Early next week, our Positional Power Rankings are going to turn to the pitching staffs. I’m slated to write about the top 15 starting rotations, and if I were to begin writing that piece now, I’d end up discussing how the Dodgers have the best starting rotation in the game. This is a controversial statement, because the Dodgers are built upon fragility, and they’ve already had something like 27 pitchers injured. How could the Dodgers possibly have a better rotation than, say, the Mets? The Mets roll four or five deep. They have three could-be aces. It’s easy to love the Mets; it’s correct to love the Mets. The argument for the Dodgers is that they have plenty of depth, and it’s also — importantly — that they have Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw’s not hurt, and Kershaw is basically two aces in one. No rotation has a better starting point.
I’ll write about that next week. I’ll write about it using many of the same words. When ranking the best groups, I think people have a bias toward even spreads over something more top-heavy. All of this here also functions as a spoiler. The PPR series runs down the rankings at every individual position, but a question a lot of people like to debate is, which team has baseball’s best outfield? We’ve had this conversation before, a year ago or something, when fans would compare and contrast the Marlins and the Pirates. Those remain two very good outfields. Yet based on what we have on FanGraphs, baseball’s best projected outfield for 2016 will play half its games in Anaheim.
It’s close, of course. And it’s close enough it’s really more like a toss-up, because the numbers aren’t nearly so accurate. When you have a difference of a fraction of a win, it might as well be no difference at all, because there’s plenty of error-bar overlap. But any lead is a lead, even if it’s by a hair, and this is what I’m presently looking at. Behold, the top five projected outfields:
We have the Angels in first, at +12.3. They have about a two-run — a two-run — advantage over the Pirates, and then there’s about a win difference between the Angels and the Marlins. The gap gets plenty big when you get down to fourth and fifth place. Not that you can’t argue every single one of these numbers, but while the Marlins and Pirates will again field highly talented units, when you group the three positions together the Angels rise to the top. They have the top combination of three positions because they have the top one position.
The parallel is obvious. Mike Trout is to the Angels outfield as Clayton Kershaw is to the Dodgers rotation. What the Pirates and Marlins have is talent and depth. They’d be the Mets, here. With Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco, the Pirates run three deep on tremendous ability. You could say the same of the Marlins, with Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. Those teams have the greatest number of potential good outfielders, which people are drawn to, but it’s too easy to forget that Trout is like two Starling Martes in one. Over the last two seasons, Marte has been worth 8 WAR. Last season alone, Trout was worth 9 WAR. So let me take that back. Trout is arguably better than two Starling Martes in one. He’s like two Starling Martes, if the original Starling Marte were a slightly better baseball player.
It doesn’t seem to me like the projections are being too optimistic. The Angels rank first in center field, 10th in right field, and 25th in left field. They should be ranked first in center field. That’s inarguable. And moving over, Kole Calhoun is pretty damn underrated. He’s not a great player, and he’s a borderline All-Star when he’s on a hot streak, but the last two years Calhoun has the same WAR as Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton. Calhoun’s both nifty and 28. And I’d argue the Angels might even have under-appreciated left-field upside. Now, the Angels already tried to trade for Michael Saunders. They don’t love what they have at the moment. But Daniel Nava has a career 119 wRC+ against righties. Craig Gentry has a career 100 wRC+ against lefties, and he’s been tremendous on the bases and in the field. Even if the Angels were to stick with these players, I wouldn’t be shocked if left field doubled up on that 0.7-WAR projection. I don’t need to get too deep into this. There’s a reason why Nava and Gentry were easy to acquire. Maybe they’ll work and maybe they won’t. Even when they’re projected to not really work, the Angels outfield overall still looks better than anyone’s.
As you understand, this doesn’t mean the Angels are a good baseball team. Isolating outfielders, the Angels rank first in baseball in projected WAR. Isolating non-outfielders, the Angels rank 26th in baseball in projected WAR. They’re right between the Rockies and…oh, hey, it’s the Marlins again. Then you have the Brewers, Braves, and Phillies. The Angels are competitive because of their outfield, and their outfield is good mostly because of one player. Outside of that one player, the Angels are a group we’d think ought to be rebuilding. Outside of Trout, the Angels’ situation is miserable. They’d be a bad team with a bad farm system. That’s the worst situation to be in.
But the Angels aren’t in that situation, because of their center fielder. A baseball team isn’t a basketball team. A baseball team can’t ever be carried by one individual player. Yet Mike Trout comes the closest. Mike Trout gives the Angels the best outfield in baseball, and when he’s healthy, he also keeps the Angels from being in a terrible, terrible place. You could say there’s no more important player in the game today. Mike Trout is the Angels, and the Angels are Mike Trout. Anything else is hard to imagine.
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