Welcome to the 2019 positional power rankings! As is tradition, over the next week and a half, we’ll be ranking every team by position. This is always something of a funny exercise. You read FanGraphs every day (thank you!) and are well-versed in the goings on of the offseason, glacial though they may have been at times. You probably know that Bryce Harper is on the Phillies, and that Manny Machado is a Padre, and that Brian McCann found his way back to Atlanta. You probably recall that Craig Kimbrel, who was tied with Kenley Jansen for the best individual reliever projection in last year’s iteration of this series, is still unsigned. You almost certainly do not remember every 30-something free agent who ended up on the Texas Rangers, but that’s ok. I’m the managing editor of FanGraphs, and I’ve been surprised by a few of those guys while watching spring training action. All of that is to say, you know what’s going on. And yet the anticipation of the season, the sound of wooden bats, and those clear, sunny days, makes you want to read even more about baseball and what it might look like over the next seven months or so. This is our answer to that impulse.
This post serves as an explainer for our approach to these rankings. If you’re new to our rankings, I hope it helps to clarify how they are compiled and what you might expect from them. If you’re a FanGraphs stalwart, I hope it is a useful reminder of what we’re up to. If you have a bit of time, here is the introduction to last year’s series. You can use the handy nav widget at the top to get a sense of where things stood before Opening Day 2018.
Unlike a lot of season previews, we don’t arrange ours by team or division. That is a perfectly good way to organize an exercise like this, but we see a few advantages to the way we do it. First, the positional rankings allow us to cover a team’s roster top to bottom, with stars and role players alike receiving some amount of scrutiny, while also placing those players (and the teams they play for) in their proper baseball context. By doing it this way, you can easily see how teams stack up against each other, get a sense of the overall strength of a position across the league, and spot places where a well-deployed platoon may end up having a bigger impact than an everyday regular who is just ok. We think all of that context helps to create a richer understanding of the state of things and a clearer picture of the season ahead.
And while we hope you find this way of viewing things useful, don’t worry. If you’re a fan of, say, the Phillies, and want to view the rankings through the lens of that team, all you have to do is select the Phillies from the “View by Team” dropdown that appears above the rankings in any given post and voilà! Phillies all the way down.
We will have a post for each position, with starting pitchers and relievers divided into two posts a piece to allow us to write all the many words we need to without taxing your patience or time spent reading this while you should be doing your day job (For shame!). Each post will start with a brief summary of the position, and then proceed to rank each team’s group of players from the best all the way down to the worst based on projected WAR. Those WAR numbers are arrived at using a 50/50 blend of ZiPS and Steamer projections, and our manually maintained team depth charts, which include playing time estimates for every player.
What a player is projected to do, and what he actually does, can diverge over the course of a long season. Some players exceed our expectations; others lose innings or plate appearances to injury or under-performance. What you will see here are our projections coupled with our very informed best guesses about playing time. If you notice anything that strikes you as wonky in how we’ve allocated that playing time, please let us know. And obviously, we won’t be entirely right. I think that’s good; baseball would be awfully boring if we knew exactly how it was going to play out right from the jump.
A few words of caution. First, it is important to remember that if a player is projected to play multiple positions, their WAR total in any given position’s post may strike you as low. That may be because the projections are down on him, but just as likely, it’s because the number you’re looking at only reflects the WAR projected at that specific position. To arrive at, say, Cody Bellinger’s total WAR projection, you’d need to add up his projections across all of the positions where we expect him to see playing time. It is also important to remember that each player only gets one defensive projection, which remains the same across difference positions, though that number does take all projected positions into account.
Another thing folks tend to get fussed over is the ordinal rankings themselves. That’s understandable. You want your team to do well. That’s why you’re a fan! To be a fan is to be a little bit fussy. But it is important to look at the magnitude of the differences between rankings, as well as the rankings themselves. We’ve included a handy graph at the top of every position post to help illustrate this better, but sometimes the gaps between teams are small; a minor shift in production or playing time could mean moving up or down a couple of spots. At some positions, there may be quite a bit of difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams (otherwise known as “The Trout”), but then much less between, say, No. 4 and No. 10, with some of the teams that come after bunched up around a similar projection. It’s not that where a team ranks is unimportant, it’s just that the distribution is important, too, and thinking about whether a team falls above or below average, and by how much, might be more useful than the ranking next to a team’s name.
Our first rankings post, on first basemen, will go up in short order. We’ll cover all of the position players this week. The pitchers, starter and non, as well a summary post, will go up next week before Opening Day. I hope this helps you pass the last week and a half before real baseball with some amount of ease. After a winter of discontent, it seems the least we can do.
Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs, the host of FanGraphs Audio, and the co-co-host of Effectively Wild. Her work has previously appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside.