Breaking Down Where the Wins Have Come From

The Cardinals won again on Thursday. It should go without saying they’re far from being the hottest team in baseball, but they’ve played well over the last couple months, hanging around in both the wild-card and Central division races. The Cardinals have won 36 of their past 60 games, which, over a full season, would be good enough to put them on a 97-win pace. Other teams have been better, but the Cardinals have been strong.

Something that strikes me about this Cardinals team in particular is its distribution of talent. Tommy Pham wasn’t expected to make this kind of impact. Neither was Luke Weaver, or Paul DeJong. Dave just wrote about the emerging Jose Martinez. It’s a team with surprises, but then, it’s also a team light on elites. Pham is their only 4+ WAR player. Carlos Martinez is their only other 3+ WAR player. So many other players have just been…good. Helpful enough. These Cardinals seem like the very opposite of top-heavy.

That’s an impression. Below is the math. Following a hunch or two, I broke down every single team, in terms of its basic WAR distribution. We can start off by just looking at overall WAR.

That’s team position-player WAR + pitcher WAR. Very simple, very easy. There are slight differences between team WAR and team win-loss record, but that mostly just comes down to unsustainable timing elements. Looking at things like this is by far the easiest thing to do, and I imagine it hasn’t escaped your attention that the Indians, and not the Dodgers, are over there in first. They’re actually in first by more than four wins. That basically matches the Indians’ advantage in BaseRuns record. The Dodgers still own the best record in baseball, but you could argue pretty convincingly that the Indians are and have been superior. I don’t want to get into that right now, but, there you go.

Time to start with the more detailed breakdown. That image above shows overall team WAR. This next image shows combined WAR for each team’s top five players, only. In case you’re curious, this still counts, say, Justin Verlander’s contribution with the Tigers, even though he’s no longer on the team. What’s done is done.

The Nationals show up as having the best stars, although they’re essentially tied with the Indians. The Padres are all the way over there in last, but, there’s nothing surprising about the Padres being bad. A couple particular notes here — the Reds are bad, but they rank here in ninth. That’s a very good ranking! Don’t blame the Reds’ misfortune on the top of the roster. And then the Cardinals are in 17th. Sure enough, their best players have ranked around the middle of the pack.

That’s the top five. How about the next five? The best of the supporting players, if you will.

Three teams emerge, here — the Astros, Dodgers, and Nationals. Meanwhile, you see the Angels plummet, after having ranked around the middle. It remains true that the Angels are a top-heavy ballclub, and while they have given Mike Trout a little more support, that’s less in terms of depth, and more in terms of just securing a stronger top five. I should note that, since I started by talking about the Cardinals, here you can find them in seventh. That’s a good deal better than where they were in the first plot.

Finally, this plot shows everything else. This is team WAR from the 11th-best player on through the end. This might be the truest measure of depth.

The Cardinals are in a rather impressive second place. My initial hunch was correct — they have done an unusually good job of spreading the performance around. But, looking at this image, it’s not the Cardinals you’d want to talk about. It’s the Indians, in first place, at +17.1 WAR. That gives them five-win clearance over second, and this is a strong reflection of how deep the Indians have been all season. The team has good “best” players. It has good “next-best” players. It has the best remaining role players. The line between player 10 and player 11 is between Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin. After Tomlin, there’s Bradley Zimmer, Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, and so on. The Indians have 18 different players who’ve been worth at least 1 WAR, while the average team has 12 or 13. The Indians don’t have an easily exploitable weakness, which is as good an explanation as any for a historic winning streak.

Remember how the Reds’ top five players ranked ninth? Here, they’re 29th. They’re in front of only the woeful White Sox, whose filler players have performed at a collective five wins below replacement. I guess the White Sox have had something of a severe depth problem for a while. It’s just that, this year, it’s not the only reason they haven’t won.

What follows are two large tables. This first one summarizes the information shown above. This shows every team, and its rank in each of the categories. The table ought to be sortable.

