Examining the Balance of Top Talent and Depth

Last Friday, Craig Edwards published a post titled “The Best One-Two Punch in Baseball.” He didn’t focus specifically on just hitters, or just pitchers — the idea was to look at every team’s projected top two players. It’s a fun exercise, and this one is similar to that one.

In this post, in short, I’d like to look at every team’s projected top five players. This is something I’ve kept track of for a while, and even though five is an arbitrary number, I like how this method can separate top-heavy teams from teams with more depth. Below, a few plotted breakdowns, followed by a table comparing the projected MLB landscape to the way things played out last season. Let’s get this over with!

To begin, very simply, here are all 30 of the projected team WAR figures, overall. These are based on the most up-to-date projections and the most up-to-date depth charts. Cubs fans might not like to see the Cubs ranked just behind the Dodgers, but, you know what’s really important here? Nothing. Let it go.

Okay! That plot isn’t what we’re here for. Moving on, here are the combined WARs for every team’s top five projected players.

We’ve got some shifts. As in the first plot, here we see the Cubs hanging out in second place. But where the Dodgers are first in overall projected WAR, they’re fourth in projected WAR from their top five players. The Cardinals move from 11th overall to 21st in here. The A’s move from 20th to 27th. On the other side of things, the Diamondbacks jump from 23rd to 14th. The Angels, for obvious reasons, jump from 13th to eighth. And we have the Nationals here with the greatest amount of top-tier talent. They were sixth in the plot that came earlier.

So, those shifts are meaningful, right? Having these numbers lends itself to something very easy. When you have overall WAR, and top-five-player WAR, you can subtract to find the combined WAR of all the other players. This is more like a measure of depth, not that any such measure is perfect. Here is the third plot!

One more time, the Cubs hold steady in second place. Now the Dodgers take over the lead, with the highest combined WAR from the sixth-best player onward. The Nationals’ position here is of particular note — based on their depth, they’re right in the middle of the pack, which could become a problem if a thing or two go wrong. The Cardinals are kind of the opposite of the Nationals; where the Cardinals are 21st in top-five-player WAR, they’re fifth in WAR from everyone else, and that seems like a very Cardinals kind of roster construction. Much like the Nationals, the Angels’ rank here is 11 places worse than before. Much like the Cardinals, the Yankees’ rank here is 11 places better than before. I’ll further point out that the Diamondbacks plummet in this plot to 28th place — their roster is interesting because of the stars, but it appears to drop off in a hurry. This is among the reasons why Arizona isn’t expected to contend.

To round things out, I’d like to get to a big table. I have all the projected breakdowns for 2017. I also calculated the breakdowns for 2016. In this table, you see every team, along with the change in each team’s rank in each category. If that seems a little confusing when you read it, hopefully the numbers will make it all clearer. This table, incidentally, can be conveniently sorted at your leisure.

Changes in WAR Rank From 2016
Team Total WAR T5 WAR Other WAR
Pirates 9 12 3
Athletics 9 3 12
Angels 7 2 8
Astros 5 2 6
Reds 4 -5 10
Rangers 3 6 2
Mariners 3 -6 9
Phillies 3 -4 1
Dodgers 2 -1 6
Indians 2 -1 3
Twins 2 0 1
Rays 1 9 1
Yankees 1 2 5
Giants 0 -2 -3
Blue Jays 0 -2 -2
Diamondbacks 0 2 -5
Cubs -1 0 -1
Cardinals -1 3 -1
Royals -1 5 -8
Braves -1 -3 0
Nationals -2 5 -8
Rockies -2 -6 -1
Red Sox -3 -2 -3
Mets -3 4 -7
Orioles -3 1 -3
Padres -3 -3 -1
Brewers -5 -4 -5
Tigers -7 -1 -5
Marlins -7 -5 -6
White Sox -12 -11 -8
“T5” refers to the combined WAR of the top five players. “Other” refers to the combined WAR of everybody else.

Here’s how to read this. Last season, the Pirates finished 21st in baseball in total team WAR. Now they’re projected for the No. 12 team WAR, which means their rank is projected to improve by nine spots. That’s what the “9” is doing in there. Moving over a column, you can see the biggest difference is in terms of the best players, where the Pirates’ top-five-player WAR is projected to shoot up 12 places. By comparison, the depth-WAR ranking is projected to improve by just three places, which is fine, but comparatively small. Last year’s Pirates had but one player worth 3 WAR or more. This time around, they’re projected to have five such players, with Andrew McCutchen expected to bounce back. Good for Pittsburgh! Hopefully. For Pittsburgh. Can’t take any projections for granted.

Like the Pirates, the A’s are also projected to improve overall by nine spots. Unlike the Pirates, though, the explanation is flip-flopped; the A’s top-player WAR is projected to improve by three places, while the depth-WAR component is projected to improve by 12. The A’s remain light on upper-tier talent, for a variety of reasons, but the hope is that solid depth across the board can keep the team relevant. It’s worked before. It’s also very much not worked.

The White Sox, obviously, are at the bottom, having finally decided to sell. That table is what selling looks like, and, say, they’re not even finished doing that, and Jose Quintana just pitched a heck of a meaningless ballgame on Thursday. The Mets are interesting, because they’re projected to drop a few overall WAR places even though their best players ought to be better. The Royals and Nationals are virtually identical — their top-five WAR is projected to improve five places, but the depth WAR is expected to sink. The Reds and Mariners are the opposite of that, and the Mariners in particular are hoping that their improved depth can carry an older core that’s beginning to wobble.

I won’t go over every single number, and you can examine further to your liking. As far as depth is concerned, a team always hopes it won’t need so much of it. Teams don’t always get what they hope for.

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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Not sure if its just me, but the table doesn’t seem sortable.