The most productive team at each position

Astros, Dodgers showing unmatched depth across diamond

May 19th, 2019

The quarter mark of the season offers the perfect chance for teams to take stock of which parts of their rosters are performing and which are not. And it offers us a chance to see who’s really excelling, to the point of identifying a team’s area of strength that could propel it to bigger things this fall.

Below is a look at the most “productive” teams at each position on the diamond so far, based on a combination of weighted runs created plus (wRC+) and overall FanGraphs WAR for a sense of complete contributions on offense and defense. In cases of ties or clusters at the top, of which there are several at this early juncture, we’re giving the nod toward positional depth that could give a club an edge over a tightly contested baseball summer.

Catcher: Twins
Minnesota’s catching corps was even stronger before Mitch Garver sprained his ankle in a collision at home plate Tuesday night. Garver still ranks among the top five backstops with 1.6 WAR after clubbing nine homers and slugging a mammoth .747 over his first 25 games, building on the small glimpses of power he showed as a rookie.

As Garver recovers on the IL, Jason Castro (165 wRC+, 1.1 WAR) is gaining health and turning heads with his bat (he ranks second in MLB in barrel-per-batted ball rate behind Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez) while also placing highly in Statcast’s new strike rate metric for pitches he’s framing behind the plate. Willians Astudillo, the Twins’ Swiss army knife, has caught seven games behind the plate to give Minnesota the deepest catcher depth chart in baseball so far.

The Cubs are right behind the Twins at the catcher position, with Willson Contreras (173 wRC+, 1.8 WAR) putting together a career year at the plate.

First base: Pirates
Pete Alonso, Freddie Freeman and Rhys Hoskins have all gotten off to strong starts, but Josh Bell (185 wRC+, 1.7 WAR) has been MLB’s best full-time first baseman this year. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound slugger is maximizing his frame for some serious moonshot home runs while also maintaining a league average strikeout rate and ability to consistently hit line drives. Even if Bell cools off a bit as the summer wears on, this is much more like the National League Rookie of the Year candidate we saw two years ago -- if not better.

Second base: Angels
We thought the Angels found their answer at second base last year when they signed Ian Kinsler, but it turns out we were a year too early. Instead it’s Tommy La Stella (157 wRC+, 1.5 WAR) who’s not only holding down the keystone for Los Angeles, but thriving with power (thanks to a recent swing change) he simply hasn’t shown before. La Stella’s 11 homers are already a season high for him, and somehow he’s even more disciplined and adept at making contact than before. That makes general manager Billy Eppler look extremely smart for surrendering just a Minor League reliever (Conor Lillis-White) to wrest La Stella from the Cubs’ bench. David Fletcher (113 wRC+, 1.1 WAR) is also providing a steady bat in his eight starts at second.

Shortstop: Cardinals
Jorge Polanco and the Twins could have just as easily claimed this spot. So could Javy Baez and the Cubs. But we’re going with the underrated Paul DeJong (163 wRC+, 3.1 WAR), who’s started all but one of the Cardinals’ contests at shortstop. Improved plate discipline has helped DeJong become a hitter completely worthy of batting between Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna in the Redbirds’ lineup; he still ranks among MLB’s five most valuable players, in fact, regardless of position. Pair the offensive improvements with DeJong’s excellent defense at a premier position, and St. Louis has another bona fide position player star on its hands.

Third base: Astros
Anthony Rendon might have somehow gotten even better this year and Kris Bryant is on a tear, but steady health and production by Alex Bregman (155 wRC+, 2.2 WAR) gives him the slight edge at this immensely stacked position. Houston shifts more than any team, and that might have previously obscured Bregman’s true value at the hot corner -- but this year he's tied with Oakland's Matt Chapman for the defensive runs saved lead among third basemen. On offense, Bregman is walking even more this year without sacrificing any of the power that’s made him a top-10 hitter in the sport.

Left field: Rangers
Those who thought Joey Gallo (166 wRC+, 2.3 WAR) had plateaued into the player he was going to be should take a closer look at what he’s doing this year. Texas’ top slugger has cut his chase rate against out-of-zone pitches by nearly 10 percent from last year, per Statcast, which is a bigger improvement than any other full-time player. He’s also fired several cannon throws from the outfield, including a 97.3-mph assist on May 3 and anothe 95.8-mph assist Friday against St. Louis. He looks like a more complete player in 2019, and the resurgent Hunter Pence (150 wRC+, 0.8 WAR) and Shin-Soo Choo (135 wRC+, 0.7 WAR) are bringing offense with their starts in left, too.

But we’re burying the lede, of course: Gallo continues to hit massive dingers, and plenty of them.

Center field: Astros
Jake Marisnick and Tony Kemp have made valuable two-way contributions when they’ve split center field duties, but the Astros’ sizable team lead in both WAR and wRC+ at the position is built largely off an MVP-caliber start from George Springer (183 wRC+, 2.9 WAR). Houston’s dynamic leadoff man is all over the AL leaderboards, including the top of the list in homers (17), slugging (.665) and runs (41), and he’s taken his career-spanning plate discipline improvement to another level in 2019. It’s insane to think that the Astros’ best MVP bet could be someone besides Bregman, Jose Altuve or Carlos Correa, but here we are.

Right field: Dodgers
The NL MVP race might be a two-horse race right now between right fielders Cody Bellinger (232 wRC+, 4.0 WAR) and Christian Yelich (193 wRC+, 2.9 WAR), but Los Angeles owns a significant edge over the rest of the pack in team production at the position thanks to the emergence of Alex Verdugo (137 wRC+. 1.3 WAR). The touted prospect has made 13 starts in right and is making the most of his first taste of major playing time, ranking among the game’s top five percent in strikeout rate while significantly cutting down his ground-ball contact.

Starting pitching: Rays

Sure, part of Tampa Bay’s MLB-best, league-adjusted 57 ERA- and AL-best 5.7 rotation WAR can be attributed to the opener, a strategy no other team has quite mastered yet. But most clubs would be thrilled with the Rays’ pair of aces in Blake Snell (3.31 ERA, 1.6 WAR) and Charlie Morton (2.32 ERA, 1.5 WAR), too. Snell is a certified no-hitter threat just about every time he takes the mound, even if he arguably hasn’t hit his full stride yet in 2019, while Morton is throwing even more curves as a Ray and looking possibly more dominant than he did in Houston. Tyler Glasnow (1.86 ERA, 1.8 WAR) made Tampa Bay’s rotation even scarier before he was sidelined with a forearm strain.

Relief pitching: Astros

Plenty of bullpens are off to strong starts, including the Yankees, Rays, Indians and Cardinals. But we’re giving the slightest of edges to the team whose bullpen ranks fourth in WAR, second in ERA- and owns a sizable lead in Statcast’s expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) -- a metric that considers quality of contact and strikeouts.

Roberto Osuna (0.44 ERA, 0.8 WAR) has probably been even more dominant than the Astros predicted, while Ryan Pressly (0.00 ERA, 0.9 WAR) hasn’t given up a regular-season run since last August. Will Harris has also looked dominant and fellow relievers Chris Devenski, Josh James and Framber Valdez might have their best outings ahead of them -- a terrifying thought for the Astros’ opponents.

Most valuable position overall: Dodgers’ right fielders

Bellinger is probably baseball’s best player a quarter of the way through 2019, so that might have been enough to put L.A. here anyway. But Verdugo looks like a legitimate NL Rookie of the Year candidate, giving the Dodgers an embarrassment of riches in right field.