FanPost

Position Players vs. Pitching


I was exploring Fangraphs, got bored, and decided to take a very non-rigorous look at current playoff contenders and how they structured their team.

In my mind, an oft-quoted rule of thumb for playoff contention is that hitting gets you to the playoffs, while pitching gets you the World Series.

So, I wanted to see if this was true of current playoff contenders in the AL and NL. I have organized the tables by listing the teams in order of their record in each league.

AL

AL Teams

Position Players (WAR)

Rank

Pitchers (WAR)

Rank

Rays

20.3

4th

11.5

5th

Yankees

21.9

3rd

10.2

8th

Rangers

17.4

5th

11.5

6th

Red Sox

22.7

2nd

13.3

3rd

White Sox

11.2

9th

18.1

1st

Twins

22.9

1st

14.1

2nd

 

NL

NL Teams

Position Players (WAR)

Rank

Pitchers (WAR)

Rank

Padres

17.8

2nd

10.7

9th

Giants

16.8

5th

13.7

2nd

Braves

15.4

6th

12.9

4th

Reds

20.1

1st

9.5

12th

Cardinals

17.5

3rd

11.0

8th

Phillies

13.9

8th

10.2

10th

 

The first thing to notice is that the AL is truly a much tougher league than the NL. You have to basically be good at everything in order to contend, and even then it might not be good enough (Red Sox are second and third in the AL for position players' and pitchers' WAR generation yet they might not even make the playoffs because they are in the AL East). In the AL, each contending team is in the top 6 of both categories, except the White Sox (who have a much below median rank of 9th when it comes to their position players) and the Yankees (who have a below median rank of 8th for their pitchers). Ironically, the White Sox did not upgrade their position players much, and instead focused on acquiring Edwin Jackson. Weird.

But let's focus on the NL, where our beloved Diamondbacks play. Here, it seems having good position players improves your playoff odds substantially. Every playoff contender is in the top half of the NL when it comes to WAR generation for their position players, whereas two-thirds of the teams are at the median rank or lower when it comes to pitching. Only the Giants and Braves have top tier pitching. In the position player rankings, the only teams in the top 8 that are not contending for the playoffs are the 4th place Brewers, and the 7th place Diamondbacks. This is due to abysmally bad pitching, as the Brewers rank 3rd from the bottom with a WAR of 6.8 and the Diamondbacks are even worse, at 2nd from the bottom with a WAR of 5.1. This seems to suggest that, at least in the NL, teams should focus on building a strong team of position players (if you have to spend money) in order to try to make the playoffs, much more so than gathering strong pitching. The other point of note, is that pitchers simply inherently generate less WAR than position players, so spending more resources on position players seems to make sense.

An important piece of information I wish to point out is that this isn't the traditional rule that "hitting gets you into the playoffs" because position players encompass fielding as well. For instance, the Padres rank 2nd in WAR generation for their position players. However, their hitting is terrible. Their wOBA (a stat that essentially measures offensive ability through weighting OBP and SLG) is 3rd worst in the league at .309 (an average player would be at .340). Fortunately for them, their defense is impeccable. They rank first in the NL, and almost all of their position players' WAR has come from their defense.

This brings me back to an article Fangraphs published recently about the Dan Haren trade. While I still believe the trade to be wrong, the article points out an interesting development in the organizational strategy of our FO, which I hope is not short-lived. The FO should do everything within its power to develop a core of cheap, young pitching and spend resources on obtaining position players who can contribute with both their bats and their fielding. This is because pitchers don't generate as much WAR as position players, and you only need somewhere between 15-18 WAR from pitchers (combining starters and relievers) to have a shot at making the playoffs. Another aspect that I suspect, but don't have any evidence for, is that the marginal cost of WAR for pitchers is higher than that for position players on the market.

In any case, I think this positions us well for 2012-2013-2014. All of our pitchers are going to be incredibly cheap. A good, above average bullpen generates about 4 WAR. So even if we target 18 WAR as the goal for our "cheap pitching project," that is reachable. 14 WAR from our starting pitchers probably requires an ace that can get us 6 WAR a year (didn't we just give up one of those guys?) but even without going out and buying one, we can probably just hope we hit the lottery on one of our multitude of young pitching prospect arms. The cool thing about our system is that a lot of arms are good bets to be of the 1.5-3 WAR variety, and four of those plus the imaginary ace that hopefully shows up will make us good enough pitching-wise to contend. And due to their cheapness, we'll be able to spend money on the position players we need in order to contend.

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