Wins Above Replacement (WAR): Analyzing MLB Statistics using Sabermetrics

Wednesday January 11th, 2012

 

Peter Stein (Fantasy Baseball Analyst – MLB reports): Although WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is not the best of the sabermetric stats for fantasy baseball purposes, it has certainly transformed the way in which we can truly understand a given major league baseball player’s contribution (or lack there of) to his team. WAR attempts to epitomize a player’s total value in one sole statistic, taking into account both the offensive and defensive aspects of the game. FanGraphs (the sabermetrics bible) aptly describes the essence of WAR: “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a minor leaguer or someone from their bench, how much value would the team be losing.” A player is measured in “Wins” for a season (i.e. 3.4), while an average full-time player is worth 2 wins and a replacement player represents 0 wins. Furthermore an average staring pitcher is worth 2.0 WAR, while 1.0 WAR represents a strong season for a relief pitcher.  

Here are the 2011 leaders in WAR:

Batting

  1. Jacoby Ellsbury – 9.4

  2. Matt Kemp – 8.7

  3. Jose Bautista – 8.3

  4. Dustin Pedroia – 8.0

  5. Ryan Braun – 7.8

  6. Ian Kinsler – 7.7

  7. Miguel Cabrera – 7.3

  8. Curtis Granderson 7.0

  9. Alex Gordon 6.9

  10. Joey Votto 6.9


Pitching

  1. Roy Halladay – 8.2

  2. C.C. Sabathia – 7.1

  3. Justin Verlander – 7.0

  4. Clayton Kershaw – 6.8

  5. Cliff Lee – 6.7

  6. Dan Haren

  7. C.J. Wilson – 6.4

  8. Jered Weaver – 5.9

  9. Doug Fister – 5.6

  10. Felix Hernandez – 5.6


The statistic actually defines a player’s value, something that MVP (Most Valuable Players) voters should perhaps consider come each October. For batters, the stat itself is calculated by taking into account two stats: wRAA (Weighted Runs Above Average) and UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), which represent a batter’s offensive and defensive values, respectively. Pitching WAR replaces these two sabermetric stats with FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), a stat that normalizes ERA for the “uncontrollable,” in conjunction with numbers of innings pitched. The Uncontrollable refers to what happens after the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, because obviously pitchers have almost no control over the balls that are in play. They are ultimately at the mercy of their defense.

Fangraphs site the formula for FIP as the following:

FIP: ((13*HR)+(3*(BB+HBP-IBB))-(2*K))/IP + constant

If you are unfamiliar with Sabermetrics and WAR, this should feel like a mix between learning a foreign language and a calculus problem. However, don’t let this intimidate you. Spend some time on FanGraphs (It’s okay take it slowly) and it will change the way in which you think about the game of baseball. Please note that Baseball Reference has a slightly different formula/method to calculate WAR.

The beauty of WAR, however, is that it not only takes in account a player’s defensive skills (using UZR), but also the difficulty of the position. Therefore, someone like Dustin Pedroia at second base is significantly more valuable than a slugging Prince Fielder, at the first base position where power and production is demanded. Perhaps that is why Fielder is still fielding offers and has not landed a contract within his desired range. Not too shabby of statistic for a General Manager, huh? My hope is that this analysis paints the complexity of WAR and the many factors used to determine the number of wins that a player is ultimately worth to his team.

Let it be clear that by no means is WAR perfect. From a rather cynical standpoint, the very philosophy of WAR, which is calculated with so many components, professes that you cannot use one sole determinant to measure a player’s value. Furthermore, the positional adjustment numbers are the most arbitrary difficult to calculate. Can we really determine that a Center Fielder, due to difficulty to play the position itself, is worth 1.5 more wins than a first baseman? It is also difficult to determine the UZR for a first baseman, a position in which success is defined less by range and more by the ability to field throws. Paul Konerko certainly does not have great range, but he is universally regarded as one of the league’s top defensive first baseman, most likely saving Alexei Ramirez a handful of errors each season. Likewise, you cannot measure range for catchers, which use the fielding component of Stolen Base Runs Saved (rSB).  We also know that much of catcher’s true value is related to his ability to call a smart game (which cannot be measured by any given statistic).

However, from a fantasy perspective, we do not care about defense, and therefore wRAA is a more accurate indicator of offensive output. FIP can be used as well. For example, if a pitcher’s FIP indicates that his defense is frequently letting him down, and said pitcher joins a top rated defensive team; you have acquired knowledge about a player’s ability not represented by the generic stats out there. This is how you will earn surplus value and land the “surprises”, the “bounce-back” players, and avoid the “busts”.

I admit, when I first familiarized myself with FanGraphs, I felt like I was cheating in my fantasy baseball leagues. However, after joining more competitive leagues and with sabermetrics entering the mainstream, I have learned that this only provides a slight advantage. Just as it holds true for every other aspect of life, it is impossible to predict the future in the world of baseball. However, in a game of numbers- only the slightest advantage is needed to set your team apart from the competition.

WAR is a one of a kind stat. It helps us more thoroughly examine a player’s worth, especially when compared to their salary. Ultimately, the stat serves as a good building block to work back from to understand the intricacies and essence of sabermetrics.


***Today’s feature was prepared by our Fantasy Baseball Analyst, Peter Stein.  We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers.  You can also follow Peter on Twitter (@peterWstein).***

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Posted on January 11, 2012, in The Rest: Everything Baseball and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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