It’s not that hard to delight in the Astros’ performance. I do understand, of course, that they have a weakening hold on their own division. Somehow, some way, the Mariners have managed to keep up. But if you look beyond just wins and losses, the Astros are tied for baseball’s highest team wRC+. They have baseball’s lowest ERA-, and FIP-, and xFIP-. The Astros have baseball’s highest run differential, and the gap between first and second is 50 runs, which on its own would be one of the higher run differentials around. By Pythagorean record, the Astros are easily in first place. By BaseRuns as well, they’re easily in first place. The Astros are an excellent team that has still found a way to underperform. That’s not an easy thing to do.
So there’s no shortage of places to find Houston Astros fun facts. Some of them reflect the bigger picture. Some of them reflect the smaller pictures. I was reminded of something today, when the Astros placed Brian McCann on the DL, and called up Tim Federowicz. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a Tim Federowicz fun fact; I wouldn’t do that to you. But in his tiny slice of 2018 big-league playing time, Federowicz has put up a -0.1 WAR. Keep that in mind, will you?
Here is a very basic bar graph. This shows total team WAR, combining pitchers and hitters (with pitcher-hitters not included):
Pretty fundamental stuff. The relationship isn’t perfect, but there’s a very strong correlation between team WAR and team winning percentage, so the better teams are toward the left, and the worse teams are toward the right. The Astros have the highest team WAR. The Royals have the lowest team WAR. The Astros are very good. The Royals are very bad.
Here now is a similar-looking plot, only, this time, I’ve taken only the players who have put up positive WARs:
Good teams still toward the left, and bad teams still toward the right. The Astros are almost in first, and the Royals are still in last. That plot only really means anything when you also consider this next one. Above, I combined every team’s positive WAR. Below, I’ve combined every team’s negative WAR. Randomness happens, and there’s a difference between a player’s WAR and a player’s true talent, but in theory, replacement-level players should be available. The best and deepest teams shouldn’t have to dip into negative-WAR territory very often. Anyway, the image:
The average team so far has accumulated -3.7 negative WAR. All of the negative-WAR players on the Astros have combined for just -0.2. Meanwhile, all of the negative-WAR players on the Royals have combined for -8.0. That’s an eight-win difference between the teams, just at the very bottom of the roster. If you’re curious, the Indians rank 23rd in combined negative WAR, and third in combined positive WAR. The Pirates rank fourth in combined negative WAR, and 23rd in combined positive WAR. The Rays have their own 18-place difference in rank, and so do the Angels, albeit in the opposite direction. Teams like the Rays and Pirates have managed to avoid playing many legitimately bad players, but they’ve been hurting for higher-level talent. Teams like the Angels and Indians have had the higher-level talent, but they’ve also had a few too many weaknesses. Some of it comes down to injuries, which means that some of it comes down to luck. The Angels probably don’t deserve to have had so many different players end up on the disabled list. But I like to look at this breakdown every season, because I think it helps to tell the story of why different teams are where they are.
There’s another, related way of looking at the data in that last plot. That plot showed total team negative WAR. Here, I’ll show you every team’s share of negative-WAR playing time. So this is just combined negative-WAR plate appearances, divided by overall plate appearances, including both pitchers and hitters:
The Astros have given 0.2% of their playing time to negative-WAR players. Here’s all that is: seven plate appearances by Tim Federowicz, and three plate appearances by A.J. Reed. Reed’s true talent, presumably, is better than that, and Federowicz will now have an opportunity to do a little more. He’s been slugging .560 with Triple-A Fresno. I think it’s unlikely, but there’s a chance that, come season’s end, the Astros won’t have a single negative-WAR player. That would reflect both their depth and their health. The Astros, by and large, have done well so far to avoid the DL, and this is one area where that shows up.
The other extreme data point, once more, belongs to the Royals. The Royals have given almost half of their playing time to negative-WAR players. The breakdown is 46.3%. Alcides Escobar has batted 319 times, and he’s been more than a win below replacement. The Orioles are the distant next team, at 33.6%. A big chunk of that is Chris Davis’ 272 plate appearances, over which he’s been two wins below replacement. But this isn’t about Davis and Davis alone. The Orioles have already played 20 players with negative WARs. I don’t think you’re going to see all of them flip into the black by the end of the year.
I wouldn’t suggest making too much of this; teams have only so much control over their negative WAR, and teams can’t always be blamed for when they need to find emergency reinforcements. Additionally, replacement level is an arbitrary cutoff, and in theory a team could completely avoid any negative WAR and still suck. What I like about this approach is that it just gives you some extra details. Why are the Braves in first place? In part, it’s because they haven’t had to play many bad players. They’ve had sufficiently talented available depth. The Astros have been good, and deep, and healthy. The Royals haven’t been maybe any of those things. And while the Angels hung around the race, and while the Indians lead their own division, they’ve been held back by depth problems. So have the Rockies and Nationals. You never think you’re going to have to play negative WAR. Once you’re doing it, you want to do something about it. Some teams have faced this situation far more often than others.
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.