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Baseball's Mt Rushmore of WAR: What Is It and What Is It Good For?

In 1970, during the midst of the Vietnam War, Edwin Starr asked the musical question: War: What Is It Good For?

A half-century later, the same question is asked by baseball fans. Not that the subject matter is nearly as consequential, of course, but baseball's WAR has gained traction beyond just the sabermetric community.

So, what is WAR--the acronym for wins above replacement--good for? Well, it depends who you ask.

Those inclined toward analytics believe WAR neatly sums up a player's performance both on a yearly and career basis in one single number. Jay Jaffe, a senior writer at Fangraphs, the popular statistically oriented baseball website, is in that camp.

"WAR has gained favor because it allows us to more easily compare players who are on different footings, whether it's two players in different ballparks, at different positions, in different seasons, or different eras," Jaffe said. "We'll always have hitting stats to focus on comparisons for those isolated areas, via both old-school stats and new ones, but if you want to incorporate other dimensions of each player's game, to measure 'the little things' in addition to the big ones, it's a very useful tool."

Those with a more traditionalist view of the game feel that one statistic cannot properly paint a picture of a player's overall contributions to his team both on and off the field.

Longtime manager Jim Leyland tells the story about a conversation he had in the winter between the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Leyland was managing the Detroit Tigers and first baseman Miguel Cabrera had won the American League Triple Crown in '12. He became the first major-league player to lead his league in batting average, home runs and RBIs during the same season since Carl Yastrzemski for the Boston Red Sox in 1967. No one has done it since.

One of the Tigers' statistical analysts came up with a version of WAR in which Chicago Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney had a higher mark than Cabrera for that season. Cabrera had hit .330 with 44 homers and 119 RBIs while Barney's numbers were .254, 7 and 44.

The reason Barney scored so high in the quant's version of WAR is because he made just two errors in 731 chances. Defense, of course, has never been a Cabrera strength.

"He was a really nice kid, but I told him I didn't think we should call the Cubs and see if they'd trade us Darwin Barney straight up for Miggy," Leyland said.

Of course, as can be seen with the Tigers having their own proprietary measure of WAR--along with the other 29 organizations in Major League Baseball--there is the question of what exactly WAR is, especially from those not necessarily in tune with the analytics world.

Teams are so guarded with their metrics that numerous club executives declined to be interviewed for this story because of concern they might give away trade secrets.

Most baseball fans know how such statistics as batting average and earned run average are calculated. Those measures have been part of the major leagues' official statistics forever.

However, the casual fan is not as well-versed in the more exotic metrics such as WAR, and the formula for determining it would fill a good portion of this page.

This is how describes WAR in its glossary of statistics:

"WAR measures a player's value in all facets of the game by deciphering how many more wins he's worth than a replacement-level player at his same position (e.g., a minor-league replacement or a readily available fillin free agent).

"For example, if a shortstop and a first baseman offer the same overall production (on offense, defense and the base paths), the shortstop will have a better WAR because his position sees a lower level of production from replacement-level players."

In 2019, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder-first baseman Cody Bellinger led the major leagues in Baseball-Reference's version of WAR with a 9.0 mark. That means the Dodgers would have won nine less games if they had used an average player on their Triple-A Oklahoma City roster in place of Bellinger.

Granted, the Dodgers would have still finished with 97 victories and easily won their seventh consecutive National League West title. However, WAR says that Bellinger accounted for more than eight percent of the Dodgers wins, one of the reasons why he outpointed Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Christian Yelich in the NL Most Valuable Player voting for 2019.

Complicating WAR in the eyes of some is that there are two versions of the statistic available to the general public, one by Baseball-Reference and the other by Fangraphs. Baseball-Reference's WAR is commonly referred to as bWAR and Fangraphs' version is known as fWAR.

Furthermore, there is WARP--wins above replacement player--that is calculated by Baseball Prospectus. However, WARP lags in popularity behind the two WARs.

bWAR and fWAR are basically calculated the same for hitters but vary for pitchers. A pitcher's runs allowed factor into bWAR while fWAR does not take runs into account, but bases its calculations on Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which consists of home runs, walks and strikeouts.

As mentioned earlier, each organization has its own variation of the WAR metric. Regardless of how teams calculate the final number, they use it to value players, which comes in handy during trade talks and especially when it comes to signing free agents.

"For sure, WAR is a useful tool," said Baltimore Orioles assistant general manager Sig Mejdal, who was a NASA engineer before changing careers to work in baseball. "It is an attempt at quantifying all the value that a player brings towards the score of a game. The runs he produces or saves. It is a measure of what he does at the plate, on the bases and then in the other half of the inning defensively.

