Let me begin by stating that I do not believe that Wins Above Replacement is a be-all and end-all statistic. I do, however, believe that along with OPS+, it is the single best measurement of a player’s value and performance, taking into account batting, baserunning, and defense. The following will examine how WAR is calculated to help determine its importance in making baseball decisions – whether they be in the front office of a MLB club or your high school pal’s fantasy keeper league.
WAR is statistical formula made up of several variables which churns out a single number to represent a player’s value to his team. The exact formula for WAR varies, as there are two main versions used – Baseball-Reference WAR (rWAR) and FanGraphs’ WAR (fWAR). In our case, we’ll examine Baseball-Reference.com WAR. The key to WAR is runs; Runs Above Average (RAA) is converted to Wins Above Average via the PythagenPat win-loss estimator. More often than not ten runs equates to one win, however, some small variations may occur. But before your head starts spinning, remember that wins are wins. A club’s total WAR, when adjusted for the replacement level, will closely mimic the actual win total of the team.
But what exactly is a replacement? Contrary to popular belief, the term replacement does not refer to your average Major Leaguer. Instead, it attempts to encapsulate a player stuck in baseball limbo – somewhere between AAA and the fictitious AAAA, not quite ready for The Show. According to Baseball-Reference, “Average players are relatively rare and can be expensive to acquire. Average players don’t make the league minimum.” A replacement player is just that – a stop gag. Each offseason teams spend millions on over-priced ‘average’ players. When speaking of WAR, the comparison is between Player X and the common, readily-available minor league journeyman. Replacement level equates to a .320 winning percentage. The 875 wins above replacement each year in the MLB [30 x 162 x (.500-.320)] are distributed between pitchers and position players. In conjunction with free agent salaries from the past four years, 41% of the runs are given to pitchers; hitters subsequently receive 59%. Over 650 plate appearances, players replacing league-average starters would deduct twenty runs from their team; these runs are known as the Replacement Level multiplier. For further comparison, a team comprised strictly of replacement players would win approximately 52 games in the regular season. This factor is adjusted for each league, as the AL has defeated the NL during Interleague play in eight consecutive seasons dating back to 2004.
Defense plays a large role in WAR, so naturally the statistic is calculated differently for position players and pitchers. First, let’s look at Position Player WAR. For fielders, WAR consists of batting runs, baserunning runs, fielding runs, runs added/lost due to grounding into double plays, and positional adjustments. Each category is extremely comprehensive. Batting runs account for pre-DH seasons, estimated caught stealing totals, infield singles, strikeouts, Reached On Error, and more. Baserunning runs are more than just SB and CS; getting from 1st to 3rd on a single, scoring on a grounder, tagging up, and other key baserunning occurrences all factor in. Perhaps the most complicated and debated aspect of WAR is the value of fielding. I’m of the belief that defense is half the game, but others disagree.
Since its development in 2003, Baseball Info Solutions Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) has been the default measurement for fielding runs. For seasons prior to ’03 (where observational data is non-existant), WAR used Sean Smith’s Total Zone Rating (TZR). However DRS has become “the most sophisticated public system available,” according to Baseball-Reference. Even baseball purists must appreciate the breadth and scope of DRS, which factors in dozens of potential plays (blocking a ball in the dirt, robbing a homerun, misplaying the outfield wall…) as well as a fielder’s range based on batted ball velocity, an outfielder’s arm strength based on the number of runners he allowed to advance, an infielders double play conversion rate, fielding success on bunts, stolen base conversion rate, and even pitch framing and game management for catchers. An overlooked factor of WAR is GIDP, or Grounded Into Double Play. Left-handed hitters such as Ichiro can fly out of the batter’s box and be half-way down the line in the blink of an eye. This gives lefties a decidedly large advantage over right-handed hitters. Beating out a potential double play takes skill and hustle. On average, the difference between avoiding and grounding into a double play is .44 runs (Baseball-Reference).
