“With its untold depths, couldn’t the sea keep alive such huge specimens of life from another age, this sea that never changes while the land masses undergo almost continuous alteration? Couldn’t the heart of the ocean hide the last–remaining varieties of these titanic species, for whom years are centuries and centuries millennia?”
― Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
There are some corollaries between what Mer Verne had to say about the practically limitless sea and what more restricted MLB franchises can do leveraging their depth(s). Depth allows teams to stay alive through poor runs of play and the grind of playing 162 games in 180 days. In this time of short-lived competitive advantages this depth might be one of the last-remaining areas where teams can assemble advantages that allow them to best their rivals, and much like the sea this isn’t some newfound thing, yet teams still seem to take it for granted. Either through poor resource allocation or not assigning high enough priority some teams are being sunk by their bench while others are using it to rise back to the land of promise.
Evaluating something as woefully defined as a team’s “bench” can be difficult, but that should not stop the intrepid adventurer from attempting to map this heretofore uncharted territory. This explorer’s attempt is founded on assuming the nine gents with the most accrued plate appearances are considered starters while everyone else is counted as “bench.” Avast, ye hardies, no pitchers were harmed in the forming of this analysis. Of course a great bench doesn’t matter if your starters are rubbish so let’s begin with the starters:
All data is courtesy of Fangraphs except for the WAR/600 which is a simple calculation of WAR/PA*600. The Rays come in atop the leaderboard due to not having a significant weakness. They hit, they field, they run the bases well they do it all, but they’re not alone as the Red Sox are nipping at their heels as a slightly worse, though still good, defensive team. The Orioles don’t hit quite as well, but pick it even better in the field, but also see a gap running the bases with the stolen base not really being a weapon. Rounding out the top four is the Tigers. Detroit can really hit the ball, but their defense has been woeful and they don’t run the bases well either in the run of play or when planning a heist. Let’s move on to why we’re here:
The Indians have built their large lead mostly on the backs of tremendous power and slightly better than average defense. Their 116 wRC+ blows away the next best team, our hometown Rays sitting at 97, and it’s almost solely due to that collective .452 SLG which is powered by that .211 ISO and 15.1% homerun per fly ball. We’ll get into the team by team look in a bit, but this is a bench built on power bats held in reserve biding their time for when they can emerge from below and take one out of the yard. Next we see the Rays with 2.0 WAR per 600 plate appearances. While their 97 wRC+ is below league average it does stand as the next highest amount and goes to show that even a good bench is comprised of players that shouldn’t be starting everyday. They’ve received similar defense as the Indians, but it has come at more important positions leading to a Fld + Pos that is essentially league average, which would come in pretty high if not for a couple of crazy good defensive benches in Kansas City and New York.
The Royals come in percentage points behind the Rays, but go about getting there differently. Kansas City’s bench has hit very poorly with a 72 wRC+ that puts them squarely behind the other powerhouses and fringe contenders, but their aforementioned defense at particularly important positions carries them. Additionally, their baserunning and stolen base ability is off the charts showcasing a team attacking via the less heralded (read: cheaper) ways to go about constructing an offense. The Blue Jays come in fourth here, but a step down from the upper echelon teams. Their baserunning and stolen base ability is very strong and they bring solid enough bats, but it has come at the price of running players that lean more towards the good bat/poor glove edge of the spectrum.
There’s a lot to take in here and the hope is that fans and analysts of all teams use this as a jump off for their own takes, but let’s now move into a look at how each team got to their position. These will run in order from best bench to worst so let’s start with the most racially-divisive named team in the AL:
With the (incredibly) small samples in some cases the color scheme gets thrown for a bit of a loop and the WAR/600 figures might get blown a bit out of proportion (Cord Phelps probably isn’t worth -27 wins above replacement). Try not to let that bother you. Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes have been a revelation for this team in their part time duty and Lonnie Chisenhall has also brought some across-the-board value. Another guy you can’t fully write off is Jason Giambi who has brought some power and a league average bat when called upon. This has been their primary bench as the muck below has swallowed the other players whole.