Team WAR Ranks, 2017
Team Top 5 Next 5 Rest Total
Angels 13 30 13 17
Astros 5 1 5 3
Athletics 29 17 15 24
Blue Jays 18 13 23 20
Braves 26 21 18 25
Brewers 12 14 12 13
Cardinals 17 7 2 8
Cubs 11 18 4 9
Diamondbacks 8 8 7 6
Dodgers 3 3 3 2
Giants 27 28 26 28
Indians 2 5 1 1
Mariners 14 9 21 16
Marlins 7 25 22 14
Mets 22 22 8 12
Nationals 1 2 14 5
Orioles 21 24 25 27
Padres 30 29 28 30
Phillies 24 27 16 26
Pirates 25 12 19 21
Rangers 19 10 24 19
Rays 16 11 9 10
Red Sox 6 6 11 7
Reds 9 20 29 18
Rockies 10 26 17 15
Royals 15 16 27 23
Tigers 20 19 20 22
Twins 23 15 10 11
White Sox 28 23 30 29
Yankees 4 4 6 4

The Indians rank no worse than fifth in any category. The Dodgers rank no worse than third. The Astros, also, rank no worse than fifth, and the Yankees rank no worse than sixth. The Padres rank no better than 28th. You can see in here how the Cardinals have spread it around. You can see how the Marlins and Reds have been their opposite. I’m not going to pursue this any further, now — this is for your own perusal.

The final table shows a comparison between team ranks in 2016 and 2017. This shows how each team’s rank has moved in each category, where a positive number means an improvement. The Giants, for example, have a -21 under Total, meaning their total team WAR has dropped by 21 spots. Again, this should be sortable.

Changes in WAR Ranks, 2016 – 2017
Team Top 5 Next 5 Rest Total
Angels -3 -3 12 3
Astros 3 9 6 6
Athletics 1 8 14 5
Blue Jays -11 -9 -11 -12
Braves -4 9 8 3
Brewers 13 8 8 10
Cardinals 7 0 0 2
Cubs -9 -17 -3 -8
Diamondbacks 8 18 16 16
Dodgers 0 6 2 1
Giants -22 -14 -22 -21
Indians 2 1 5 4
Mariners -5 15 -6 -2
Marlins 7 -9 -8 -1
Mets -7 -17 -5 -6
Nationals 5 1 -7 -1
Orioles -4 -11 -16 -15
Padres -3 -8 -1 -3
Phillies -5 -10 12 -1
Pirates 3 7 -6 0
Rangers -1 10 -5 0
Rays 5 4 9 8
Red Sox -5 -4 -3 -5
Reds 14 8 1 12
Rockies 3 -15 7 2
Royals 14 7 -10 1
Tigers -8 -1 -10 -11
Twins 3 14 11 15
White Sox -17 -11 -8 -13
Yankees 16 4 10 11

As far as the Cardinals go, they were more or less just as deep last season as they are now. The difference this time has been a seven-spot improvement by the best players. That’s a big move, but it has nothing on, say, the Yankees’ 16-spot improvement from the top five. Or the Giants’ 22-spot drop. That drop by the Giants is tied for the biggest move in the table. The only other 22-spot shift belongs to the…Giants, whose role players have also fallen by 22 places. It’s been a nightmare of a season in San Francisco. I’m not sure if you noticed.

The Diamondbacks have surged, across the board. The Twins have had a similar, if more modest surge. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, have fallen apart everywhere, while the Orioles have mostly been missing their depth. I’ll give points for weirdness to the Royals. Their best players have gotten better by 14 places, but their role players have gotten worse by 10 places, and as a result, the Royals are really no better or worse. It’s just a different way for them to be average.

That’s all I’ve got. The Cardinals are deep. The Dodgers are good. The Indians are a juggernaut. I don’t know if you actually learned anything, given how obvious those statements might seem, but at least we can have some solid evidence for our assumptions.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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How about the Yankees improvement across the board? I’m not usually a big “evil empire” guy, but ya gotta recognize………