2021 Positional Power Rankings: Introduction

Welcome to the 2021 positional power rankings! As is tradition, over the next week and a half, we’ll be ranking every team by position as we inch closer to Opening Day. This is always something of a funny exercise. You read FanGraphs regularly, after all — a fact for which we are supremely grateful — and are well-versed in the goings on of the offseason. You know that Nolan Arenado now plays for the Cardinals (though the Rockies are still paying him for some reason) and that George Springer is a Blue Jay and that J.T. Realmuto found his way back to Philly. You might not remember that Mitch Moreland signed with Oakland, or that Collin McHugh is a Ray, but then, I sometimes forget those facts, which is surely more embarrassing for me than it is for you. All of which is to say, after an offseason spent reading transaction analysis and peeking at projections, you generally know what’s going on. And yet after a difficult, draining year (one you likely spent busy with many things in addition to baseball), you’re still keen to know more about the game and what it might look like between now and October. The positional power rankings are our answer to that impulse.

This post serves as an explainer for our approach to the rankings. If you’re new to the exercise, 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 of that post to get a sense of where things stood before Opening Day 2020, oddity and all.

Unlike a lot of sites’ season previews, we don’t arrange ours by team or division. That is a perfectly good way to organize a season preview, but we see a few advantages to the way we do it. First, ranking teams by position allows us to cover a team’s roster from top to bottom. Stars, everyday staples, and role players alike receive some amount of examination, and those players (and the teams they play for) are placed in their proper league-wide 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 baseball, and spot places where a well-deployed platoon may end up having a bigger impact than an everyday regular who is merely good. 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.

We will have a post for each position, with starting pitchers and relievers divided into two posts each to allow us all the many words we need to do the league’s rotations and bullpens justice without taxing your patience. Each post will start with a brief summary of the position, then rank each team’s group of players from the best 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 (courtesy of Jason Martinez), 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 season, sometimes significantly. Some players will exceed our expectations; others will 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; baseball always has the potential for goofiness, and that possibility only increases in a year like this one, following as it does 2020’s odd, 60-game season, and taking place in a still-ongoing pandemic. For instance, we don’t know how the start-and-stop nature of last season’s ramp-up, coupled with an abbreviated schedule, will affect players’ likelihood of injury or limit pitchers’ workloads this season, just as we’re not sure what, if any, lingering effects players might experience from having contracted COVID-19.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t discuss the potential difficulty of projecting player performance after a year like 2020. Like most projection systems, ZiPS and Steamer both weight more recent performances more heavily than seasons further back in a player’s career. Unlike in most seasons, however, when arriving at their respective 2021 projections, 2019 is still weighted more heavily than 2020. We think that’s the right way to do things: 60 games doesn’t afford much opportunity for a player who had a rough time to course-correct, nor does it account for what might have been an inevitable cool-down for a guy who went on an unusually hot tear. It’s also why Christian Yelich’s projection is still very good, though notably less stellar than when he was coming off back-to-back MVP-level seasons, and why José Abreu, despite a wonder of a 2020, isn’t projected for five wins.

As is true most years, players will have made changes in 2020, for good and ill, that prove to be permanent and alter the way we view and project them going forward. It’s just harder to predict who those guys will be given last season’s weirdness. And while I want our projections to be right, I’m personally okay with a little strangeness, even as I wish other circumstances had precipitated it; baseball would be awfully boring if we had a perfectly calibrated crystal ball.

Beyond that, a few additional 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 them, 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 or Daulton Varsho’s or any number of Padres’ total WAR projection, you’d need to add up their projections across all of the positions where we expect them to see playing time. It is also important to remember that each player only gets one defensive projection, which remains the same across the different positions, though that number does take all projected positions into account.

Another thing folks tend to get irked by is the ordinal rankings themselves. That’s understandable. You want your team to do well. That’s why you’re a fan! Those other teams? Rascals! But it is important to look at the magnitude of the differences between the rankings, as well as the rankings themselves. At the top of every post is a graph of each team’s projected WAR at the position to help better illustrate this. 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 Effect”), 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 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.

