Let’s Take a Quick Look at Team Depth

This is going to have a lot of caveats, so I should try to sell you on it first. Team depth — is it important? The correct answer is, “sometimes, yeah, although not all the times.” See, depth is no one’s primary weapon. A team comes first with its stars, with its everyday regulars. But depth is one of those things that commonly becomes important, because bad things happen, and they happen indiscriminately. Depth is basically like health insurance, and while a team can have a successful season without very much of it, the odds are eventually it’s going to come into play. Which is why some teams talk openly about trying to accumulate it.

A few front offices this past winter talked about how the average team needs way more than five starting pitchers. I think by now we all have a good understanding of that. Then sometimes you also get teams like the 2015 Mets, who wound up in need of position-player depth. Ideally a team will begin a season with plenty of in-house support, and below, I’ve made an attempt to quantify what teams currently have. It’s not a perfect, inarguable attempt. It’s just the attempt you’re reading right now.

There’s just not a wonderful way to do this. You can eyeball it, but then you can’t do league-wide comparisons. Depth in some sense is a feel thing, but I wanted to try to stay as objective as possible, because I don’t want to interject my own opinion. If you have your own ideas, please feel free to chime in, but there’s nothing for me to do now but proceed.

Here’s how I decided to go about this: I pulled every team’s projected position players and projected starting pitchers from our team depth charts. I left out relievers, because relievers are tricky, and depth relievers are relatively unimportant, and it gets weird when you try to blend starter and reliever depth. Once I had the players, I downloaded our Steamer and ZiPS projections, and calculated full-season equivalents to put players over the same denominators. Then I counted how many players are projected for a full-season equivalent of at least 1 WAR. This is the cutoff I used last year. I never love analyses that lean on these kinds of cutoffs, but I wasn’t too comfortable with anything else. The way I figure, a 1-WAR player isn’t great, but he’s useful in an emergency. It’s a player who can do some good.

In the plot below, you see every team in baseball, and how many total players project for at least that 1 WAR. Remember, bullpens aren’t included, because they’re annoying. Every team has a player or two you could quibble over, but even if the numbers aren’t perfect, the distribution here should be meaningful. A downside of this approach is it draws a huge difference between a 1.0 projection and a 0.9 projection. Another downside is it draws no difference between a 2.0 projection and a 1.0 projection. And, you know, there’s that word — “projection.” This is only as accurate as the projections are, and sometimes the projections just miss. There’s really no other way to do this, but if you have an issue with the forecasting systems, you’ll probably have an issue with this post.

But here’s the meat of the post. Put however much stock in it you want!

depth-players

At first glance, maybe it’s a little dull — there’s no single dominant team, and there’s no single embarrassing team. The average is 18, with a standard deviation a little under 4, and the bulk of the teams are within spitting distance of the mean. But this is what most distributions look like, and there are still certain teams of interest in here. The first-place team has a total nearly twice as high as the last-place team. I get that the last-place team is the Phillies — but it’s also the Braves, and it’s also the Diamondbacks. Two of those teams are supposed to be bad. One of them wants to go to the playoffs.

There’s no questioning the top of the Diamondbacks’ roster. That’s the part that sizzles, and that’s the part that ought to be responsible for the majority of the Diamondbacks’ wins. But while theirs is a talented roster, it also looks like a thin roster, the starters flattening out after Robbie Ray and the hitters flattening out after, say, Welington Castillo or Nick Ahmed. There’s upside around, in the person of Jean Segura, or in the person of Yasmany Tomas, but last year they were replacement-level players. The Diamondbacks are going to need either great health or a handful of depth surprises.

Three other seemingly thin potential contenders: the White Sox, Blue Jays, and Marlins. This is the same issue the White Sox faced a year ago, and it hasn’t gotten all that much better. The rotation is going to need a big year from Carlos Rodon, and on the position-player side, one hopes they’re either right about Tyler Saladino, or Jimmy Rollins still has a little something left. The Blue Jays are also top-heavy, with things dropping off behind the roster’s front line. At least for them, unlike with the White Sox, the rotation might have six viable candidates. As for the Marlins, I can’t recall the last time they might’ve possibly been deep. They can’t afford depth, and they don’t develop depth. They wound up with just seven qualifying position players, and even the addition of Wei-Yin Chen leaves the rotation still shaky. Of moderate interest is that new pitching specialist Jim Benedict made a particular request for Edwin Jackson. Could be that’s something to watch. But the Marlins seem like they’ll need to stay healthy.

At the other end, the team leading the way shouldn’t be surprising. The Dodgers have prioritized depth and flexibility, that being their answer to losing Zack Greinke. Within a few months, the Dodgers could populate two full starting rotations. And the position-player picture is also deep, bolstered by players like Scott Van Slyke, Enrique Hernandez, Chase Utley, and A.J. Ellis. It’s like the Dodgers are anticipating injury problems, and while they might not ever strike, you can’t say they’re not prepared.

The Mets are also notable here, for all the depth they’ve managed to assemble. We all know how they’re going to have too many qualified starters once Zack Wheeler returns. They’re spoiled with their pitching riches, but it’s the position-player depth that could be a real difference-maker. I’m not even sure what they intend to do with Alejandro De Aza, but Juan Lagares is excellent insurance in the middle, and then there’s a host of players who can help out in the infield, which’ll be important given the issues surrounding David Wright. The Mets, like the Dodgers, seem prepared. Both teams are likely to need the support.

I don’t need to keep going like this. The Cardinals are always deep. Of course the Cubs are deep, on the field and in the rotation, and Joe Maddon might try to give some of his starters regular rest. The Rays basically always need to be deep, and the Indians are tied for being the deepest team on the position-player side. Anything to help them try to make up for the temporary absence of Michael Brantley.

It’s not a flawless method, but it’s a method, and there are your results. If some teams are lucky, they won’t need to call on their depth very often. That’s the thing about it — there’s no guarantee you’re going to need it. But should it become necessary, some teams are far better positioned than others. Perhaps the existence of depth reveals the depth of a plan.

We hoped you liked reading Let’s Take a Quick Look at 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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Phillies113
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This is neat! I think it could also be neat to see a breakdown of pitching depth vs positional depth.