Saber-Prattling: WAR, What is it Good For?

WAR, huh, good God! What is it good for?

Believe it or not, a guy kicked off his persuasive argument assignment in our high school speech class with that line. It was easily one of the most embarrassingly and uncomfortably funny things I’ve ever witnessed and it stands out in stark clarity even now.

But while he was talking about armed conflict, I am referring to Wins Above Replacement, perhaps the most often used of all the newer saber stats. But common and frequent use doesn’t necessarily equate to understanding. I mean, how many people really understand the mechanics of an internal-combustion engine or how Bernoulli’s Principle explains the ability of 400 tons of jetliner to take flight.

So while war might be good for absolutely nothin’ (say it again, y’all!), WAR can be a very useful tool in determining a player’s true value. Ryan Theriot was full of hustle, grit, and opposite-field, seeing-eye singles, but was he really any better for the team than a guy in Iowa or some other journeyman scrub?

WAR is an attempt to distill all the different player valuations down into one stat that represents his worth in terms of wins. And while you would think that compiling all the different variables into one stat would be difficult, FanGraphs holds that it’s really quite simple:

  • Offensive players – Take wRAA, UBR & wSB, and UZR (which express offensive, base running, and defensive value in runs above average) and add them together. Add in a positional adjustment, since some positions are tougher to play than others, and then convert the numbers so that they’re not based on league average, but on replacement level (which is the value a team would lose if they had to replace that player with a “replacement” player – a minor leaguer or someone from the waiver wire). Convert the run value to wins (10 runs = 1 win) and voila, finished!
  • Pitchers – Where offensive WAR used wRAA and UZR, pitching WAR uses FIP. Based on how many innings a pitcher threw, FIP is turned into runs form, converted to represent value above replacement level, and is then converted from runs to wins.

Riiiight. Good on you if can tell me what wRAA, UBR, wSB and UZR are, but my guess is that most of you reading this are almost as lost as me. Reading that, I feel nearly as ill-equipped as Paul George leading a sensitivity-training class. Or Jay Cutler teaching the art of positive body language.

But you don’t need to truly understand the physics behind the idea that a wing’s shape creates a high-pressure zone under and low pressure above in order to facilitate flight. Nor do you need to understand how most of the people on those flights can’t understand the concept of not putting their tiny little bags in the overhead in order to leave room for those who board after them.

Just understand that WAR is simply asking: how many wins would Team X lose if they lost Player X and had to replace him with Player Y. The Cubs are starting to see this concept play out in a big way with the losses of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, players who had combined for about 7 more wins than their backups would have produced (2.2 and 4.8, respectively).

Doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? But 7 wins is a pretty big total when you’re looking at 75-87 vs. 82-80. And if it seems strange that the Cubs’ two best players this season don’t seem to be all that much better than the average replacement, consider that Mike Trout leads the majors in WAR with 6.9.

In fact, only 18 MLB position players have a WAR greater than 5.0 and fewer than 100 players total (out of around 950) are worth more than 3 additional wins. This speaks to the very nature of baseball as a game of millimeters and milliseconds. The difference between ball and strike, safe and out, win and loss comes down to such a thin margin that every little bit counts.

In general, an everyday position player or starting pitcher will account for around 2 additional wins, with All-Stars falling around 4-5 and MVP’s coming in around 6+, as you see in the handy-dandy chart bel0w:

Scrub 0-1 WAR
Role Player 1-2 WAR
Solid Starter 2-3 WAR
Good Player 3-4 WAR
All-Star 4-5 WAR
Superstar 5-6 WAR

So what about the diminutive second baseman with the silent “T” (not to be confused with low-T)? How did he stack up in terms of wins above Fontenot? Theriot actually averaged just over +2 wins during his time with the Cubs, with his best year of 3.2 WAR falling in 2008.

Interestingly enough, Mike Fontenot’s best career WAR mark also came in 2008, when he put up +2.9. That marked the only season he was ever above 1.0, which only happened in one season (Giants, 2011). Huh, weird. Two guys had career-best years when the Cubs had a decent team and subsequently inflated the hell out of their perceived values. Joe Flacco salutes you, Cajun Connection.

Having a low WAR isn’t great, but you certainly don’t want a team filled with guys hovering below +1. After all, if a guy isn’t able to get you even one more win over a replacement, who’s probably much cheaper, what’s the use in allowing him to maintain a roster spot?

Such was the case with Darwin Barney (0.4), whose lack of offensive impact couldn’t make up for his stellar glovework. But at least he wasn’t costing the Cubs wins like Nate Schierholtz (-1.0), a player no was was really sad to see go. Nate’s wife, however, was a different story. Her WAR was strong to quite strong; maybe not Kim DeJesus-level, but nothing to sneeze at nonetheless.

But back to the players who are actually still on the team. We’ve all seen the struggles of late as the last 6 games have virtually washed away all the warm fuzzies that many of us were just daring to feel. But with Castro and Rizzo gone, the lineup lacks much strength, as potential doesn’t win ballgames.

Let’s take a look at the Cubs’ lineup from Wednesday’s 11-1 loss in Toronto to see just how bad this team is right now. Coghlan (1.4), Baez (-0.2), Valbuena (2.6), Soler (0.7), Castillo (2.1), Kalish (-0.6), Alcantara (-0.5), Olt (-0.7), and Watkins (0.3) combined for 5.1 wins above replacement. So that’s positive, right?

Well, sort of. Rafael Lopez (-0.1) and Junior Lake (-0.8) entered the game as subs, their totals dragging the team down to 4.2. I understand that this calculation is imperfect, but even a team comprised of high-end role players should total out to +18. The Cubs right now are fielding a team of guys whose average WAR is around 0.5 or so.

In other words, they are sCrUBS, literally. Admittedly, I was a bit liberal with my calculations and I am using a long-term stat for a short-term situation. But rather than put this out there as some doom-and-gloom indictment of the team and the planning, I look at this as a good thing, or at least an excuse for the bad play.

Putting Castro and Rizzo back in there removes Kalish and Olt and increases the team’s WAR by 8.3, more than doubling the total from Wednesday’s lineup. Time and experience will naturally increase the value of players like Baez Soler and, ideally, Alcantara. When you consider that those guys were playing in AAA just this year, they actually are replacement players.

Even with marginal improvement from the youngsters and identical seasons from the established players, you’re looking at a team that can win some ballgames. Add another solid arm or two to the rotation (Jon Lester, +5.6) and you’re talking about a team win some ballgames.

The next couple weeks are going to be rough though, as we’re going to watching players whose performances may actually be detrimental to victory. That’s never a fun sight, but at least most of them aren’t getting paid much (relatively speaking, of course) to lose. And I’ll take that over Jay Cutler throwing picks to fat guys any time.

I’m interested to take a look back on the Cubs’ numbers next year at this time to see how things have changed and whether or not Edwin Starr knew what he was talking about.

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