Who Has and Hasn’t Avoided the Awful by Jeff Sullivan December 13, 2016 A couple years ago, I wrote an article titled “Dan Duquette and Avoiding the Awful.” Within, I ran a pretty simple study, adding up every team’s negative WAR. The Orioles came away scoring pretty well — that is, one of the explanations for the Orioles’ overall success was that they hadn’t given very much playing time to players who performed below replacement-level. It was far from a perfect study, but I liked it anyway, for how it worked and what it said. And so now I’m providing an update! In that post, I mostly focused on 2012 – 2014. In this post, I’m going to focus on 2014 – 2016. Why not just get things started? Here’s a long table, showing every team’s combined negative WAR from individual players over the past three years. 2014 – 16 Negative WAR Team Negative WAR Nationals -9.5 Mets -9.6 Cardinals -10.3 Cubs -10.5 Orioles -11.0 Giants -11.1 Dodgers -12.0 Blue Jays -12.1 Brewers -12.8 Royals -13.2 Pirates -13.3 Tigers -13.8 Marlins -14.2 Indians -15.3 Yankees -15.4 Angels -15.7 Astros -15.9 Padres -18.0 Twins -18.1 Braves -18.7 Rays -18.8 Red Sox -18.8 Diamondbacks -19.3 Athletics -19.5 Mariners -20.4 Rangers -20.8 Rockies -22.3 White Sox -22.5 Phillies -23.6 Reds -24.7 The Nationals and Mets are effectively tied, at about negative nine and a half wins. At the other end are the Reds, at negative 25 wins. The average here is an even -16, with a standard deviation of 4.4, so that gives you a sense. Remember that negative WAR is a function of both performance and playing time, since WAR is kind of a counting stat. Relative to the average, below-replacement players have cost the Reds about nine wins. Avoiding below-replacement players has boosted the Nationals and Mets by six or seven wins. The numbers aren’t huge, but they all count. I don’t need to remind you what a win goes for on the free-agent market. It’s important to recognize this isn’t all by design. Some of it comes from the front office and some of it is plain old dumb luck. In theory, you should never play anyone who’s below replacement-level. In theory, you can just assemble sufficient depth. In practice, decent players can under-perform, and in practice, rosters can be crippled by injury. The 2014 Rangers, for example, were torn apart by disabled-list stints. The 2015 Red Sox were sunk in large part because Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez decided to be godawful out of nowhere. Say what you will about the thought processes behind those two investments, but you never would’ve expected what wound up happening. So, it’s not all about assigning credit. The Nationals and Mets deserve only partial credit. A team like the Reds deserves only partial blame. Nevertheless, this is a record of what’s actually happened. You see the White Sox third from the bottom. This is one of the reasons why the team couldn’t remain competitive. The depth was lousy. The Rangers have experienced success despite certain players dragging them down. Meanwhile, a lot of the teams toward the top are teams you might expect. For this past season only, there was a tight grouping near the top. Six teams accumulated between negative two and negative three WAR — the Cardinals, Cubs, Mets, Indians, Giants, and Red Sox. The Reds finished in last place, at -9.5. The Padres were at -9.1, and the Phillies were at -8.9. The Rangers were sixth-worst, at -7.3, so, again, they’ve found a way to win anyway. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s worked out okay. Changing gears a little, here’s a plot showing three years of numbers. On the x-axis, three-year negative WAR. On the y-axis, three-year positive WAR. As you’d imagine, there’s a strong relationship, but still teams have deviated. The Brewers, for example, are ninth-best by negative WAR, but they’ve ranked 26th in positive WAR. The Red Sox rank 22nd by negative WAR, but they show up in sixth in positive WAR. That team way up there close to 160 positive WAR: the Dodgers, who are also seventh by negative WAR. The Dodgers, unsurprisingly, are first in overall WAR. The Orioles continue to look pretty good, with the fifth-best negative WAR to go with a basically average positive WAR. Duquette has mostly continued to avoid the awful, and it’s one of the things that’s propped the Orioles up. For the last thing, here are the five best and five worst team-seasons by the negative-WAR measure over the past three years. Extreme Negative WAR Seasons, 2014 – 16 Team Year Negative WAR Team Year Negative WAR Astros 2015 -0.8 Red Sox 2015 -10.1 Orioles 2014 -1.9 Mariners 2015 -10.0 Nationals 2014 -1.9 Astros 2014 -9.7 Cardinals 2016 -2.1 Reds 2016 -9.5 Cubs 2016 -2.2 Padres 2016 -9.1 Look at those breakout 2015 Astros. They almost entirely avoided below-replacement performances, which is something that helped to launch them into the playoffs. The year before, they were at -9.7 — which you can see right over there on the right side of this same table. Now, the Astros did well to put together a deep team, but remember the part about how some of this is just luck. The Astros got a little worse in 2016 and they missed the postseason. They also got worse by this measure, by almost five wins. You can pin a chunk of the blame on A.J. Reed and Preston Tucker. The Orioles and Nationals were terrific here in 2014. The Cardinals and Cubs were terrific here in 2016. Glance over and you see those Red Sox, those Year 1 Ramirez/Sandoval Red Sox. Still, they were just 38% of the problem. So the two players shouldn’t get all the blame. The 2015 Mariners were also right there, with an amazing 25 below-replacement performances. James Jones was responsible for the worst of them. Fernando Rodney, second-worst. Baseball will get you, however it can. I should’ve mentioned this way earlier, but just to be clear, I didn’t count pitchers hitting toward negative-WAR calculations. I don’t think folding them in would’ve been fair. And so we’re left at the end. There are so many different ways to win baseball games. Avoiding horrible performances isn’t everything — you could, in theory, avoid all horrible performances, and still be quite terrible. The way things really play out, though, avoiding the awful can provide a subtle boost, a sort of boost of omission. Teams can prepare for this only so much, but the best ones do get revealed in time. Kudos to the Nationals, and kudos to the Mets. It’s something.