We are lucky to live in the time of Mike Trout, whose 186 wRC+ is tops in baseball, but — seemingly like the rest of the world around us — the game’s current crop of center fielders appears to be going to hell in a handbasket. The position’s average wRC+ of 93 is the lowest for the 2002-2019 period covered by our splits, and translates to “literally half as productive as Trout, relative to the league.” Woof.
Given that, it shouldn’t come as too great a surprise that several contenders — which for this series I’ve defined as teams who are above .500 or have playoff odds of at least 10.0%, a definition that currently covers 18 teams (make up your damn minds already, Rangers) — are getting meager production from the middle pasture (less than 1.0 WAR at the spot), making them eligible for a spot among the Replacement Level Killers. As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, there’s an urgency to patch that problem, particularly given that the August waiver period during which they can tweak the roster is no more. Even so, I’m less concerned about these teams’ eventual solutions, whether via trades or internal options, than in pointing out the problems. I’m a real hit at parties.
At the other end of the defensive spectrum, and at the very last stop in this series, we’re in an age where relatively few teams have devoted the designated hitter spot to a single batter. Just three teams have given their DHs enough plate appearances at the position to qualify for the batting title (3.1 PA per team game), and just three contenders have given a single player even 200 PA at DH. With the position’s production from AL teams at a modest 103 wRC+, eight points below last year and the third-lowest mark of the 2002-19 period, it shouldn’t be too surprising that several contenders are enduring Killer-type situations. Given that defensive competence doesn’t matter a bit, this shouldn’t be too hard to fix, and yet here we are.
Note that I’m waving off the Nationals here. Rookie Victor Robles has been a mild disappointment with the bat (90 wRC+), but even so, he’s been worth 1.1 WAR overall even considering his modest -0.8 UZR, and even better than that if we swap in his 10 DRS. It’s Michael Taylor’s -0.5 WAR in 69 PA at the spot that’s pushed them below the threshold, and given that he’s safely stashed in the minors, this is one area the Nationals don’t have to worry too much about. Read the rest of this entry »
Traditionally, the outfield corners are home to heavy hitters. This year’s crop of right fielders has combined for a 110 wRC+, one point ahead of first basemen for the current major-league high as well as the highest mark at the position since 2011. The left fielders’ collective mark of 106 is the majors’ third-highest, one point ahead of that of third basemen, and the position’s second-best mark since 2011.
Even so, several contenders — which for this series I’ve defined as teams who are above .500 or have playoff odds of at least 10.0%, a definition that as of today currently covers 17 teams — are getting meager offensive production at one corner or another, by which I mean receiving less than 1.0 WAR at the spot, which makes them eligible for a place among the Replacement Level Killers. As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, they may want to do something about that, particularly since there’s no August waiver period during which they can tweak the roster. Having said that, I’m somewhat less focused on these teams’ eventual solutions, whether via trades or internal options, than I am in pointing out the problems.
Also, note that I’ve ruled out including the Angels among the left fielders, since the mid-June return of Justin Upton, who had been sidelined for nearly three months by turf toe, has already provided the team a substantial upgrade; even while slumping lately, he’s accounted for 0.3 of the team’s 0.6 WAR in 25 games, a 2.0 WAR pace over 162.
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As I noted yesterday, within the context of the 2002-19 period covered by our splits, second basemen have reached their offensive nadir, with a combined 90 wRC+ this year. At the same time, shortstops are building upon last year’s periodic zenith (97 wRC+) with an even 100 mark — in other words, one of the most demanding defensive positions is collectively producing league-average hitters. At least in part, that’s due to the kids. Last year, nobody older than 31 made even 150 plate appearances as a shortstop, and just three players over 30 played at least 100 games at the position, the lowest total since MLB expanded to 30 teams in 1998. This year, the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus, the Giants’ Brandon Crawford, and the Marlins’ Miguel Rojas are the only players on pace to do so.
Increasingly, shortstop is a young man’s position, and the crop of talent is remarkable: Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Paul DeJong, Francisco Lindor, Jorge Polanco Corey Seager, and Fernando Tatis Jr. are all in their age-25 seasons or younger, and of the 14 shortstops who have totaled at least 1.7 WAR thus far (including Gleyber Torres, who thanks to Didi Gregorius‘ injury has played more than twice as many games at shortstop than second thus far), 10 of them are 26 or younger.
Meanwhile, just seven teams, including three contenders, have gotten less than 1.0 WAR from their shortstops to date. For this series, my definition of contenders is teams who are above .500 or have playoff odds of at least 10.0%, a definition that currently covers 18 teams, with the surging Giants (52-50) joining the party since I kicked off this series. For as small as that group of shortstops is, I’m making it even smaller by omitting the Nationals, whose alternatives to Trea Turner have offset his 1.4 WAR with a combined -0.8, compiled mostly while he was sidelined with a broken right index finger. I’m skipping them and, as with last year, doubling up this entry with the third basemen, who are near their own offensive high for the period, with a 105 wC+ mark (they were at 107 in 2016, and 106 last year); just eight teams, including four contenders, are below 1.0. I’m omitting one of those as well, since the Brewers’ Mike Moustakas has not only delivered 1.1 of his 2.7 total WAR there while filling in for Travis Shaw, but has opened up second base for top prospect Keston Hiura, who’s off to a flying start (136 wRC+, 1.5 WAR in 39 games).
