The average major league baseball team won 81 games last year. It lost 81, too. It scored 787 runs, which is also the number of runs it allowed. It hit 180 home runs, struck out 1,055 times and hit 47 sacrifice flies. Yes, it allowed that many, too.
Not very interesting, huh? But when you’re putting a book together with over 150 pages of stats, you notice these things. You particularly notice how much space each team requires. The average team had 46 different players on its roster during the year, ranging from 57 for the Nationals to 37 for the White Sox. Let me tell you, it was tough to fit the stats of 57 different players into a few pages in the THT Annual.
Still, I was intrigued about all those players. If you were to construct a typical team based on who played last year, what would it look like? How many young guys would there be? Old guys? Who would be the stars? The benchwarmers? So, powered by Caffeine-Free Diet Dr. Pepper (stupid doctors!), I thought I’d try to figure it out.
Rookies and Sophomores
The typical team employed 24 different first- or second-year players during the year. In other words, half of a team’s roster consisted of players with little major league experience, making the minimum salary or a little more. The Royals employed the most (36) and the White Sox employed the least (15), but every team relied on youngsters to a large extent.
Over half of the kids were pitchers (13 per team), and one-third (nine per team) were relief pitchers. The rest were spread pretty evenly among positions, with a slightly higher number of second basemen and a lower number of designated hitters.
Of course, most of these players saw little playing time. I like to use expected Win Shares as a playing time metric, because it’s based on plate appearances, innings in the field and innings pitched. In other words, it’s a universal playing time metric. A full-time player who remains healthy all year will accumulate at least 15 expected Win Shares. One who’s in and out of the lineup a bit, perhaps due to injury, will have 10-15. A part-time player will accumulate five to 10 expected Win Shares if he plays approximately 50 games. Benchwarmers and guys up for a cup of coffee will accrue less than five expected Win Shares.
The standards are different for pitchers. A full-time, healthy starting pitcher will accrue about seven to 12 expected Win Shares; one who starts around 20 games or less will total less than than eight. For relief pitchers, a full-time, healthy closer will accrue about seven to eight expected Win Shares, a setup man will total four to six, and pure middle relief guys generally get three to four, even if they are on the roster for the full year.
Anyway, it was in the bullpen that these juniors had the biggest relative impact. The minimum-salary crew accounted for 60% of expected Win Shares among all relievers, and their overall performance was about average: .496 Win Shares Percentage. Five of the best nine relievers in the majors last year were in this group, including Jonathan Papelbon, Takashi Saito, J.J. Putz, Joel Zumaya and Chris Ray (ranking based on Win Shares Above Bench).
The kids had less of an impact among position players and starting pitchers, accounting for 47% of playing time in both categories, but only about 30% of WSAB (32% for starting pitchers and 29% for position players). Their Win Shares Percentage was .470 for both groups of players.
There were young stars among the starters and position players of course, but not nearly to the extent as the relievers. Only one of last year’s 10 best major league starting pitchers was a rookie or sophomore (Francisco Liriano) and rookies/sophs comprised just six of the top 20 starters. Among position players, three of the top 10 players were kids, and seven of the top 20. Their best positions were third base (where they accounted for 48% of all major league Win Shares Above Bench) and catcher (41%).
Summing up, half of a typical team was composed of rookies and sophomores. These included one healthy regular position player (over 15 Expected Win Shares) and one fairly regular player (10-15). The other position players were bench and role players. If the team was lucky, it had a star starting pitcher among the kids, but most likely had one semi-regular/partly healthy starter in the fold. The real payoff was in the bullpen, where the typical team used kids 60% of the time and some of them had great years.
Your typical team also had eight players who were eligible for arbitration: two starting pitchers, two relievers and four position players. The Giants only had two arbitration-eligible players; the Rangers had 17.
Among the position players, there were 21 catchers (five were regulars) but only nine second basemen (and just four designated hitters). Their performance ran from the ridiculous (-3 WSAB for Luis Matos in Baltimore) to the sublime (Albert Pujols). The typical team had one full-time arbitration player (such as Vernon Wells, Adam Everett and Joe Crede), one semi-regular (think Coco Crisp or Morgan Ensberg—many of the players in this category missed time due to injury) and two benchwarmers/role players.