The Rays have not needed to dig as deep as others to find players with only Shelley Duncan seeing less than 100 PAs. There’s a simple reason for this. They haven’t needed to. Jose Lobaton has been a league average player as the back up catcher providing an ok bat while playing the most difficult position on the diamond at a rate just below league average. This might be his ceiling so I wouldn’t plan on making him the starter next year, but it provides incredible value. Ryan Roberts has shown a similar bat with a better glove, but the star here is Wil Myers flexing an incredible bat with league average defense and surprising many with his ability to steal a base. Less heralded, but just as impressive, has been the contributions from Sean Rodriguez when given the chance. His better than average bat and much better than that glove has allowed the team to play matchups without worrying about a dropoff in talent, and his heady baserunning makes him a solid option in the late innings no matter where he’s told to go. Sam Fuld is a pinch runner that can’t steal a base.
This is another bench that essentially runs four-deep with an added bonus of George Kottaras going up there and not putting a ball in play 44% of the time. Chris Getz and Elliot Johnson have received the most PAs, but neither is much better than replacement value. They can both field well enough and add value on the bases, but they just can’t hit. At all. Old Man Miguel Tejada keeps plugging along with an acceptable bench bat that won’t kill you in the field, but Jarrod Dyson is the stud here. He has hit much better than expectations, but it’s in the field and on the bases where he really shines. With Lorenzo Cain and Dyson the Royals are fully stocked in Center Field. Kottaras might have some 3TO to him, but he does make for a decent enough platoon catcher and has been a solid contributor.
The four primary options have all been useful ball players. While disappointing many Lawrie has shown enough with the glove for many to hold out hope he will make good on his enormous talent. The bat hasn’t come to play all that much yet, and the head needs more work than any part of his game, but this is a starter in bench’s clothing. Rajai Davis, on the other hand, has rarely been thought of as a future super star, but he’s another guy in his prime utilizing every tool in his belt. He has shown some contact ability at the dish, but it’s his legs where he makes his living. Both his baserunning and stolen base numbers are near elite and if his glove was closer to average you’d be looking at a guy begging for a starting job. It’s unfair to have Jose Reyes in here because he’s a great player, but the methodology is the methodology and I’m nothing if not rigid. In his brief time Reyes has been everything they expected when the Jays traded for him, including missing time with an injury. He has hit extremely well, and while the glove grades poorly and the work on the bases has been good more than great, you’re still talking about an all star player over the course of an entire season. Lastly, Mark DeRosa has been a bat only guy that has struggled getting them to fall in, but can call down the thunder from time to time.
The Angels have given their bench the fewest PAs of any team in the league at 590 and we see only three guys with at least 100 on the year. Hank Conger has been the backup catcher and he’s shown a league average-ish bat and a better than expected glove while being below average on the bases. Peter Bourjos is the poor bat/good glove guy, wait what? Despite reputation he has been a very good hitter this year built on a low walk rate and high BABIP. The ISO is probably a little high, but it’s always better to see life and remember to temper expectations than it is to reassure that more will come. The glove hasn’t been near elite as shown in the past, but nothing wrong with the legs. Brendan Harris continues his legacy of being a non-factor both at the plate and in the field, while at least poor-hitter Luis Jimenez has been a good glove.
The Tigers are the last of the well above average benches and their bench hasn’t run crazy deep over the year with four guys over 100 PA and another close before being traded. Pena has been the backup catcher though he hasn’t been all that good. By catcher standards his bat is acceptable, but his glove hasn’t been all that great and he’s the very definition of a base clogger on a team full of them. On the other hand, Don Kelly has been a pleasant surprise. He takes walks to offset a low BABIP and he’s got a little stick to his game with the .141 ISO, but it’s in the field and on the bases where he has really helped this team. With so many poor defenders on this squad he has proven to be a dependable bench guy this year. Matt Tuiasosopo is a guy that has finally let the bat do his talking at the highest level. He walks, he hits for power and average, and he doesn’t kill you in the field. There’s some give back on the bases, but there’s a lot of teams that could just a fourth outfielder like this that can either start or come off the bench and make it rain. Ramon Santiago is supposed to be the all-glove guy that can play all over the place. The bat has lived down to expectations, but the glove hasn’t been quite up to par though it helps that they’re asking him to play some difficult positions.