Lastly, a note on the rankings’ presentation. Some backend changes have necessitated that we nix the “View by team” option you might have noticed in prior years. Hopefully that’s not too big of an inconvenience. If you’re interested in seeing how your favorite team fared across all 11 positions, don’t fret: I’ll include a table with each team’s rankings and cumulative projected WAR in my summary post, and of course every team’s projections are available in our Depth Charts.

Our first ranking will go up in short order. We’ll cover all of the position players this week, with the pitchers — both starters and relievers — and a summary post slated to go up next week before Opening Day. We hope the rankings are illuminating and useful, both in understanding the season we might have and for recalling the signings, trades, and Tommy Johns that might have faded from memory as we’ve tried to navigate the last several months. Again, thank you for reading. And now, on to first base.





Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside.

newest oldest most voted
tz
Member

“And now, on to first base.”

If only those words had applied more often in Billy Hamilton’s career.

Sleepy
Member
Sleepy

“And now, on to first base.”

If only those words had applied more often in my high school dating career.

John Elway
Member

LMHAO!!!!!!!!!

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

In 2015, Billy Hamilton (in about ~450 PAs) had 106 singles + walks and stole 57 bases in 65 attempts, one of the most daring approaches to thievery of that decade.

Sadly, he never went that far again. Our wait for the next Vince Coleman will have to continue.

tz
Member

In 2012, split between high-A and AA ball, Hamilton had 207 singles + walks (OBP above .400!) and was 155 for 192 in stolen base attempts.

darkness88
Member
darkness88

In 2020, Billy Hamilton had four hits and 2 walks, for 6 times on base. He attempted 8 steals, and was caught twice. He pinch ran 6 times, and hit a homer.

So he tried 8/11

darkness88
Member
darkness88

Whoops, 12 PR appearances, and 8/17 is worse

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

Yeah, technically it’s a ratio and not a proportion because sometimes a runner is on second, but it’s a useful shorthand. The pinch-running also throws another wrench into the mix, although Coleman regularly got 650-700 PAs and so he had way more chances than being just a pinch-runner type.

Although I suppose if you never started Hamilton and only pinch-ran him when a guy got on first base (and then kept him in the game afterwards) he’d have a higher number of opportunities given the low OBP. I think someone wrote an article about this here, and they pitched the idea to Hamilton and he hated it.

Smiling Politely
Member
Member
Smiling Politely

“We want you on the MLB roster”
“Thats good!”
“But we never, ever, ever want you to hold or swing a bat”
“That’s…wait…what?”

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

This was always the great hope, that because Hamilton did it in the mid-minors. But as Eric has pointed out, until you get to the upper minors you can run insane BABIPs because the defenses just aren’t as good and so speed demons look particularly good.

It’s too bad, no one has even come close to Hamilton’s thievery in the minors lately. You basically a need a guy who will steal bases in 16% of their PAs to get to 100 steals and that is a huge ask. And if they’re not doing it in the minors they have no chance in the majors. The only guy who has a rate like this that I can find lately in AA/AAA is Nick Heath of KCR, and he only had something like 13-14%.

Greg Simons
Member
Member

I long for the days of Vince Coleman. I honestly don’t care if his basepath daring helped or hurt his team. It was really just So. Much. Fun.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

There was about a 15 year period where a lot of guys ran every chance they got. Rickey was maybe the greatest leadoff hitter of all time and Tim Raines was also amazing, but there was this whole class of guys like Vince Coleman who had a few years at the beginning of their career where they didn’t get on base enough to be a modern leadoff hitter but who ran every chance they got. Coleman, Omar Moreno, Marquis Grissom…probably a couple others I’m forgetting. Otis Nixon was like this at the beginning of his career, too.

But I do agree that Vince Coleman is the exemplar, the archetype, the platonic ideal of this type of guy. The guy with no power who always seems to wind up on second base anyway.

tz
Member

Lol Omar Moreno. Coleman at least got on base enough (in his better years) to be a defensible leadoff hitter. Moreno was fast as hell but truly couldn’t steal first base, maybe the best comp for Hamilton from the Astroturf era.