Baseball’s Best Backups

Last season, major-league baseball teams, on average, used 23 different position players throughout the course of the year. On Opening Day, most every club will carry 13, and it’s easy to just think of that as this year’s team. Those 13 guys are the team that’s there on Opening Day, that’s the team that will be there at the All-Star break, and, God willing, that’s the team that will be there come playoff time.

Of course, that isn’t ever the case, and I don’t mean to question your intelligence by assuming you might actually believe the New York Yankees were only going to use 13 position players this year. It’s just, sometimes, when you start mapping out a season in your head for a certain team with World Series aspirations, it’s easy to forget in March that, “Oh yeah, Pete Kozma is probably going to have to play for the Yankees at some point this year.”

Backups are going to play, and, like any player, backups are going to have to try and make an impact for some contending ballclubs. Most won’t. But some will! Some of these guys are really going to matter. And it’s probably worth exploring who might stand the best chance.

So I did this: I exported all the data from our depth chart projections, which as a reminder are a 50/50 mix of Steamer and ZiPS projections with playing time manually inputted and constantly updated by a team of FanGraphs authors. With all that data in a spreadsheet, I went ahead and deleted the nine most likely regulars from the American League teams, and eight from the National League. Left with only reserves, I calculated everyone’s projected WAR per 600 plate appearances, so they’re all on the same scale, and then I made a few executives decisions* to refine the results, which you can read at the bottom of the post if you’re so inclined.

Anyway, here’s baseball’s 10 best backups, per the projections:

Baseball’s Best Backups
Scott Van Slyke LAD .249 .333 .422 .173 20 8 .329 5.5 -0.8 2.8
Javier Baez CHC .250 .301 .450 .200 26 19 .322 -2.8 1.1 2.5
Tommy Pham STL .259 .321 .408 .149 14 12 .317 0.7 2.1 2.4
Juan Lagares NYM .259 .297 .367 .108 8 13 .288 8.8 0.5 2.0
Jose Ramirez CLE .260 .314 .372 .112 8 25 .300 3.7 1.2 1.9
Dustin Ackley NYY .257 .314 .417 .160 17 7 .317 4.5 0.5 1.9
Jorge Soler CHC .260 .325 .448 .188 22 4 .331 -3.7 0.7 1.8
Brandon Moss STL .239 .320 .444 .205 26 1 .329 -2.6 0.0 1.7
Jedd Gyorko STL .252 .307 .415 .163 22 2 .314 -3.7 -0.7 1.7
Enrique Hernandez LAD .253 .300 .388 .135 13 6 .300 0.4 -0.4 1.7
*All counting stats prorated to 600 PA

What immediately sticks out is the same as any other table: the names at the top. Van Slyke, Baez and Pham have themselves separated from the rest of the pack as baseball’s three best backups, and according to the projections, all three would be above-average starters, given regular playing time. Of course, all three come with caveats. They’re backups for a reason.

Between 2013-14, Van Slyke was a weapon off the Dodgers’ bench. In that time, he ran a 148 wRC+ over 400 plate appearances, providing above-average defense in left field — perhaps surprising given his hulking frame — and even faking it in center. He murdered lefties, and could hold his own against righties. Last year, though, Van Slyke wasn’t even a league-average hitter. He battled injuries to his back, wrist, and neck, and the power dropped substantially, severely limiting his ability at the plate. Given a clean bill of health, the 29-year-old Van Slyke should return to his role as fourth outfielder, backup first baseman, lefty-killing extraordinaire.

Then there’s Javier Baez, the best prospect without a job. The caveat with Baez, of course, is his exceptionally high likelihood, relative to other players of his pedigree, to be a nothing. We haven’t seen nearly enough yet to know, but it’s entirely possible that Baez just never makes enough contact to hit at the major-league level. He hasn’t yet, at least. Looking past the contact issues, though, the rest of the package is overwhelming. The near 80-grade power. The speed. A glove good enough to stick at shortstop. The addition of center field to his utility belt. Given Baez’ current limitations, his role on the Cubs is actually kind of perfect. Not too many teams have 23-year-old utility men with 30-homer potential.