The Rangers have had some mixing and matching with several players given a chance that just have not added anything. This is a difference from the deepest benches already seen where there are multiple steady options and the more middle of the pack where there’s a couple of good choices, but a spot or two that hasn’t held up their end. Jurickson Profar is realizing that there’s a difference between tearing apart AAA and facing the best pitchers on the planet day in and day out. His bat is maybe what you’d expect from this profile when taking out the hype and you have to like his strike out and walk numbers, but I think the glove is the bigger disappointment talked about and his legs equally head-shaking without as much of the discussion. These numbers look like a guy that isn’t ready, which isn’t a crime, but was something Texas was banking on this year.
Craig Gentry has been the perfect fourth outfielder proving those Julio Borbon lovers to be dead wrong. His bat has been meh with not enough power to expect the walk rate to continue to hold up his OBP, but who cares because the glove at an important position and the baserunning/stolen base ability have been incredibly strong. Geovany Soto is the backup catcher and as we’ve seen the threshold is pretty low here. He has hit at an above average level mostly backed by high power and a nice walk rate and the glove has been good enough, but he’s an exceptionally poor base runner and this stuff matters. Hence the back up role. Jeff Baker is a masher of lefties, plain and simple, and there’s a place for that on the bench. It’s nice to have this guy available in the late innings to turn a score around, but he’s not going to do that in any other facet as he’s a true bat-only guy. There’s value in this skill-set, but not as much as you might think.
The Mariners lead MLB in bench Plate appearances which speaks to how poor their starters have been and how difficult it has been to find an everyday option at multiple positions. Jason Bay was a starter, played at a replacement level, now he’s got a new address. Nick Franklin was a late call up that has actually played pretty well. He has shown a good bat while giving some of that back with the glove, but has been better than average on the bases. He’s going to need to pick up the defense if he’s ever going back to SS, but the bat plays as kind of a Daniel Murphy-type 2B. Shoppach was the starting catcher, played barely above replacement level, now he’s got a new address. Brad Miller was a late season call up that has flexed a league average bat and defense while starting primarily at SS, but he also profiles as a solid base runner and could prove to be a star if he can maintain these levels. Jesus Montero was a starter, then he played horrifically, then he got in PED trouble, will he have a new address? Mike Zunino was a late season call up that has shown an ok bat for a catcher and ok defense, then he got hurt. Rinse and repeat for yet another lost year in the Pac-NW.
The Red Sox are the last of the above replacement benches with everyone else either approximating replacement level or being below. The lion’s share of the at bats have gone to three guys with wide platoon splits and a back up catcher that got hurt with castoffs and young guys making up the rest of the bench. Gomes has seen the most time and has given them a league average bat and pretty bad defense. When you factor in the position he’s on a less than 1 WAR pace, though his baserunning continues to defy the eyes as a strong positive. Will Middlebrooks might someday be an every day player, but so far in his young career he has shown an inability to hit righties and a glove that gives no reason to find out if he will in the future. Mike Carp has proven to be a worthwhile pick up doing most of his damage against righties at a very high rate. He’s not being asked to play difficult positions and he has rewarded the Red Sox by not even playing those well. David Ross is a solid defensive catcher that hits enough to keep the pitchforks away, but not well enough to ever be a starter. Jackie Bradley should someday be a useful piece either off the bench or on the card, but that day is not today.
The Athletics come in basically at replacement level for their bench. Their catchers have basically been evenly platooned and have been a useful part of the team, but the rest of the bench has exposed a hole in Billy Beane’s Good Ship Regular Season. Jaso is the better hitter with the worse glove while Norris gives the opposite while profiling a little better on the bases. Adam Rosales is probably a nice guy, but his glove has not been good enough to justify carrying the black hole that is his bat. As a rule-V pick Nate Freiman will most likely stay on the team which might give him a chance to build on a year where he’s been kept in the Show despite not quite being ready. The bat has been below average, but the glove has been ok even though they’re not asking him to play Shortstop or anything. His baserunning could use some real refinement which is something that can come with experience (or he’s just a terrible athlete).
Earlier we saw that the Orioles had the third best starting positional players, but their bench is really holding them back by basically sitting at replacement level. The recently DFA’d Chris Dickerson was profiling as a good glove, poor bat option, that seemed more glaring playing in a corner. In reality he wasn’t a bad player despite horrific strikeout and walk ratios. Brian Roberts has seen time on the DL, that’s weird. Other than that he’s a shell of what used to be a very good player and a real pest as an opponent. Alexi Casilla has combined a solid glove with a swing first approach that really hampers his numbers. Still, the glove at important positions shows a player that has been useful. Steve Pearce is supposed to be the lefty masher, but he’s been more of a league average hitter and he’s not going to give up much anywhere else. Arms were added at the deadline, but perhaps a better hitting utility guy like Callaspo or an upgrade in the outfield would made sense, as well.
