MLB: The All-Average Lineup
What would a lineup comprised of average MLB players look like?
Sometimes in baseball, it’s okay to be average.
Wins Above Replacement looks at the value an MLB player brings to a team above what one might receive from a player signed as a free agent or brought up from AAA. Both Baseball Reference (bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR) calibrate their WAR calculations around the assumption that a team of such replacement-level players would play out a full season with a record of 48-114. For context, the 2003 Detroit Tigers had a record of 43-119.
An average player does not have a WAR of 0, because often an average player is not a career minor leaguer or a free agent in the middle of the season. An average player over a full season (approximately 600 plate appearances or 180 innings pitched) would accumulate in the neighborhood of 1.8 WAR. Let’s take a look at the math.
A truly average team would finish 81-81, or 33 wins above replacement level. The 30 major league teams averaged about 6,150 plate appearances and about 1,450 innings pitched. 6,150 plate appearances is about 10.25 full hitter seasons and 1,450 innings pitched is about eight full pitcher seasons. That’s 18.25 full seasons for 33 wins above replacement, which works out to 1.8 WAR per season.
A team full of average players – nine starting position players (including a DH for the American League), four or five bench players, five starting pitchers, and six or seven relief pitchers – would give you a record of 81-81. But what would such a team actually look like? Here is a batting lineup with a player at each position who had a more or less average season (according to WAR) in 2016.
Catcher – Cameron Rupp – 1.6 fWAR, 1.3 bWAR, 419 PA, 99 OPS+
Cameron Rupp falls a bit short of our 1.8 WAR benchmark, but catchers also don’t tend to reach 600 plate appearances in a season. Rupp had an average season by most every measure. His 99 OPS+ (a result of a .252/.303/.447 batting line in a favorable environment) is almost the definition of average. Rupp’s defense was more or less what you’d expect from a typical catcher, and his pitch framing ability rated 12th out of 25 catchers who received at least 5,000 pitches in 2016. Rupp is yet to reach arbitration eligibility, but he is already 28 years old. The Phillies will receive perfectly acceptable production from their catcher in 2017 until Jorge Alfaro is ready to take over.
First Base – Brad Miller – 2.0 fWAR, 1.6 bWAR, 601 PA, 113 OPS+
Brad Miller found his power stroke in his first season with the Rays, as his 30 home runs surpassed his career total from the previous three seasons. The .243 batting average and .304 OBP were nothing special, but Miller’s .482 slugging percentage was surpassed only by Corey Seager and Aledmys Diaz among those who played at least 100 games at shortstop. The problem is that Miller is a very poor defensive shortstop. Following the acquisition of Matt Duffy, Miller moved across the diamond to first base, where he was pretty average defensively over 303 innings pitched. As Miller enters his prime, the bat will play well at a position where more is expected offensively.
Second Base – Josh Harrison – 1.5 fWAR, 1.8 bWAR, 522 PA, 85 OPS+
Across parts of six seasons, Josh Harrison has proven that he is more of an average major league regular than the All-Star and MVP candidate we saw in 2014. After playing all over the diamond from 2011-2015, Harrison settled in as the starting second baseman for the Pirates in 2016. His strong .283 batting average was fairly empty, backed by just 18 walks and 36 extra base hits, resulting in a .699 OPS. Harrison did steal 19 bases in 23 attempts, though, and he was above average with the glove. At 29, Harrison may not be the future at second in Pittsburgh, but he’s more than adequate as a placeholder.
Shortstop – Danny Espinosa – 1.7 fWAR, 1.7 bWAR, 601 PA, 81 OPS+
Even though the Angels acquired Danny Espinosa to be their starting second baseman, Espinosa’s best asset in 2016 was his defense at shortstop. Of course, he was no Andrelton Simmons, who is firmly entrenched at the position in Anaheim. Espinosa flirted with the Mendoza line last season, ending up with a .209 average, but his 24 home runs and decent walk rate let the Nationals stomach his batting in exchange for the glovework. Espinosa’s defense at second base has been solid throughout his career, so similar results can probably be expected in 2017.
Third Base – Yunel Escobar – 1.6 fWAR, 1.6 bWAR, 567 PA, 108 OPS+
Over the last several seasons, Yunel Escobar turned from a very good defensive shortstop into a very poor defensive third baseman. Most teams would prefer more than five home runs from their third baseman, and leadoff hitters tend to do better than 0-for-3 stealing bases. However, Escobar has a strong ability to get on base, as his .304 average and .355 OBP would attest. Escobar’s defense probably isn’t getting any better as he enters his age-34 season, but his bat should make up for those deficiencies for another couple of seasons.
Left Field – Melky Cabrera – 1.6 fWAR, 2.6 bWAR, 646 PA, 120 OPS+
Depending on which metrics you prefer, Melky Cabrera is either a below average left fielder or a miserable left fielder. On the other side of the field, Cabrera rebounded from a very disappointing first season on the south side of Chicago to post a batting line of .296/.345/.455. His 42 doubles were good for third in the American League, and his 47 walks were his most since 2006 as a 21-year-old rookie. Cabrera has combined poor defense with above average offensive production for much of his career, and that should continue as he enters 2017 playing for a new contract.
Center Field – Leonys Martin – 2.2 fWAR, 1.2 bWAR, 576 PA, 88 OPS+
Leonys Martin had his worst defensive season in center field in his first year in Seattle, which meant he was average instead of great. His 15 home runs were a welcome addition, and somewhat surprising given he did not display much power during his tenure in Texas. Martin has good speed and is a good baserunner, adding value to his somewhat below average bat. Martin’s ability to rebound defensively will be key to the Mariners trying to end their postseason drought in 2017.
Right Field – Carlos Gonzalez – 1.9 fWAR, 2.2 bWAR, 632 PA, 111 OPS+
Carlos Gonzalez is now seven years removed from finishing third in MVP voting in 2010. His .298/.350/.505 batting line is tempered somewhat from playing in Coors Field, and his defense is decent but no longer Gold Glove caliber. It’s hard to imagine a three-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, and two-time Silver Slugger as an average player, but that is what Gonzalez has become at this point in his career. He will be playing out the final year of his seven-year contract in 2017, and Gonzalez would serve himself well to take advantage of the friendly Colorado atmosphere one last time before hitting free agency.
Designated Hitter – Mark Trumbo – 2.2 fWAR, 1.6 bWAR, 667 PA, 120 OPS+
Yes, Mark Trumbo led baseball with 47 home runs for Baltimore in 2016. He also was a horrible defensive outfielder. Trumbo spent 59 games in the DH spot last season, and he would provide more value as a full-time DH than as a full-time outfielder. In his career, Trumbo has actually performed fairly admirably as a first baseman, but the market for 1B/DH types remains flooded. Trumbo continues to hold out for the type of offers in free agency that may not come. There are simply too many adequate options available for power bats at first base to result in Trumbo getting much better than the three years, $40 million that the Orioles reportedly offered early in the offseason.
Put it all together and you have a lineup that looks something like this:
- Yunel Escobar – 3B
- Melky Cabrera – LF
- Carlos Gonzalez – RF
- Mark Trumbo – DH
- Brad Miller – 1B
- Cameron Rupp – C
- Josh Harrison – 2B
- Leonys Martin – CF
- Danny Espinosa – SS
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While this kind of lineup probably wouldn’t make the playoffs, it’s a great start toward approaching .500. Nobody likes to be average, but in Major League Baseball, average is pretty darn good.