In addition to the daily analysis and normal statistical offerings, FanGraphs has added some pretty useful and powerful features over the last couple of years. Anchoring a lot of those features are the Depth Charts, which in addition to providing information on their own, power the playoff odds and projected standings we host on the site.
The Depth Charts are pretty simple in theory. They blend together two of the leading projection systems (Steamer and ZiPS) and then scale those projections to our expectations about playing time. The Depth Charts are updated constantly to provide the most up-to-date snapshot possible for the current state of a team, league, or position. You can think of the Depth Charts as the baseline projections for the entire site, as they are the input for the projected standings, playoff odds, and game odds.
As far as the basic Depth Charts are concerned, there are essentially three different views. You can look at a team’s Depth Chart, you can look at Depth Charts by position, and you can look at the summary data of both of those at one. To generate each the charts, we take a 50/50 mix of Steamer and ZiPS for the rate stats and then our staff manually allocates playing time based on what we expect teams to do with their lineups and injury histories.
Steamer and ZiPS update nightly throughout the season and our playing time estimates change every 15 minutes (if necessary). If a player gets hurt, we update their playing time. If a player gets moved to the pen or changes positions, we update the Depth Charts. Also, the Depth Charts are showing what we expect to happen for the rest of the season, not the stat line we expect them to end the season with.
As always, when you’re dealing with constantly updating information, there are occasionally bugs. If you see something that looks obviously wrong, it’s likely just a database error that will resolve itself once the system updates in a few minutes.
As far as viewing options, you can look at the Depth Charts in team view, in position view, or in summary view. In team view, you get a breakdown of a single team by position, meaning on the Blue Jays page there’s a box for catchers, first basemen, etc with the expectation that each position for each team will receive 700 PA per season. Obviously that will vary a bit, but it’s a good rule in general. Each team also has a box for all positional players and all pitchers, as well as a box on the right that shows you where they stand overall.
In position view, you can look every team’s Depth Chart at any one position. For example, here is the page for catchers. This allows you to compare positions around the league and see which group of backstops is most valuable. Obviously these rankings are based on the projection systems and our playing time estimates, so if you believe playing time will shake out differently that we do, you might expect to see a different overall ranking.
Finally, this handy grid collapses those two views into one. You can’t see all of the players in that view, but it puts together each team’s expected WAR at each position so that you can quickly compare how teams and positions stack up against each other.
The Depth Charts are very useful for a couple of reasons. First, they blend two projection systems together without you having to do any of the work, and that’s helpful because aggregate projections are better than any one system. Second, playing time is controlled by humans. While projection systems are much better at forecasting performance than people, projection systems aren’t very good at figuring out how much playing time a player is actually going to get. Finally, the Depth Charts gather a lot of information in one place. We’ve had projections on the site for years, but having them built into the system like this allows you to make a lot of comparisons and see where teams are strong or weak.
So as you get back into the swing of things this season, the Depth Chart pages will be a valuable resource if you want to look into the future. Obviously, the charts are only as good as their inputs, but if you care at all about the inputs, the way the data is presented is really helpful.