Lastly, we’ve got Tommy Pham, whose caveat is his age. Last year, Pham was a 27-year-old rookie, and 27-year-old rookies aren’t typically too enticing, for if they were, they’d have been a rookie sooner than 27. But here’s Pham anyway, who came up and posted a batting line 25% better than league average through a third of a season in his first time seeing major-league pitching. Thing about Pham is he can’t do anything exceptionally well. But, as evidenced by the numbers in the table, he should be at least an average hitter with at least average power, at least an average defender at all three outfield positions, and at least an average base-runner. There’s no flaws in Pham’s game, just nothing to get excited about. As far as fourth outfielders go, Pham’s a nice one to have.

And as far as benches go, St. Louis’ is a nice one to have. Not only do they have Pham, but they’ve also got Moss and Gyorko present in the top 10, too, giving them perhaps the most enticing bench in baseball, unless you prefer the upside of Baez and Soler in Chicago.

This got me thinking about one more thing I could do with this data, and I know Jeff Sullivan just did something like this literally yesterday, but as Jeff mentions in the very top of that post, there isn’t one ideal way to measure team depth, and another method certainly can’t hurt. I folded back in a couple of the player types I eliminated for the individual leaderboard above*, and out came this:


Just like in Jeff’s post, the Dodgers come out on top. We already talked about Van Slyke, and you can see Hernandez in the top 10 as well, but they’ve also Carl Crawford, Chase Utley and A.J. Ellis. No one on the Dodgers bench should hurt them, if forced into regular playing time. The Cardinals and Cubs — unsurprisingly, given what we’ve already discussed — find themselves in the top five. The sleeper team here is the Red Sox, who came out third despite not having a player in the top 10. That comes largely from their catching depth — Ryan Hanigan and Christian Vazquez both project as average starters — but also Chris Young, Brock Holt and Travis Shaw are above-average, for backups.

The thing that really sticks out about this graph, and the makeup of the top 10 individuals, is the amount of money near the top. The top five teams are five of the highest payrolls in baseball. The Dodgers, in the Andrew Friedman era, have made a point to emphasize depth. At that, he’s doing well. When you’ve got money, you can pay quality. And you can pay for quantity, too.

*Executive decisions

  1. I eliminated guys with fewer than 100 plate appearances. The small samples prorated to 600 plate appearances can cause for some funky numbers, and I really wanted to isolate the backups who project to get some real playing time this year.
  2. I also eliminated catchers. The positional adjustment for catchers made them heavily populate the top of the list, and this post isn’t about baseball’s 10-best backup catchers. If you really wanna know, the top five, in order and without framing considered, are: Josh Phegley, A.J. Ellis, Dioner Navarro, Roberto Perez and Caleb Joseph.
  3. I eliminated prospects with zero major-league service time. Guys like Orlando Arcia, J.P. Crawford and A.J. Reed would have cracked the top 10, but also didn’t really fit the nature of the study. These guys aren’t “backups,” they just have low playing time because they won’t be called up until later in the season; as soon as they hit the majors, they’ll start. For a similar reason, I also eliminated Devon Travis, who will begin the season on the disabled list.
  4. Since it was no longer about individual players and instead about everything that teams have behind their projected Opening Day starters, catchers and prospects were folded back into the team-depth study.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at

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8 years ago

Makes me wonder why Urshela is a starting 3B, when he’s projected to produce only 1.1 WAR/600 PA. Start Jose Ramirez and you’re almost 1 full win better.

8 years ago
Reply to  aaronsteindler

never mind. I didn’t realize they signed Uribe.

Zach Walters Appreciation Guild
8 years ago

And all of this is a completely plausible line of reasoning, particularly the latter, regarding Urshela. And then when a better option presents itslf, they break out the ‘seasoning’ line of thought. Baseball PR is a splendid shapeshifter.

And while the Guild does protest the 63 PA count for the Patron, I’m a bit surprised by the Steamer600 defensive projection of -15.2 for Brother Zachary. And while it appears that I’m objecting this with the same reflexive apologia that I attack all low Walters projections, this cuts the other way, as well. Tyler White, a player the Guild meditates on frequently, receives a +2.0 DEF from Steamer600 – quite the mystery, as I’ve yet to see even the recent optimistic reports of White call him anything other than a bat-only prospect. And the only way I can make sense of this dissonance is if – given that Tyler White is listed as 3B/1B, and Walters as a DH – Steamer600 assumes minor-leaguers as *completely* neutral defenders at the position they’re slotted for.

So, I wonder: does Stemer project minor-leaguers’ defense strictly based on positional adjustment?

formerly matt w
8 years ago

I think so.