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Based on WAR, can the Twins depth lead to the playoffs?

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Twins Breakdown 02: March 2020 (part 2)

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Last week, when we explored what the projection systems have to say about the Twins we uncovered that the Twins appear to have a very strong roster top-to-bottom, with a significant number of players projected to be above replacement level in 2020. Both ZiPS and Steamer have the Twins projected to be one of the best and deepest teams in baseball. But will that depth lead to wins and the playoffs?

Intuitively, we expect there would be a positive relationship between having more good players and winning – but does that bear out in the data?

To explore this question I analyzed the last three seasons, compiling each teams’ number of players with 1.0 WAR or greater (as measured by Fangraphs) and comparing that to the teams’ game results. Specifically, I compared the teams’ winning percentage and whether the team made the playoffs. The disclaimers for this include this data struggles to handle players that contributed to multiple teams within a season (e.g. a mid-season trade acquisition) and 1.0 WAR is an arbitrary cut point I set. For the purposes of this study I wanted to make sure we were looking at players that were comfortably above replacement level and I removed the players that contributed to multiple teams. So, the data is not perfect but it’s good enough to let us run this high level analysis.

I plotted every teams’ results for 2017, 2018, and 2019 below:

As we would expect, there is a positive relationship between these variables. The correlation between the number of 1.0+ WAR players on a team and team winning percentage over the timeframe is positive 0.804. A correlation of 1.0 would imply a perfect positive relationship and this is close. I also used a simple regression analysis to explore if the number of 1.0+ WAR players (independent variable) is predictive of team winning percentage (dependent variable). You can see the line on the chart and the R2 value of this analysis is 0.6457, indicating that almost 65% of the variance in this winning percentage data can be explained by the number of 1.0+ WAR players data. This also passed all the standard statistical significance tests (P-value 0.000).

The takeaway is clear, more good players has equaled more wins. But, does that lead to making the playoffs?

Using the same data, I again plotted each teams’ results – this time delineating between a team that made the playoffs (blue) or not (orange). I also marked the Twins last 3 teams in red.

Again, we see about what we would expect. The playoff teams (blue) are clustered in the top right of the chart. The 2019 AL Central Champion Twins had 18 players with 1.0 WAR or greater. The 2017 AL Wild Card Twins had 15. The non-playoff, losing record 2018 Twins are there with only 9.

And how many good players is enough to make the playoffs? Using the same data, the chart below summarizes how many players with 1.0 WAR or greater lead to the team making the playoffs.

Among the 30 playoff teams 2017-2019, the average number of 1.0 WAR or greater players is 14.8. Of the 18 teams that had 15 or more players achieve a WAR of 1.0 or greater, 16 of them (89%) went on to make the playoffs. The two teams that didn’t were the 2017 Cardinals (16 players, finished 4 games out of the NL Wild Card) and the 2019 Red Sox (15 players, finished 12 games out of the AL Wild Card).

All 8 teams to have 17 players or more with 1.0+ WAR have made the playoffs. No team with less than 11 players has made the playoffs.

The takeaway is this all bodes well for the 2020 Twins. If we use the Steamer projections for 2020, the Twins project to have 18 players with 1.0 WAR or more. Every position in the starting batting lineup is filled with a player projected with 1.0 WAR or greater and the pitching staff goes 8 players deep by this measure. If the projections are achieved, we should expect to see the Twins in October.