What Have we Seen at the Projected Worst Positions in Baseball?

There are a few annual series we run here at FanGraphs. One of them is the annual trade-value series, where Dave gets to write glowingly about Mike Trout. Another one of them is the annual positional power rankings series, where some randomly assigned lucky author gets to write glowingly about Mike Trout. The positional power rankings are intended to highlight the strongest positions in baseball, but you can’t identify the strongest without also identifying the weakest. Granted, the rankings are only as strong as the projections, but the projections are solid, and so, here were the five weakest projected positions coming into the 2014 regular season:

  • Mets bullpen, -2.3 standard deviations from average
  • Astros rotation, -2.1
  • Marlins first basemen, -2.1
  • Marlins third basemen, -1.9
  • Blue Jays second basemen, -1.9

Nothing in there was shocking. And a lot of that stuff wasn’t particularly relevant. Only the Blue Jays, out of that group, were looking to contend. So there was a lot of conversation in spring training about what the Blue Jays were going to do at second base. Their solution back then: nothing! The situation, however, has changed. All of the situations have changed to some degree, because the future always introduces new information. The point of all this: Those were the five worst projected positions coming into the year. How have the players at those positions actually done? How have the teams actually maneuvered?

Mets bullpen

  • Projection: -2.3 standard deviations from average
  • Performance: -1.7

The Mets were projected to have the worst bullpen in baseball, with the most valuable arm being Bobby Parnell‘s. This year, Parnell made one appearance and then was told he needed Tommy John surgery. In a sense, then, the Mets’ bullpen has over-performed. Without Parnell, this unit was supposed to be particularly dreadful. Now, by WAR, it’s still sucked. It’s actually second-worst in baseball, and below replacement-level. Confusingly, the unit is middle-of-the-pack by RA9-WAR, because they have a 3.14 ERA to go with a 3.77 FIP. It’s been helpful to get so much out of Jenrry Mejia. Jeurys Familia is running another sub-2 ERA. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that, this season, the Mets’ bullpen has featured Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jose Valverde, and Kyle Farnsworth. Maybe that tells you enough about how things have gone, but while the bullpen hasn’t exactly helped the Mets to hang in the race, they were never supposed to hang in the race in this season, and there are bits and pieces there that could contribute for the next good team. You worry about the bullpen when the rest of the roster is good enough to make the bullpen matter.

Astros rotation

  • Projection: -2.1 standard deviations from average
  • Performance: -0.2

An excerpt from the positional power rankings:

But that future is not here, and it’s not even all that close yet. So you get Scott Feldman, staff ace. I like Scott Feldman, but when he’s not only your ace but projects for as much value as your #2-#4 starters put together, well, that’s not great.

One thing we know the Astros don’t have is a wonderful starting rotation, today. But it’s absolutely been better than expected, to the point where Jeff Luhnow has expressed a willingness to move a starter because the team thinks it might have too many. The Astros’ rotation has been basically average, sandwiched between the A’s and the Royals, and you already know the big reasons why. About Feldman projecting for as much value as the other guys behind him put together: Feldman’s got a WAR of 0.6. Four other guys are at 1.2 or better, with Dallas Keuchel leading the way and Collin McHugh coming completely out of nowhere. Keuchel, we maybe should’ve seen coming to some extent. McHugh, no way. That’s just a miracle. Maybe your version of a miracle doesn’t have a 94 FIP-, but considering what the Astros could’ve been dealing with, the rotation has kept them from being a total embarrassment.

Marlins first basemen

  • Projection: -2.1 standard deviations from average
  • Performance: -0.8

Fun fact: Marlins first basemen, combined, projected for -0.4 WAR. Garrett Jones didn’t project well, but at least the Marlins signed him for two guaranteed years. Now, Marlins first basemen are on pace to be worth -0.3 WAR. Jones, it turns out, still isn’t good. But while the team is hitting its positional projection, it’s still better, relatively speaking, than the expectation, because other teams have had disasters. The Astros are already at -1.9. The Rangers are at -1.7. Seven teams are in the red, with the Marlins being the best of them. Marlins first basemen haven’t over-performed. Other first basemen have under-performed. The internal suck level has been consistent, but the external suck context has made for a different landscape.

Marlins third basemen

  • Projection: -1.9 standard deviations from average
  • Performance: 0.2

So the Marlins didn’t project very well as a team. This, right here, was totally understandable. The Marlins were in position to give the playing time at third base to Casey McGehee and Ty Wigginton. Over McGehee’s two previous years in the bigs, he’d been below replacement. Wigginton had been a catastrophe since 2008. McGehee was coming off a year in Japan where he did well, but he had a track record of not being very good. McGehee, at this writing, has two home runs. He also has a 114 wRC+ and a BABIP closer to .400 than .300. The Marlins have expressed reluctance to trade him for some reason. This is just one of those weird things. McGehee and Jose Fernandez, together, were projected to be worth 4.7 WAR. They’re on pace to be worth, together, 4.7 WAR. They’re just getting there in a different way than we thought. McGehee and the Marlins at third base have been as productive as David Wright and the Mets at third base, who ranked No. 2 in the positional power rankings.

Blue Jays second basemen

  • Projection: -1.9 standard deviations from average
  • Performance: -0.1

Maybe the oddest thing about last offseason was the way we were all forced to learn the name Ryan Goins. He was the guy the Jays were willing to say they were happy with. They tried to do some things — they tried to get Ian Kinsler — but they didn’t try hard enough, which is why Goins looked like the starter at second out of spring training. Our projections split time between Goins, Maicer Izturis, and Munenori Kawasaki, and in all, Jays second basemen projected to be almost exactly replacement-level.

So far they’ve been average, as a unit. They’ve out-performed the Rays at second, and the Rays ranked No. 2 in the positional power rankings. They’ve been even with Jason Kipnis and the Indians. Goins has been lousy, but he hasn’t even batted 100 times, because second base has also included Brett Lawrie and Steve Tolleson. Allowing for that flexibility has been the semi-emergence of Juan Francisco, and now the Jays have added Danny Valencia, who makes for an intriguing Francisco platoon partner. So when the Jays get healthy again, they’ll still have the option of having Lawrie at second, and that’s just more and more time we can all spend not watching Ryan Goins play baseball.

Coming into the year, Toronto’s second-base situation looked like one of the very worst situations among potential contenders. Through four months, they’ve done more than just manage — they’ve done pretty well for themselves, to the point now where they might not need to address the position in the next few days. What Toronto hasn’t done is identify a long-term solution at the spot, but you can’t have long-term solutions everywhere all the time, and mixing and matching has served them well. For as much criticism as the Jays’ front office received after a winter of little activity, they never panicked and they never had to. That inactivity currently has them in a playoff position.

We hoped you liked reading What Have we Seen at the Projected Worst Positions in Baseball? by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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Angel dust in the outfield
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Giants 2B wins all the bad prizes.