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Friday, February 8, 2013
Do you need stars to make the playoffs?

By David Schoenfield

I suppose the instinctive answer to that headline would be, "Well, of course you do. Don't be an idiot."

But is it that simple? And what defines a star player? And how many stars do you need?

Writing the offseason report card on the Oakland A's made me think of this question. After winning 94 games and the AL West in 2012, a lot of people will expect the A's to regress, with a primary reason being the perception that Oakland lacks star power. Sure, maybe Yoenis Cespedes develops into one, or maybe Brett Anderson or Jarrod Parker becomes an ace, but right now the A's don't have that signature player or two.

Josh Reddick
With a WAR of 4.5, Josh Reddick was the only 4-win player on the AL West champion A's last season.
One way to dig into this question is to utilize our trusty old friend (or enemy, to some of you), wins above replacement. Baseball-Reference suggests a rough guideline that a 5-win player is an All-Star and an 8-win player is MVP-level. An average starter is about a 2-win player. The A's didn't have a single 5-win player in 2012 and Josh Reddick, with 4.5 WAR, was the only 4-win player. The only others above 3 wins were Parker and Cespedes. Clearly, the A's won with depth.

The Baltimore Orioles were even more extreme. They didn't have a single 4-win player, as Adam Jones had the best WAR at 3.4. Now, you can debate whether Jones is being fairly evaluated, but he does get dragged by a mediocre on-base percentage and defensive metrics that don't match his Gold Glove Award. The Orioles also rode the backs of their bullpen to a 16-2 record in extra innings. The Arizona Diamondbacks are sort of going the Oakland route for 2013, trading away Justin Upton, the player with the most star potential on the squad, as well as a high-upside rookie in Trevor Bauer. GM Kevin Towers has elected to build roster depth.

But does this method usually work? I looked at all the playoff teams over the past five reasons as well as any club that won 90 games, thus giving us a pool of 45 teams. (The three teams to win 90 but not make the playoffs: 2012 Rays, 2011 Red Sox, 2010 Padres). I then counted up the number of 5-win, 4-win and 3-win players on each team.

Before looking at those results, however, let's see how many 5-win, 4-win and 3-win players there are in the majors. The totals from Baseball-Reference.com are maybe a little lower than you might expect (or at least lower than I expected):



Looking at that last line, you can see the average team would have about two 4+ WAR players and nearly four 3+ WAR players. So the A's were below the average team in that regard, yet still won 94 games. What about our pool of the 45 best teams? Here are their averages:

5+ WAR players: 1.7
4-4.9 WAR players: 1.3
3-3.9 WAR players: 2.4

So the average of these 45 teams is about five 3-win players (5.4 to be exact). I thought it would be higher -- and it is higher than the typical team, but only to the tune of 1.5 players per team. Stars are important, but this little study suggests that depth is what often puts a team in the playoffs. (However, when you see how few 4- and 5-win players there are, you can see why the guys who are there every year -- say, Felix Hernandez -- are receiving these huge contracts.)

The other part of the equation as it relates to the A's and perhaps the Diamondbacks and Orioles: How hard is it to make the playoffs without star/superstar players?

The 2012 Orioles are definitely an anomaly; they were the one team of the 45 to have no 4-win players. Eight of the 45 (18 percent) had no 5-win players: the 2012 Orioles and A's, 2010 Padres (who missed the playoffs), 2009 Dodgers (best player was Matt Kemp at 4.6), 2008 Brewers (CC Sabathia at 4.7), 2008 Dodgers (who won just 84 games) and 2008 Angels (who somehow won 100 games).

Three teams had four 5-win players: the chicken-and-beer 2011 Red Sox (Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett), 2011 Phillies (102 wins behind Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino) and 2008 Red Sox (Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka). The team with the most 3-win players was the 97-win 2011 Yankees with 10.

Bottom line: Yes, stars are nice, but they can also be expensive. So while most of the offseason attention in the AL West went to Josh Hamilton leaving the Rangers and signing with the Angels, the most important moves of the winter may have been Billy Beane trading for Chris Young and Jed Lowrie and signing Hiroyuki Nakajima. Because sometimes three 2-win players can be more important than one 5-win player.