While defensive concerns generally outweigh offensive ones when it comes to second basemen, it nonetheless rates as a surprise that the position’s denizens are producing just a 90 wRC+, their lowest in the period covered by our splits (since 2002) and the lowest of any position this year save for catcher. After all, in 2016, the group reached its high-water mark for the period with a 106 wRC+. Even as teams have squeezed offense-minded players like Mike Moustakas and Max Muncy into the keystone, the collapses of several formerly solid second-sackers — Robinson Cano, Starlin Castro, Brian Dozier, Josh Harrison, Kolten Wong, and many others mentioned below — have eroded the overall production here, as have the shifts of Daniel Murphy and Neil Walker to first base and the possibly career-ending knee woes of Dustin Pedroia. Perhaps that’s the point; the core of players that shined in 2016 has aged, and as Baseball Prospectus’ Aaron Gleeman suggested last month, it may just be a changing-of-the-guard moment.
Among contenders (which, for this series, I’ve defined as teams who are above .500 or have playoff odds of at least 10.0%, a definition that currently covers 17 teams), five have gotten less than 1.0 WAR at the position thus far. I’m including a sixth here, since we’ve had a bit of a reshuffle since I began writing the series: the Giants have won nine out of 10 and 16 out of 19 to climb to 51-50, while the Rangers have lost eight straight to fall to 50-50, that after I’d already written their entry, and I’m not making two stops. As at the other positions I’ve examined thus far, a closer look suggests that some of these teams are likely to remain in-house while shuffling through potential solutions rather than make a deal before July 31, but given the finality of this year’s deadline, this is an exercise worth doing at this juncture nonetheless.
When it comes to replacement level, first base is a very different beast than catcher. In general, teams prioritize catcher defense and staff handling over offense, and even in this age of advanced analytics, there’s room to quibble over whether the available metrics — including the pitch-framing sort — capture enough of their value. As we lack a good staff-handling metric (catcher ERA remains inadequate due to sample-size issues), there’s a whole gray area that, among other things, allows teams, particularly contending ones, to convince themselves they’re getting enough value behind the plate.
First base is another story. Offense is comparatively easy to measure, and the expectations for the position are high. A contending team that lacks a heavy hitter at the spot, or at least an adequate one, is bringing a spork to a knife fight. At this end of the defensive spectrum, it shouldn’t be that hard to find alternatives, even if they possess relatively clunky gloves; in this day of shortened benches, you can generally find a utilityman to fill in defensively at first in the late innings. Particularly with so many teams within range of a Wild Card spot, the upgrades available as the July 31 deadline approaches make for some fairly slim pickings, and so some teams may prefer to shuffle through internal options.
Among contenders (which, for this series, I’ve defined as teams who are above .500 or have playoff odds of at least 10.0%, a definition that currently covers 18 teams), seven have gotten less than 1.0 WAR at the position thus far. Again, a closer look at each situation suggests that not all of them will be in the market for external solutions. Between early-season injuries and slow-starting veterans, some of these teams aren’t in as dire a shape as their overall numbers suggest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re out of the woods. Note that I’m skipping over the Yankees, for whom an 0-for-4 from Luke Voit on Sunday was the difference between slipping below the threshold or clearing it. Read the rest of this entry »
In a race for a playoff spot, every edge matters. And yet all too often, for reasons that extend beyond a player’s statistics, managers and general managers fail to make the moves that could improve their teams, allowing subpar production to fester at the risk of smothering a club’s postseason hopes. In Baseball Prospectus’ 2007 book It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, I compiled a historical All-Star squad of ignominy, identifying players at each position whose performances had dragged their teams down in tight races: the Replacement Level Killers. It’s a concept I’ve revisited on several occasions, both at BP and beyond; last year, I brought it to FanGraphs in an expanded format. With the July 31 trade deadline looming, it’s once again time to point out some of the bigger holes at each position among contenders, and it’s worth noting that this time, there’s no August waiver period for teams to fall back on.
When it comes to defining replacement level play, we needn’t be slaves to exactitude. Any team that’s gotten less than 1.0 WAR from a position to this point might be considered fair game, even if in some cases that means an above-average starter and ghastly backups. Sometimes, acceptable or even above-average defense (which, of course may depend upon which metric one uses) coupled with total ineptitude on offense is enough to flag a team. Sometimes, a team may be well ahead of replacement level, but has lost a key contributor due to injury; sometimes, the reverse is true, but the team hasn’t yet climbed above that first-cut threshold. As with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of hard-core pornography, I know replacement level when I see it. Read the rest of this entry »