The number that will define 2023 for all 15 National League teams

Sports

We’ve made it through the hottest days of MLB free agency — although we’re still waiting for the Mets and Carlos Correa to officially finish their deal. We’re now in the dog days of the hot stove season, waiting for the second- and third-tier free agents to find teams and counting down the days until spring training begins. In the meantime, let’s find one key number for each team from the 2022 season and look forward to what it means for 2023. We’ll start with the National League and follow up with the American League.

Jump to a division: NL East | NL Central | NL West


NL East

The number: 6

With the trade for Sean Murphy and subsequent extension that keeps the All-Star catcher in Atlanta through at least 2028, the Braves now have Murphy, Austin Riley, Matt Olson, Ronald Acuna Jr., Michael Harris II and Ozzie Albies signed through at least 2027 (which includes Albies’ two team options).

That list of hitters doesn’t even include starting pitcher Spencer Strider, who fanned 202 batters in just 131⅔ innings as a rookie and signed his own extension. Of those six position players, Olson is the oldest, entering his age-29 season in 2023. Five of the six have had at least one season with a minimum 4.9 bWAR (Baseball-Reference), with Murphy’s 3.5 in 2022 the lowest career high of the group. Using each player’s career high, we get 31.1 WAR; in 2022, their combined total was 22.3 WAR. In other words: This group has the potential to be even better than it was in 2022.

Let’s try to put this into historical perspective. Only three teams have had five players with 5.0 WAR in the same season: the 1939 Yankees, 1972 A’s and 1976 Yankees. That’s a high bar. Albies came close in 2019, the juiced ball season, when he played 160 games, so 5.0 WAR would seem to be his upper limit. And note that FanGraphs credited Murphy with 5.1 WAR in 2022, factoring in his excellent pitch framing. If we lower the standard to 4.0 WAR, 12 teams have had six position players reach that in one season — the 2003 Braves being the most recent one. This has a chance to be an all-time special group of position players — and they’re all locked up well into the future.


The number: 8 feet, 6 inches

That is the distance the Mets are moving in an approximately 50-foot section of the right-center fence to the right of the 370-foot marker.

The Mets had a very good offense in 2022, finishing tied for fifth with the Cardinals in runs scored, but only the Giants (30.0) and the Yankees (30.2) had an older average age among their position players (weighted for playing time). It was not a team that relied on home runs, as the Mets finished 15th in the majors. The Mets are doubling down that this will work again, as they will have the same core returning, with the additions of Carlos Correa (pending the two sides working out a deal) and rookie Francisco Alvarez likely getting time at DH and catcher.

Those two will make the lineup a little younger and perhaps add some power as well. Correa has averaged 28 home runs per 162 games in his career (although hasn’t played 150 games in a season since 2016), and Alvarez has displayed prodigious power potential in the minors.

Keep in mind that the Braves hit 72 more home runs than the Mets did in 2022 — which means the Mets have to do well in a lot of other areas to keep pace. Moving in the fence will add some home runs, certainly, but note that Mets pitchers benefited a lot more from Citi Field than Mets hitters were hurt by it: Mets hitters had 81 home runs at home and 90 on the road, while Mets pitchers allowed 101 home runs on the road compared to just 68 at home.


The number: 23.9 WAR

Aaron Nola is third among starting pitchers in WAR since 2018 — and teammate Zack Wheeler is fourth at 22.3. Is there an argument that Nola is the best starting pitcher in the majors? The two ahead of him in Baseball-Reference WAR are Max Scherzer, who is getting older and was a little dinged up last year, and Jacob deGrom, who was definitely dinged up. Nola is also fifth in FanGraphs WAR since 2018 and led in 2022 at 6.3, just ahead of Carlos Rodon (6.2) and Justin Verlander (6.1). Yet nobody believes Nola is the best pitcher, mostly because the only sub-3.00 ERA he has had was in 2018. Among pitchers with at least 600 innings since 2018, Nola is 12th in ERA, just behind Miles Mikolas.

The case for Nola: 1) He’s durable, never missing a start over the five seasons and topping 200 innings in 2018, 2019 and 2022; 2) He has pitched with bad defenses behind him (the Phillies are third worst in defensive runs saved since 2018); 3) He has pitched in a good home run park (although he’s 30-12 with a 3.04 ERA at home and 24-28 with a 3.92 ERA on the road since 2018). That said, I don’t think Nola was the best pitcher in 2022. FanGraphs is overrating him because it ignores his poor line with runners in scoring position (.287/.320/.532). But he is one of the best in the game, and here’s why it’s a big deal: He is a free agent after 2023. If the Phillies want to lock him up long term, it’s going to be expensive.


