HomeTrending MLB NewsWhy Are This Year’s Worst Teams So Bad?

Why Are This Year’s Worst Teams So Bad?

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I’ve had depth on my mind a lot recently. That’s because a lot of us here at FanGraphs have, and it’s turned into some pretty cool work that I previewed last week. That’s probably the last you’ll hear about that little project for a bit while we keep refining it and trying to figure out how to use the general concept in different ways. But there was one takeaway in the comments section that I found pretty amazing and I’m going to riff on it today because hey, it’s still early March and baseball news is in short supply.

Remove the top 10 players from 28 teams in baseball – all but the Rockies and Nationals – and look at every team’s winning percentage against neutral opposition. The Rockies are projected 29th out of 30 teams, ahead of only the White-Sox-Minus-10s. The Nationals, meanwhile, are 27th, ahead of just the Angels-Minus-10s and then those Rockies and the Pale-Hose-Minus-10s.

That just sounds wrong. Remove the Mets’ best 10 players, to pick a so-so divisional rival for one of our benighted franchises, and their best remaining player would be either Brett Baty or Luis Severino, both projected for 1.6 WAR. Again, that’s their best player in this hypothetical world. And we have them down as a .425 team. We think the Nats are at .408 at full strength! It’s truly hard to wrap your head around how that could be possible.

That said, I think I might have found a way. It doesn’t involve any fancy algorithms or code you can’t see. It won’t fix our playoff odds. But it made this puzzle make sense in my head, so maybe it will for you as well. To figure out what the poor projections for the Nats and Rockies meant in context, I downloaded a great big list of the 2024 projections for every player in baseball. I removed relievers, for reasons that will become clear. Then I ordered them in terms of WAR per full-ish season.

What’s a full-ish season? I defined it as 600 plate appearances (540 for catchers) or 175 innings pitched. Seventy-four batters and 31 pitchers reached those milestones in 2023; Bryce Elder fell one out short of being the 32nd pitcher in the group. That’s a reasonable split between the two groups, as far as I’m concerned; roughly twice as many full-time batters as full-time pitchers makes sense given a five-pitcher staff and a nine-hitter lineup. Those are full-ish workloads, to me, and in any case this is a pretty hypothetical article so just go with me on this.

So how did they stack up? Ronald Acuña Jr. is first. Aaron Judge is second. Jacob deGrom is third – remember, this is based on playing a full season. It’s a list of the best players in baseball when healthy, in other words. The weirdest name in the top 25 is Patrick Bailey (25th), who has some absolutely gaudy defensive numbers; he’s projected for more defensive value than anyone in baseball accrued last year, period. That sounds kind of weird, and maybe that’s a question for our projections, but here’s the point: aside from some potentially sketchy catcher defense calculations, this method is straightforward and passes the sniff test.

The top 100 players, by this metric, are the kinds of guys who make teams great. Why do the Braves rock? Because they have seven of the top 50 guys and another two in the top 100. The Dodgers? They have 10 in the top 100, and they’re only behind the Braves when it comes to players in the top 50 by a single guy. After that are a bunch of American League contenders that look great at full strength – the Yankees, Blue Jays, Astros, Twins, and Mariners. The Rangers and Phillies only have four top-100 players, but Texas has three in the top 50 and Philadelphia has four.

The teams that don’t do as well on this list aren’t there for a lack of trying. Everyone is interested in drafting, developing, or acquiring top players, obviously. It’s hard to get your own, though, because the Braves and Dodgers are hogging them. Take away the 19 studs those two teams boast, and there are fewer than three per remaining team. I don’t think I’m breaking any news when I say that these tremendous players are really important to roster building.

This article isn’t about those great teams, though. It’s about the other side of the league, the teams that are so bad that our projections like them even less than severely injury-compromised squads. Obviously, the Nationals and Rockies don’t have anyone in the top 100. But they’re not alone there; neither do the Pirates or the A’s. The Red Sox, Royals, Tigers, Angels, and Cardinals each only have one such player (it’s Nolan Arenado on the Cardinals, if you’re curious). “We don’t have any stars” isn’t great, but it’s not something unique to Coors or Nationals Park.

