The importance of not having bad players

Think you could be a general manager? I think, in the beginning, a lot of people think they could do the job. Then, later on, they come to learn of the complexity, and fewer remain so confident. Being a general manager is incredibly difficult, support staff be damned. But I’ve got a hot tip for you — every front office out there has the same strategy. I don’t know if it could be any simpler. The strategy of all 30 teams in major-league baseball:

It’s that easy. There’s no disagreement over the strategy. The separator tends to be player evaluation. Which players are good? Which players will remain good? Which players will be the most good? The teams that have the most good players tend to be the strongest teams. You might not know why you bothered to read these paragraphs.

When it comes to team-building, so much of the emphasis is on accumulating as many good players as possible. And that’s good, that’s important, because that’s the biggest key to winning games. But there’s another side of this, one that tends to get ignored. It’s important to have good players, but it’s also important to not have *bad* players. That might seem like saying the same thing. They’re related, but they aren’t identical.

For example, let’s consider two hypothetical mini-teams. Team A has three players. Two of those players are both +4. The third player is 0. Team B also has three players. Two of those players are both +4. The third player is -1. Of Team A and Team B, you could say each has a pair of good players. But Team B also has that bad player, relative to Team A’s 0. So by this simple math, Team A comes out at +8, and Team B comes out at +7. The good players are critical, but a bad player still made a difference.

Reality isn’t quite that clean, in that teams are much bigger and we don’t have perfect measures of performance, but we do have Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. So for the sake of this example, let’s trust those 2015 WAR figures. It’s pretty easy to navigate over to FanGraphs and figure out which teams have generated the most and the least total WAR. It’s tougher to break that down. How much of that WAR is coming from good players, and how much negative WAR is coming from bad players? It’s the latter I’m going to focus on here — enough attention is already paid to the good-player side of the equation.

You’re going to see a table below, of all 30 teams, and 2015 negative WAR totals. The thing about WAR is it comes with a really convenient baseline, the level of performance expected from a so-called replacement-level player. Ideally, no playing time ever goes to guys who aren’t at least replacement-level, but we don’t live in an ideal world, as you can just ask the Phillies. So I’ve gone through all the 2015 data, and I’ve found all the players with a WAR below 0, and I’ve sorted them by team. Then it was just adding up numbers.

Some of this is about depth. Some of this is about not needing depth. Some of this is luck. But the general idea is a simple one: Which teams have gotten the most negative performances, from players they’ve played? And which teams have spent the least time putting up with subpar performances?

  • get good players
Team Negative WAR
Astros -1.0
Blue Jays -1.1
Yankees -1.2
Royals -1.4
Cardinals -1.6
Orioles -1.6
Dodgers -1.8
Mets -2.0
Pirates -2.7
Angels -2.8
Nationals -2.9
Brewers -3.1
Giants -3.1
Diamondbacks -3.2
Cubs -3.3
Rangers -3.4
Padres -3.5
Indians -3.6
Athletics -3.7
Red Sox -3.8
Reds -3.9
Marlins -4.2
Rays -4.4
Braves -5.0
Mariners -5.1
Tigers -5.2
Twins -5.3
Rockies -5.9
White Sox -6.2
Phillies -6.6

Maybe that doesn’t seem like much of a spread to you, but remember that the units here are wins, full wins, and we’re not even to the halfway point of the season. The average is -3.4, meaning at the top you’ve got an advantage of more than two wins, and at the bottom a deficit of three wins. Not that the Phillies should really count as evidence of anything — they were never going to be competitive — but we can examine the non-Phillies results.

And what’s most interesting to me are the Astros. They might be the best example of the concept. By negative WAR, or really by avoiding negative WAR, the Astros rank No. 1 in baseball. By positive WAR, they’re No. 15, right in the middle of the pack. Obviously, the good players are important, but the Astros have also gotten a lift from the bottom. They haven’t had bad players bringing them down. They’ve been at least adequate all over the place, and when they’ve needed help, they’ve been able to dig in the system.

The Astros have had surface-level ability, and depth. There’s Hank Conger, behind Jason Castro. There’s been Carlos Correa, behind Marwin Gonzalez, behind Jed Lowrie. Preston Tucker has done an admirable job after being pressed into service. Domingo Santana has come up. Lance McCullers has been outstanding in the rotation. Vincent Velasquez seems to be at least adequate. And so on. The bullpen’s deep. There are still players on the farm. By negative WAR, the Astros are separated from the Angels by two wins. From the A’s by three wins. From the Rangers by somewhere in between.

And funny enough, when I looked at this same thing last October, examining the 2012-2014 window, the Astros came in dead last. Which means in a way, this happened quickly. The Astros had to put up with a lot of crap, but they’ve suddenly arrived, and they’ve arrived with depth to support a more-than-adequate front line. I wouldn’t quite call them "complete," but they aren’t far away.

Right behind the Astros are the Blue Jays and Yankees, who have been modest surprises. I don’t mean to just skip over them, so, let’s all take a moment. Great. But now we have to move on, because I can’t keep writing forever. I wanted to highlight the Royals, in fourth. Right now, the Royals lead the Twins by 3.5 games in the AL Central. They lead the Tigers by 6 games. Just by avoiding negative WAR, the Royals have given themselves a four-game advantage over both of those rivals. By positive WAR, the Tigers and Royals are nearly even.

The Royals might not really be a team full of All-Stars, but they have been mostly a team full of at least adequate players. Rare has been the instance that the Royals have put up with a player actively dragging them down. It’s a type of strength, avoiding weakness. Granted, in the Tigers’ case, a contributor here has been the awful performance from Victor Martinez. That presumably has had to do with injury, and it’s not like they could easily sit Martinez down. But it still informs the point. It’s not just that Martinez hasn’t been good. It’s that he’s been bad, and the Tigers have played him. So they ended up in a situation the Royals didn’t face.

There are eight different teams with no more than 2 negative WAR. And there are seven different teams with at least 5 negative WAR. Three of them have been intending to compete, and this helps explain why they’ve been disappointments. The Mariners have gotten a lot of bad contributions from seemingly decent players. The Tigers’ strength is more about front-line players, not depth. And the White Sox just seemed like an incomplete team. They have an excellent core, but almost nothing around it, and this is what can happen. The White Sox would be in the race, if the negatives were just less negative. Instead, they’re going to have to regroup.

Don’t take this to mean more than it does. Ultimately, the most important thing is assembling a group of good players. But they can’t all be good players. And when the good players run out, you want to be able to avoid having to play the bad ones. Some of that is just going to be up to luck, but some of that, you can prepare for. There’s no such thing as being too prepared.