"After all, the value of a player is all that he contributes over the course of the game. A run is a run whether you score it at the plate, on the bases or hold the opposition to one less by your defensive skill--and WAR accumulates that.

"This is the most useful of tools for the front office, as this is an attempt at quantifying all that he provides towards winning," Mejdal added. "Whether you relate what a player does to average or replacement level is up to you. There is something nice about replacement level as you have a pretty good idea of what you can get that player for, and so then how you invest your money/distribute your salary can be related to that base."

The general rule of thumb in today's game is that one point of WAR is worth roughly $7 million in value.

Using that formula, Bellinger provided $63 million worth of production with his major-league-leading 9.0 bWAR. That was quite a boon for the Dodgers because Bellinger made just $605,000 in his last season before becoming eligible for salary arbitration.

Mejdal feels the negative with WAR is that evaluating players defensively is difficult for fans. While fans only have access to certain defensive metrics, teams can glean more granular and accurate defensive data thanks to MLB's Statcast system, which measure every movement on the field.

That is certainly a takeaway from the Cabrera-Barney anecdote. Barney's Gold Glove that year aside, very few would make the argument he was better than Cabrera in 2012. If anything, the argument from the analytics side was that Mike Trout, then in his rookie season as the Los Angeles Angels' center fielder, should have won the award. Trout easily outdistanced Cabrera in bWAR by a count of 10.5 to 7.1

"Still, this is an attempt at getting at the players overall value--regardless of the hiccups--and for that reason, I think it is one of the most important stats out there," Mejdal said.

WAR also enables the comparison of players from various time periods.

By any count, Bellinger had an outstanding 2019 as he batted .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs, 115 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in 156 games while leading the NL with 351 total bases. He was also the NL Gold Glove right fielder

However, his 9.0 bWAR was just the 133rd-best season in major-league history. Babe Ruth's 1923 season, in which he compiled a 14.1 bWAR, is tops.

Playing for the New York Yankees that season, the Bambino had a .393 batting average and led the AL in runs (151), home runs (41), RBIs (130), walks (175), OBP (.545), slugging (.764), OPS (1.309) and total bases (399).

Ruth has six of the top 12 seasons in terms of bWAR. Barry Bonds, with two, is the only other player with multiple seasons within the top dozen.

Bonds barely edges out Ruth in career bWAR among hitters, 162.8-162.1. However, Ruth is the all-time leader with 182.4 because that includes the 20.3 points he registered during his time as a pitcher, when he compiled a 94-46 record and 2.28 ERA in 163 games.

Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols' 100.3 bWAR, compiled over 19 seasons, leads active players. Trout is second at 72.5 despite having played 10 fewer years.

Meanwhile, the bWAR record for top season by a pitcher will almost certainly never be broken. That is the 20.5 mark registered by Pud Galvin for the 1884 Buffalo Bisons, then a member of the NL.

By comparison, the top bWAR among pitchers in 2019 was 7.8 by the Houston Astros' Justin Verlander, who went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA in 34 starts to lead the AL in wins as well as starts (34) and innings pitched (223).

While Verlander is a workhorse by today's standards, he logged barely one-third the amount of innings Galvin pitched--636.1--in 1884. The Hall of Famer went 46-22 with a 1.99 ERA and 12 shutouts. And he also completed 71 of his 72 starts.

Cy Young is the all-time leader in bWAR among pitchers with 165.6, 14.6 ahead of Walter Johnson (151.0). That, too, figures to be an unassailable record considering Young had 511 wins and a 2.63 ERA over 815 games and 7,356 innings.

Verlander is the active leader among pitchers with 71.4.

While a lot more fans know that Ruth had 714 lifetime home runs than a 182.4 WAR, the stat is gaining traction.

Whether using the old stat or the new stat, the old-school Leyland was adept at assessing a player's value and maximizing his 25-man roster during a successful managerial career.

Soon after Bonds left the Pirates via free agency after the 1992 season, a writer asked Leyland, then Pittsburgh's manager, how the Bucs would replace the 34 home runs the team had lost.

Rick Cerrone, then the Pirates' Vice President of Public Relations, still remembers Leyland's quick response.

"We're not losing 34 home runs," Leyland said.

"But that's what Bonds had last season and he's no longer with the team."

"Well, somebody's going to play left field for us, right? That guy's going to do something. So we may lose 10 or 20 home runs, but we're not losing 34, I can tell you that."

It seems Leyland understood the concept of WAR even before the stat was invented.

By John Perrotto

John Perrotto, who is based in the Pittsburgh area, has covered Major League Baseball since 1988.
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Author:Perrotto, John
Publication:Baseball Digest
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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