The White Sox starters were second worst and their bench isn’t much better at fourth worst in the AL. Gordon Beckham has bounced back post-injury to put up a league average bat with worse than average defense and poor baserunning. And he’s their best option! Hector Gimenez is the backup catcher and while his league average defense is fine his bat is el terrible. DeWayne Wise might have a statue of him at the Cell, but his good defense doesn’t really offset a poor approach an inability to do anything positive at the plate. Josh Phegley has yet to walk, and while that’s not the worst thing, he should be adding that to his obvious power if he hopes to ever be more than a back up catcher. Casper Wells is the darling of a few fans from the Pac-NW that probably remember him tipping them well or something because he’s not a ball player. He can field in a corner well enough, but most platoon guys hit one side well, not neither.
HOLY HELL! With injuries galore and unable to spend money with their big-money brethren the Yankees have thrown everything at the disaster that is not only their bench, but also their starters. There’s certainly some big names on that bench and others you’ve undoubtedly heard of, but the aggregate is a steaming pile of mess. One bright spot is Francisco Cervelli (yet another Yankee linked to the Biogenesis scandal), but how about Zoilo Almonte? The glove was very strong in his time up which helped offset a bat that probably makes him more of a fifth outfielder, and his baserunning leaves much to be desired. A perfect example of the type of compromise the Yankees never had to make in the past. David Adams flashed a nice glove at the hot corner, but his wRC+ paints him as half the average man at the plate. This lost season has many reasons, not least of which is an utter inability to figure out consistent roles for their bench players other than to throw new names around while riding similarly flawed skillsets.
The Astros starters were the worst in the AL and their bench is the second worst. Is there anything salvageable here? Well, Justin Maxwell has already been turned into other things. He showed a little pop and some walks to offset the high level of strikeouts and I think that 1.6 WAR/600 highlights him perfectly. On the bench he has uses, but he’s not a fulltime player. Carlos Corporan on the other hand might be someone the team keeps in the fold. His bat has been slightly above average while playing good defense at a tough position. These types of things probably lead to an underwhelming trade return so the team might be wise to give him more responsibility while he’s cheap. I’ve never heard of Robbie Grossman. Brett Wallace is in a weird place. The team knows his glove, even at first, is poor, and his bat has less than whelmed, but it’s an approach problem. The power is legit, but the guy just has no concept that the walk exists and this hurts his ability to make consistent contact. The Astros may be running out of patience here.
Coming in dead last and not by a nose are YOUR Minnesota Twins. They’ve primarily rode four guys off the bench and none has given them anything. Oswaldo Arcia is actually a league average batter that should probably not see the field. Jamey Carroll was given hard currency to come in and get on base while playing adequately at Shortstop and while the former isn’t happening the latter isn’t hold your nose bad. Clete Thomas gives you a guy that can play all over the outfield, but doesn’t hit or run all that well. Eduardo Escobar probably shouldn’t be in baseball anymore. This is a ragtag bunch of castoffs, poor acquisitions, and short in the way of future hope. This is a team that realizes where they are on the win curve so why bother building a bench. To continue our Oceanic-themed look the Twins’ bench is the massive garbage pile floating in the Pacific Ocean.
While teams have won it all without depth and you can’t solely rely on just your bench it is an important piece of the puzzle that probably doesn’t get the weight it deserves. A complete bench features the back up catcher that doesn’t kill you, the mashing bat you can roll out in high leverage to turn a score, the platoon infielder or outfielder that doesn’t hurt you with defense, the glove that can play all over and doesn’t kill you at the plate. These are ideals that are rarely seen together at once, but teams like the Indians have rode guys like Raburn and Gomes and even Giambi to fill these roles. Even better is when you can combine roles. The Rays’ Sean Rodriguez combines the platoon infielder/outfielder together and goes one step further by bringing a great glove. With roster spots at a minimum it’s wise to find players that not only feature these skillsets, but also have the mental approach that allows them to excel not playing everyday. Who are some of your favorites?