November 26, 2013
The Strongest (and Weakest) Roster Cores of 2013
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Jonathan Judge got a degree in piano performance, but then thought better of it and became a trial lawyer instead. His hobbies include the Brewers, proper roster construction, and thinking about BABIP (which are not all necessarily related). Follow him on Twitter at @bachlaw.
We’ve gotten fairly good at valuing many aspects of major league player performance, commonly through variants of wins above replacement (WARP or WAR). We’ve also been able to show a compelling connection between the sum of a team’s individual player “wins” and actual team wins in the regular-season standings. What we haven’t done sufficiently, in my opinion, is to appreciate the way that the best teams construct their rosters to maintain those accumulated player wins over time. In other words, it would be nice to have a way to measure how successful teams develop and maintain a “core” of winning players.
Quantifying and understanding the quality of a team’s core is important. As we enter the thick of another baseball offseason, the state of a team’s core dictates whether it can rely primarily on players who are already on the active roster to grow and sustain performance, or whether the team instead needs to raid its farm system—such as it may be—or turn to pricey/volatile free agents.
To be sure, many writers express opinions about teams having a winning “core.” But these opinions tend to be ad hoc, and they also tend to focus on individual players without fairly considering the strength of any roster as a whole. Most importantly, since they’re not based on objective criteria, they do not allow apples-to-apples comparisons of the overall core strength between teams.
It is past time that we devised a way to summarize mathematically the extent to which each team, in a given season, is deriving its success from “core” players.
My solution is called “Core Wins,” and it answers what I think is a three-part question. First, we have to decide what it means to make a “core contribution” to a roster, and how to measure, objectively, the contributions made by different types of players. Second, using the recent achievements of the Tampa Bay Rays as a reference, we’ll decide what levels of core player contributions are significant. Finally, we’ll rank all 30 major league clubs by the strength of their player cores as they proceed through this offseason.
Defining Core Contributions
But what transforms a merely “good” or “highly useful” player into a “core” contributor involves two additional factors: the amount of control the player’s team has over him, and the age at which the player is currently playing.
Control is the more important factor. A player under team control for multiple years has more “core” value to his team than a departing free agent. Team control can arise either through baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, which generally provides six years of team control over newly-promoted players, or free agency, by which players with more than six years of roster experience sign contracts with teams of their choosing. Once either type of player has been added to the roster, the source of the team’s control is basically irrelevant, and I do not distinguish between them here.
Age is important as well. Younger players get injured less, will probably improve over time, and are cheaper. Older players, by contrast, play fewer games in a season, trend downward in their performance, and are more expensive. But since the main value of youth is in the guaranteed control it provides, and we are already considering control, age should be weighed less heavily than control in evaluating a player’s “core” value, and that’s what I did here.
So, we have three components: (1) Player Performance, (2) Team Control, and (3) Player Age. Here is how I combined them:
To create a weighting factor for team control, I made two years of control—defined by me as being under contract for the 2013 and 2014 seasons—the baseline. That baseline became the denominator in a fraction I call the Control Index, with the numerator being the actual years of control the team had remaining over a player. So, a player in the last year of his contract would have a Control Index of 0.5, and a player subject to four years of team control would have a Control Index of 2.0. For a variety of reasons, I did not consider the impact of more than five years of team control, so the maximum Control Index that could be applied to a player’s 2013 performance was 2.5.
Player Age Component
For each positive roster contributor in 2013, I multiplied their total WARP times their Age Index times their Control Index. The result of that calculation for each player is the number of Core Wins he produced during the season. I then totaled the Core Wins for each player on each team to allow us to compare teams to each other.
Defining a Strong Roster Core: the Approach of the Tampa Bay Rays
What does the Core Wins system tell us about how the Rays built their winning rosters? I noticed three things: First, in the aggregate, the Rays racked large numbers of Core Wins each year from 2009 through 2012. Second, the Rays consistently feature a substantial number of what I will call Core Players—players who generated five or more Core Wins during the season. This means that the Rays were getting both breadth and depth from the roster. Third, the Rays averaged at least two pitchers each year among those Core Players.
So, with thanks to the Rays, there you have my formula for what constitutes a strong roster core: (1) a large number of Core Wins; (2) a large number of Core Players (players with five Core Wins or more); and (3) having at least two and preferably more pitchers within that realm of Core Players, to provide stability and a well-rounded roster.
