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WAR. What it is good for: Comparing the roster construction of National League playoff teams

Specifically fWAR, if anyone's asking.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Overlord Humphrey and I were discussing the rosters of the 2014 playoff teams a bit on Monday, mostly regarding the amount of homegrown farm talent on each roster compared to the amount acquired by other means. While the opportunity to buy a roster of stars on the open market and steamroll into a spot in the playoffs still exists, it's become an incredibly expensive way to compete in the age of $150 million dollar contracts and $30 million dollar yearly salaries. Just keeping your own homegrown superstars has become incredibly expensive, but is still far cheaper and, generally, for a bigger return on investment as those dollars are earmarked to far younger players either before or in the midst of their prime seasons.

So how do the National League playoff teams stack up against each other in terms of the value of their developed talent and their acquired talent in 2014?  I took a look at Fangraphs and put together a table to compare the five playoff teams to each other.

The methodology:

  • In order to qualify as "developed talent" the player had to spend at least 2 seasons in the minor league system of and must have made his  major league debut for the team with which he is currently playing. So Adam Wainwright, not drafted by the Cardinals, would qualify as developed talent, while Travis Snider would qualify as an acquisition by Pittsburgh.
  • fWAR was the metric used to determine these figures
  • fWAR for all players contributing during the season was accounted for, not just the players on the 25 man roster for the playoffs or even the current 40 man roster.

Surprised?  I certain was when I first looked at the final tally. Looking at the Cardinal roster it seems almost inconceivable that there would be another team with more fWAR from within their organization. Especially when you look at the Nationals roster: Bryce Harper's lost season due to injury and ineffective play, Ryan Zimmerman being banged up and forgetting how to throw a baseball across the diamond, Danny Espinosa having a terrible season at the plate. Without those three guys to carry the water, how do they end up with more fWAR than the Cardinals?

Simple. Pitching, baserunning, and defense.

The former comes from Jordan Zimmermann (5.7), Stephen Strasburg (4.3), and Tanner Roark (3.0). They accounted for over 1/3 of the total homegrown fWAR for the Nationals. Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen accounted for another combined  2.4 fWAR out of the bullpen.

Another 20% comes from the latter half of that equation in the person of the National League's most underrated player in 2014: Anthony Rendon.  Elite defense at two positions (2B and 3B), elite baserunning (7.4 runs on the bases) combined with a top 20 bat to form a 6.6 fWAR behemoth. And that total would likely have been significantly higher had he been able to play the entire season at 2B, his more natural position. Combine Rendon with Ian Desmond's defense (4.9 runs) and slugging (.175 ISO, 53 XBH) and you have another one-third of the team total.

And, yes, if Zimmerman had not lost his ability to throw a baseball or Harper hadn't had such a rough season, it's entirely possible the Nationals' total would have been much higher.

Applaud Mike Rizzo, who doesn't get near enough credit around baseball for the job that he's done in the nation's capital.

The rest of the totals look similar to how one would expect:
  • The Dodgers acquired the majority of their wins via trades (mostly one big one) and smart signings (Juan Uribe, FTW!)...
  • ...but having Matt Kemp stink on defense and A.J. Ellis turn in a below replacement season certainly didn't help.
  • The Giants have a nice mix of players both developed and acquired, with Pence and Tim Hudson as excellent additions to a core of Posey, Bumgarner, and Sandoval. Tim Lincecum's awful season and Matt Cain's injury certainly damaged their homegrown fWAR total, however.
  • Which begs the question: if I had told you at the beginning of the season that the Giants would lose half a win combined between Lincecum and Cain, would you have them anywhere near the playoffs?  Yeah, me neither.
  • I was a bit surprised there wasn't a larger difference between the Pittsburgh totals, but I also didn't realize that Russell Martin was a 5.2 fWAR player this year.
  • Read that again: Russell Martin was a 5.2 fWAR player this year.
One thing is for certain, however: Unless you're just a fan of lighting a lot of money on fire, it's far better to have a core group of players that your club has developed if you intend to make a playoff run. Sheds a bit of light on what the management of both the Cubs and Astros have been focused on doing the past few seasons: Build from within and fill in the gaps with a few free agents or trade acquisitions when the time is right.

That's what most all of these teams have done and it's worked out quite well as you can see.