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Playing with Playing Time

Todd Zola looks at plate appearances from an objective perspective.

You’re at an antique shop, or maybe a yard sale and you see a bottle. You rub it and out pops a genie. You can have one wish granted. Which do you choose, the BA/OBP/SLG for every hitter in the upcoming season, or the number of plate appearances they garner?

Most would request the former but give me the playing time. Sure, some players exhibit a significant increase or decrease in their skill, but most cluster around their track record. Not only does playing time identify injuries, but those with a lot more plate appearances than anticipated suggest they preformed above expectations, while those with fewer either got hurt, or struggled enough to lose playing time.

Most fantasy baseball enthusiasts don’t have the time (or desire) to churn out their own projections. A simple way to generate “your own” projections is taking a set from and trusted source and prorating it to your estimation of playing time.

The oddity is so much more science is incorporated when projection a player’s performance as compared to their playing time. What follows are some considerations when assigning playing time for hitters.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of factors preventing a more telling investigation of recent seasons. Clearly, the truncated 2020 season can’t be included. In addition, the delay in starting the 2022 campaign condensed the season by four days. This may not seem like much, but there were fewer natural off days, and more doubleheaders for which players often sat for one of the games. Still, let’s power on.

This research looks at different aspects of playing time from one year to the next, with the players grouped by plate appearances from the prior season to see what they did the following year. In some instances, players are left out if they retired, or lost a large chunk of time due to injury.

                         Number of Players       Change in PA              % Gaining PA

PA 2021-2022 2022-2023 2021-2022 2022-2023 2021-2022 2022-2023
701-plus 2 5 -85 -1.8 50.0% 40.0%
681-700 7 8 -139.7 -66.5 42.9% 37.5%
661-680 12 10 -114.1 -56.2 16.7% 30.0%
641-660 11 11 -25 -2.4 54.5% 54.5%
621-640 15 10 -26.9 -36.2 40.0% 50.0%
601-620 11 13 -107.8 -42.7 27.3% 53.8%
576-600 21 19 -92.4 -102 23.8% 21.1%
551-575 13 18 -87.2 -23.8 30.8% 50.0%
526-550 27 20 -24.3 -77.9 40.7% 40.0%
501-525 12 13 -126.9 -81.1 25.0% 46.2%
451-500 21 28 -72.3 -59.3 38.1% 28.6%
401-450 25 31 35.9 -3.6 52.0% 45.2%
351-400 32 30 -10.2 -10 46.9% 43.3%
301-350 28 21 24.5 71.2 64.3% 76.2%
251-300 29 24 42.5 34.1 62.1% 41.7%
201-250 39 25 84.3 88.8 61.5% 72.0%
151-200 29 29 96.8 90.3 65.5% 65.5%

The delay in the 2022 season is putting a wrench in the analysis. Even so, it’s apparent most players at the top end collect fewer plater appearances one year to the next. This makes intuitive sense. There is an upper limit a player can gather (based on their spot in the lineup, more on that later). For simplicity’s sake, let’s set the maximum at 750 PA. For everyone with greater than 375 PA, there is more room to lose than gain. By example, a player with 650 PA can only add 100 the following season, but he could lose up to 650.

The drop wasn’t as dramatic last season, but it’s still present. Of course, everyone is judged on an individual basis, with their track record as a guide.

One of the most flummoxing playing time assignments this season is Ronald Acuna. Marcus Semien is a unicorn. He went to the dish 724 times in 2021 and 2022, then 752 last year. Projecting more than 700 is risky, but it’s defensible. Freddie Freeman’s three-year track record is 695, 708 and 730, so around 700 is justified. However, Acuna’s range is 360, 533 and 735. However, he amassed 712 in 2019. The fact Acuna is the top player on most boards even if he is projected for 650 PA renders this conundrum less practical, but for some it is extremely relevant.

For example, in 2022 Aaron Judge set a career-high with 692 PA. The previous year, he accrued 633 which was his highest since 678 back in 2017. In between, he failed to surpass 500. Most of Judge’s lost action last year was a result of the fluke toe injury suffered while doing his best Bump Bailey impersonation in Dodgers Stadium. Judge is reportedly 100%. My current projection calls for 615 PA, landing Judge 13th overall in standard 5x5 league. He’s higher in OBP and points formats. With 650 PA, he jumps to sixth. If he matches 2022’s level, he’s No. 3 overall. If he drops to 550 PA, Judge slides to 17th. If he repeats last season’s number, he’s down to 53rd.

The above is a great reason to flavor projections with your own playing time guesstimates. Your projected PA for not just Judge, but everyone means you’re drafting from YOUR rankings.

Another aspect of playing time is what to expect from different spots in the batting order. Before showing some numbers, keep in mind that players move up or down the lineup all the time. A manager may announce a player may hit second, but a slump could easily drop him to the lower third. Drafting a player because you expect him to hit high in the order is a slipper slope. Sure, you know where Acuna is batting, but targeting Vaughn Grissom because you feel he’ll bat second in the Red Sox lineup is a risk. He may, or he could bat lower. He could even hit second against left-handers, and lower facing righties. This doesn’t even consider he could struggle and lose playing time altogether.

With that as background, here is 2023’s full season production for each spot in the batting order, courtesy of Baseball Reference.

1st 751 105 22 78 22 69 146 0.266 0.340 0.430
2nd 734 99 26 87 16 68 156 0.263 0.338 0.447
3rd 717 90 27 94 10 67 158 0.255 0.332 0.443
4th 700 87 28 99 9 63 161 0.252 0.325 0.442
5th 683 81 24 84 10 58 159 0.247 0.318 0.427
6th 666 74 20 78 11 53 154 0.244 0.311 0.402
7th 647 70 18 71 11 55 158 0.237 0.309 0.382
8th 629 71 16 65 13 50 154 0.236 0.303 0.375
9th 609 70 15 62 15 46 149 0.230 0.296 0.366

There are three main takeaways from this chart. The first was alluded to already, that being the loss of around 17 PA from one spot to the next. Assuming 150 games played, the difference between batting second and seventh is 80 PA… that’s huge.

The next is a repercussion of changing lineup construction. The two-hole used to be a banjo hitter, adept at moving runners along, etc. Last season, Freddie Freeman, Bryan Reynolds, Paul Goldschmidt, Corey Seager, Bo Bichette and Trea Turner all collected at least 500 PA batting second. Adley Rutschman just missed, while Judge would have made it if he didn’t fracture his toe.

The third is most apropos to daily leagues where stolen bases are integral to scoring. Based on the above table, it’s best to avoid players in the lower portion of the order, unless you want steals. After the top two spots, the eight and nine holes are the next best for a pilfer.

Todd Zola is an award-winning fantasy baseball writer and 2020 inductee into the Fantasy Sports Writers Hall of Fame. He's the content provider for the 2024 Fantasy Baseball Index Draft Kit, available now. To purchase, click HERE.

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