Wins Above Replacement: useful metric or nonsense?

WAR, what is it good for? In a baseball statistical sense, it may be a useful metric that allows us to compare players and takes into account hitting, fielding and even baserunning among position players. There are WAR stats for pitchers, as well.

It has become more prominent in the game in recent years and is used more by media and fans. But in my humble opinion, it remains a stat/metric still trying to find its way into the mainstream. It is still often misunderstood by some who then tend to avoid it and probably overused by others. Hard to find a middle ground on Wins Above Replacement.

Per the FanGraphs glossary, WAR is defined this way:

“It is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. You should always use more than one metric at a time when evaluating players, but WAR is all-inclusive and provides a useful reference point for comparing players. ...

“WAR is not meant to be a perfectly precise indicator of a player’s contribution, but rather an estimate of their value to date. Given the imperfections of some of the available data and the assumptions made to calculate other components, WAR works best as an approximation. A 6 WAR player might be worth between 5.0 and 7.0 WAR, but it is pretty safe to say they are at least an All-Star level player and potentially an MVP.”

While FanGraphs’ glossary insists that “WAR is not as complicated as some might think,” here is how you arrive at the number:

“To calculate WAR for position players you want to take their Batting Runs, Base Running Runs, and Fielding Runs above average and then add in a positional adjustment, a small adjustment for their league, and then add in replacement runs so that we are comparing their performance to replacement level rather than the average player. After that, you simply take that sum and divide it by the runs per win value of that season to find WAR.”

Piece of cake, right?

While the sabermetric community very certainly would not pick me to represent, defend or explain any metric or stat, I am at least open to looking at WAR. And to sometimes using it in stories. But to be honest, I personally give it little weight in analyzing a player and I don’t buy that you can compute an earned salary by equating 1 WAR to $6 million or $8 million - or whichever figure is now considered for that standard.

Some writers, broadcasters and analysts use WAR as if everyone in the audience completely understands it. They lose some fans and can appear to be talking down to others.

It seems to me it took fans a long time for an important stat like on-base percentage to get common use and now OPS is used almost as much as any other so-called traditional stat.

Per FanGraphs, WAR should be looked at this way:
0-1 = scrub
1-2 = role player
2-3 = solid starter
3-4 = good player
4-5 = All-Star level
5-6 = superstar
6 and above = MVP level

WAR on the 2017 Orioles via FanGraphs:
4.1 - Jonathan Schoop
2.8 - Manny Machado
2.7 - Welington Castillo
2.0 - Tim Beckham
1.8 - Trey Mancini
1.7 - Adam Jones

Chris Davis recorded 0.2 WAR and Mark Trumbo was at minus -1.2. Yikes.

Schoop-Swings-White-Sidebar.jpgSometimes it can be hard to have a debate on a stat or metric like WAR. The believers are firmly entrenched and dug in and believe they know something the rest of us don’t. The skeptics just see the first group as nerds who can’t tell a curveball from a slider, but can quote every player’s batting average on balls in play.

It seems difficult to find middle ground or even bring the two sides together. For instance, I am interested in exit velocity and see that as easy to understand and useful. We have readers here that I have found would rather have a root canal than spend 10 minutes discussing exit velocity and see it as useful as month-old bread.

For now, WAR has its backers and they are strong backers it seems to me. They talk a language that in my personal opinion is not yet close to mainstream. Maybe five to 10 years from now we’ll all be using WAR every day. Who knows?

The game of baseball remains great, no matter how many metrics or stats any of us take to the time to learn and use.

For a whole lot more on WAR check out this from FanGraphs.

MLB Network host Brian Kenny was talking about WAR yesterday and you can check out more in these videos.

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