2020’s Most Irreplaceable Playerson August 6, 2020 at 3:50 pm

2020’s Most Irreplaceable Players

The 2020 major league season is about 20% done, which might feel strange given that the season isn’t quite two weeks old, but it’s just one of the many odds things about this year. We’re just three weeks from the trade deadline and the basic contours of who the contenders and the also-rans are has become clear in a shockingly small number of games. That shortened slate has also seen a number of key players go down with significant injuries. The threat of COVID-19 looms large over any discussion of missed time this season, but sadly, more familiar maladies will also take their toll — Justin Verlander is still weeks from a potential return from a right forearm strain, Shohei Ohtani likely won’t pitch again this season after leaving Sunday’s game with a forearm strain of his own, and Mike Soroka joined the list with a painful tear to his Achilles tendon Monday evening, ending his 2020 season before it had really begun. Even Max Scherzer exited Wednesday night’s action with a sore hamstring, though thankfully it appears minor.

How big a loss for the Braves was Soroka? With him still in the rotation, the ZiPS projection system had the Atlanta Braves with an 89.5% chance of making baseball’s expanded 16-team playoffs. Without Soroka, that number drops to 81.5%, nearly doubling the probability that Atlanta watches the playoffs from home. How does that eight percentage points rank among baseball’s stars? As I do every season, I asked ZiPS to re-project league standings with individual star players removed from their team’s rosters.

This isn’t a WAR ranking, which would be kind of boring. Teams whose playoff fortunes are most up in the air, especially those without sufficient depth, tend to be the ones that get in the most trouble when they lose a key player due to injury. The combination of good early results and deep rosters has left a few teams at the top of the food chain — the Braves, Dodgers, Athletics, Twins, and Yankees — without a single player in the top 25 in playoff leverage. That’s not to say that losing Mookie Betts or Cody Bellinger wouldn’t be a huge loss for the Dodgers, but the team has good backup options and it would take losing both to seriously change the team’s playoff odds.

With Wednesday night’s games in the books, here are the ZiPS-projected playoff probabilities for every team:

Hey, the Orioles passed someone!

After a lot of simulations, here are the top 10 players teams can ill-afford to lose, as ranked by the loss in playoff probability in percentage points.

1. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets (-11.0%)

The Mets brought in Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha this the offseason to add depth to the rotation, depth that proved immediately necessary when Noah Syndergaard having Tommy John surgery. Marcus Stroman‘s torn calf has tested that depth even further, though the team received the good news that he’s already recovered sufficiently to be throwing simulated games. Even assuming Stroman comes back fine in the near future, though, losing deGrom, who ZiPS projects to finish second in the majors in WAR among pitchers, would be difficult to overcome. deGrom can dominate any game he’s in and despite the oddball offseason, his velocity’s actually increased by a couple miles per hour. The Mets can’t replace deGrom’s performance because, literally, nobody can.

2. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels (-10.9%)

Mike Trout tends not to do well in this list because usually when I run it, the Angels are already spiraling out of playoff contention. A sixteen-team playoffs gives the Angels a lot of room for error, which they need given their 4-8 start. The Ohtani injury hurts the team further; while his comeback as a pitcher was not guaranteed, his upside possibility was something no other team’s pitching staff can match. Completing the Joc Pederson trade would have given the Angels more outfield depth, but as it is, losing Trout would be the most difficult loss to overcome.

3. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals (-9.7%)

This is why Scherzer’s sore hamstring is so worrisome. Stephen Strasburg hasn’t made his 2020 debut and Joe Ross’ opt-out means he never will, leaving Washington’s rotation looking like the shelves of your neighborhood convenience store the day before a hurricane or blizzard. Right now, the projections are assuming a shorter next start for Scherzer; if his hamstring tweak turns out to be worse, it will become a major headache for the team. It hasn’t helped that at 4-5, the Nats haven’t been a particularly hot team in the early going.

4. Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies (-9.5%)

Nola’s not the most highly paid Phillies player, but he’s the most crucial right now. Losing Nola (or Zack Wheeler) likely results in Spencer Howard or Nick Pivetta taking their playing time. Pivetta’s fine, but he’s a fifth starter and while Howard’s a terrific prospect, he also has very little experience in the high minors.

5. German Marquez, Colorado Rockies (-9.5%)

The Rockies have horrifyingly thin depth on the offensive side past Brendan Rodgers, but they could probably play Aaron Rodgers in the infield and not have problems as long as the pitching continues to barely allow three runs a game. There’s no bigger fan of German Marquez than ZiPS; the projections regularly forecast him in the top 10 for rest-of-career pitching WAR. With 1.89 ERA and 0.8 WAR in three starts, he’s certainly pulled his share of the load this season. Colorado’s not overflowing with pitching depth and losing Marquez could derail their early success.

6. Juan Soto, Washington Nationals (-9.1%)

Losing Scherzer would be a body blow; losing Juan Soto wouldn’t be much better. Soto’s season was delayed by a positive COVID-19 test; he just made his season debut last night, going 2-for-4 with an RBI. The Nats went eight games without Soto’s services, something they’d very much like to not repeat.

7. Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians (-8.9%)

Cleveland is one of the teams most reliant on its front-line talent, so it’s not surprising for Shane Bieber to make the top 10 with the team hovering around .500. Bieber’s first three starts have made even his 2019 breakout look tame by comparison. He’s struck out 35 batters in 21 innings against just three walks and two runs allowed. He’s not likely to be quite this good — if he is, you might want to pencil him in for an armload of Cy Young awards — but he’s Clevelands’ most important player even if he’s “just” as good as 2019. Two of his teammates also make the top 25.

8. J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies (-8.5%)

You can argue that Yasmani Grandal is the best catcher in baseball, but the White Sox have the better backup in James McCann. J.T. Realmuto is more crucial to the Phillies than Bryce Harper and if they’re smart, they will make sure to sign him to an extension before he can negotiate with other teams.

9. Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals (-8.4%)

St. Louis does have some spare rotation options hanging around, but the sheer awesomeness of Flaherty is enough to put him high on this list. And the team doesn’t have as many extra pitchers hanging around as it appeared to a few weeks ago, with Miles Mikolas out of the year and Carlos Martinez on the Injured List for a currently undisclosed reason. Austin Gomber or Genesis Cabrera or even some kind of three-inning special from Alex Reyes wouldn’t be the end of the world, but having Flaherty is better.

10. Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox (-8.4%)

At 4-8, the Red Sox are reeling, but they’re also currently only 2 1/2 games out of the final Wild Card spot in the American League. Losing Xander Bogaerts, on top of the offseason loss of Betts, would make the team’s disappearing chances — down 15 points from the start of the season — evaporate at an even quicker pace. The team’s rotation depth is also a serious concern, but the “good news” is that no individual starter is likely strong enough to affect the team’s playoff odds significantly by their absence. Yes, that’s rather depressing for good news.

Here’s a handy-dandy table with the full top 25:

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