The number: .626 OPS

Marlins outfielders ranked last in the majors in OPS, hitting just .204/.273/.353. If it feels like we’ve been harping on this issue for years — it is because we have. Since 2018 — the year after the Marlins traded away Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna in one offseason — Marlins outfielders are indeed last in OPS over those five seasons with a .234/.298/.371 line. Last season felt like the low point, however, as the Marlins brought in veterans Jorge Soler and Avisail Garcia, and both were terrible. Jesus Sanchez regressed from 115 OPS+ as a rookie to a 91 OPS+, hitting just .214 with a .280 OBP. JJ Bleday, the fourth overall draft pick in 2019, was completely overmatched upon his arrival in Miami. Peyton Burdick got a chance and didn’t run with it. Jerar Encarnacion came up and hit .182 in 77 at-bats with 32 strikeouts and three walks. Only Bryan De La Cruz produced an above-average OPS.

Here’s the amazing thing: The Marlins have had only one outfielder even qualify for the batting title in that five-year span — Corey Dickerson in the shortened 2020 season. Brian Anderson and Derek Dietrich qualified in 2018, although both played fewer than 100 games in the outfield. The Marlins have spent five years churning through bad and mediocre outfielders. For now, the 2023 group is the same as the 2022 group. It could be more spinning in the muck.


The number: 1.7%.

CJ Abrams drew five walks in 302 plate appearances for a walk rate of less than 2%. Abrams, who came over from the Padres in the Juan Soto deal and split his rookie season between San Diego and Washington, was a much-hyped prospect entering the season, ranking No. 4 on ESPN’s top 100 and in the top 10 for Baseball America and MLB.com. He hit .246/.280/.324, but that poor walk rate stands out.

Is that a sign of struggles to come? Since the wild-card era began in 1995, there have been 7,306 seasons in which a player batted at least 300 times. The only two with a lower walk rate than Abrams’ 2022 mark were Dee Strange-Gordon in 2018 and Shawon Dunston in 1997. It’s hard to be a productive hitter when you’re never walking. The bottom of the list is littered with below-average and bad hitters: Dunston, Ozzie Guillen, Deivi Cruz, late-career Ivan Rodriguez.

Two names near the bottom pop out as best-case scenarios for Abrams: Tim Anderson and Howie Kendrick. Anderson had a 2.1% walk rate in 2017 at age 24, his first full season in the majors. He still doesn’t walk, but he has now hit .300 four seasons in a row. Kendrick had a 2.5% walk rate in 2007 at age 23, his second season in the majors. He never did walk much, but he had a long and productive career, finishing with a .294 average and with some power. Abrams’ bat skills are more similar to Kendrick’s (he doesn’t strike out as much as Anderson), but he’ll have to add some strength. Keep in mind that he was rushed to the majors with very little minor league experience (just 114 games) and is still very young. I don’t know if he’ll be a big star, but Abrams might still turn into a solid hitter — and help that trade work out for the Nationals.

NL Central

The number: 180 OPS+

Paul Goldschmidt‘s OPS+ of 180 was the fourth highest of the live-ball era (since 1920) in a hitter’s age-34 season.

Those ahead of Goldschmidt: Mark McGwire in 1998 (216), Babe Ruth in 1929 (193) and Willie Mays in 1965 (185). It was a remarkable season and Goldschmidt was rewarded with the MVP Award, but given that rate of production and his age, the Cardinals should expect some regression in his 2023 numbers. But how much?

I looked at the top 10 age-34 OPS+ seasons since 1920 other than Goldschmidt and compared them to their age-35 seasons (not including Lou Gehrig, who might have been suffering from the initial stages of ALS at 35 and had a big decline). Using runs created above average (which factors in playing time), the group declined an averaged of 15.4 runs — and that’s with Ruth improving by 29 runs. McGwire fell off 27 runs from 1998 to 1999 (although was still a dominant force with 65 home runs), and Jim Edmonds, another Cardinals player, declined 29 runs from 2004 to 2005. A 15-run decline from Goldschmidt sounds about right; that translates to about 1.5 fewer wins for the Cardinals — ground they can make up with improvement from the likes of Tyler O’Neill and Nolan Gorman, new catcher Willson Contreras and perhaps the emergence of rookie Jordan Walker.


The number: 1.68

That was the win probability added from the Milwaukee bullpen in 2022 — 16th in the majors. The bullpen wasn’t exactly a disaster for the Brewers, but neither was it the strength it had been in recent seasons. During the team’s run of four straight playoff appearances from 2018 to 2021, it ranked sixth, sixth, seventh and fifth in the majors in WPA, via FanGraphs. A strength of the David Stearns/Craig Counsell era had always been the ability to find enough bullpen depth behind closer Josh Hader. In 2022, however, Hader had a couple of big blown saves, then was traded away, and the rest of the pen outside of setup man/closer Devin Williams was a little shaky (only Cubs relievers allowed more home runs). The Brewers finished one game behind the Phillies for the final wild card; if the bullpen had performed like it had in recent season, that spot would have gone to Milwaukee.

