You may have missed it, but hopefully you didn’t: earlier this week, the Fangraphs Playoff Odds function for the 2023 season officially went live. While this particular feature has only been around since the mid-2010s, there’s a cool thing about it this year (if you’re a Braves fan, anyway): yes, this crew is projected, by this particular methodology, to be the best team in baseball. Specifically:
- Most projected wins at 95ish; next-highest is the Padres at 93ish
- Highest chance of clinching a bye for the first round of the postseason at 50 percent; next-highest is the Astros at 48 percent
- Highest overall (make-the-)playoff odds at 92 percent; next highest is the Padres at 88 percent
- And, a testament to their roster strength, the highest overall World Series champion odds at 15 percent; the next-highest is the Padres at 12 percent.
Anyway, you probably know all this, or have gathered it just from the conversation around the team for much of the offseason and especially in the last few weeks, as projections have rolled out. But, I want to focus on something else, which is not just “the Braves are good,” but a brief note about why that’s the case with this particular set of players.
If you go to the Fangraphs Depth Charts, which include the production forecasts upon which their playoff odds and win totals are based, the Braves aren’t first in projected team WAR. They’re tied for second with the Yankees, and barely ahead of the Mets. The Padres have a narrow lead, but interestingly, don’t come out first in simulated win totals. The differences between the Braves and the Padres in both datasets aren’t that large, but it’s still interesting that despite having a tougher division and tougher more-immediate competition for the division title, (Mets for the Braves vis-a-vis Dodgers for the Padres), the Braves still come out on top.
I don’t actually have an answer for why that is — I’m sure it’s just an artifact of the specifics in the simulations, but poking around led me to something interesting. Check it out:
The above aren’t WAR values; they’re z-scores, which is just a fancy way of saying “how many standard deviations above/below the mean is this value?” The z-scores are done position-by-position; in other words, the Braves having a value of 1.5 at catcher means that they are projected by Fangraphs Depth Charts to have catcher production 1.5 standard deviations above the mean.
There are a lot of takeaways you could glean from the above, but here’s the big one: aside from the Braves and Padres, no other team has six different positional groups a full standard deviation or more above the mean. If you ratchet the threshold up to 1.5 standard deviations above the mean, though, the Padres only have one such position (Juan Soto, left field), while the Braves have four (and the Astros have five). The Braves are also just one of six teams with any positional group two standard deviations above the mean or more, though three of those teams have two such groups, and for the Braves, that group happens to be relievers, whose projections are probably a lot less useful than the corresponding forecasts for any other group.
This type of well-roundedness, or depth, or whatever you want to call it, is somewhere between admirable and staggering. In terms of grouping these together:
Cream of the crop: the bullpen
The Braves have the best-projected bullpen. That’s really it. Depth Charts projections have just 17 relievers earning 1+ WAR this year; the Braves are the only team with two (Raisel Iglesias, A.J. Minter). Of the 67 relievers with 0.5+ WAR, the Braves have four. Of their top eight relievers by forecasted usage, only one is projected for 0 WAR. There are other teams with great relief top-twos (as far as projections go, anyway), such as the Guardians and Padres, and other teams with fairly deep bullpens (Phillies, Red Sox), but no other team has both.
Among the best: C, 1B, 3B, CF, RF
The Braves’ raw projections for the listed positions are: 4th, 5th, 4th, 4th, 4th. They’re likely in the top tier of catching production, and in fairly high tiers at the other positions, albeit without the elite, top-of-the-game projections there. Basically, it’s not Freddie Freeman, or Nolan Arenado, or Mike Trout, or Aaron Judge, but nonetheless, it’s a team with close to the next best thing at all of those positions.
Still above average: 2B, rotation
Braves’ second basemen (i.e., Ozzie Albies) still have the seventh-best projection among teams. That situation is a lot closer to the “among the best” category than league-average. The rotation is also barely outside the top five in the game, and again, is mostly deep rather than egregiously top-heavy. Of all the rotations with more projected WAR, only one of the five actually has their top four starters all projected for 2+ WAR (Yankees); in fact, the Braves, the Yankees, and the Twins are the only three teams to meet that standard.
Lagging: SS, DH
No surprises here. The Braves are incredibly well-rounded, but that doesn’t mean they’re above-average everywhere. At least SS and DH don’t seem that bad. For SS, neither Vaughn Grissom nor Orlando Arcia have great projections relative to the current bumper crop of shortstop production, but they’re fine enough, however it shakes out. The DH options don’t seem very interesting, but the reality is that these days about two-thirds of the league is just cobbling together DH PAs anyway, so it’s not a huge deal. Which brings us to...
Yeah, we know. We all know. The rest of the roster is pretty well-rounded, but this is a disappointingly jagged edge. Eddie Rosario had a .310 xwOBA for his career before the eye surgery, which isn’t really usable in the corner outfield; even for the past three pre-2022 years, including the playoffs, it was just .329, which is eh. And he’s got a ton more downside risk than just his recent pre-2022 performance, given that he doesn’t field well and never hit well after returning in 2022, either.
Marcell Ozuna has a vortex of problems. The xwOBA is still okay-ish, but the reality is that prior to his four-year deal and the various off-field issues, he had posted xwOBAs in the 85th percentile or higher among regulars for four straight years, even if the wOBAs didn’t always match (because of a slice, or whatever else). Now, his wOBA is still under his xwOBA, but the xwOBA has also slipped well below the 80th percentile. A guy with elite offensive potential that offers no defensive value signed to his deal is still a bargain; that same guy with potential offense dropping to just above average-y might be worth rostering, but doesn’t offer much else.
But, that aside, the Braves’ roster is great, even compared to their peers. Even if injuries strike, maybe the Braves don’t have great in-house replacements for each position, but the production well is so deep that it shouldn’t rattle the team’s overall fortunes too much. The season doesn’t hinge on the health or production of a single superlative performer, but has more-than-quality assets pretty much all around.
It should be a fantastic season, provided all the rules changes, expanded playoffs, and everything else doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm like it has mine.