The Value Of Role Players

In the comments of the posts on the Tigers acquisitions of Gerald Laird and Adam Everett yesterday, one common theme emerged among those who didn’t like the deals from Detroit’s perspective – that adding average or below average players wasn’t helpful, because good teams are built with good players, and the Tigers were filling holes with mediocre players. The feeling was that even though they didn’t cost much, Laird and Everett weren’t going to help Detroit win, so the moves were poor.

So, this post is for those folks – in it, we’ll talk about the value of role players. To do so, let’s take a look at last year’s World Series champs, the Philadelphia Phillies.

Everyone knows about Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, Cole Hamels, and Brad Lidge. Those five guys get 95% of the attention when the media discusses the 2008 Phillies, and they could easily be considered the stars of the team. Utley’s one of the three best players in the game, Hamels is a terrific young starter, Lidge is a lights our reliever, and Howard and Burrell provided muscle in the middle of the order. Between them, the Phillies got about 17 wins above replacement level last year. That’s a strong core.

However, the Phillies won 92 games – about 42 more than a team full of replacement level guys would win. That means they got about 25 wins above replacement from the guys on the roster not named Utley, Howard, Burrell, Hamels, and Lidge. Let’s look at how those guys were acquired.

Jayson Werth: .382 wOBA, +16 UZR – signed for $850,000 in 2007.

After the 2006 season, the Dodgers non-tendered Werth after he’d missed the entire 2006 season with injuries and hadn’t been very productive in 2005. The Phillies saw an opportunity to add an athletic OF with some solid hitting skills, and picked up Werth for practically nothing. They paid him a grand total of $2.5 million over the last two years, and he’s been a fantastic player for them – significantly better than the more hyped Burrell.

Shane Victorino: .355 wOBA, +3 UZR – paid $50,000 to take him in the 2004 rule 5 draft.

They took a $50,000 flyer on a guy who could cover some range and had flashed gap power at times, and for the next four years, Victorino has paid huge dividends as an above average outfielder. Think of it this way – Victorino is about as valuable as Torii Hunter, but the $17 million or so they saved by going with the low cost Hawaiian allowed them to have the financial flexibility to retain the big names and acquire Lidge.

Pedro Feliz: .306 wOBA, +7 UZR – paid $8.5 million to sign for 2008 and 2009

Feliz, like Everett, is a bad hitter and a great fielder. He’s less extreme at both ends, as his offense isn’t completely useless and his defense at third is excellent but not best-in-the-league, but it’s the same idea. The Phillies paid a marginal amount of money to fill their hole at third base by getting a defense first player and figured they’d live with the bad at-bats, and it paid off. Feliz was -8 runs with the bat and +7 runs with the glove, making him pretty close to a league average player. He only took $3 million of the Phillies payroll in 2008, however, and the upgrade they got from their hole at third base in 2007 was a big key in their success.

Greg Dobbs: .354 wOBA, -2 UZR – claimed off waivers in 2007

Dobbs is the anti-Feliz – a bad fielder who hits enough to still be useful, especially as a part time player. He gave the Phillies one of the best pinch hitters in baseball, and an offensive option at third base when they didn’t feel defense would be as necessary. They paid him the league minimum the last two years and got production equal to that of a lot of starters around the league.

Jamie Moyer: 4.32 FIP, 196 IP – acquired for two non-prospects in 2006

When the Phillies picked up Moyer at the deadline in ’06, he was considered a fringe 5th starter. His trademark command was diminishing and his stuff was high school level, and the assumption was that he could only get by on smarts for a few more months. Instead, Moyer has pitched as well as a league average starting pitcher in the NL for the last 2 1/2 years and earned a grand total of about $10 million during that time. Meanwhile, comparable innings eaters like Carlos Silva are getting $52 million in long term deals, while Moyer makes a fraction of that.

Between Werth, Victorino, Feliz, Dobbs, and Moyer, the Phillies picked up something like 9 or 10 wins compared to replacement level players, and they did so without surrendering one iota of talent to acquire any of them, and their combined payroll cost for 2008 was about $10 million. The huge impact the Phillies got from their role players is why they were able to have a parade in November, yet all of these signings would have been derided as non-impact moves, filling holes with guys who were average or worse.

Good teams need a collection of mediocre to average players. You can’t get 25 stars, and if you just focus on the top of the roster, you’re going to end up like the 2008 Seattle Mariners – a few quality players surrounded by crap, wallowing in last place, wondering why your team isn’t as good as you thought. The bottom of the roster matters, and the Tigers clearly figured that out yesterday.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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15 years ago

Well put, Mr. C. A nice way, in different words and from a different angle, of making the point that marginal wins aren’t wins above average, but above replacement level.