The Brewers have made a couple of moves to address the pen, but they’re hardly guarantees. Elvis Peguero came over in the Hunter Renfroe trade. He struggled in a brief stint in the majors, but he throws a 96 mph sinker. Justin Yeager came over from the Braves. He throws hard and fanned 81 in 52⅓ innings in the minors, but he also walked 32 batters. Keep an eye on Abner Uribe. He was added to the 40-man roster, and while he was injured most of 2022 until some dominant outings in winter ball, he’s been clocked at 103 mph. He’d also be the first “Abner” to play in the majors since the 1880s. Still, there are a lot of questions behind Williams. Perhaps another deal or two is in the works here.


The number: 5

Why did we pick this number? Because the Cubs were one of just four teams that had five pitchers with at least 100 innings and an ERA under 4.00 last season — matching the Astros, Mets and Yankees. Of course, those teams averaged 102 wins while the Cubs won just 74. But with the addition of Jameson Taillon, the re-signing of Drew Smyly and a full season from rookie Hayden Wesneski, who impressed in a late-season trial, the Cubs do have some sneaky quality starting pitching depth (and Kyle Hendricks is still around, although coming off a rough season). They could use more innings from the top guys, as Marcus Stroman led the team with just 138⅔ innings — Taillon should help here, as he pitched 177 innings for the Yankees. If the Cubs are to surprise in 2023, it will be because this develops into one of the best rotations in the game — even if it lacks a true No. 1 starter.


The number: 156 home runs

The Reds ranked 11th in home runs — the lowest they’ve ranked since moving into Great American Ballpark in 2003.

You might remember that when the Reds went all-in — for them — in 2020, they signed Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos to four-year, $64 million contracts, the biggest free agent deals in franchise history. Castellanos opted out after his second season and now Moustakas won’t even make it to his fourth year after a disastrous, injury-plagued three seasons. So much for that power duo. On top of that, the team’s top two home run leaders from 2022 (Brandon Drury and Kyle Farmer) are gone, leaving Jake Fraley and his 12 home runs as the top returning slugger. This even though Great American Ballpark ranked as the best home run park in the majors from 2020 to 2022, via the park factors in “The Bill James Handbook.” Elly De La Cruz can’t arrive fast enough.


The number: 4.61

The Pirates finished 24th in the majors in rotation ERA and this is hardly a one-year blip. The last time the Pirates had even a halfway decent rotation was in 2018, when they finished 12th in the majors in rotation ERA. That was the year after they had traded Gerrit Cole to the Astros, but Jameson Taillon had his best season with 14 wins and a 3.20 ERA, and Trevor Williams had an incredible second half in which he posted a 1.29 ERA to finish with 14 wins and a 3.11 ERA. Williams and Taillon finished seventh and ninth in the NL in ERA that season, respectively, and along with Cole in 2015, those are the only times a Pirates starter has finished in the top 10 in the NL in ERA since Oliver Perez way back in 2004.

So, yeah, the Pirates have been in a decades-long drought of developing starting pitchers, with Cole (the first overall selection in 2011) and Taillon (the second pick in 2010) the exceptions. There is some sliver of hope, however: Roansy Contreras showed promise as a rookie and Mitch Keller had a breakout of sorts, although both need to improve their walk rates. Prospects Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows reached Triple-A and could be ready to contribute at some point in 2023 as well. There’s probably not an ace in there and signing 42-year-old Rich Hill shows the Pirates are still desperate for somebody to fill some innings, but if those four starters can develop into something, maybe there will finally be some quality baseball played in Pittsburgh.

NL West

The number: Plus-86

The Dodgers ranked second in the majors in defensive runs saved. They are experts at developing pitching, great at stressing plate discipline, trade for stars such as Mookie Betts and Trea Turner and sign MVP candidates like Freddie Freeman, but the underrated aspect of their success all these years: They catch the ball. Look at their rankings in DRS since 2016: sixth, second, fifth, first, second, 10th and then second in 2022. They’ve moved players around, they’ve utilized the shift to perfection … but this will be an interesting year for the Dodgers. Not only is the shift going away — at least the extreme shift, with three infielders on one side of the diamond — but L.A. will be making defensive changes all over the field.

