Every season necessarily brings with it change. Players become old and ineffective and are replaced by promising rookies. The injured get healthy and the healthy get injured. Some players exit via trade, waiver, and release, and some arrive by the same routes. Turnover is inevitable.
Take, for example, Your World Champion Chicago Cubs. Good team, right? Won 103 games in the regular season, and then another 11 in the postseason. That’s a team that’s hardly a candidate for hitting the reset button. Yet, comparing the team’s actual 2016 results with our playing time projections, there are some significant changes:
The Cubs, excluding pitchers, had 5,925 plate appearances last season. The table above lists 1,548 plate appearances in 2016 by players who won’t get them in 2017 and 1,523 plate appearances projected in 2017 that will be taken by players who didn’t get them in 2016. (The numbers aren’t equal because projections don’t assume precisely same number of team plate appearances in successive years.) The average of those figures, 1,536, represents a shift of nearly 26 percent. Granted, a lot of it is shuffling roles for incumbent players (more Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras, less Miguel Montero and Matt Szczur), but that still is a lot of change.
Same story with the pitching staff. Cubs pitchers threw 1,459.2 innings last season. We’re projecting 409 of them (405.2 lost, 411.2 gained)—that’s 28 percent—to turn over. The list of pitchers is pretty long, so I’ve included only those projected to pitch 20 or more innings in 2016 or 2017.
So, the defending champions are turning over more than a quarter of their plate appearances and almost two out of every seven innings pitched. Isn’t that a lot of change?
Actually, it’s not. The following table has four columns. The first is the 15 National League teams. The second is the change in plate appearances for their hitters, based on actual 2016 figures for non-pitchers and our depth chart projections as of March 25. The third is the change in innings. (The triangle symbol, for those of you who slept through your math courses, is an upper-case Greek letter delta, signifying change in).
The fourth column is a measure I made up called Change Index. It is equal to the difference in batters’ plate appearances plus 3.5 times the difference in pitchers’ innings, all divided by 50 in order to scale it on something that’s mostly 0-100. How did I arrive at the 3.5 figure? Well, as I said, I made it up. Last year, the average half-inning comprised 4.26 plate appearances. The total difference in plate appearances that we project in 2017, divided by the difference in innings, is 3.73. So why didn’t I use something like 4.0 for my weight instead of 3.5? Because I don’t think a change in innings has the same impact as a change in plate appearances.
As I said, we project the Cubs to turn over 28 percent of their innings this year. But it’s not going to look like a lot of change. Four-fifths of the rotation—Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey—is the same. Five of the seven relievers who pitched more than 35 innings are back, too. The change on the mound isn’t as stark as seeing Jon Jay and Albert Almora in center field instead of Dexter Fowler, and Contreras displacing Montero and David Ross as the primary catcher. So I dialed down the pitching component a bit. If you want to use different weights, feel free! I’m giving you all the data.
Keep in mind that this is highly speculative. Our depth charts don’t anticipate unexpected injuries, or ineffectiveness, or improved play, or trades. We don’t even know 25-man rosters yet. Nothing’s finalized, and even when it is, it’s only a guess. So don’t take any of the numbers here too seriously. The difference between the 1,893 Dodgers plate appearances and 1,938 Nationals plate appearances that we expect to turn over is meaningless.
But some of the big changes probably are notable. Let’s talk about some of those.
Padres and Brewers lineups: We expect San Diego and Milwaukee’s 2017 plate appearances to be shared by a significantly different cast of players than in 2016. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as both teams are rebuilding. For the Padres, Derek Norris (458 plate appearances in 2016), Alexei Ramirez (444), Matt Kemp (431), Melvin Upton (374), and Jon Jay (373) are gone, with Hunter Renfroe (449 more projected plate appearances in 2017), Manuel Margot (425), Austin Hedges (413), and Luis Sardinas (409), among others, getting more playing time.
The Brewers added Jett Bandy (339 projected plate appearances) behind the plate, Eric Thames (585) at first, and Travis Shaw (558) at third in the offseason. The club will also give considerably more playing time to Orlando Arcia (390 more projected plate appearances), Domingo Santiago (206), and Andrew Susac (193). Those players will replace Chris Carter (644 plate appearances in 2016), the catching tandem of Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado (629 combined), Aaron Hill (292), and Ramon Flores (289).
Padres (again!) pitching staff: We’re projecting more change on both sides of the ball for San Diego than any other National League team. This, again, points to their rebuild. The club added Jered Weaver (160 projected 2017 innings), Jhoulys Chacin (144), and Trevor Cahill (137) over the winter, providing the bulk of the change. Colin Rea, who pitched 99.1 innings in 2016, is out for the year following Tommy John surgery, and the Padres traded James Shields (67.1 innings) and allowed Edwin Jackson and Andrew Cashner (152.2 combined) to depart via free agency. The 2017 Padres may not be better, but they’ll be different!
Braves, Reds, and Pirates pitching staffs: Two of these clubs are rebuilding. The Reds had the third-worst ERA and DRA and the worst FIP in the National League last year. The Braves, while better, brought in Bartolo Colon (174 projected 2017 innings), R.A. Dickey (156), and Jaime Garcia (137) to eat innings while the top-ranked farm system develops its formidable crop of young pitchers.
But what’s going on in Pittsburgh? As pointed out in the team’s season preview, the Pirates are pivoting away from its 2013-2015 Wild Card teams. Jeff Locke (127.1 innings), Francisco Liriano (116), and Jon Niese (110) pitched the most, third-most, and fourth-most innings among Pirates starters last year; all are gone, as is closer Mark Melancon (41.2). The team expects bigger contributions from starters Ivan Nova (103.1 more projected innings in 2017 than 2016), Tyler Glasnow (71.2), Drew Hutchison (64.2), Steven Brault (62.2), and Jameson Taillon (61) this year.
Marlins lineup: No team in the National League (nor, for that matter, in the American League) is maintaining its starting eight the way Miami is. Last year’s club featured J.T. Realmuto behind the plate, Justin Bour at first, Dee Gordon at second, Martin Prado at third, Adeiny Hechavarria at short, and Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Giancarlo Stanton from left to right in the outfield. So will this year’s. The biggest change we project? An additional 294 plate appearances for Gordon, who will presumably not be suspended for PED use.
Giants pitching staff: The Giants aren’t sticking with their 2016 pitchers much more than the Nationals and Brewers. But then, the Nationals and Brewers didn’t come close to setting a record for the biggest decline in winning percentage from the first half of the season to the second. Despite the team’s descent from the best record in baseball at the All-Star break, the Giants are not tearing down the offense (tied with St. Louis for the fifth-lowest projected change in plate appearances) or, especially, the pitching staff (lowest projected change in innings pitched). The aforementioned Melancon will replace 2016 bullpen scapegoats Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, and Javier Lopez, but we project only 56 innings for Melancon, replacing the 115.1 that Casilla, Romo, and Lopez collectively threw. The largest changes we expect are 79.2 additional Matt Moore innings, helping replace Jake Peavy’s 118.2.
The takeaway here, I think, is that there are probably more changes to major-league rosters from season to season than we realize. And that’s based just on the National League. Later this week I’ll give you the numbers for the American League. They’re more extreme! How’s that for a tease?