Finally, we reach positional adjustments. Teams are willing to sacrifice offense at key defensive positions such as shortstop and catcher, as demonstrated by this chart. To level the playing field, rWAR adds/subtracts runs based on your primary position. Catchers receive the biggest boost, earning ten runs, or roughly one win, per 1,350 innings played (9 innings multiplied by 150 games). On the contrary, a Designated Hitter sees fifteen runs disappear from his WAR due to his lack of defending. Shortstops are awarded 7.5 runs while second basemen only gain three. Despite corner outfielders subtracting 7.5, center fielders claim an extra 2.5 runs. On the corners of the diamond, third basemen add two runs while first basemen are helplessly left watching a full victory vanish from their WAR. Not fair you say? Statistics would say otherwise.
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Calculating Pitcher WAR can be just as, if not more, complex than Position Player WAR. Despite the simplicity of Runs Allowed and Innings Pitched, Pitcher WAR becomes complicated when trying to determine how an average pitcher would handle certain situations. One key which calls for adjustments is the level of opposition. Remember that Giants’ pitchers never had to face Barry Bonds the year he amassed a ridiculous .609 On-Base Percentage. Interleague play muddles up the conversation even more, as away games are not counted. Baseball-Reference believes that “including nine games the Red Sox don’t have a DH will skew their offensive averages lower when most pitchers are facing them with a DH.” Makes sense to me, so I’ll allow it.
This brings us to Defense-Independent Pitching Stats, more commonly known as DIPS. Within this statistic lies yet another heated debate. Should pitchers be punished for defensive errors made by their teammates? WAR is attempting to “measure the value of the recorded performance–not it’s repeatability,” so Baseball-Reference.com does take into account defense in some ways. Relievers and starters have significantly different ERA’s in today’s game, causing rWAR to adjust accordingly. Bullpen relievers became a vital part of game management in the 1960’s. From 1960-1973, rWAR sets a difference of .0583 runs/game less given up by relievers. From ’74 on, when managers started utilizing their ‘pens in a more modern fashion, the difference increases to .1125 runs/game. Also taken into account are park factors – vital for pitchers playing in the odd-ball NL West, a division with some of the very best and worst hitter’s parks in the league. Park factors are calculated using data from the three previous seasons. It is generally accepted that late innings have a higher impact on the outcome of a ballgame. To account for this a leverage multiplier is used. The average leverage is 1.0, however closers often approach averages of 2.0, while mop-up guys might check in at 0.7. This metric “is applied only for relief innings and the leverage we use in the leverage at the beginning of the pitcher’s outing. This way a bad pitcher can’t bump up his leverage by walking the bases loaded and striking out the side every time” (Baseball-Reference).
Complex enough for you? WAR attempts to leave no stone unturned, that’s why to me it’s the best measure of a player’s value.
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This post is written in honor of my roommate and great friend, Lucas Gilles, the biggest anti-WAR advocate I know.
The following is a detailed look at the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player voting:
When Ryan Braun was notified of the NL MVP results, he immediately proceeded to call his mother, his agent, and then Green Bay Packers quarterback and fellow Cali-native Aaron Rodgers, who Braun calls his “best athlete friend.” His message to the leader of the 11-0 Packers was clear: your turn. Rodgers, forever a Wisconsin legend thanks to his Super Bowl XLV MVP performance, has the inside track for the MVP award this season and was happy for his pal. “I’m proud of him,” Rodgers said in an ESPN interview, “he had an incredible season.” Rodgers was also thankful to play in front of the best fans around. “It’s fun to know that he’s going to be in Milwaukee for a long time,” he said. “I’m hopefully going to be here for a long time, and we appreciate the opportunity to play in Wisconsin for sports teams and their fans who really care about their players.” Braun may now have the award, but Rodgers has the title – something Braun craves. “[Rodgers has] accomplished far more in his sport than I have in mine,” stated Braun, “it inspires me to try to get better and ultimately to win a championship of my own for the Milwaukee Brewers.” One day, Milwaukee. One day.
Milwaukee’s magical run came to an end with a Game 6 loss to the Cardinals Sunday night. But keep your heads up Brewers fans, the 2011 Brew Crew won the most games in franchise history and the core is coming back: Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, John Axford, etc. will all be around in 2012. As for the humongous pink elephant in the room, Albert Pujols said after the game that he believes Prince Fielder will be a Brewer next season, and he thinks Milwaukee will be back in the NLCS sooner than later.
