OK, so there has been a lot of discussion in baseball circles about the statistic WAR -- Wins Above Replacement -- and how people feel about it. There are WAR hawks, who believe it’s a giant leap forward in baseball analysis. There are WAR protesters, who think it’s an utterly unintelligible statistic that works at dehumanizing the game. And there are WAR agnostics, who think that it’s a stat in progress, that there are good and bad things about it, and that it’s hardly one-stop stat-shopping, but that it adds to the picture.
Here’s a simple review of WAR. You undoubtedly know all this. In broad terms, WAR attempts to measure a player’s worth against something called a replacement player. The replacement player -- whose WAR is obviously 0.0 -- is (at least in theory) a player whom you can always find, either in Class AAA or on the waiver wire, or someone you can generally get in a player-to-be-named-later deal. It’s an AVAILABLE player, one that a shrewd GM should always be able to find in case of emergency.
The mid-30s Miguel Cairo was a quintessential replacement player -- at 34, in Seattle, he got 250 plate appearances and put up a 0.0 WAR. The 33-year-old Neifi Perez was a good one too. Gabe Kapler in Boston, Ryan Sweeney in Oakland, Mark Sweeney in San Francisco, Eric Hinske in Atlanta, Lew Ford in Minnesota, Keith Lockhart at 35. The replacement players are sometimes young players just called up to fill a spot, but they are often older because (I suspect) young players who perform at replacement level for very long are usually sent down.
In any case, it’s important to say that replacement players are not worthless, far from it. People often seem to miss this point … it’s an easy point to miss. Replacement players are good baseball players in the grand scheme of the millions and millions of players around the world who play baseball. According to Baseball Reference -- and the spreadsheet I use for this article backs this up -- a team of replacement players would win roughly 32 percent of their games. So a replacement team would go 52-110 over a full season.
That sounds horrible -- and it is -- but the point is that replacement players are still good enough to win almost one third of their games. The 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks (51-111), the 2003 Detroit Tigers (43-119) and the famed 1962 Mets (40-120) are the three teams in the last 50 years to finish with records worse than you would expect of an all-replacement team, but many others have come close.
So, in some ways I like to think of “replacement players” not so much as the sorts of players you can easily acquire in a bind, but as the baseline for a major league team. With the checks and balances in place -- fan pressure, peer pressure, the amateur draft, media coverage and so on -- a replacement-level team is just about the worst an owner and GM can put on the field. It’s the starting point. Replacement players are good enough to get you through a season … in last place. They are good enough to provide some big hits, some good defensive plays, some good outings, some nice relief work in the late innings, some false hope. But over a long season, if you have a whole team filled with them (or worse than replacement-level players), they will lost twice as often as they win.
And so the key to winning, in this little WAR exercise, is how many wins above replacement you can get. That is one way to look at WAR. Your players -- through hitting, defense, base running, starting pitching, relief pitching and all that -- need to be so many games better than replacement. If your players are a combined 30 games above replacement, the team should win about as many as you lose. If they are 40 games above, the team should be a playoff contender. If they are 50 games above, the team should win around 100 games and be dominant.
That all sounds simple enough. The question then is how you figure out those wins above replacement. Obviously that’s tricky and much argued-about. Remarkably smart people have broken it down in different ways, so there are different formulas for Baseball Reference WAR, FanGraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus’ VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) and others. They are similar, though, and I’m going to use Baseball Reference WAR for this because B-R is so easy to search, and (as you will see) it is surprisingly accurate for trying to break down major league teams, which is the point here.
Baseball Reference WAR is explained in some detail here, but essentially it uses advanced stats to measure a player’s performance in numerous categories.
• For everyday players, it measures hitting in numerous ways, base running, the ability to stay out of double plays, and fielding. It does not claim that these stats are perfect -- especially fielding -- but they’re pretty strong. It gives weight to the position the player plays (it’s much harder to find a replacement-level shortstop than a replacement-level DH, for obvious reasons) and put it all together.
