It’s an annual occurrence these days: Dan Szymborski finishes rolling out the team-by-team ZiPS projections on Fangraphs, those projections get added to the player pages, and then they get integrated into the “Depth Charts” team-level projections that you can peruse here: https://www.fangraphs.com/depthcharts.aspx?position=Team. Not updated yet: the actual playoff odds, which likely simulate each team’s schedule and deliver a forecasted point estimate win total on and above a team’s forecasted WAR total, but that’ll come soon enough.
So, what do we know at this point, with the pre-existing Steamer projections and the newly-integrated ZiPS projections for 2023 all blended together and teams rank-stacked accordingly? Well, nothing we weren’t already suspecting: the Braves are squarely in the uppermost echelon of MLB teams, at least on paper, for the upcoming 2023 season.
Bottom line: only two teams have a greater WAR forecast than the Braves, and neither of those happens to be the Mets, who are fourth, a bit behind the Braves. We’ll break the differences down a bit later, but first, some errata.
Remember that WAR is metric whose scale is “wins,” and is calculated with the premise that if a team of replacement-level players played a team of average players over 162 games, it would end up with a record of about 48-114. This means that WAR is directly additive to 48 wins to get a team’s forecasted win total. At first glance, that may compel you to take the Braves’ 53.1 WAR point estimate, Steamer-and-ZiPS-blended projection, and say, blam, that adds up to 101, the Braves won 101 games last year, bada bing, bada boom, let’s run the NL East back for another year.
But wait! A funny thing about the table above. If you did the same math for every team, you’d get... 2,687 total wins across all teams, or about 90 wins for each team. Wait a minute, that can’t happen. A whole league of 90 win teams? There are only 2,430 wins to go around, we can’t be spreading 2,687 wins across the 2023 season. So, right, errata: it looks like these projections haven’t been scaled back to one of the central assumptions in WAR: that each season, there is 1,000 WAR to be earned by players. In particular, this lack of scaling seems to apply only to position players — another key assumption in WAR is that the 1,000 is split: 570 for position players, and 430 for pitchers. The pitching WAR in the table above adds up to 427, but the position player WAR adds up all the way to 829, which is way more than 570. (Basically, the group of forecasted position players is projected to earn about 45 percent more WAR than would be possible to earn. This is probably an artifact of a few things, including a smoothed-out chance of injury that gives too many PAs to a team’s best players, and perhaps a failure to re-adjust to what league average entails if this relatively injury-free landscape occurs.)
This is an easy thing to adjust for — we could either scale total team WAR to 1,000, or, perhaps more accurately since we know that this scaling issue is mostly affecting position players right now, scale the position player and pitching components separately, which mostly just leads to a downscaling of position player WAR projections. If we do that, we get...
If you spend more than a bit of time looking at this table, you can really grok the overwhelming, centralizing pull of the projections’ point estimates. All teams are smushed between 69 and 91 wins; in 2022, this was kinda-sorta the interquartile range of MLB, reflecting the 14 teams ranked between ninth and 22nd in wins, and omitting the eight teams with the most wins and the eight teams with the fewest.
On the position player side, no team is forecast for a (scaled down) 23ish WAR; in 2022, eight teams cleared this mark, and two teams cleared it by over 50 percent. On the pitcher side, no team is forecast for a (marginally scaled up) 20ish WAR; in 2022, six teams had 20 or more pitching fWAR. The same is true for the laggards; the projections are way more generous than reality when it comes to the horrorshow that rebuilding, “rebuilding,” or just plain awful teams roll out there over the course of the season, which is part of what tamps down the top-end of the projection.
But, back to the Braves. Scaling doesn’t really change much, and they’re still up there. They’re still neck-and-neck with the Mets, with a marginal edge, for the best forecast in the division. They’re towards the top of that upper tier of eight surefire contenders who can probably coast to a playoff spot under the now-bloated postseason qualification system. That leaves four remaining spots for the next 10 teams or so, and a very outside track for everyone else.
Why the marginal edge over the Mets? Well, a quick rundown, position-by-position:
- The Braves have an advantage at catcher for sure, thanks to Sean Murphy.
- First base, second base, center field, and however each team chooses to cobble together DH are washes.
- The Mets have a huge shortstop advantage, which should surprise basically no one given that shortstop discussion has been a huge focus of this offseason for the Braves.
- But, the Braves compensate for their shortstop deficiency by being able to stack Austin Riley up against Eduardo Escobar, who kind of sticks out as a subpar option given the rest of what the Mets are going to war with.
- The other huge focus of the offseason for the Braves has been left field, where the situation is still dire — so the Mets have an advantage here. Mark Canha/Tommy Pham isn’t particularly young or great (Canha outhit his xwOBA by a lot last year), but the less mental energy expended on rehashing the Braves’ void in left field, the better.
- But, again, for that downside, the Braves make up for it by having Ronald Acuña Jr., which is not something that applies to the Mets. So, we get through the position players, and there’s not much separating these teams.
- The Mets appear to have a slight rotation edge, although it looks really health-and-durability dependent. On a per-inning basis, the Mets look like they have two great starters (~4.5 WAR per 200 innings), three well above average options (~3 WAR per 200 innings), and plenty of okay rotation options (~2 WAR per 200 innings). Carlos Carrasco projected to get a ton of innings actually weighs them down a bit. The Braves, meanwhile, aren’t quite as stacked — Spencer Strider appears to be in the top group, but the projections are continually not enamored with Max Fried given his pitching style, and he’s somewhere between those first two tiers. You then get Charlie Morton as the other above-average option, and everyone else looks average-y. 2/3/lots versus 1/1/most, with Fried floating somewhere between the two 1s is the difference here — basically five above-average starter types compared to three.
- But, if you’re going at in this particular order, the Braves’ relief corps is what sets them apart. Now, reliever projections are really problematic, and the only reason the Braves edge the Mets due to their relievers is just because I’m handling them last, but in the end, it all adds up — the Braves have four projected high-quality options, including two great ones. The Mets are really more like, Edwin Diaz and some guys that are probably fine relievers, and Diaz being best-in-class doesn’t quite make up for it.
Take all of the above and the two teams don’t look dissimilar at all on paper. Certainly within any kind of margin of error you could reasonably create, and even most that would be unreasonably stringent. It’s tempting to say that the division race will come down to the wire again, but a more likely outcome is that injuries and depth, or lack thereof, end up playing outsize roles because of how similar these teams are when it’s all said and done.
Anyway, this marks a second straight season where the Braves look like division favorites, even if slight favorites at the moment, and given their roster, there’s little reason to expect any feelings of, “ugh, I wish they added one more piece” for the foreseeable future.