Today was just about the craziest day in baseball that I can remember. So many things were on the line going into the final day of the 2011 season. In some scenarios we would have had the pleasure of watching two one-game playoffs on the same day; that didn’t happen, but here’s some stuff that did:
The Brewers capped their best season in franchise history, becoming the first Brewers squad to earn 96 victories. Their win versus the Pirates also earned them home field for their NLDS match-up against the NL West-Champion Arizona Diamondbacks. Yovani Gallardo will start game 1 for Milwaukee at home on Saturday.
Zack Greinke surpassed 200 strikeouts while earning his 16th win of the season Wednesday night; he improved his record at Miller Park this season to 11-0 (the Brewers are 15-0 in Greinke starts at home). Greinke and Yovani Gallardo are the only two teammates in Brewers history to have 200 punch-outs in the same season.
Prince Fielder earned a walk in his final at-bat of 2011. That walk left his batting average for the season at .299, leaving the quest for his first .300 season short once again. The base-on-balls did however give Fielder more walks (107) than strikeouts (106) for the season. Pretty neat.
Ryan Braun did not win the batting title, going 0-for-4 while Jose Reyes got on base via a bunt single in the first and was subsequently pinch-ran for per his request so that his average would remain higher than Braun’s. Bush. League. Braun finished the year at .332, Reyes at .337.
Albert Pujols recorded the first season in his career in which he failed to hit .300 and drive in 100 runs. Pujols finished with a .299 average and 99 RBI.
The Dodgers’ Matt Kemp hit his 39th home run Wednesay; however that left him one short of becoming the fifth player in MLB history to record a 40/40 season.
Following Boston’s knack for collapsing, Adrian Gonzalez (.338) lost the AL batting title to Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (.344) after leading the race for almost every single day throughout the year.
Detroit closer Jose Valverde finished the season a perfect 49/49 in saves.
Jonathan Papelbon and the Red Sox were literally one strike away from a victory, yet the Boston closer ended up blowing the save and allowing Baltimore to win. Three minutes later the Tampa Bay Rays, who had just gotten out of a first and third nobody out situation in the eighth, walked-off with an Evan Longoria homer that squeaked inside the left field foul pole. Tampa Bay was down 7-0 to the Yankees going into the eighth inning, but thanks to sound baseball and a three-run Longoria bomb, the Rays pulled within one going into the ninth. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon pinch-hit Dan Johnson for Sam Fuld with two outs and the bases empty. Johnson was hitting .105 with one home run on the sesason. On a 2-2 pitch, Johnson crushed a home run deep into right field which barely snuck fair for a home run. The Rays were literally one strike away from losing, yet they scratched and clawed their way to an improbable AL Wild Card birth.
And lastly one more word about the NL batting title race I’ve been covering for quite some time… I think this excerpt from Tim Kurkjian’s ESPN.com article titled “Remembering the Amazing Ted Williams” says it best, and keep in mind how Reyes asked to be removed after a first inning bunt single…
“When he got to the final day of the season, a doubleheader at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Williams was hitting .3996, which rounded off to .400. Red Sox manager Joe Cronin gave Williams the option to play that day. Williams said if he couldn’t hit .400 from the beginning to the end of a season, he didn’t deserve it.
“I asked him about that final day,” Gwynn said, “and he said, ‘Hell yeah was I going to play.”’
Williams went 4-for-5 in the first game, the Red Sox overcame an 11-3 deficit to beat the A’s, 12-11, and Williams raised his average to .404. He insisted on playing the second game, and he went 2-for-3 to finish the season at .406. In the doubleheader, with all the pressure of .400, he went 6-for-8. “
With teams having played over 100 games in the 2011 season, the sample size is large enough to start talking league awards. Below are the key statistics for the top ten candidates for National League Most Valuable Player. Now it’s up to you to vote. Do you count team success? What matters more, average or on-base percentage? How important is the walk-to-strikeout ratio? These are all things you’ll have to weigh in your own respective manner while choosing the most valuable player in the entire league.
1. Boston Red Sox (43-28; 1st AL East)
Adrian Gonzalez has Boston fans thinking Triple Crown with a .348 average (1st in MLB), 64 runs batted in (1st in MLB) and 15 home runs (six shy of league leaders).