No, the Nats and Rockies stand out because they don’t have anyone in that next tier either, players 100-200. The Braves and Dodgers don’t do nearly as well in this category. In fact, Atlanta doesn’t have a single player between 101 and 200. Los Angeles has only two. Meanwhile, other contending teams load up here. The Cardinals lead all of baseball with eight, which (along with a weak division) is why they’re playoff favorites despite a lackluster top end. The Angels and Red Sox each have six.

Combine those two groups into the aggregate top 200, and you start to get an idea of which teams have playoff-caliber starting lineups. If you can get eight players in the top 200 of baseball, that might look like five excellent position players and three above-average starters. It might be a dominant rotation, or a mashing lineup. The worst team with at least eight top-200 players is the Mets, and while they’re certainly still the Mets, their squad looks fairly solid. The worst playoff odds among the other 12 teams to hit that mark belong to the Rangers at 37.5%, and they’re severely affected by injury in a way that this playing time-neutral idea doesn’t pick up.

Still, we haven’t gotten to what’s making the Nats and Rockies so bad relative to their peers. You won’t make the playoffs if your team’s best players are mostly in the 201-300 region, but those guys can be useful role players or luxury backups. You probably have an intuitive sense of who these sorts of players are and which teams they play for without me having to tell you. The Cardinals rank first again; they’ve always been amazing at building this type of roster depth. The Guardians, Diamondbacks, Giants, Royals, and Tigers aren’t far behind; those teams either have a crop of young regulars coming up who haven’t broken out yet, do a good job platooning and maximizing their roster, or both.

The Tigers and Royals in particular are instructive here. Look at each of their rosters, and you won’t see much game-breaking talent. Despite that shortcoming, however, they fare much better than some similarly top-end-deficient squads, both in our standard playoff odds and particularly in our depth-aware methodology. That’s because these mid-tier players fill in a lot of the gaps, at a rate not that far behind the stars of the game. We’re talking, here, about Jack Flaherty or Michael Wacha, 298th and 303rd respectively by this methodology. That kind of depth is undeniably useful. Give one of those two guys 30 starts instead of a random minor league call-up, and you’re probably looking at two extra wins over the course of a season.

You know who could use those infusions of extra wins? Teams like the Royals and Tigers. They can’t compete on the top end, so they’re making up for it by getting more than other teams when it comes to avoiding bad performances. Would you prefer to do it Atlanta’s way, where you avoid bad performances by giving playing time to bona fide stars? Of course you would. But not everyone can do that, and teams that are trying to be competitive have to avoid those performances somehow.

Not every team is built this way, however. The White Sox have only five players among the top 300. The A’s only have four. The Rockies have a measly three – Nolan Jones, Ryan McMahon, and Ryan Feltner, a projection darling (relatively speaking) with a career ERA over six. The Nationals somehow have only two – CJ Abrams and MacKenzie Gore. These teams not only aren’t in playoff position, they aren’t trying to pretend they’re in playoff position by raising the floors of some of their weaker positions. There are no Michael Wachas to be found on these rosters.

In a nutshell, I think that’s what my fun fact from up above – how bad the Rockies and Nationals fare relative to injured opposition – is really saying. Teams trying to make the playoffs, whether they’re dominant squads like the Braves or challengers like the Tigers, have a healthy spread of useful players. Sure, you get past those guys and you’re into replacementville. But those team’s replacements are completely acceptable. Are the Royals minus their top 10 players, nine of whom are in the top 300, a great team? Absolutely not — we think they’d be awful. But they’d look a lot like the Nationals, and as it so happens, we like their depth options a bit more than Washington’s.

Not every team is going to make the playoffs this year. All but four, however, have at least made an effort to patch holes in their roster. That’s why the Nats and Rockies look so bad in our playoff odds projections. That’s why the A’s and White Sox aren’t far behind them. Say what you will about the state of competitive balance in baseball, but almost every team in baseball has enough top-300 players to field a respectable squad. Just put the emphasis on “almost.”

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