After soaring through their first four games, the New York Mets hit a wall. It wasn’t because their luck ran out, but rather, David Wright fractured his pinkie–preventing him from playing another game. More importantly than subtracting Wright and his .583/.647/.833 line so far, it left the Mets with Ronny Cedeno to pick-up the scraps.
While Cedeno has been known as a terrific fielder (6.8 UZR/150 in 1050.3 innings at SS in 2011), his bat is equally as infamous–but in the opposite way. In fact, Cedeno has just been worth 1.3 fWAR over the course of his entire career due to his lackluster lumber. The Mets inability to replace Wright’s presence with at least league-average production most certainly played a role in the two subsequent Mets losses. But that begs the question–how important is bench depth?
There isn’t a for-sure correct way to go about calculating bench value, but it’s important to lay down some rules before going in any direction. The following are the rules of the bench value experiment:
-the experiment will be using statistics from 2011
-fWAR will be used as the value metric of choice
-a “bench player” is defined by who was not deemed a “starting player” before the season opened.
-a player must have at least 50 PA’s to qualify.
-mid-season call-ups count as bench players, even if they were called-up specifically to start (Minor League players are technically depth).
Slowly but surely, a list of all bench players in 2011 were compiled, and sorted by team and fWAR. Names such as Andy LaRoche, Felipe Lopez, Corey Patterson, and Jay Gibbons elicited many-a-giggles, but with the prize in mind, there was no choice but to trudge forth. After a few hours, the list was completed (click here to download the FULL excel sheet):
For the most part, everything made some sense. The average fWAR of a bench was 3.64, so seeing over 50% of winning teams (a team with at least 82 wins) with a bench worth more than 3.64 fWAR wasn’t surprising. But what happened to the other 6 teams that fell short of the average fWAR mark? Perhaps the most startling and weak bench–despite also being the most winningest team–was the Philadelphia Phillies. With a mere 0.7 fWAR, surely the Phillies disproved the true importance of having a good bench. Then again, let’s take a look at the Phillies starting hitters. The combination of Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Placido Polanco, Hunter Pence (second half starter)/Ben Francisco (Opening Day starter), and Raul Ibanez resulted in a whopping 22.4 fWAR. So with a starting lineup so strong, there was little need for a strong bench.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the New York Mets enjoyed the second strongest bench with a combined 8.4 fWAR. With a mere 77 wins, the knee-jerk reaction–like with the Phillies–is to claim that a “strong bench isn’t needed to win.” But in the case of the Mets, if they didn’t have such a strong bench, they would have won a lot less than 77 games. Guys like Daniel Murphy (who lost out to Brad Emaus for the starting second base gig to begin the season), Ruben Tejada, and Lucas Duda were pivotal factors on offense/defense for the Mets despite not originally being destined for starting playing time. Aside from the Phillies, the bottom six fWAR benches featured teams like the Colorado Rockies (-1.4 fWAR, 73 Wins). Baltimore Orioles (-0.2 fWAR, 69 Wins), Oakland Athletics (0.5 fWAR, 74 Wins), Seattle Mariners (1.5 fWAR, 67 Wins), Chicago Cubs (1.5 fWAR, 71 Wins), and Minnesota Twins (1.7 fWAR, 63 Wins). Again, this makes a lot of sense.
So based on the findings (and various team situations), having a strong bench and winning isn’t necessarily a correlation with causation, but if your team features mediocre starters and doesn’t have the depth to fill-in, expect to be at the bottom of the pile.