• For pitchers, it measures runs allowed and tries to isolate that from the performance of the team’s defense. It also considers the leverage -- or importance -- of when the pitchers pitched (late-inning situations with the score close would be higher-leverage, for instance, than pitching up 9-1 in the fourth inning).
Obviously you can go through all of these and find the strengths and flaws of the stats themselves, and people do that all the time. But my point here is to look at what WAR might tell us about teams in baseball right now.
So, here’s what I did. I plugged all 30 teams into a spreadsheet, and figured out what their record SHOULD BE, based on their WAR (through Aug. 23). I then compared it to what their record actually is.
And here we go with the American League. (For the National League, go here):
* * *
American League East
Actual record: 72-52
WAR record: 77-47
Determination: Underachiever (surprisingly).
First team out of the gate, and WAR offers a surprise. All year, I have looked at the Yankees as be overachievers with their injuries, the shifting sands of their rotation, the relative decline of A-Rod, Teixeira and so on. But when you look at the team through the WAR prism, you realize just how deep this team is, and how well the players have been performing. By WAR standards, Robbie Cano is having an MVP type season, Hiroki Kuroda is having a Cy Young type season.* Jeter is, of course, having a superb revival year, and Curtis Granderson’s hitting the ball out of the park. Teixeira is actually having a better season than the last couple when you take into account his whole game, Rafael Soriano is basically Mariano, and the Yankees are getting lots of nice contributions from guys like like David Phelps (1.8 WAR) and Eric Chavez (1.5) and so on.
*Brilliant reader Jackson wonders if Kuroda’s season has a chance to be the best of any Japanese pitcher in Major League history. It’s a great question.
Kuroda in 2012: 12-8, 2.96 ERA, 167 IP, 125 Ks, 38 walks, 17 homers, 141 ERA+.
He would basically be going against:
• Dice-K in 2008: 18-3, 2.90 ERA, 167 2/3 IP, 154 Ks, 94 walks, 12 HRs, 160 ERA+.
• Hideo Nomo in 1996: 16-11, 3.19 ERA, 228 1/3 IP, 234 Ks, 85 walks, 23 HRs, 122 ERA+.
• Hideo Nomo in 1995: 13-6, 2.54 ERA, 191 1/3 IP, 236 Ks (led league), 78 walks, 149 ERA+.
Obviously, it depends how he finishes out the year. But by WAR, he only trails Dice-K in 2008 … and not by much. One interesting thing to note is how different he is from Nomo and Matsuzaka. They were power pitchers, strikeout pitchers, and they walked quite a few people (Dice-K led the league in walks in 2008, even in only 167 innings), while Kuroda is much more of a control pitcher. He gives up a few more hits but has really held the Yankees staff together.
The Yankees’ depth is very easy to underrate. Every player who contributes a win or a half win above WAR is helping. It doesn’t seem to matter how you pile up those wins above replacement. Look at the last five World Series winners:
2011: St. Louis was 34 wins above replacement -- the contributions of Fernando Salas (2.4 WAR) and Jon Jay (2.6 WAR) were vital.
2010: San Francisco was 40 WAR -- Andre Torres’ defense (1.6 dWAR) and Jonathan Sanchez (3.0 WAR) were contributors.
2009: The Yankees were 52 WAR -- Jeter and Sabathia were key, of course, but getting 4.2 WAR from A.J. Burnett and another two wins from Brett Gardner were important too.
2008: Philadelphia was 38 WAR -- seven of those were from defense, led by Chase Utley (3.5 dWAR) and Jimmy Rollins (2.5 dWAR).
2007: The Red Sox were 54 WAR -- their 96 wins were actually an underachievement -- and basically every pitcher pitched better than replacement (with the exception of Eric Gagne and Julian Tavarez, who were slightly below).
There are a lot of ways to win. This is the beauty of WAR: it seems to show you if you are winning, and how.
