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How often do the pre-season starters actually start during the season?

Injuries, breakout campaigns, and underperformance can see unexpected contributors thrust into starting roles throughout the year.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Spring training officially starts tomorrow, and you know what that means: an endless stream of season previews throughout the sports media world, discussing and analyzing every little facet of every team’s roster as baseball finally returns to the field. But while these early discussions describe how a team is expected to look when the games begin to be played, to what extent do they actually reflect the team that ends up playing? I’m not talking about performance, but rather, the names and numbers on the backs of the jerseys.

Every year, every team has to adjust its rosters and lineups to reflect the events of the ongoing season. Injuries, breakout performances, and trade acquisitions are just a few of the many factors that drive teams to alter their rosters.

So how often do these preseason analyses actually reflect which players end up playing the games? To answer this question, I looked back at the 2019 FanGraphs Depth Charts, found on their ZiPS projections articles, to compare the anticipated starting lineups of the five American League playoff teams (Yankees, Astros, Rays, Twins, Athletics) with the actual lineups that occurred.

Note: For clarification, this means that a player only counts as starting at a position they were expected to be regularly playing as more than a backup; for example, Gleyber Torres was counted only as a starter at second base, as he was expected to only be the backup at shortstop, while LeMahieu’s starts at second and third both counted, as he was expected to play a starter’s chunk of games splitting time at both positions.

Somewhat surprisingly, only the shortstop position saw its projected starters play more than 70% of the games at short — and that is in part due to Marcus Semien of the Oakland Athletics, who started all 162 games at the position. On the whole, starting outfielders played fewer games in their expected positions than infielders; the only exception, third base, saw itself affected greatly by injuries, with Miguel Andujar playing only four games there and Alex Bregman shifting over to shortstop to cover Carlos Correa.

Designated hitters, meanwhile, only started 39% of their games. Although this number was certainly dragged down by Giancarlo Stanton’s injury (he started only 1.8% of games in the designated hitter role), the Yankees were not the only team to see their preseason starter not play the majority of their games, with Rookie of the Year winner Yordan Alvarez taking the job from Tyler White, and the Rays employing seven different players with ten or more starts at the position.

Ultimately, this simply tells us what we already intrinsically know, which is that every team can anticipate giving significant playing time to players not expected to be in the starting lineup when spring training begins. What it does show, however, is that this does not necessarily mean bad news for the team, as even the best teams do not start their anticipated starter upwards of 30% of the time.