We're still a month away from the regular season, and it already feels like we're running out of ways to describe just how dominant the 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers look like they're going to be.
You know why, obviously. They just won a franchise-record 106 games. They've won the last seven NL West titles. On top of all that, they then went out and added Mookie Betts and David Price. One projection system, and by their nature projections are notoriously conservative, pegs them to win 103 games. That just doesn't happen. If the Dodgers don't win the NL West in 2020, it seems like it might be more likely that it was because the season just didn't get played than it was that any of the other four clubs rose up to take them down.
There's stars here, obviously, from Betts to Cody Bellinger to Clayton Kershaw to Walker Buehler and on and on. But when we think about how loaded this team is, we keep coming back to one word: Depth. Depth is why the Dodgers can shake off the seemingly annual injuries to Kershaw and Justin Turner, how they can shrug off Corey Seager missing nearly all of 2018, how the intermittent availability of Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu for the last few years was something they could plan for, not react to.
Depth, or lack of it, is why a little further south, Mike Trout has had his last five seasons end without a playoff appearance.
So when we thought about a way to quantify depth, the question quickly became something more than "how deep are the Dodgers looking for 2020," because it evolved right on into "if they actually perform as well as they're projected, is this something that anyone has ever done before?"
Let's find out. The first question we have to get to is: Does this team actually have any weaknesses?
The 2020 Dodgers may not have any true holes
The best way to do that is to look at 2020 projections, not just in the sense of "how good is a player expected to perform," but also breaking down how much playing time is expected to be portioned out at a particular position. That's a big deal on a Dodger team that has stars like Bellinger and Max Muncy likely to play multiple positions, to say nothing of the more classic versatility types like Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernández.
Fortunately, we can turn to FanGraphs for this. For each team at each position, they roll in not only the 2020 projections (via a Steamer/ZiPS mix) but also projected playing time, via human experts. So for example, in left field, the projected playing time is 60% Joc Pederson, 25% A.J. Pollock, 6% Matt Beaty, 5% Hernandez, and 4% Taylor -- with each player also projected to get various amounts of time at other positions. That group, giving the appropriate weight to their projections, is projected for 2.9 WAR, which ranks as the sixth-best collection of left fielders (tied with the Braves and Astros), behind the Brewers, Nationals, Padres, Cubs, and Rays.
If we do that for every spot, we can see that the Dodgers are projected to have a Top 10 group at every single position.
The "weakest" position, by this view, would be Turner and friends at third base, though even that's not a terribly fair way to view it, because their projected 4.2 WAR is obviously higher than the 2.9 WAR from the left fielders. It's just that third base across baseball is a much, much deeper group.
But still: 10 spots, 10 Top-10 projected finishes. Every other likely contender has at least one weak spot, from the Yankees being No. 19 at third base (based on the limited track record of 2019 breakout Gio Urshela) to the Astros No. 17 at catcher (as Martín Maldonado isn't much of a hitter) to the Twins at No. 12 in left field (since Eddie Rosario's power is held back by negative fielding).
On the other side, there's a few clubs (Orioles, Marlins, Mariners, Tigers, and Royals) without a single Top-10 projected lineup spot. The Dodgers, again, have 10 of them.
Projections aren't predictions, to be clear, and it's likely enough that for at least one of those spots, something will happen to keep them out of the Top 10 -- injury, or under-performance, or maybe something more like "finishing 12th by a fraction of a point."
But ... what if it doesn't?
Has any team ever had Top 10 finishes across the board?
Let's say that everything goes as well as it could and the Dodgers actually end up with 10 positions that all finish in the Top 10. That would seem to guarantee an extremely good season, but would it be unprecedented? Let's go back through baseball history, using Retrosheet data, to try to find out.
First of all, we can't use "top 10," because that's a lot less impressive dating back to the early days of baseball where there were only 16 teams. So for this, we'll go with "top third" of however many teams there were at the time -- and currently, that's Top 10 of 30. We were able to look at data dating back to the 19th century, and we broke down the numbers in the same way these projections work, so it's not just "how good were a team's third basemen," it was "how good were the team's third basemen while playing third base."
(Two brief notes about this process: 1) We're excluding DH entirely, to account for National League teams and pre-1973 American League teams, and 2) we'll also only look at "starting pitchers" and "relievers" as split groups since 1969, and just go with a combined "pitchers" prior to that, because bullpens did not function in the same way for much of the game's history.)
There were nearly 3,000 team seasons in the database, and approximately two-thirds of them (2,048 team seasons, to be exact) had at least one position finish in the top third. Yes, that means there's been hundreds of times that a team has gone through an entire year without top-third performance from even one spot.
On the more positive end, we found a mere 13 teams that had top-third performance at all but two positions, including some all-time great teams like the 1972 A's, 1975-76 Reds, and 2016 Cubs -- and the 2019 Dodgers and Yankees.
There were just 10 teams who had top-third performance at all but one position.
• 2019 Astros
• 2001 Mariners
• 1998 Astros
• 1971 Orioles
• 1969 Orioles
• 1961 Braves
• 1955 Dodgers
• 1953 Dodgers
• 1948 Braves
• 1934 Yankees
Now we're talking. Those '01 Mariners won a modern-record 116 games, though they failed to take a title. The '55 Dodgers won the World Series; the '69 and '71 Orioles, '53 Dodgers, and '48 Braves reached the World Series and lost. The '98 Astros won 102 games before falling in the NLDS; last year's Astros won 107 games and reached Game 7 of the World Series. The '34 Yankees won 94 games in a 154-game season, but finished in second in a pre-Wild Card world.
As a general rule, if you do this, you're a very good team, though it's difficult to explain how those '61 Braves -- featuring Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Torre, Joe Adcock, and Warren Spahn -- won only 83 games and actually ended up firing their manager in September.
But, and this is the main takeaway here, no one pulled off a perfect record of getting every single spot in the top third. The '98 Astros, for example, were plagued by worst-in-baseball play at shortstop. Last year's Astros just missed at first base, in part because the fill-ins while Yuli Gurriel played elsewhere didn't perform nearly as well as he did. The '55 Dodgers had every position player spot qualify, but their pitchers were more "good" than "great." The '01 Mariners missed in the bullpen by a single spot.
The 2020 Dodgers probably won't be the first team to do this, obviously, and at the end of the season, they're going to care far more about getting that ring than worrying about where each position finishes in WAR rankings. But the fact that this is even a conversation we're having tells you a lot about how incredibly good and deep this group looks. They might actually have more good players than they have available playing time to give. It's a nice problem to have.