2. Philadelphia Phillies (45-28; 1st NL East)
Cole Hamels (9-3, 2.51 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 103 K, 104 innings) has the slightest of edges over teammate Roy Halladay (9-3, 2.56 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 114 K, 112.1 innings) for NL Cy Young.
3. Milwaukee Brewers (40-33; 1st NL Central)
Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Rickie Weeks have combined for 49 homers, 144 runs batted in, and a .299 batting average.
4. New York Yankees (41-29; 2nd AL East)
The Bronx Bombers are living up to their nickname, leading the majors with 105 home runs.
5. St. Louis Cardinals (40-33; 1st NL Central)
The Cards snapped their seven game skid Saturday win a win over Kansas City, but lost Albert Pujols to a wrist injury Sunday.
6. Cleveland Indians (39-31; 1st AL Central)
The Tribe seems to be back on track after a three-game sweep of Pittsburgh, putting them one game ahead of the Tigers for 1st place in the division.
7. Detroit Tigers (39-33; 2nd AL Central)
Justin Verlander has gone 7-0 with a 1.94 ERA in his last ten starts (May 2-June 19); his WHIP on the season is a microscopic 0.85.
8. San Francisco Giants (39-33; 1st NL West)
After a rough start to the year, Madison Bumgarner has lowered his ERA to 3.21 (better than Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez), but still has a dismal 3-8 record.
9. Texas Rangers (38-35; 1st AL West)
Texas remains atop the AL West despite a 3-7 road trip.
10. Minnesota Twins (31-39; 4th AL Central)
Putting the Twins in the top 10 seems a bit absurd – but they’re hot – white hot.
If the season ended today:
AL MVP: Adrian Gonzalez – 1B – BOS
NL MVP: Prince Fielder – 1B – MIL
AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander – SP – DET
NL Cy Young: Cole Hamels – SP – PHI
1. Philadelphia Phillies (35-24; 1st NL East)
No reason for the Phillies to move out of the top spot. Their pitching continues to be rock solid while the return of Chase Utley has sparked their once dormant offense.
2. Texas Rangers (34-26; 1st AL West)
Texas is a major league best 8-2 over their last 10 games. The return of Hamilton and Cruz have ignited the Ranger bats; and Elvis Andrus continues show why he’s one of the best young shortstops in the game.
3. Milwaukee Brewers (33-26; 2nd NL Central)
The Brewers are 19-6 since May 9th, the best record in all of baseball. Three straight 1-run victories on the road versus Florida seem to have dismissed any worries of Milwaukee’s road woes.
4. St. Louis Cardinals (36-25; 1st NL Central)
Albert Pujols seems to be back on track, hitting back-to-back walk-off homers to sink the Cubs. A weekend series at Miller Park should help clear the fuzzy picture atop the NL Central.
5. New York Yankees (33-24; 1st AL East)
The Yanks have regained sole possession of 1st place in baseball’s toughest division thanks to wins in 8 of their last 11 games. Next up is a home series with the Red Sox, who trail New York by 1 game in the standings.
6. Boston Red Sox (33-26; 2nd AL East)
Adrian Gonzalez is hitting a blistering .339 to go along with 12 home runs and a major league leading 50 runs batted in.
7. Arizona Diamondbacks (33-27; 2nd NL West)
The D-backs continue to show pop in their lineup to go along with their surprising starting pitching.
8. Cleveland Indians (33-24; 1st AL Central)
The Tribe has cooled off a bit since their torrid start, but there’s no reason to believe that their 33 wins are an aberration.
9. San Francisco Giants (33-26; 1st NL West)
The defending World Champs may have lost their star catcher to injury, but their pitching is too solid for them to disappear just yet.
10. Florida Marlins (31-26; 2nd NL East)
Four straight loses have stymied the Fish, who have now dropped to 14-15 at Sun Life Stadium.
If the season ended today:
AL MVP: Adrian Gonzalez – 1B – BOS
NL MVP: Ryan Braun – LF – MIL
AL Cy Young: Alexi Ogando – SP – TEX
NL Cy Young: Roy Halladay – SP – PHI