The Good Player Gap

Jacoby Ellsbury had a 9.4 fWAR - by this measure he was the best player in Major League Baseball in 2011. He received no advantage on this play due to that status - but you can bet we'd rather have him on the Orioles.

Last week, I took a look at one problem facing the Orioles: compared to most good teams, they give too much playing time to scrub-level players, meaning those whose contribution to the team, as measured by the Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic, is a net negative. The extent that the Orioles are able to reduce this will aid in their rise from the depths of the American League East, but leveling out the negatives is only one part of the story, and not even the biggest part.

Where the true room for improvement lies is in the quantity of good players on the team. As we look at the numbers from last year, we will see that the Orioles are, compared to the successful teams, lacking in quantity of players who are decent or better, players who are good or better, and most especially in players who are excellent.

Before we dive into the charts, some words about WAR. The statistic is not meant to be a be-all, end-all assessment when comparing one player to the next. One player is not necessarily better than another because his WAR is higher. As well, a high WAR, while it will be representative of a very talented player, confers no actual advantage on the baseball diamond. Jacoby Ellsbury had the highest WAR in all of Major League Baseball last season, a 9.4. Jonathan Papelbon had the best WAR (3.0) among AL relievers.

Yet, when Robert Andino (1.8 WAR) drove a fly ball to deep center, Ellsbury's 9.4 WAR did not give him extra speed to chase down the ball, nor did it expand the size of his glove in order to catch the ball, nor did it soften the collision with the wall that led to the ball falling to the ground. Orioles fans will never forget the sight of Andino wheeling around the bases for an inside-the-park home run. The three runs that scored on the play represented the margin of victory for the O's in that game on September 26, 2011. Ellsbury was at the very least in the conversation for best player in the American League (runner-up MVP in BBWAA voting), and on that one play his league-best WAR availed him naught.

Two nights later, when Papelbon was down to his last out, his WAR did not give him extra velocity, movement or command as he faced first Chris Davis (-0.3 WAR), then Nolan Reimold (1.5 WAR) and lastly that same Andino. Papelbon was the best reliever in the AL by this measure, but that did not mean he could secure the victory.

Part of the magic of baseball is this sense of infinite possibility. There is absolutely no way to know for certain what will happen on the next pitch. You would have been a fool to bet on that 9th inning game 162 comeback, but it happened anyway. That's why we love baseball.

WAR, then, has no impact on one game, and especially not on one moment in time. That does not mean it has no value. Over a 162 game season, the truth will out, and you can be sure you'd rather have Ellsbury on your team than Matt Angle. You'd rather have Papelbon closing games than Kevin Gregg. No matter how you slice it, the Orioles are behind the curve for talent. The question I am trying to address today is: how far behind?

THE ASSUMPTIONS

Using Fangraphs WAR as a guide, I have broken down players into three groups using 2011 statistics. The groups are:

Decent or better (2+ WAR): These players should have a place on any team in the league. Starting position players and starting pitchers who do OK will hit 2 WAR, as will some good relievers, but not very many. You don't want your team overpaying these guys, but even a championship-caliber team can find a place for them somewhere.

Good or better (4+ WAR): Players around 4 WAR are having a good year, but nobody's going to confuse them for an MVP candidate, unless you're the Texas Rangers beat writer who gave Michael Young (3.8 WAR) a 1st-place MVP vote when he had the 8th-highest WAR on his own team. Most 4+ WAR players are position players, but very good starters will hit this level. No relief pitcher reached this level in 2011.

Excellent (6+ WAR): These players are playing at a star level; though there can be plenty of debate about whose star is biggest, no one rational will argue that any of these players suck. You would love if any one of these guys was on your favorite team. Some of these may be players having a career year, some achieve this level from year to year. 17 position players and 6 starting pitchers had a 6+ WAR in 2011.

The charts below show how the talent was distributed across the 14 American League teams. Within each division, the teams are listed in the order that they finished in the 2011 regular season standings.