* * *
Actual record: 69-55
WAR record: 68-56
Determination: Playing about to their ability.
The Rays are actually the most balanced team in baseball by WAR -- they are 14.3 above replacement on hitting and defense and 13.8 above replacement in pitching. Obviously, not getting anything close to a full season from Evan Longoria has hurt, and none of the young starters have really broken through to back up another special season from David Price. Offensively, the Rays have a low batting average --as you know, they have been no-hit with some regularity -- but they lead the league in walks, which helps some.
The Rays feel to me like a dangerous team, not just because they’re playing much better but because they’re young and they might be getting healthier. Feels a bit like a Cardinals kind of late season run from them.
* * *
Actual record: 67-57
WAR record: 59-65
Determination: Playing way, way over their talent level.
This is a hard one to figure. By WAR, the Orioles are a fiasco defensively and pretty poor offensively. Only a pretty good pitching staff -- led by the spectacular middle-relief work of the marvelously named Pedro Strop -- should keep them from being a 95-loss team. Instead, the Orioles are in position for a playoff spot and not out of range of the Yankees.
How do you explain it? Well, a 23-6 record in one-run games goes a long way. That .793 winning percentage in one-run games is the best in baseball history. The best, Jerry. Of course, the season isn’t over yet, and there’s no telling what September will bring. But if you can win 80% of your one-run games, you will outperform the expectations. By a lot.
There’s also a feeling I’ve heard among Orioles fans that WAR is not kind to their players, especially on the defensive side. For instance, Adam Jones is rated -1.4 WAR as an outfielder and so is Nick Markakis. Right or wrong, both those guys have won Gold Gloves, so I’ve heard Orioles fans say there’s something about the ballpark that makes WAR dizzy when it comes to rating outfielders. If you assumed that the Orioles were only a replacement level defense, their WAR record would be 63 or 64 wins, which is in range of their actual record.
* * *
4. Red Sox
Actual record: 59-65
WAR record: 62-62
Determination: Underachieving, but perhaps not as much as you might have expected.
When you take hitting and defense, the Red Sox have the third-highest WAR in the American League. This is true even with Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia both having down years by their high standards, and basically getting nothing from Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and the departed Kevin Youkilis. The Red Sox have a lot of guys who are contributing something on the offensive side, which makes them overall a good team of everyday players according to WAR.
The pitching staff, though, is a nightmare. The most valuable pitcher all year has been 36-year-old reliever Scott Atchison, and frankly it isn’t even very close. The harrowing seasons of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett -- both pitching worse than replacement level -- along with the disastrous turns of Dice-K and John Lackey make this version of the Red Sox simply incapable of being a contender, no matter how many times you might play it in Strat-o-Matic. WAR says they should hit enough to play .500 ball, and they still might. But that’s pretty much it.
What WAR does not even try to measure, of course, is just how unenjoyable this Red Sox team has become. No underachieving high-priced team is enjoyable, but this one -- with the chicken and beer fiasco, with Tito gone, with Theo gone, with the Bobby Valentine reality show in full force, with everything just seeming so testy and gray -- appears to have alienation as a major goal. Alienation in Boston these days does not take the same shape as it does in Cleveland or Kansas City or most other places where fans move on to other things. Instead, it bubbles and cracks and sparks and makes everyone miserable.
* * *
5. Blue Jays
Actual record: 56-67
WAR record: 59-64
Determination: Basically playing at their level.
The Blue Jays, remarkably, are even more unbalanced than the Red Sox. Edwin Encarnacion (3.9), Brett Lawrie (3.6) and Jose Bautista (3.1) make Toronto one of only five teams to have three every day players with a 3.0 or better WAR. The three of them are obviously playing above replacement level in different ways:
• Encarnacion, according to WAR, is slugging the heck out of the ball and playing death-defyingly bad defense when the Blue Jays actually put him in the field.
