What A Playoff Team Looks Like
A few weeks ago, David Appelman quietly updated the leaderboards over at FanGraphs, and one of the improvements was to integrate the team and league pages into the same format, making it far easier to view various teams and units over the years. While playing around with some of the data tonight, I realized that I could give a pretty decent overview of what the organization needs to pull off this winter if they’re serious about making the 2012 team a contender.
Here’s the top 10 teams in 2011, sorted by total team WAR:
1. Texas, +60.6
2. New York, +59.9
3. Boston, +59.5
4. Philadelphia, +51.6
5. Milwaukee, +51.0
6. St. Louis, +48.6
7. Detroit, +48.0
8. Arizona, +47.4
9. Tampa Bay, +46.1
10. Anaheim, +43.8
First off, you should notice right away that WAR works pretty darn well – the eight playoff teams all rank in the top nine in baseball, and the Red Sox collapse was the only reason that it wasn’t eight for eight. Next time you think we’re just dabbling in nerd stats that don’t reflect the game on the field, just remember that the correlation between team WAR and team Win% is very high.
The other thing you’ll notice is that all of the playoff teams had at least +45 WAR, and to win a division, you generally had to be around +50 WAR. Because the system assumes that a replacement level team would win about 43 games in a season, +38 WAR is basically a .500 club – you need to get into the upper-40s to be a legitimate contender.
The 2011 Mariners posted +22.6 WAR, or basically about half of the total they would need to make any kind of serious run at a playoff spot. A large part of the team’s low overall total is due to some horrible production from players who aren’t in the organization anymore, but even dead cat bounces fro the struggling veterans and full seasons from guys like Dustin Ackley isn’t going to push this team much past +30 WAR or so. Even if you assume the best case scenarios from guys like Felix, Pineda, Ackley, Smoak, Gutierrez, and Ichiro, you’re looking at about +20 to +25 WAR from that group, and most of the rest of the current roster are fill-ins.
This is essentially the heart of the reason I’m against signing Prince Fielder. He’s coming off the best season of his career and he was worth a total of +5.5 WAR – for his career, he’s averaged just about +3.5 WAR per season. Even if you think he’s in his prime and is going to be closer to his 2011 performance for the next few years, you’re looking at a +5 win guy at best, and he’ll be taking the spot of either Mike Carp or Justin Smoak, either of whom could be expected to give you +1 to +2 WAR for the league minimum next year.
In reality, replacing Carp with Fielder nets you maybe three or four WAR, and unfortunately, this roster is not three or four wins away from being a legitimate contender. The M’s need to add something like +10 to +15 WAR this winter – a very tall order, and one that’s basically impossible if you throw your entire budget at one player. Despite all the calls for a “big bat” or a “star hitter”, this is an organization that needs to upgrade a bunch of places all at once, and that means they need to look for value. They have to get a huge return on several low cost investments, and they can’t do that if they tie up all of their resources to acquire one player.
Now, maybe you look at the gap in where the roster is and where it needs to be, and you determine that it’s too much work for one winter. I can understand that perspective, but even if you take that view, you still can’t really justify throwing something like $25 million per year at Fielder. The wins he’d add in 2012 wouldn’t be enough to make a huge difference, and you’d essentially be betting that Fielder would remain productive enough to justify his salary by the time you got around to making his teammates good enough to contend.
The Mariners aren’t one player away, even if that one player is Albert Pujols. The Mariners are 3-4 good players away from contention, and because of that reality, their offseason plan needs to consist of something besides “spend a lot of money on one premium guy.” That won’t be enough. They have to do more than just bring in one high paid star player, or else we’ll just be looking at another season as an also ran.