A Quick Attempted Measure of Team Depth

There’s nothing more enviable than a collection of stars. Generally speaking, people tend to focus on the top of a given roster, because that’s where you find the most impressive players, the players most likely to make a significant difference. The fantasy world operates like a video game with injuries turned off: you go in with your starting lineup and starting rotation, and you never need to replace anyone, and everyone’s competent. Every so often, teams do have sufficient health to be able to rely on the expected regulars. But more often than not, depth becomes a major factor. Sometimes this is even intentional — teams will accumulate depth in lieu of adding higher-quality starters. We’ve seen the A’s, for example, focus on depth, at practically every position. It’s not the most important thing; it’s just an important thing, frequently.

And it can be a tricky thing to measure, ahead of time. You can go about it by feel, on a case-by-case basis, but I thought I’d try something quick and easy. Which teams project to have the most and least depth for the season ahead, based on where things stand today? Presented below is not the final word, but it should be at least a starting point. Some numbers will change when, say, Max Scherzer and James Shields make up their minds, but they aren’t going to flip this graph on its head.

There’s no perfect way to do this, to my knowledge. This is just one way of doing this. For each team, I grabbed all the position players and all the starting pitchers who show up on the current depth charts. I decided to ignore bullpens, because they’re a lot more variable, and bullpen depth can also look a lot like rotation depth to some extent. So, one caveat here is that relievers are excluded, but individual relievers typically aren’t too important, and you can just mentally factor in that, say, the Royals have a more awesome bullpen than anyone else. It’s strong and deep. Anyway.

I then downloaded the Steamer600 projections for position players and pitchers. These are the regular Steamer projections, prorated out to full seasons so that every player is put over the same denominators. Then I simply counted how many position players or starters on each team are projected for a full-season WAR of at least 1.0. A threshold had to be set somewhere, and the threshold was going to be arbitrary no matter what, so 1.0 just felt right to me. These are players you can use without killing your team. At the minimum, they’re not quite good enough to start, but they’re better than replacement-level.

A graph of the results is embedded below. There are a few important things to acknowledge first. As noted, the cutoff is arbitrary — there are players who, for example, are projected for 0.9 WAR, and here they get no credit. This is inevitable, and it shouldn’t cause a bias, but it’s something. Also, this is a measure of the amount of depth, and not necessarily the *quality* of depth. The two are mostly related, but here a 2-win player is treated the same as a 1-win player. And then, obviously, this is just based on Steamer, and if you don’t believe Steamer for whatever reason, then you can argue with the numbers. This might be worth doing again when we have full ZiPS inputs, but the limitations of the projection systems means nothing is definitive. This is an attempt to describe a landscape. It’s as imperfect as you perceive it to be.

But you don’t want words anymore. You want a picture. Holy crap, Red Sox.

teamdepth1war2015

I forgot to note one thing earlier: I had to make a couple more judgment calls. Even though Steamer doesn’t have projections for Rusney Castillo or Yasmany Tomas, I determined, I think safely, they should both be at least 1-win players. So it’s all Steamer plus my opinion on Castillo and Tomas, and if you disagree with one or both, you can factor that in.

But that’s what I wound up with. The average team has about 15 players projected for 1+ WAR in a full season. Dividing that out, you’re looking at 10 – 11 such position players, and just under five such starting pitchers. The team with the most depth, by this method, is the Red Sox, with 24 total players. There’s a gap of four between the Red Sox and second place. Bringing up the rear: the Phillies, at seven, and then the Braves are at eight. The way the Red Sox break down, they have 17 qualifying position players, and seven qualifying starting pitchers. As far as the position players are concerned, that’s 17 out of 17, based on the depth chart.

So if you’ve been wondering why Steamer seems to like the Red Sox so much, depth is a huge reason. It’s not just the talent at the top of the roster. It’s that, when a starter isn’t playing, someone else pretty good should be playing. Most obviously, you can see this in the outfield, where Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino, and Mookie Betts will combine at three positions, but based on Steamer you can almost construct a pair of complete lineups of 1+ WAR players. There’s just one player missing from the second team, and then consider that five teams have no more than eight position players overall projected for 1+ WAR. Some players on the Red Sox, surely, will under-achieve, but right now they seem well-equipped to deal with performance or injury adversity.

It’s not surprising to see the Pirates come out well, and this doesn’t even include Jung-Ho Kang. Sure enough, we find the A’s above average, with 14 qualifying position players and five qualifying starters. I was surprised to see the Twins show up so near to the front. What they lack in high-end talent, they attempt to make up for with higher-floor talent. For the record, included are Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. The Twins could field a team mostly full of okay players. I’m pleased to have something nice to say about them. They seem like a team that could be able to successfully avoid the awful at the bottom of the roster.

Generally, I think the graph follows the order you’d expect in your head. Even if you quibble with individual numbers or projections, the trend appears mostly correct. Notable toward the back end: the Tigers and the White Sox. Neither is a shock, and in the latter case, this is a huge reason why Rick Hahn went out and brought in Emilio Bonifacio. He can complement a lot of players on that roster, and the White Sox need some insurance if they want to compete through adversity. Somewhat helping is that the Tigers also seem thin. That’s been a problem for some time, and these teams score less favorably than the Indians and Royals. The Royals also, as noted earlier, have that bullpen working in their favor, which doesn’t show up in the graph.

Real quick, I will take the chance to point out the Nationals. They’re a somewhat unusual team, in that they have a ton of talent, condensed into a few handfuls of positions. They’re overloaded with quality talent, and relatively weak in terms of secondary, supportive talent. One injury won’t be enough to sink the Nationals, but two or three at the same time would be pretty taxing, depending on duration. If the Mets or the Marlins want to have a chance at winning the division, they’ll almost certainly need for the Nationals to rack up a few DL stints, and Jayson Werth has gotten things off to an early start.

The Phillies and Braves are kind of depressing. The Reds, we’ve known about; they weren’t deep last year, either, and it cost them when so many players got hurt and/or under-performed. The Astros, interestingly, have 11 qualifying position players, and just two qualifying starters. Last year Brett Oberholtzer was solid, but he also had a 94 FIP- and a 112 xFIP-. You didn’t click on this post to read about Brett Oberholtzer or the 2015 Houston Astros.

So anyway, think of this as a starting point. As we get more information, we can update the numbers. If you have ideas, we can improve the methodology. And once the season gets going, depth will be differently important for different teams, and some lucky teams might have enough health that they never need to call on reinforcements. But you don’t want to get caught unprepared, since bad things almost always happen. As we stand, some teams will be crossing their fingers a little tighter than others. And the Red Sox? The Red Sox, if nothing else, look poised to make sure last year doesn’t happen again.

We hoped you liked reading A Quick Attempted Measure of Team Depth by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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jazzy jef
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jazzy jef

Can you do a quick n dirty regression analysis for this vs. wins (projected or past)?