. While plenty of other talented writers and publications put out previews by team or by division, we prefer to go position by position, which lets us cover pretty much every roster spot on every team in baseball. While traditional team previews focus mostly on the top end of a roster, the difference in making the postseason is often how well the end of the roster performs, and how much value teams get from their non-stars. By breaking down every position from 1 to 30, we can emphasize where every team looks strong — or a little less so — heading into the season.
The rankings themselves are based on the forecasted depth charts we host here on FanGraphs, which combine projections for rate stats from ZIPS and Steamer with manually curated playing-time forecasts. While forecasting systems have been shown to do better than most humans at forecasting production, humans win out when it comes to allocating playing time, so our depth charts try and leverage the best of both worlds. Of course, no projection system is perfect, and humans are prone to errors, so we don’t think these forecasts should be taken as gospel, but they do give you a good overview of what our site thinks about each team’s expected production at this point in the season.
Certainly, things will change between now and October. Players get hurt, prospects come up and make an unexpected splash, guys change their swings and become entirely different hitters overnight; the final season rankings by position won’t look exactly like these forecasts. That’s one of the things that is great about baseball.
But in general, there’s an upper limit to how many things can break right for a team in a given season. If your favorite team consistently ranks at or near the bottom of all these positional breakdowns, it’s probably fair to assume that they’re not going to win a lot of games this year.
One of the other benefits of doing our previews by position is that we can compare job-shares against full-time players, noting where a platoon might be more effective than a traditional everyday player even though both players in the platoon have obvious flaws. For corner outfield, first base, and designated hitter — where platoons are most common — the ability to look at the expected production from everyone who is allocated playing time at that spot helps give a better view of a team’s strength than simply looking at a team’s starters and bench separately.
That said, doing the posts by position also means that you might see some things that appear a little weird on the surface. For instance, the Cubs willingness to shift players around means that we’re projecting guys like Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, and Javier Baez to split their time between multiple positions, and thus, their overall value won’t show up entirely in any one of these posts. If you see a guy who plays several positions, and you think his forecast at one of those spots seems low, check the post for the other positions he plays; it’s probably being accounted for over there.
Additionally, because we only keep one overall value for projected fielding performance, players who play multiple positions will be displayed with the same FLD forecast at every position, even though a guy who splits time between shortstop and second base will probably run better defensive numbers at second base. The FLD projection includes the split in playing time, so the player’s overall forecasted value is correct, but just a heads up that you might see some odd FLD numbers for guys who bounce around.
Finally, let’s get the annual disclaimer out of the way: we don’t game these numbers at all to get any kind of desired result. The authors who are writing the content for each team’s summary don’t get to move teams around based on their own personal preference, and we’re not rigging the forecasts in the background to make sure that certain teams look better than the others. The results are simply the output of the ZIPS/Steamer forecasts and our playing time projections. If your team’s shortstops are ranked 14th and you think they should be ranked 8th, it’s not because we hate your team. This is just what the forecasts think in mid-March.
And really, for many of these positions, ordinal ranking is the wrong number to look at anyway. Often times, the differences between a dozen teams in the middle is a fraction of a forecasted WAR, and everyone within that tier should be considered on mostly even ground, even if one ranks 8th and the other 19th. We’ll include a graphical display of the overall team values at the top of each post, and it’s probably more helpful to look at which tier a team ranks in rather than the specific spot on the list. There are going to be lists where No. 2 and No. 3 aren’t anywhere near each other, while Nos. 3 and 12 are mostly interchangeable.
So, don’t freak out overall a particular ranking, especially if you could just change the number after decimal and a team would go up or down 10 spots. And really, it’s probably better to not freak out in general; your team is going to do whatever they’re going to do, regardless of our preseason projections, and all we’re attempting to provide is a realistic preseason baseline. But there’s enough variance in baseball that most teams, even the ones that don’t look great in March, could be playing meaningful baseball in September.
If you want to review last year’s forecasts while you’re waiting for the series to start — the catcher post will kick off the series in a few hours — then you can peruse each post from the helpful widget that Sean Dolinar created to link the posts together. That widget will make it easier for you to bounce from post to post as they go up. And if you’re just looking for something fun to look at, go check out the graph on last year’s center-fielder post, and then prepare yourself for an even more ridiculous center-field graph this year.
We’ll run through the position players this week and tackle pitchers next week, and wrap up the series with an overview of where everyone stands a few days before the 2017 season officially kicks off. We hope you enjoy these posts, since they are a mountain of work for our writers, and they help you get a better feel for where every team stands heading into the year.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.