Star players make the world go ’round in most sports. You can’t win without superstars any league. In baseball, it is widely acknowledged that the impact of one great player is minimized as it take so many players to make a great team. Think back to the great performances of Randy Johnson with the 2004 Diamondbacks or Jacoby Ellsbury for the 2011 Red Sox – it takes a village to raise a baseball team.
That said, great players are a terrifically efficient way to manage your roster. Would you rather have three guys providing league-average production or one super-duper star? Obviously you will take the superstar every time, right? Hold on, the results might surprise.
The above scenario is something of a false dilemma, of course. The superstar provides your team an opportunity to fill two other league-average players into the roster spots mentioned. One superstar surrounding two league average players is great for your team. But what if you surround your superstar with below-average (or worse) players?
Balance is important. Many people do not like the Wins Above Replacement statistic. While it has flaws, it is not supposed to be a grand unifying theory which encompasses every single possible outcome in the game of baseball. It is a well-developed shorthand for production: measuring offensive and defensive contributions as well as the impact of base running, health, and positional value.
In 2013 (as with most years), WAR does a fine job of correlating with actual team wins, as seen below. All figures are via Fangraphs.
Keeping in mind the situational weirdness that is your average game of baseball, this is a simple display that shows how more WAR equals more wins for the team. But how a team goes about compiling that WAR, that is a whole ‘nother problem.
By creating a leaderboard of the top 100 players by WAR (min 200 plate appearances) and then grouping those players by team, the relationship becomes slightly strained. The Red Sox lead the way with seven top 100 players by WAR, while the Astros, Cubs, Twins, Mariners, and one other club trail with only one top 100 WAR performer. The Braves, Rays, and Orioles check in second with six top 100 WAR players. The Tigers feature five players, as do the Dodgers and Giants, which is odd as they’re a last-place club.
By the way, the other club with only one top 100 position player by WAR? The Texas Rangers, owners of a 63-50 record.
If we trim the list to the top 30 performers this season, it starts to get weirder. The Blue Jays lead the way with three (?!?) players, tied with the Pirates for most in the top 30. The Braves, currently running away with the National League East? Zero.
Not a single top 30 position player despite their total WAR ranking fifth in baseball. The Braves are deep on both sides of the ball, as they also count just one top 30 pitcher by fWAR, though their staff ranks eighth overall.
Balance is key – just ask the Angels. This seems to be a pillar of the Cardinals success, talent just comes in waves and the depth chart runs deep. Very deep.
There is no substitute for not having shitty players. The Red Sox were criticized for some of their off-season signings but players like Shane Victorino are safe, dependable, and help the team today (the value of those contracts at the end of their terms might be hairy but who cares? Flags still fly forever.)
This isn’t a scientific study but merely the acknowledgement of a trend, a nod to one of the everlasting truths of baseball – it takes more than one player. More than two players to win a division and survive the 162 game grind. WAR is the tool used here but you can pluck just about any stat or measure and reach the same conclusion: as nice as it is to have stars around the diamond, black holes really take a toll.