• Bautista, despite missing more than a month with a wrist injury and getting off to an unfathomably slow start, had been slugging, getting on base, and playing OK in the field.
• Lawrie is hitting OK and apparently playing Graig Nettles kind of defense at third base.
But none of it matters because the pitching staff is a horror, with 15 different pitchers throwing below replacement level, bottomed by Ricky Romero, whose 87 walks and 97 earned runs (in 155 innings) both lead the league. It’s a shocking turn; Romero had a brilliant 2011 season and seemed to be the leader for what appeared to be a pretty good staff with Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek and so on. One player cannot make or break the fortunes of a team, but having a player you expect to be a star become a huge liability is a dreadful thing.
* * *
American League Central
1. White Sox
Actual record: 68-55
WAR record: 69-54
Determination: They are better than you think.
Pitchers Chris Sale, Jake Peavy and Jose Quintana are a combined 13 games over replacement. When you throw in a lot of home runs -- in large part because of an almost miraculous rebound from Adam Dunn -- a huge comeback season from Alex Rios, an offensive explosion from A.J. Pierzynski, more offense from the ageless Paul Konerko and an infusion of Kevin Youkilis, you are a pretty darned good team.
In the American League Central, a pretty darned good team is good enough to win the division.
* * *
Actual record: 66-57
WAR record: 66-57
Determination: What you see is what you get.
How can a team with Miggy Cabrera (5.5 WAR), a red-hot Austin Jackson (4.2 WAR) and slugging Prince Fielder (2.9 WAR) be only 11.7 wins above replacement for hitting and defense? If you do some quick adding, you will see that just those three combine for 12.6 WAR.
Answer: When you give 456 plate appearances to Delmon Young (-1.0 WAR), 430 more to Brennan Boesch (-1.4 WAR) and 214 to Ryan Raburn (-1.9 WAR), well, you are not helping the cause much.
Justin Verlander is not having quite as a good a season as his Cy Young/MVP double last year, but he really isn’t far off. His strikeouts are about the same, his walks are only a touch up, he is giving up a few more hits, but he is completing more games, and his ERA+ still leads the league. I imagine what people notice is that his won-loss record is dramatically different. Last year at this time he was 18-5. This year, he’s 12-7. Wins and losses shouldn’t really matter much to people, but of course they do.
* * *
Actual record: 55-68
WAR record: 58-65
Determination: Slight underachievers, but still not good enough.
You know how pro golfers call Saturday “moving day” because it’s the day when they are supposed to move into contention? This was supposed to be moving year for the Royals. They were supposed to play something like .500 ball, score a bunch of runs, show off some of their hot young pitching and get everybody all fired up for the playoff run of 2013.
Hasn’t happened. The Royals have been wildly inconsistent. This is in large part because they have been spectacularly bad at scoring runs, despite all the promising young talent, and they have been both unsettled and snakebit on the pitching side. The struggles on offense have been demonstrated most clearly by 22-year-old Eric Hosmer, a can’t-miss hitter in the Joey Votto mode who is hitting -- or missing -- to the tune of .236/.305/.363. I have little doubt that he will be a terrific hitter, but that little doubt has built up over a long season where he simply has not fired.
As for the pitching, there was a little excitement about 23-year-old Danny Duffy before he blew out his arm, a little more about the briefly dominant Felipe Paulino before he blew out his. The rest is Hochever and Chen and pray for the pen.
Since we are talking about WAR, it’s worth bringing up Alex Gordon, who in 2011 put up a 7.1 WAR, an MVP kind of season, and the highest WAR for any Royals player since George Brett in 1985. Gordon has not been as good in 2012 (3.8 WAR so far), but he’s still far-and-away the Royals best player. Gordon was the second pick in the 2005 draft and the prototypical sure thing prospect who after four injury- and slump-riddled seasons seemed to have flopped. He is now a terrific player, and it’s a shame more people don’t know it.
