2020 Positional Power Rankings: Summaryon July 22, 2020 at 1:00 pm

2020 Positional Power Rankings: Summary

Over the past week and a half, we’ve published our annual season preview, ranking the league’s players by position based on a blend of our projections (a 50/50 split between ZiPS and Steamer) and our manually maintained playing time estimates courtesy of Jason Martinez of RosterResource fame. The result is a document that rivals In Search of Lost Time for length, though we’ve striven to make it a touch more readable. If you happen to have missed any of those installments, you can use the handy navigation widget above to catch up. And remember, if you’re a fan of say, the Dodgers, and don’t want to see any other teams’ rankings but theirs, you can use the “View by Team” feature in any of those pieces, and look at that, all Dodgers. No stinkin’ Astros for you.

Today, I’m going to summarize the results. We’ll look at some tables and pick out a few interesting tidbits, but first, it’s important to remember that this exercise captures a snapshot of how we project teams to perform now. Teams aren’t static, however. Since we’ve published our rankings, for instance, Gavin Lux has been optioned. Colin Poche likely needs Tommy John. Jordan Montgomery didn’t make the Yankees’ Opening Day roster. Hell, Franchy Cordero was traded to the Royals about 12 hours before the right field rankings were set to go live. Guys suffer injuries, lose playing time due to underperformance, and get traded. That’s why we maintain a Team WAR Totals page, which lists projected positional WAR by team and updates regularly throughout the season as we learn more about who is likely to take the field every day and what shape they’ll be in when they do. Now, don’t be alarmed — the WAR numbers you see there may vary slightly from what you see on the positional power rankings, mostly because those figures are aware of the injuries and transactions that have altered our playing time estimates since the power rankings went live. The z-scores I include later uses the WAR from the Team WAR Totals page. It’s a good page.

But before we get to that, let’s remark on some general trends and fun factoids. First, we’ll look at each team’s positional ranks. There are 11 positions; the last column is each team’s overall WAR. This table is sortable, so feel free to poke around:

The Astros are the only team with multiple first place finishes, earning top marks at second base, third base, and designated hitter. And while their first base and catcher projections are in the bottom half of the league (each 18th — for shame), the rest of the roster is top notch. Not only do they have their trio of projection gold medalists, but Houston also boasts 10th place finishes at right field and in the bullpen, and top-six finishes at shortstop (second), center field (third), left field (fourth), and in the rotation (sixth). They’re one of only two teams to see all three of their outfield positions projected in the top 10; six teams (the Giants, Mariners, Marlins, Orioles, Pirates, and Tigers) have no positions in the top 10 at all.

The Twins, Astros, Dodgers, and Yankees merit special mention here. Unsurprisingly, they have the best playoff odds in the majors, and are forecast for baseball’s four best records. But despite all the anticipated winning they’re expected to have in common, there are differences in the particular shape their excellence takes. As noted, the Astros are pretty good everywhere, and really good in several spots, but are fielding some stinkers, too. And the Twins might have more top-10 finishes than anyone, but they can’t claim any number ones; their most highly ranked spots are catcher and DH, where they come in third. Still, of all their positional groups, only the Twins’ shortstops are forecast to be in the bottom half of the league (16th), and then just barely. Even their rotation, which was a question mark this past winter, is in the 10th spot after a few high-profile offseason transactions.

The Yankees pitching staff projects to be the best in baseball — their rotation ranks first, while their bullpen comes in second. Of course, their position players aren’t too shabby, with seven spots in the lineup ticketed for the top 10, and three for the top five. The Yankees don’t have any positions forecast worse than left field at 12… until you get to third base at 20. Best of luck to the East(s). The Dodgers’ pitching might not be quite as fearsome as New York’s (though a fourth place rotation and ninth place, though aging, bullpen doesn’t exactly make them slouches), but their lineup is just as scary; they have seven top-10 finishes of their own. Their roster simply lacks for trouble spots. In fact, their worst-rated positions — third base and left field — rank 11th. Their worst! The Orioles’ best-ranked position, their bullpen, comes in 16th!

Six teams (the Astros, Dodgers, Mets, Rays, Twins, and Yankees) can lay claim to both a rotation and a bullpen in the top 10. On the flip side, eight teams have both their starters and relievers ticketed for finishes of 20th or worse. Pity the arms of the Angels, Blue Jays, Giants, Mariners, Marlins, Pirates, Royals, and Tigers. And while we’re on the subject of under-performers, my thoughts are with the fans of the Giants, Mariners, Marlins, Orioles, Pirates, Royals, Rockies, and Tigers, whose preferred teams have an average position ranking of 20th or higher. The Rockies managed three 30th place finishes (catcher, left field, and DH), while the Orioles mustered two (first base and the rotation).

As might be expected given that they weren’t planning to field the position daily, National League clubs don’t fare particularly well when it comes to the designated hitter. The Cubs (eighth) and Dodgers (10th) acquit themselves just fine, but after that things get dicey. The average ranking of NL clubs is 20.6, with a median ranking of 21, and if we exclude the two top-10 clubs, the average creeps to 22.4.

Of course, ordinal rankings have their limitations. They have their limitations in normal baseball times, and those limitations are even more apparent now, in a short season with a bunch of very tightly clustered position groups. Several of our writers took care to note just how bunched up the players and teams they wrote about were. A little over 3 WAR separates the club ranked seventh (the Angels) and the club ranked 19th (the Diamondbacks) in total WAR – that’s it. Nine clubs have second base projections between 0.8 – 1.1 WAR, with tiny fractions separating their ordinal rankings on the backend. As I said in my introduction, it is important to look at the magnitude of the differences between the rankings, as well as the rankings themselves, and thinking about whether a team falls above or below league-average, and by how much, might be a more useful way of approaching it than obsessing over where your favorite team ranked. To that end, I’ve calculated the z-scores of each team’s projected positional WAR (again, using the figures on Team WAR Totals page) to show you the number of standard deviations away from league average each team is at each spot:

This table is also sortable, which makes it easy to spot the outliers, good and bad. As such, I won’t narrate the whole thing except to say that Mike Trout is amazing. The Yankees bullpen is amazing. Yasmani Grandal is amazing. There is so much about this year, this baseball season, that has been sad or scary. That has, quite frankly, sucked out loud. Major league baseball tried to play less baseball, right up until the moment when it perhaps should have considered not playing any at all. Stars and journeymen are faced with the difficult decision of whether to play in the midst of a pandemic. Some players have gotten sick; it would be naive to think that more won’t follow. We’re left with an uneasy feeling as fans and observers, and a worry that even if baseball is somehow played safely, that it will feel silly, unserious. That some of the numbers will be bonkers, or that good players will be doomed by slow starts, or that the wrong teams will thrive, or that the Mariners will make the postseason, and that by the time we reach October, an asterisk will loom.

But we also know that Mike Trout is amazing. That when every game matters a lot more than it usually does, that Jack Flaherty and Gerrit Cole and Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto and Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuna Jr. will take the field. The Dodgers’ (86.2% chance to make the postseason) and the Reds’ (40.4% chance) projected records are only separated by five wins. It’s probably too strong to say that anything could happen (the Orioles are still decidedly themselves), but the outsized effect a hot streak or a pulled hamstring will have means that a lot more things could. We’ve all had the worst hard time of late, but tomorrow there will be major league baseball, and it will count for something. It’ll feel a lot of different ways, and many of them will be bad — will suck out loud! — but also? It’ll feel amazing. I can’t wait.

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs, the host of FanGraphs Audio, and the co-co-host of Effectively Wild. Her work has previously appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside.

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