THE CHARTS - AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST

Team Decent + Good + Excellent Best WAR Player Best Player's WAR
Yankees 14 6 2 C.C. Sabathia 7.1
Rays 9 5 2 Ben Zobrist 6.6
Red Sox 10 5 3 Jacoby Ellsbury 9.4
Blue Jays 5 2 1 Jose Bautista 8.3
Orioles 6 2 0 J.J. Hardy 4.8

CENTRAL

Team Decent + Good + Excellent Best WAR Player Best Player's WAR
Tigers 10 4 2 Miguel Cabrera 7.3
Indians 4 1 0 Justin Masterson 4.9
White Sox 10 1 0 Alexei Ramirez 4.9
Royals 8 2 1 Alex Gordon 6.9
Twins 5 0 0 Michael Cuddyer 3.1

WEST

Team Decent + Good + Excellent Best WAR Player Best Player's WAR
Rangers 11 7 1 Ian Kinsler 7.7
Angels 10 5 1 Dan Haren 6.4
Athletics 8 1 0 Brandon McCarthy 4.7
Mariners 6 1 0 Felix Hernandez 5.5

COMMENTARY

This is a disheartening way to look at the Orioles' talent relative to the league because we can see in the East division just how far behind they really are. The East, in fact, is the only division in baseball with multiple teams who have more than one 6+ WAR player. The Yankees, Rays and Red Sox all can boast this. The O's lack even one such player.

This is not the only level where the Orioles are behind. As we can see, they are behind the playoff and contending teams when we consider the good players as well as the decent starter-level ones. We can see from the example of the White Sox that many decent players don't get a team many places if there are no good or excellent players. From the Blue Jays and the Royals we can see that one excellent player is worth little if there is not a surrounding cast of good players.

Are there any hard conclusions to be drawn here? It's probably not surprising that the teams with the most decent+ (Yanks) and good+ (Rangers) players met in the ALCS. On the other hand, a number of decent and good players, as well as the most excellent players in MLB, did not get the Red Sox into the playoffs. Of course, it did get them within one game of the playoffs, and even in 162 games there's still a certain element of flukiness at play.

A team like the Indians can grit their way to an 80-82 record in a division that, other than the Tigers, is on the soft side, but this is not likely going to do much to get them past the Prince-fortified Detroit club. The O's can relate, having to climb past everyone if they ever want to get to, or even near, the top.

THE YEAR TO COME

What does any of this mean for the upcoming year for the Orioles? You already knew it was going to be a hopeless cause without having to read this article.

The O's have two players on the 40 man roster who have ever had a 6+ WAR season: Brian Roberts in 2005 and Nick Markakis in 2008. Roberts is unlikely to be healthy enough to see significant playing time, let alone perform at that level. Markakis hasn't had higher than a 3 WAR since he signed a $66 million extension following that 2008 season. Matt Wieters could perform at this level if he ascended to the level we all dreamed about after he was drafted. I think that will happen eventually, but not this year.

4+ WAR talent potential is a bit more plentiful, if not much. If Hardy is healthier or performs at a similar level as last year, he will reach it again. Adam Jones could potentially ascend to this level; it would be the best year of his career if he did so. Jason Hammel has twice had a 3.9 WAR, meaning more innings pitched at a similar level of production would put him in this category. Any other starter approaching 200 innings pitched would have a chance to be near 4 WAR, perhaps Zach Britton. My imagination is not active enough to picture another Orioles pitcher hitting that mark this year.

CONCLUSION

A poor WAR is the effect, not the cause, of a bad baseball team. The Orioles should be less bad this upcoming season, and if a lot of things go right they could even potentially see the consecutive losing season streak end.

If Orioles fans ever want to dream of contention, though, the way for the team to get there is going to be to find ways to acquire and develop the necessary level of talent - securing both quantity of decent players, and a few more quality players - within the prevailing budget constraints. Until the Orioles can close that good player gap, the future is probably going to look unpleasantly like the recent past.

At least we'll always have the Curse of the Andino.

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