Gavin Lux slides over from second base to shortstop to replace Turner. He had above-average range at second but below-average arm strength, so let’s see how that works. Cody Bellinger, a solid center fielder, is gone, replaced by Trayce Thompson, who should be OK out there. Thompson is also 32 and will need to prove his good season at the plate in 2022 wasn’t a fluke just to stay in the lineup. With J.D. Martinez signed to DH, Max Muncy will have to man second or third base. He’s had good metrics at those spots in the past, but it’s possible the Dodgers’ shifting helped him quite a bit, at least at second. Rookie Miguel Vargas might take over at third base with Justin Turner now in Boston, and there are some questions about his range at the hot corner. The Dodgers will still have Betts, Freeman and Will Smith to anchor the defense, but the group might take a big step back in 2023.


The number: 52 games

That is the combined number of games Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. played for the Padres in 2022. Let’s do some rough math here: Tatis will miss the team’s first 20 games to finish his performance-enhancing drug suspension, eligible to return April 20. Soto will be in the lineup for a full season after coming over at the trade deadline — and hopefully hit better than the .236/.388/.390 slash line he put up following the trade to San Diego. Let’s say both produce at their career rates. How many additional runs might that be for the offense?

Let’s give Tatis 135 games played. At his career rate, he would produce about 43 runs above an average hitter. If we give Soto 150 games played, that’s about 44 runs above an average hitter. Let’s take away the plate appearances of Jurickson Profar, Wil Myers and Jose Azocar. Those three combined for 8 runs above average across 1,160 plate appearances, about the number we’d see from Tatis and Soto. That would be about a 79-run improvement — or about eight wins.

And that’s before factoring in Xander Bogaerts. The Padres were only 13th in the majors in runs scored in 2022. They could be a top-three offense in 2023.

The number: 783 innings pitched

Giants starters ranked 26th in the majors in innings pitched. OK, we know baseball is more of a bullpen game than ever before. Just look at the deep arsenal of relievers the World Series champion Astros deployed. But here’s the dirty little secret of baseball in 2022: Relievers weren’t that much better than starters, posting a 3.86 ERA compared to 4.05 for starters. Yes, position players pitching inflates the bullpen ERA a little, but most teams are not rolling out six or seven dominant relievers.

That’s why it’s still important to get some length from the starting pitchers. Note that Astros starters led the majors in innings pitched, and that the seven teams with the most innings pitched by their starters all made the playoffs. Gabe Kapler has utilized quick hooks the past two seasons, but Giants starters did rank 12th in innings in 2021. The bullpen seemed to suffer from more work, as it fell from first in bullpen ERA in 2021 to 20th in 2022. The Giants have lost Carlos Rodon, a tireless worker at 178 innings, and signed Sean Manaea and Ross Stripling. The key for a better bullpen might tie to how consistently Manaea and Stripling can give the Giants at least six innings.

The number: Plus-162

The Diamondbacks’ net gain running the bases, according to Sports Info Solutions, was the best in the majors — and the second-highest total by a team since SIS began tracking the stat in 2004.

Net gain factors in all elements of baserunning production, including runner advancement, stolen bases and outs on the bases. The Diamondbacks had three of the top seven baserunners in the majors in Josh Rojas (plus-39), Geraldo Perdomo (plus-33) and Jake McCarthy (+30). They did lose Daulton Varsho in the trade to Toronto for catcher Gabriel Moreno but will get a full season from speedster Corbin Carroll, who stole 31 bases in 36 attempts in the minors.

We’ll see if Perdomo keeps the shortstop job after hitting .195 and the Evan Longoria signing pushes Rojas into a utility role, but the Diamondbacks should still benefit from the new rule changes. Pitchers are limited to two “disengagements” (pickoff throws or step-offs) per plate appearance, plus the bases increase from 15 square inches to 18 square inches. These rules increased stolen-base attempts and success rates in the minors, so look for Carroll, McCarthy and Rojas to take advantage. The Diamondbacks aren’t going to run their way into the playoffs, but their speed is one small edge they’ll have over their opponents in 2023 — when hopefully speed will make a bigger impact overall on the game.


The number: 698 runs

The Rockies finished 10th in the NL in runs scored — the lowest ranking in franchise history.

Yes, this was probably the Rockies’ worst offense since the franchise debuted in 1993. They had finished below fifth in the league in runs just twice previously (eighth in 2008 and 2020). By FanGraphs’ wRC+, it wasn’t quite the worst — that falls to the 2020 and 2021 squads — but you can see the trend here. The Rockies have been a terrible offensive team the past three seasons and continue to show no inclination or ability to fix it. In terms of raw OPS, the Rockies even struggled at Coors Field, with an .803 OPS at home, the third lowest in franchise history. Their road OPS was also the third lowest in franchise history. On the bright side, maybe Kris Bryant will hit a home run at home in 2023.

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