The typical team also had a full-time regular starting pitcher among the arbitration-eligible gang, ranging from stars (including the two Cy Young award winners, Johan Santana and Brandon Webb) to so-so (such as Josh Fogg). The typical team also had one starter who filled in some starts, perhaps due to injury (Mark Prior or Ben Sheets) or just wasn’t that good (e.g. Dave Williams). Interesting note: one-third of the pitchers in this last category was traded during the season.
Let’s talk about the expensive guys. The typical team had 14 free agents: eight position players, three starting pitchers and three relievers. The Yankees had 26; the Marlins had three.
There were relatively more position players in the free agent group. Free agents accounted for 35% of expected Win Shares among position players, 30% among starting pitchers and 25% among relievers. They were relatively spread across all positions—perhaps a few less shortstops. On the other hand, the best free agent position players tended to be designated hitters (75% of all DH WSAB were generated by free agents), shortstops (58%) and outfielders (54%). Only 39% of third base WSAB were contributed by free agents; the same is true for first basemen. There were three free agents per team who accrued at least 10 expected Win Shares.
There were three starting pitchers per team: one workhorse hurler who was good-to-excellent (Freddy Garcia, for instance), one who didn’t log quite as many innings, perhaps due to injury (Pedro Martinez) and one bad-to-average starter (either Jeff Weaver, Anaheim’s or St. Louis’).
Free agent relievers were less valuable than the minimum-salary gang, though somewhat better than the arbitration-eligible. Three of the top 10 relievers, and seven of the top 20, were free agents. Of the three free agents in the typical team’s bullpen, one was valuable (say, Chad Bradford), one was okay at best (Rudy Seanez) and one stunk.
Adding It All Up
So, let’s recap. A typical 2006 team played 46 players during the year: 14 free agents, eight arbitration-eligible players and 24 minimum-salary guys. In terms of where they played, here’s a simple table (FA stands for Free Agent, A stands for Arbitration-eligible and NA stands for Not Arbitration-eligible):
All Players NA A FA TOT Position Player 11 4 8 23 Starters 4 2 3 9 Bullpen 9 2 3 14 Total 24 8 14 46
That table is a little misleading, however, because it includes anyone who saw any playing time at all. Let’s look at how many “regular” players there were in each category. I’ll use a cutoff of 10 expected Win Shares for position players, seven for starting pitchers and four for relievers:
Regular Players NA A FA TOT Position Player 2 2 3 7 Starters 1 1 1 3 Bullpen 2 1 1 4 Total 5 4 5 14
So the typical team got relatively full productivity from 14 of its players (roughly 60% of its 25-man roster). The rotation had one starter from each of the categories, half of the bullpen’s regulars were paid the salary minimum, and the regular position players were weighted slightly to the free agents.
To me, one of the eye-opening things about this table is the relative scarcity of “regular” players. Only seven position players per team managed to play enough to accrue at least 10 expected Win Shares and only three starting pitchers managed to accrue at least seven WSAB.
Comparing the two tables, you can see that most bench players and fill-ins are either free agents or young guys making the minimum. This pattern fits what we’ve observed in major league baseball world: If an arbitration-eligible player is likely to just be a bench player, his team is more likely to cut him than go through the arbitration process. That same player is then free to sign with another team as a free agent.
The other interesting observation is that the ratio for each player category is steady across positions. In other words, the ratio between regular players and all players is 5-1 for NA players, 2-1 for A and 3-1 for free agents, regardless of whether the player is a position player, reliever or starting pitcher.
Finally, how about the star players? How were they distributed? Here is one last table: the number of “star” players by position and category. To label a player as a star, I used a cutoff of 10 WSAB for position players, eight WSAB for starters and five WSAB for relievers. Using these criteria, your typical team had four star players in this configuration:
Star Players NA A FA TOT Position Player 0.5 0.3 1.1 1.9 Starters 0.4 0.5 0.5 1.4 Bullpen 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.7 Total 1.3 0.9 1.8 4.0
Sorry about the decimal points. I guess a typical team wouldn’t really have .2 free agent star relievers. But just pretend that it could. I think you can pick out the key points pretty well. The typical team has two star position players, one star starter and one star reliever. One of the star position players was a free agent; the other wasn’t. Among starting pitchers, the star was just as likely to be a free agent, arbitration-eligible or minimum-salary player while the bullpen star was most likely a young stud making the minimum.
Hopefully, you’ve learned something new from this little exercise. If nothing else, consider it a diversion for an offseason day.