Just a couple of players away...right?

Tom Tippett
April 6, 2002

In the spring, when only a few games are in the books and optimism surrounds most major league cities, you often hear people say that their team is just a couple of players away from contending this year. I decided to put that idea to the test. Admittedly, it's a rather extreme test, but I think it will serve to demonstrate how much it really takes to make a big move in the standings.

A couple of weeks ago, we posted our annual projections of the team standings. If you didn't see that article, here's a quick recap. We projected the 2002 performance for about 1500 players, set up each team with starting rotations, bullpen assignments, starting lineups, and depth charts, then used our Diamond Mind Baseball game to simulate the 2002 season fifty times. We averaged the results and commented on the chances for each team to make it into the postseason.

Those simulation results showed a great deal of parity, with five of the six division races involving at least three teams with a real chance to take home the title. The exception was the American League East, where the Yankees were clearly the best team in baseball (on paper, at any rate) and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays finished in the cellar, 43 games behind the leaders.

After seeing these results, I wondered what it would take for Tampa Bay to become a contender. So I decided to make a series of trades that would have George Steinbrenner firing everyone in his sight and would bring a huge smile to Commissioner Selig's band of small-market advocates.

Mike Mussina for Ryan Rupe

Trade number one was a swap of starting pitchers, with Yankees ace Mike Mussina joining the Devil Rays and Ryan Rupe moving north. After making this deal, I simulated the season three times and averaged the results, and here's how things changed:

            New York     Tampa Bay

  Before     104-58        61-101

  After       99-63        67-95

As you can see, the Yankees lost five more games and Tampa Bay picked up six victories in the process. Mussina pitched well but didn't get a lot of run support, so his win-loss record was a mediocre 10-12. Rupe didn't pitch as well as Mussina, but posted a 14-10 record, thanks to a load of runs from the Yankee lineup.

One quick note before we move on to the next round. Three seasons isn't a lot, and there's still some room for random variation. So don't jump to the conclusion that Mussina is worth exactly five games to a team. That's probably about right, actually, but you can't prove that by running only three simulations.

Bernie Williams for Jason Tyner

The next deal was a swap of starting center fielders. Bernie Williams, one of baseball's better all-around hitters, joins the Devil Rays as their new #3 hitter. The light hitting but speedy Jason Tyner takes over in center field for New York, batting ninth. With this move on top of the Mussina-Rupe swap, here's how the next three seasons came out:

            New York     Tampa Bay

  Before      99-63        67-95

  After       95-67        70-92

This move had a slightly smaller impact than did the trade of starting pitchers, but it would be a mistake to conclude that Mussina is worth twice as much as Williams. Once again, three seasons doesn't prove much. Furthermore, adding one good hitter to a bad lineup may not be enough to make the difference between losing and winning. It might just serve to make some losses a little closer.

Derek Jeter for Chris Gomez

Well, the Devil Rays aren't quite contenders yet, even with the addition of two all-stars. In fact, all we've accomplished to this point is to raise them up to the level of the Pirates and Brewers, each of whom were in the low 70's in wins in our projected standings. So let's swap starting shortstops, too, sending Derek Jeter to Tampa Bay and Chris Gomez to the Yankees. Our three simulated seasons now look like this:

            New York     Tampa Bay

  Before      95-67        70-92

  After       92-70        78-84

We're making progress now. Three all-stars later, and the Devil Rays are starting to creep closer to the .500 mark. The real impact of this move is probably somewhere between the three games the Yankees dropped and the eight games Tampa Bay picked up. Again, it's only three seasons.

Roger Clemens for Nick Bierbrodt

We've made two position player moves in a row, so let's take another crack at the starting rotation. We'll add the reigning Cy Young winner to Tampa Bay in return for youngster Nick Bierbrodt, who was penciled in as Tampa Bay's #5 starter when we ran our simulations last month. Bierbrodt, as you know, suffered a complete loss of control during the spring, and his immediate future is in doubt. For the purposes of this exercise, however, we assumed he would continue to pitch at the level he had established last year. And here's what happened when these two hurlers traded places:

            New York     Tampa Bay

  Before      92-70        78-84

  After       90-72        80-82

Not a big change this time, but still another step in the right direction. With the loss of these four key players, the Yankees have now fallen behind Boston as the favorites to win the division, and Tampa Bay now projects to finish third. If not for Seattle and Oakland in the west, they'd have an outside shot at the wildcard.

Jason Giambi for Steve Cox

For our last trick, we'll exchange first basemen, sending the should-have-been MVP Jason Giambi to Tampa Bay in return for Steve Cox, who's not a bad player himself. Now we've beefed up the Tampa Bay lineup in a big way, and the results are starting to show:

            New York     Tampa Bay

  Before      90-72        80-82

  After       83-79        84-78

Finally, we've achieved some sort of parity between these two teams. We'd have to make another move or two before the Devil Rays could rival the top AL teams on a regular basis, but this can now be described as a good solid team. Even with the addition of five all-stars, however, it's still not a great team, with very little offense coming from 2B, 3B and DH and a pitching staff that could use some more help, especially in the setup and closer roles.

This experiment reminds us that one player doesn't make a huge difference in baseball. A starting pitcher takes the ball only 20% of the time, a top position player only gets a little more than 11% of the atbats, and no one player can dominate enough on defense to save more than a couple of dozen runs in a season. Contrast this with basketball, where a star player is usually on the court 90% of the time and can handle the ball or take a major defensive responsibility almost every time down the floor.

A baseball team needs significant contributions from fifteen to twenty guys to be a major contender. Witness last year's Seattle Mariners, who lost Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, and Alex Rodriguez in successive years and still lapped the field because almost every man on the roster contributed at a good-to-great level.

Getting back to the Devil Rays, it's fair to say that they are more than a couple of players away from contending. A couple of great players wouldn't hurt, of course, but they'd gain a lot more if the 25 guys on their current roster were to take a step forward at the same time. The collective weight of those 25 improvements would make a big difference.