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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Replacement Team: What's the Most Balanced Playoff Team Possible?

So, we’ve reached that point in the offseason; there’s not a ton going on, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to look at something I’ve been wondering for a while now: What’s the most underwhelming playoff team you could construct?

By this, I mean, could you build a playoff-caliber roster if every single player was just above average? And what would that roster look like. This evolved from an thought I had a while ago: what if you just had a full roster of starter level players? And team of just replacement-level players (0 WAR) would be expected to win around 43 games*. So, a 25-man roster of 2 WAR players, or basic starter level, should have 50 WAR, and thereby, 93-ish wins.

*I’ve heard estimates ranging from 40 to 50. Based on Fangraphs’ WAR data from 2012, the average team won 43.3 more games than their Wins Above Replacement. This number will vary a little from year to year, but the neighborhood of 43-45 Wins as a baseline is a good estimate if you don’t feel like calculating it out.

The problem with that is you would need 2 Win relievers and bench players. That’s not really practical; if you can get 2 Wins in limited bench time like that, you’re therefore not starter level. If you are starter level, you won’t get to 2 WAR in limited playing time.

So what about just the starting players? Let’s say you had an AL team. All nine batting slots could be 2 Win players, plus you could have a rotation of 2 Win starters. That only gets you to 28 WAR, though, which translates to about a 71-91 record. The remaining eleven players on the roster would need to be almost 2-win players themselves to get you over 90 wins (which is what I’m aiming for, as that’s usually the minimum to make the playoffs).

What about three-win players? That’s a little better than average, but still not All-Star level. Well, again, nine batters plus five starters times three wins per player gets you 42 WAR. Assuming the remaining bullpen members and bench players are all 1-win players (which might be a bit of a stretch, but we’ll see), you get a 96-win team. That’s a playoff front runner most years.

So, what would this 3-win/player team look like? Let’s go position by position. I’ll look at players’ WAR over the past two seasons.

Catchers: Players around 6 WAR the past two years includes Joe Mauer (6.5), Brian McCann (6.1), Jonathan Lucroy (5.6)

Russell Martin might also work (5.2). McCann and Mauer don’t seem totally fair; both had one season much better than another (usually due to injuries driving down their value one year). I guess I’ll go with Lucroy here then by default.

First base: Edwin Encarnacion (5.9), Allen Craig (5.7)

Again, this one doesn’t feel fair because Encarnacion was much better last year (4.4 wins) than the year before, and Craig has had his playing time artificially reduced by being blocked by other players and injury. Corey Hart might be the better choice-he played more games at first than anywhere else last season, and was worth 2.9 WAR (4.1 the year before, as an outfielder).

Second base: Neil Walker (6.4), Dan Uggla (5.9), Omar Infante (5.9)

Uggla and Infante are funny, in that they’re about the same value but in opposite ways (Infante picks up nearly two wins on fielding alone, while Uggla’s fielding costs him a full win). I’ll go with the younger Infante.

Shortstop: Alexei Ramirez (6.6), Yunel Escobar (6.0), Derek Jeter (5.5)

Escobar is another player with large swings in his performance from 2011 to 2012 (4.2 WAR to 1.8). The cause? Probably (mostly) a 43 point swing in his batting average on balls in play. Unlike McCann and Mauer, this isn’t an injured All-Star, and unlike Encarnacion, this isn’t a player having a breakout year. This is more a 3-win player fluctuating around 3 wins (in six seasons, he’s been worth 18.7 WAR).

Also worth noting: so far, we have two Brewers and two former Braves.

Third base: Alberto Callaspo (6.4), Alex Rodriguez (6.4), Brett Lawrie (5.7)

A-Rod has missed long stretches for injury, and Lawrie was called up late in 2011, giving them 221 and 168 out of 324 games played the past two years, respectively. So we’ll take Callaspo.

Left Field: Josh Willingham (6.0) Desmond Jennings (5.9)

Again, Jennings was called up mid-2011, so we’ll stick to Willingham. He’s hit well the last two years (133 weighted runs created [which works like OPS+], same as Josh Hamilton), but his defense in that time has been pretty bad.

Center Field: Peter Bourjos (6.4), Denard Span (6.0), Angel Pagan (5.7)

There’s not really a great choice here. Span has had injuries keep him to only 198 games, but a crowded Angels outfield has given Bourjos even fewer plate appearances (in more games, though, thanks to Bourjos going in as a defensive sub, I guess). Pagan’s value, meanwhile, has gone between All-Star and back-up, though (4.8 in 2012, 0.9 in 2011, 5.4 in 2010).

Maybe it’s best to stray a little further from 6 Wins and take Dexter Fowler (5.5 WAR last two years). He’s an atrocious fielder (nearly cost the Rockies 2 wins with his glove in that time), but his bat made up for it.

