In a perfect world, a bench wouldn’t need to contribute much at all, because in a perfect world, all nine (or eight) starters would be so productive and so consistent that a bench would barely be needed. But that’s not how it works. People get hurt, people go through slumps and people simply need a rest now and then, so the luxury of having not only depth, but productive depth, becomes a pretty important and easily forgotten part of a roster’s construction. The difference between the best and worst bench units this year is already around six wins, so the value of a good bench can really add up over time and have a pretty significant impact on a season.
What I’ve done is attempted to find the best and worst bench units of the 2014 season, so far. In the American League, I’ve added up the WAR of all players after the top nine plate appearance leaders. In the National League, all after the top eight, to reflect for the absence of a designated hitter. We’ll go over the worst and best top five teams in a little detail, with full results in graph form at the bottom. I’ve decided to present the worst group first, and I’ve decided to count down from five to one for the best group for the sake of suspense. Because that’s what FanGraphs is really all about. Building suspense. Let’s begin.
Last year, the Indians “Goon Squad” bench unit was worth a substantial 6 wins and were a big reason the team returned to the postseason. This year, a very similar unit has been one of the worst in the league. Part of the reason for the Goon Squad’s value was their consistency. Yan Gomes, Mike Aviles, Raburn and Giambi accounted for 93% of the bench’s 1,200 plate appearances. This year, Gomes became a starter, Giambi got “hurt,” Aviles has been replacement level with a fourth consecutive season of declining power output and Ryan Raburn has reverted back to 2012 disaster Raburn.
27. White Sox
446 hitters have accumulated at least 200 plate appearances since the beginning of last season. Leury Garcia has been the very worst hitter of that group, with a 19 wRC+. He has some value in being able to play second, third, short and all three outfield positions, but he hasn’t demonstrated the ability to play any of them particularly well at the major league level thus far. Paul Konerko is having one of those sad, slow deaths to an otherwise remarkable MLB career and Jordan Danks has regained the title of “Worst J. Danks on the Chicago White Sox.”
Dan Uggla stands alone in this section as the only player who was supposed to be a starter for their team and then ended up being a bench player. Not only just a bench player, but one of the worst bench players. After being cut by the Braves, Uggla went hitless in four games with the Giants and made three errors, giving him an extra -0.4 WAR that isn’t even reflected here.
The Mariners kind of fit the “stars and scrubs” model this year. The pitching staff, obviously, is led by mega-star Felix Hernandez and underrated-star Hisashi Iwakuma. The offense is led by mega-star Robinson Cano and underrated-star Kyle Seager. But that lineup has some holes. That’s how Stefen Romero amassed 180 plate appearances with a 52 wRC+, below average baserunning and below average defense. Good thing they traded for Austin Jackson! Logan Morrison’s presence on this list means the Mariners probably needed some help at 1B/DH, too. Good thing they traded for Kendrys Morales! Oh, wait.
For some reason this just doesn’t come as a huge surprise. I mean, it probably should. The Phillies are one of the oldest teams in the MLB, with an average age of 30, so conventional wisdom would be to assemble a strong bench to prepare for the frailty of having an old roster. But it just doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Seems like the Phillies have been finding themselves at the bottom of a lot of lists lately. Tony Gwynn Jr. lucked into some playing time due to Domonic Brown being literally the worst player in baseball this year, but wasn’t much better. If there’s a positive to take from all of this, it’s that none of these players play for the Phillies anymore! At the same time, it also means that Reid Brignac, Andres Blanco and Grady Sizemore do.
I mean, when your starters have been as bad as the Padres have been, you would hope the bench would be providing some value. Part of the reasoning behind this ranking is that there just haven’t been many consistent starters in San Diego, so the bench has accumulated a lot of playing time. But there have also been some pretty big contributions from that unit, too. Rene Rivera is actually second on the entire team in WAR, and that’s not even with his elite framing skills factored in. Rivera has always been a fantastic defensive catcher. A sudden power spike this season has turned him into quite the nifty bench piece.
This is a weird list. First you’ve got Caleb Joseph, who the Orioles probably never wanted to receive as much playing time as he has already this season. But thanks to a Matt Wieters injury, he has, and it hasn’t been half bad. Joseph has posted league-average numbers at the plate coupled with a strong arm and good framing. Then you’ve got Delmon Young and David Lough, who are total opposites but each doing what they do best. Delmon Young is hitting the ball hard and not walking. David Lough is playing crazy good defense and not hitting. Role players succeeding in their roles.
Thanks to a league average bat and a strong arm, Brandon Guyer has been a pretty useful piece off the Rays bench this year. Ryan Hanigan has been exactly what the Rays were counting on him to be when they acquired the 33-year-old catcher and then signed him to a three-year extension in the offseason. That is to say, one of the best defensive catchers in the MLB who can hit just enough to be pretty valuable. Sound like any other Rays catcher we know?
Of course the A’s are on this list. They’ve seemingly been the master of the platoon for a couple years now, and their depth and bench management has been vital to their recent resurgence as a franchise. Stephen Vogt is a weird catcher/right fielder hybrid who allows the A’s to DH John Jaso and still have a backup catcher without having to sacrifice a potential backup outfielder. The A’s traded for Gentry to serve as a fourth outfielder who provides both elite defense and speed, which is exactly what he’s done. And then there’s Kyle Blanks who I literally didn’t know was out of the Padres organization until I started doing this post, but it turns out he is and he’s been a monster so far in Oakland.
This one kind of surprised me. Well, first, let’s just tackle the elephant in the room, which is Chone Figgins being on this list. Weird. Anyway, this list kind of surprised me, but I guess it makes sense considering Justin Turner has provided more value himself than the entire bench units of 28 other teams. Turner has always been a league average hitter who can play all four infield positions, making him a pretty valuable piece off the bench. Then there’s Scott Van Slyke, whose three true outcome approach coupled with his ability to play surprisingly well in the outfield makes him a pretty valuable piece off the bench, too.
Here’s that graph I was talking about. The Tigers are in the middle there at 0.0:
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