WAR. What is it good for?
Okay now that THAT joke is out of the way we can just comment briefly about how the song is named after the original title of Tolstoy’s War and Piece. (Right about 2:00).
– The mere mention of the advanced stat is enough to divide a room of baseball fans the way the words “Gun Control” might divide the halls of Congress.
On the one hand is the idea that this “end all be all” stat should be the deciding factor in nearly all baseball decisions. On the other, the vomitous rejection that a baseball player’s full value can be wrapped up in one singular number.
The answer, as is the case in nearly all of these types of divisive debates, is actually somewhere in between. With the New Year, we’ll be looking at different parts of this stat to shed some light on why many love it, and why other’s hate it. By the end, I hope you’ll see it for what I think it is-a fairly good short hand for ranking and comparing players across positions, leagues and teams.
Today’s post is just to warm you up to the idea of WAR, what it is and, frankly, give you just enough information to get in trouble with. So don’t go proclaiming yourself a WAR expert by the end of this post (and, alternatively, don’t start yelling at me because the the post is incomplete/misleading/wrong): It’s not meant to be everything there is to know. We’ll do follow up posts looking at some of the finer detail of what goes into the stat, and by the end you’ll (hopefully) be in a better position to make up your mind about how much (if any) stock to put into it.
Last thing: WAR for position players and hitters is different than WAR from pitchers. Lots of folks don’t like WAR for pitchers (See Comments from Court’s Post from Yesterday.)
*Also, different places (Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, Front Offices) calculate WAR differently. I’m just focusing on hitters in the Fangraphs WAR formula for now (fWAR).
Enough Preamble, let’s get started.
The Quick And Dirty Definition of WAR
WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement-Level Player. It basically calculates how many more Wins a player will give a team by being on the field than his AAA replacement. This doesn’t compare players to average MLB players, but to the average AAA player who would get called up (and tends to be worse than the average MLB player). It also isn’t a total number of Wins a player is worth to a team but how many more (or less) wins a player is worth than a AAA player.
So Mike Trout’s 2013 10.4 WAR doesn’t mean he got his team 10 wins, it means he got his teams 10 more wins than whichever AAA Angels Scrub were to replace him if he didn’t play. (or at least that’s a good enough understanding right now).
WAR is cumulative: As a player does good (or bad) things through out the year, his total WAR gets bigger (or smaller). As such, it’s a weird stat to point to in the middle of the year and can be deceiving if you use a number from an incomplete season. Like any stat it really is only telling you what happened, not necessarily what will happen.
Lastly, the bigger the number the better the player. The lower the number (including negative numbers) the worse. In 2013 Trout had the highest with 10.4, and the Adeiny Hechavarria (of players with a minimum number of plate appearances) was worst with -1.9 WAR. (But note again-it’s cumulative. REALLY terrible players eventually got benched, sent down to AAA-so they didn’t get the chance to accumulate tons of negative WAR cuz teams don’t want bad players on the field. Hechavarria represents the worst guy to keep getting put out there, I guess).
Now to dig into it a bit.
- A player that steals 50 bases a year or a player that hits 28 home runs?
- A second basemen that strikes out a lot (but plays perfect defense and has power when he does hit) or a utility man with limited range and no power but doesn’t strike out nearly as often?
- The great hitting, faster, more athletic Mike Trout or The Godzilla of hitting Miguel Cabrera (who, also, moves like Godzilla)?
If your First Baseman has been losing power over the course of his career at what point is it best to replace him (and with who?)
These can be really difficult questions to answer. If you’re a GM or a Manager of a baseball team these questions can be the difference between a great season and being fired. The question is tough because it cuts across a variety of actions in baseball and asks you to compare them without the benefit of an exchange rate. When Kramer doesn’t know that 50,000 Yen is only a few hundred dollars in the US, it makes for high comedy. When the GM doesn’t know if defense is better than hitting at second base, it can cost the whole team.
Sure, we could all (probably) agree hitting a home run is easily better than stealing one base, but is it better than stealing two bases? 5 bases? How many stolen bases equal a hit home run?
Runs: The Common Currency
So the good thing is that smart people figured out that if you ultimately want to win games in baseball, and that you win games by scoring more runs than the other guy. So if you could figure out how many runs these things (base running, home runs, hits, doubles) are likely to create, or likely to save you (range, speed, etc.) well then you could come up with a number. That would be the number of runs, total, over the course of a year that a player would contribute to the team (either actually scoring the runs, or stopping the other team from scoring those runs).