Right Field: Hunter Pence (6.5), Andre Ethier (6.3), Jay Bruce (5.7), Matt Joyce (5.6)

We’ll go with Bruce here. He’s made the All-Star game both years, despite being a more or less average fielder with a 119 weighted runs created.

Designated Hitter: Edwin Encarnacion (5.9)

Again, Encarnacion is the only choice. If we expand it to include 2010, though, Billy Butler might be the better choice. His WARs the last three seasons have been 3.2, 1.8, and 2.9. That seems closer to what we’re looking for.

Rotation: Edwin Jackson (6.5), Tim Hudson (6.5), Mat Latos (6.5), Ricky Nolasco (6.2), Hiroki Kuroda (6.1), Kyle Lohse (6.1), Ryan Dempster (6.0), Trevor Cahill (5.9), Yovani Gallardo (5.9), Gavin Floyd (5.7), Rick Porcello (5.7), Mark Buehrle (5.7), Tim Lincecum (5.6), Derek Holland (5.5)

It’s weird, but I noticed every pitcher in this group is durable. The only ones to not make 60 starts the past two seasons are Derek Holland and Gavin Floyd, who each made 59. We’ll go with Jackson, Hudson, Gallardo, Buehrle, and Holland. That seems like a solid group.

Now, we need to find eleven 1 Win bench players and relievers. We’ll go with seven relievers and four bench players (an infielder, an outfielder, a catcher, and a utility). I’ll spare listing every qualified player here and just pick.

For a bullpen, one example we could go with is Brad Ziegler (2.2 the last two years), Koji Uehara (2.1), Rex Brothers (2.1), Steve Cishek (1.9), Grant Balfour (1.9), Wilton Lopez (1.9), and Jose Valverde (1.8). That’s actually a really strong-looking bullpen. I’m not sure if most teams would have a bullpen that strong, but I’ll check that in a minute.

For a bench, we could use Jerry Hairston (2.6) as our outfielder, Skip Schumaker (1.7) as our utility, Ronny Cedeno (1.9) as our infielder, and George Kottaras* (1.8) as our back-up catcher.

*Picked in part because he was Jonathan Lucroy’s actual back-up for most of that, meaning the playing time should roughly match up too.

So, in the end, our team looks as such:

C: Jonathan Lucroy
1B: Corey Hart
2B: Omar Infante
SS: Yunel Escobar
3B: Alberto Callaspo
LF: Josh Willingham
CF: Dexter Fowler
RF: Jay Bruce
DH: Billy Butler*

Bench: Jerry Hairston, Skip Schumaker, Ronny Cedeno, George Kottaras

Rotation: Edwin Jackson, Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle, Yovani Gallardo, Derek Holland

Bullpen: Brad Ziegler, Koji Uehara, Rex Brothers, Steve Cishek, Grant Balfour, Wilton Lopez, Jose Valverde

*Since part of me is still ten and enjoys writing line-ups, I imagine they would have a batting order along the lines of: Fowler, Callaspo, Hart, Willingham, Butler, Bruce, Lucroy, Infante, Escobar. That doesn’t seem like Murderers’ Row, but oh well.

That’s...not a bad team. There aren’t any glaring holes. It’s not terribly exciting either, though. It’s hard to believe that that team could win 96 games, but then again, there’s never really been a team like it in history to compare it against.

How reasonable is a team like this? When I was assembling the bullpen, I noticed that it seemed unusually strong. How does each part compare with real major league examples?

Well, there’s the lineup. Nine starters times three, plus four bench players times one each, is 31 WAR. In 2012, that would place 0.2 ahead of the Yankees, who were fourth-best in the Majors. The Giants were about a win short of that mark as well, at 29.9. It seems odd that a team with a 3-4-5 of Corey Hart-Josh Willingham-Billy Butler would be one of the offensive powerhouses of the league, but I guess that’s what happens when you don’t have any major holes.

The rotation would be about 15 wins. That would tie with the Diamondbacks for seventh in 2012. So definitely upper ranks, but with a 96-win team, that’s to be expected. Another five were less than a win away. This rotation is probably the most realistic aspect, actually.

Finally, there’s the bullpen. That would actually place second, behind the Royals (7.3). Five more teams were within a win, so again, upper ranks, but not too unreasonable.

I actually think that’s very interesting; by just targeting an above-average player at each position, you could build one of the strongest teams in the Majors. If you’re wondering why teams don’t do this, build a well-rounded team of cheaper/easier-to-obtain players, I would say it’s probably because it’s very difficult to just build a rotation and lineup where every player is above average. You shoot for a few All-Stars to make up for the inevitable below-average players that you’re going to have.

In any case, there you have it; a team of 3-WAR players.

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