How Much Playing Time Goes to Replacement Level or Negative-WAR Players?

I do an article each year, providing an analysis and prediction on the upcoming win total for the Pittsburgh Pirates, all based off the ZiPS projections. The most recent version of that analysis was published at the end of last week.

The Pirates Are Projected For a Losing Season in 2022, But It Might Be Promising

I’m not here today to discuss that projected win total, as that will undoubtedly change between now and the start of the regular season. Instead, I wanted to look at one of the downsides for this analysis: Negative WAR.

The analysis linked above projects out an expected roster, plus depth options. Every one of these options is projected for positive-WAR production from ZiPS. Inevitably, some of these players will actually produce negative-WAR production.

It’s impossible to predict which players will fall well short of their projections. Likewise, it’s impossible to predict which players will exceed their projections. You can only hope that the players exceeding projections can outnumber and outproduce the losses from the players who are falling into the red.

With that disclaimer, is there a way to know how much negative production is unavoidable?

In the comments of that article last week, NMR brought up how the Pirates gave so many innings and plate appearances to negative-WAR players. There were exactly 2242 plate appearances given to negative-WAR position players, along with 530.1 innings given to negative-WAR pitchers.

I’m going to say something, and it might come as a shocking groundbreaking revelation to some, but it has to be said: If you’re giving this much playing time to guys producing negative results (compared to a replacement level player), then you’re probably not going to have a shot at contending.

That wasn’t groundbreaking, you say?

You already witnessed the 2021 Pittsburgh Pirates season, you say?

Great. Then let’s discuss how rare this lack of performance was.

I went back to 2007, looking at how much playing time the Pirates gave to negative-WAR players each season. I looked at the hitters, pitchers, and the combination.

The results the last two seasons have been the worst during this stretch. The team in total gave 38% of playing time to negative-WAR players in 2021, along with another 5% to replacement-level players. Those numbers in 2020 were 40% and 15%. That means in 2020, the Pittsburgh Pirates were only giving 45% of their playing time to guys producing positive-WAR value.

The last time the Pirates were this low was in 2010, when they had 63% positive-WAR and 33% negative. The numbers trended in a positive direction from there, taking a big jump in 2012, and another jump in 2015. Not surprisingly, the team declined in 2016, fared well in 2017-18, and bottomed out starting in 2019.

Here are the full percentage results by year, for you to analyze.

Team Hitters Pitchers
Year WAR+ % WAR0 % WAR- % WAR+ % WAR0 % WAR- % WAR+ % WAR0 % WAR- %
2021 57% 5% 38% 57% 5% 37% 57% 5% 38%
2020 45% 15% 40% 43% 14% 42% 46% 16% 38%
2019 64% 7% 29% 63% 9% 28% 65% 5% 30%
2018 84% 4% 13% 86% 6% 8% 81% 1% 18%
2017 82% 4% 14% 81% 2% 17% 83% 7% 10%
2016 74% 3% 22% 88% 3% 9% 61% 4% 35%
2015 89% 3% 8% 84% 5% 11% 95% 1% 5%
2014 83% 4% 13% 84% 7% 9% 82% 1% 17%
2013 80% 1% 18% 71% 1% 28% 90% 1% 9%
2012 75% 10% 14% 66% 12% 22% 85% 9% 6%
2011 69% 1% 31% 56% 0% 44% 81% 1% 17%
2010 63% 4% 33% 51% 4% 44% 74% 4% 22%
2009 73% 3% 24% 60% 4% 36% 85% 3% 12%
2008 70% 5% 25% 69% 3% 28% 71% 7% 22%
2007 77% 6% 16% 75% 5% 20% 80% 8% 12%

I’ll say that I think the predictive and analytical value of these numbers is limited. That said, I think we can take something from this.

The first thing I noticed was how efficient the Pirates were in 2013-15, especially in that monster 2015 season. In each year, they had 80% or more of their production going to positive-WAR players, including 89% in 2015.

The big thing that sticks out here is that they were also over 80% in 2017 and 2018. The latter was a winning season where they missed the playoffs. The former saw them in that No-Man’s Land position in July, where they weren’t buyers, but were too good to be sellers.

I would say that the quality of positive-WAR players matters here. The 13-15 teams had Andrew McCutchen in his prime. The 2017 team had a lesser version, and 2018 didn’t have McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, or many other impact players from 13-15 who had since moved on. While the Pirates were getting positive-WAR production, they were getting it from lesser players in total during this time.

This can be seen in the breakdown of the seasons. The position players from 2013-15 posted a 22.8, 31.4, and 24.0 WAR, respectively. The 2017 group was 10.1 and 2018 was 17.4.

Likewise, the 13-15 pitching groups posted 16.8, 8.2, and 19.5 WAR totals. The 17-18 groups posted 16.6 and 14.9 totals, fueling the team just enough to make them look like potential contenders.

Overall, the Pirates got consistently strong results from their pitchers. There were only four years where the Pirates pitching staff had 30% or higher negative-WAR playing time: 2016, 2019, 2020, 2021.

That downward trend starting in 2019 shows a shift in approach. I think you can make the argument that the team gave up in 2019 at the end of Neal Huntington’s run as the General Manager. Since that point, new GM Ben Cherington hasn’t been trying to win in the majors, cycling through a lot of guys who were either adjusting to the league, or shouldn’t have been in the league. It’s not surprising to see such unproductive years.

Looking at the trends, the Pirates in 2021 were similar to where they were in 2010 as a team. Those ZiPS projections didn’t have a lot of high-end talent, but did have good depth. I could have interchanged a lot of those guys in the article and come up with a similar result.

Still, there will be negative-WAR in 2022.

Based on history, we can see that in the absolute best season the Pirates had, 11% of the playing time went to replacement level or negative-WAR players. In their absolute worst season, that number shot up to 55%. The contending seasons all saw 20% or less playing time going to negative-WAR players.

I don’t think this will be a contender, but I don’t think it will be another bottom-five finish team. Looking at the history, I think we could conservatively expect that 25-35% of the Pirates’ playing time in 2022 will go to replacement level or negative-WAR players.

If you notice, there’s a trend on the chart above that rises and falls with the rise and fall of the Pirates. I’ll explore that a little deeper in an article tomorrow. For now, I’ll say that if the Pirates can improve to 70% or higher positive-WAR production in 2022, that would be a big step forward, and wouldn’t be far from the 80% or higher range that you’d expect from a contending team.