Lately I’ve been hearing some talk about how the Pirates bench is a weak spot on the team not only this year but last year. This got me wondering if such a statement was really true so with this season still new I focused on last year and did some research to figure out how each team’s bench performed. The most difficult part of this assignment of course is figuring out just what constitutes a bench player. There are many ways to go about this but here at Battling Bucs we like to keep things simple so we created our criteria entirely on games played and plate appearances. Now these criteria may seem somewhat arbitrary but I set a minimum of 50 PA, a maximum of 400 PA and to weed out midseason trade acquisitions and callups I cut anyone who averaged more than 3.1 PA per games played.
The reasoning behind those numbers are quite simple. A player who spent two months with a team getting about a start a week and an occasional pinch hitting appearance would get about 50 PA and a player who spends a whole year on a team starting about half the games and getting frequent pinch hitting appearances would get about 400 PA. The 3.1 PA/G mark is based off the qualification for the batting title and is used to prevent midseason acquisitions liked Marlon Byrd from qualifying. Some other lesser criteria used to determine the list was limiting the players to non-pitchers and focusing solely on National league bench players as AL bench players are used a bit differently.
After filtering the players through this criteria I was left with 98 players and 100 instances (two players qualified for two teams). Using Fangraphs I was able to get the player’s fWAR, and his runs above/below average offensively, defensively and running the bases. This group in 16,353 PA worked out to have a -0.5 fWAR and be 437 runs below average offensively, 53.3 runs below average defensively and 4.2 runs below average running the bases. Scaling this down to a full season worth of PA (650) we get: 0.0 fWAR, -17.4 Off, -2.1 Def, -0.2 BsR. Below are the results for the individual 15 NL teams sorted by fWAR/650 PA.
Team: PA, BsR/650, Off/650, Def/650, fWAR/650
Braves: 741 , 0.4 , -3.9, 2.3 , 2.0
Cubs: 901, -4.4, -5.7, -0.7, 1.4
Giants: 1376, 0.0, -19.6, 9.2, 0.9
Cardinals: 1102, 2.3, -7.8, -4.7, 0.7
Reds: 1062, -1.5, -16.6, 3.4, 0.6
Mets: 1284, 0.4, -10.0, -3.7, 0.6
Brewers: 1328, 1.2, -18.5, 3.1, 0.4
Pirates: 1401, 0.0, -17.6, -1.2, 0.1
Dodgers: 1553, -2.1, -20.0, 0.3, -0.1
Phillies: 949, 0.8, -18.9, -8.2, -0.8
Diamondbacks: 798, -1.1, -18.2, -9.8, -1.0
Rockies: 925, 1.4, -22.5, -5.5, -1.0
Marlins: 1009, 3.2, -22.8, -6.1, -1.0
Padres: 1024, -0.7, -21.0, -13.2, -1.6
Nationals: 900, -3.0, -35.3, -5.1, -2.3
What you may or may not notice here is the Pirates come in 8th in terms of fWAR/650 and are almost an exact match for the league average production meaning their bench performance last year really wasn’t that bad. Just as a point of reference the players making up the Pirates bench in this exercise are Gaby Sanchez, Clint Barmes, Alex Presley, Josh Harrison, Tony Sanchez, Michael McKenry, Brandon Inge and Travis Snider.
Of note in the above numbers is the difference between plate appearances ranging from the Braves with only 741 PA from their bench all the way up to the Dodgers with 1553 PA. The Pirates ranked 2nd in plate appearances given to bench players coming in at 1,401 and truth be told this probably leads to the belief of the team’s bench being poor. On a rate basis the Pirates bench grades out as the sixth best offensively in the National league last year but on when factoring in playing time the Pirates bench ranks the 4th most runs below average.
What the above numbers seem to indicate is that the Pirates bench all in all wasn’t too bad last year and was actually right around average but in general benches are bad and having to rely on it as much as the Pirates did has the affect of magnifying the issue. Looking at the top three benches it looks like the Braves and Cubs succeeded in part by limiting the exposure of their bench and the Giants succeeded by stocking it with strong glove men. In fourth the Cardinals appear to have had a legitimately good bench led by the presence of Matt Adams.
My take away from all of this is quite simple: There is a reason a bench player is a bench player and that is because they aren’t good enough to start. The Pirates could definitely stand to upgrade their bench some but the truth is the best way to probably do so is to limit the amount of time your bench players receive and that makes sense because after all b definition bench players are the worst players on the team.
Note: I know my selection method wasn’t perfect but it was meant to give a quick snapshot of every team’s bench. Chances are it missed out on some backup catchers who rarely pinch hit and it included a few players who earned starting jobs later in the year but I think overall it gives a quick and mostly accurate picture.