ESPN recently came out with its top 100 players going into the 2015 season. To accomplish this ranking, ESPN assembled a panel of 60 “experts” consisting of “writers, analysts, and contributors”. Players expected to miss the season due to injury were excluded. Contracts were ignored as well. The ranking was simply determined by expected 2015 performance.
I generally have zero interest in such things. Ranking players, power ranking teams, and just lists in general serve no purpose. It’s just clickbait intended to garner attention and get fans talking about it by getting fired up and arguing over it, as if such rankings carried any weight whatsoever. I don’t need anybody to rank players for me. Thanks to MLB.tv, I can watch them whenever I want, and thanks to Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, I can look up any stats that I want. Getting input from others is helpful, but in this day age comparing players to one another is not something for which you need to rely on others. Team power rankings are even worse. I just don’t get it. The only way to do that well is to go into depth on each team that you ranked in order to show why they’re ranked where they are. Nobody does that because, you know, that would be work. Even if they did, it’d probably be too long for anybody to want to read. Why work hard to get clicks when you can just throw out a top 10 list with little to no explanation given and still get clicks1?
I cannot for the life of me understand why people get so worked up about these rankings. Reasonable people can disagree on certain players. As for the unreasonable people, the people who unfortunately are most likely to complain in the comment section or social media, who cares what they think anyway? For those of you who get upset over disagreeable power rankings, you know MLB isn’t the BCS, right? Forgive me for stating something so blatantly obvious, but at the end of the season the teams that win the most will get into the playoffs. Things like run differential, strength of schedule, margins of victory, and people’s opinions have no weight on who gets into the post-season.
The one exception to all of this are prospect rankings. It is not possible for fans to evaluate and compare prospects. Even if you get out frequently to amateur and minor league games, it’s still unlikely that you’re seeing every legitimate prospect in the country. Most importantly, your average fan is not a trained, experienced talent evaluator. We need media scouts in order to inform us on who’s who in the prospect world, how they project, and they compare to each other.
Please don’t reward writer laziness by clicking on these rankings. The link I provided at the beginning of this post uses a free service from a website called Do Not Link. You can use it in order to provide a link to a site without giving it credit for the click.
So how did I come to this particular ranking when I hate rankings? I came across this article by David Schoenfield stating that the BBTN 100 overrated relievers. I was intrigued, so I clicked. Schoenfield continues to demonstrate that he has a firm grasp on modern baseball analysis. It was good content, but I was horrified by how highly relievers were rated on the list. The relief pitchers who made the list are the best relievers in baseball, but as I’ve said time and time again, even the best relievers just cannot compare to starting pitchers and position players. They just don’t get enough playing time. Dellin Betances led all relievers in Fangraphs WAR in 2014 with 3.1 WAR. That elite relief he provided was the equivalent of a full season of an above average position player. Among all players in baseball, his 3.1 WAR ranked 100.
Craig Kimbrel was the highest rated reliever on the list at #26. He rated one spot ahead of Carlos Gómez. I am not making this up. This panel would rather have 70 elite innings of pitching instead of a full season of an 80 defender in center field who has had a 130 wRC+ the last two seasons and who is projected to keep that going. Not even Dave Stewart nor Ruben Amaro Jr. would rather have Kimbrel over Gómez.
Schoenfield did an excellent job of breaking all this down, so I won’t steal his thunder, and I urge you to read what he wrote. If I were to do my own top 100 list, I can’t imagine that any reliever would be on it. Again, they just don’t pitch enough innings. Furthermore, their performances tend to be quite volatile from year to year, so making a prediction on their 2015 performance could be quite risky. Keep in mind that if any of these elite relievers were really that good, they’d be starters. Remember what Wade Davis was like as a starting pitcher? He had a whopping 5.92 RA9 in 2013 as a starter! That was with that Royals defense behind him, too! As a reliever, he was a world-destroyer with a 1.00 RA9 (though admittedly he has no chance of sustaining that in 2015).
Finally, when you’re in what can be described as the third dead-ball era, that diminishes the value of relief pitching even further. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still important, just not as much as when scoring was higher.
Dan Szymborski, inventor of the ZiPS projection system, also wrote up a criticism of the ESPN Top 100. He, too, also criticized the overrating of closers, though not as in-depth as Schoenfield2. If you look at a few of the players whose ranking he objected with, you’d find that the list also underrates defense. Carlos Gómez, Josh Donaldson, and Manny Machado, who are three of the best defenders in the game, are all underrated. Those who work in the media continue to underrate the value of defense. Since it is difficult to quantify, its impact is hard to perceive. We now know that even though it will never compare to the impact of a big bat, we know how much value defense has. We’ve known for a long time. It’s tough to take somebody seriously as a baseball expert who doesn’t understand this.
It would be easy for me to rip the baseball minds at ESPN who put this list together, but I don’t think that’s completely fair. For one, I feel bad doing so because even though the network has its share of sub-par analysts, I find them all to be nice, humble people. Regardless, the problem with the list is that we have no idea who contributed to it and why they made their choices. I’m not accusing anybody of mailing it in, but think about this: If you were tasked to the same thing anonymously without having to explain your reasoning at all, how much effort would you put in to it? How much effort would most people put in to it?
The whole list is just attention seeking clickbait. Before you say that I’m a hypocrite for complaining about a list when I disapproved of doing so, my point isn’t that Player X is overrated or underrated. My point is twofold: First, lists and rankings that don’t do an adequate job of explaining how they were constructed are pointless. If you go back and check out the ESPN ranking that I linked to in the beginning of this post, you’ll see that not one word was written about the choices. The only thing that is provided is a video clip that is 2:26 long and only discusses the top 10. What on earth are fans supposed to learn from this? Why read anything if you can’t learn something from it?
As to my second point, the media continues to overvalue closers and undervalue defense. To them, the plays that are most exciting are the ones that are perceived to have the most value. It’s really just one big appeal to emotion. However, we’ve known better for a long time. The defense alone of an elite defender can be of equal value to that of an elite closer. Those who continue to fail to understand how to properly value relief pitching and defense really need to get with the times.
At the end of the day, if you find this kind of content enjoyable, then fine. I really don’t want to tell people what they should and should not enjoy. Just understand what it is and, most importantly, don’t take it too seriously.
- Grantland’s Jonah Keri has a weekly column called “The 30” where he ranks all the teams in baseball. The thing is that it’s really just a framework for him to go into depth on three or four teams. It’s good stuff. ↩
- When Szymborki’s article first went up, I checked out the comments against my better judgement. I found two large comments by my first ever troll! She inspired this post by claiming there is no such thing as small sample size because she believes that math is an opinion! I’ve seen her once on Hardball Talk, too. Apparently she has nothing better to do with her time than to troll smart baseball writers with terrible arguments. Szymborki mentioned WAR in passing, so according to the commenter that means that’s all the article was about and decided to write a few hundred words about the subject across two comments. It’s not unlike my mentioning WAR in passing in a post that had nothing to do with the construct that also incurred her wrath. I didn’t read the comments on Szymborki’s article because I didn’t want my brain to melt, but apparently they have now been deleted! Which is hilarious! She just won’t rest until the whole world knows that Miguel Cabrera is the greatest player who ever lived! Can somebody try writing an article that doesn’t mention WAR at all but mentions an actual historic war and see if the commenter pops up? I wonder if she has ripped WAR on some history blogs about the Civil War or something. ↩