For the time being, I’ve decided to weigh each attribute equally in the Core Roster Rankings I’ve assigned to each team. Having a good core requires star players, including star players who can pitch, and ideally it is paired with enough controllable depth to fill out the rest of the team effectively. It’s certainly possible to succeed with only one or two out of the three, but it isn’t preferable.
Ranking the Major League Rosters
It probably doesn’t surprise you that the Cardinals tied for the highest number of Core Players, or that the Tigers have the best pitching core in baseball, or that the quality of the Cardinals’ overall core generally blew everyone else away. Nor is it terribly surprising to learn that the 2013 Yankees were so dilapidated that they were the one team to actually generate negative core roster quality during the 2013 season. And some of you might have guessed that the runners-up for the pennant in both leagues—the Tigers and Dodgers—have plenty of stars, but a few too many scrubs, as reflected in their low Core Win Differentials.
On the other hand, it may surprise you to see the World Series Champion Red Sox ranking only 26th out of 30 teams in the Core Roster Strength; or that the Rockies ranked third in baseball in core contributions last year; or that the Rays’ roster magic may finally be starting to wear off.
Two Contrasting Cores: the Cardinals and the Red Sox
We’ll begin with the Cardinals, who through a combination of good drafting, shrewd trades, and some luck have (according to my method, anyway) compiled the best roster core in baseball. Here is an excerpt of the primary players of interest from their chart:
The table shows you my inputs (Age, WARP, Control Years), my Indices (Control and Age), and finally the calculated Core Wins figure for each player. Core Players who are also pitchers have their names italicized in the Name column.
The chart hopefully makes clear how well this Cardinals core performed in 2013. Of their top eight contributors, seven were under club control for five years or more. That adds up to a lot of Core Wins, and helps explain why the Cardinals were able to essentially dominate all three areas of core roster strength. Only Carlos Beltran—their sixth-highest contributor in 2013 by WARP—is a notable departing asset. Because he is both a departing and an aged player, his Control and Age Indices discount an otherwise solid contribution from being anything close to a core one.
The Red Sox represent the flip side. Their roster generated more WARP than any other club in the 2013 regular season. However, a great deal of that production is heading out the door, and the aging remnants should struggle to replace it from within. Here is an excerpt from their calculation chart:
Last season may have been “do or die” year for the Red Sox. They registered only three Core Players, and none of them was a pitcher. Of their top 10 contributors in 2013, five of them are on the open market. The Core Wins formula discounts the contributions of the departing free agents accordingly, and the Red Sox now face a predicament heading into 2014. With a top-rated farm system and substantial financial resources, they have more ability to replenish than most, but they have a lot of work ahead of them.
The Role of Individual Performances
Here are the top individual Core Win totals in the 2013 season:
Figure 4: Best Core Players, 2013 Season
Congratulations to the teams who invested in these players: by my calculation, these are your ultimate core contributors. These players are under maximum team control and still at or below their likely prime years of production.
To the rosters with fairly robust cores, such as the Cardinals and the Pirates, Matt Carpenter and Andrew McCutchen provide stable, superstar production to complement an otherwise solid collection of players.
But for teams like the Angels, Orioles, and Athletics, the remarkable production of Mike Trout, Manny Machado, and Josh Donaldson is as much a warning as it is an achievement. This is because the remarkable accomplishments of those players cannot be allowed to mask underlying deficiencies in the cores of those rosters. Both the Orioles and the Athletics rank in the bottom half of the league in core roster quality, and Trout singlehandedly comprises one half of the Angels’s entire Core Win Differential, a fact that caused me to put an asterisk next to that figure in Figure 1 above.
Without these well-earned but nonetheless outlying performances, the challenges facing these teams would be even starker. If they truly plan to benefit from the “core” peaks of these stars, they have some work to do in the very near future. And if they are not realistically going to benefit in the near term from these performances, they ought to be asking whether they would benefit more from trades to make their cores stronger as a whole down the road.
But when analyzing the present day, Core Wins does tell you which teams have the luxury of seeking selective upgrades, as opposed to those that will be relying on the aspirations of new arrivals. In the meantime, as you weigh the “best” signings or long-term direction of a particular club, take into account the current strength of their core. As much as anything, that should tell you where the club’s near-term focus ought to lie.