Runs becomes the common currency amongst all the different traits valued in baseball.
Every run saved is equal to a run scored. You’re just trying to make the biggest differential possible-the most runs scored and the least runs given up.
From this a bunch of stats (that we can write about in more detail later) came about that deal with runs created by players when they play. Specifically:
Weighted Runs Above Average (wRAA): This is hitting, basically. wOBA is compared to the league average and scaled…. Basically, how many runs does a player create for (or cost) his team with his bat.
Ultimate Base Running (UBR): Think Advancing bases on the base paths, not getting thrown out, etc. How many runs does a player make (or cost) his team on the base-paths?
Weighted Stolen Base Runs (wSB): Just what you think it is. Stealing bases and getting caught stealing, as well as which bases/how many outs get thrown into the mix here. How many runs does a player create for (or cost) his team with his base stealing.
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR): This is defense and there is a lot of things that go into it. Essentially you can save your team runs by doing things like not committing errors, having a better throwing arm or having the range to reach more balls than other players. Some positions are tougher or more important than other positions defensively, and are weighted accordingly (i.e. range is more important at a place like SS than C, and so the stat tries to reflect that).
So before you freak out with all these crazy names and try beating your brains in about how it all works: take a step back.
We don’t need to figure that out today. All you need to accept is a very basic fact that you already understand as a baseball fan:
That when you do good things on the field, it tends to help your team score runs. When you do bad things on the field, it tends to cost your team runs.
All those stats up there? All they are about, is just how many runs. That’s all. For now, trust me-go with it.
From Runs to Wins!
So now you’ve taken a player and you’ve figured out all these runs he’s made for the team. You start with a great bat. Your player doesn’t light up the base paths but doesn’t make mistakes either-he tends to take a few chances, and makes the most of them (if not all of them). Lastly, he plays very good defense-but more importantly, he does so at a primo position. Short Stop. So you throw in a bonus for playing the middle of the infield.
You figure, by the time you’ve done all your calculations that this player, between all he does on both sides of the ball, has created 46.6 more runs than a replacement level shortstop would. Pretty hot stuff, Ian Desmond!
The last step is to convert those runs this player is getting to wins. Turns out that’s easy part. It’s usually in the neighborhood of 10 runs equalling one win. How do they know this? Magic! No, not really. This post is long enough as it is though, so suffice to say that Fangraphs says every 10 runs is worth about one win. That’s why Desi is rated a 5.0 WAR player…aka “SuperStar” rating.
Why Replacement Level?
In a world where we are used to comparing things to average, why are we comparing these players to something less than average? The answer is that, unfortunately, most teams don’t have average players to bring in when a player gets hurt. They have sub-par players.
Hence, if you want to know what a player is worth to his team, comparing him to average doesn’t paint the picture nearly as well as comparing him to who would come in if he stopped playing. The bench players on a given team should be about average for the MLB, which still gives them a cushion when compared to having to call up people from AAA. (Pretty intuitive).
It also, however, demonstrates some of what went wrong with the Nats last year. The Nats bench wasn’t an average bench. It was a sub par bench, and in fact at times was a sub AAA bench. When your bench is no different from your AAA roster, you’re in trouble. It’s also why the Nats are focusing on guys like Nate McClouth for the bench-he might be a bit overpaid and he might be good enough to be an OF elsewhere, but the drop off between him and Jayson Werth is much less than if the drop off is Tyler Moore.
But Do You NEED WAR?
Strictly speaking, probably not. A critique of WAR I’ve read is that ultimately it’s downfall is that it ends up telling you good players are good players and bad players are bad player-and we already knew who was good and bad. And for the most part, I agree. You can look at a slashline and total errors and whatnot and get a fairly good idea of how good a player is.
I think WAR becomes a little more informative when you use it players within the great middle of baseball. We can all agree that Cabrera and Trout are great without knowing their WAR. What we might have trouble deciding is whether Corey Brown or Tyler Moore had a better year with the Nats last year-and which, if either, is worth keeping. We might have trouble figuring out how to determine whether to cut a guy like Roger Bernadina or trade him-and for what in return, and how do you figure the value stacked up?
Or even if Danny Espinosa is playing poorly and hurt, or if Adam LaRoche is playing poorly and hurt, are you actually doing yourself a favor by putting in a bench guy?
Or what do you expect Denard Span to actually add to the offense vs. what keeping a masher like Mike Morse on the team.
It’s questions like these where there is no other great way to compare apples and oranges where WAR might be considered most instructive.