* * *
Actual record: 54-70
WAR record: 51-73
Determination: Who cares?
All those years when the Indians sold out every game, the overwhelming feeling I would have when I came to Cleveland was pride. The Indians were good, the city was fired up, downtown was full of life, the place where I grew up just felt like the center of baseball. That’s how I feel now when I go to games in San Francisco. Except I didn’t grow up in San Francisco.
Cleveland since 2003 has not finished higher than ninth in the league in attendance -- even when the Indians had pretty good teams -- and now they’re 12th and it just feels dismal. The Indians are the only team in baseball to have a negative-WAR pitching staff, and they earn it. The only pitcher to have a WAR over 1.0 is strikeout machine Vinnie Pestano, and the four starters they have who have thrown at least 100 innings have a combined -3.2 WAR.
The Indians offense -- led by Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis -- actually rates higher than Detroit's or Chicago's. And that’s what’s keeping them from a historically bad season. That pitching staff is performing poorly enough to lose 110.
* * *
Actual record: 51-72
WAR record: 55-68
Determination: Should be better, but not enough that anyone would notice.
The Twins, by WAR standards, put the best nine every day players on the field in the division. It isn’t one or two guys -- though Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham are both cracking the ball. Denard Span and Ryan Doumit are proving useful at the plate, as is Trevor Plouffe and the recovering Justin Morneau. The Twins aren’t a great offense, of course, and they’re not a great defense either, but they have enough of both to be a factor in this division.
Then there’s pitching. Take away Scott Diamond and castoffs Jared Burton and Sam Deduno, and NOBODY is pitching well for the Twins. Nick Blackburn had come into the year with the not-inordinate expectation of being somewhere near league average, and his home run rate (2.1) was perilously close to his strikeout rate (3.8). He was sent down, but that combination hits too close to home. The Twins have the fewest strikeouts in the league and have given up the most home runs.
* * *
American League West
Actual record: 72-51
WAR record: 72-51
Determination: Playing exactly like they should.
You know who WAR says is the Rangers’ best everyday player? Adrian Beltre. Last year, WAR said he was the Rangers second-best (behind the criminally underrated Ian Kinsler). The year before, WAR had him as the best everyday player for the Boston Red Sox. The year before that he had an off-year, but in 2008 he was the best everyday player in Seattle, he just missed in 2006 (tenth of a point behind Ichiro) and in 2004, he was second in the National League in WAR behind a guy named Barry Bonds.
Point is not something you don’t know -- Adrian Beltre has been a sensational baseball player. His career WAR of 57.9 is higher than Vlad Guerrero’s. It’s higher than Ichiro’s. It’s significantly higher than Mark Teixeira's (who is almost exactly one year younger), higher than Miguel Tejada's, higher than Omar Vizquel's, higher than Bobby Abreu's, higher than Johnny Damon's, higher than Jimmy Rollins' or Chase Utley's.
This is because WAR gives Beltre a whole lot of credit for being a spectacular defensive third baseman -- Brooks Robinson spectacular -- but also because he hits with power (he has led the league in homers and in doubles) and has gotten much better as a hitter the last three years while playing in better ballparks (put him in Boston and Texas, and suddenly he’s hitting .309/.348/.540 … a far cry from those LA and Seattle days). Sure, people can overplay the whole “You have to watch him every day to appreciate him” meme, but people who DO watch Beltre every day seem unanimous in their awe of his defense and general greatness.
I have thought that the Rangers are the most talented team in baseball … and I still think that. But WAR says Yankees. And with Sabathia coming back, Jeter surging, Kuroda dealing … that would be one heck of an ALCS.
* * *
Actual record: 67-56
WAR record: 68-55
Determination: Playing to their ballpark.
The A’s are, by the general numbers, an abominable hitting ball club. They are 13th in runs scored, 13th in OPS, 14th in hits. They strike out more than any team in the league.
At home, they hit .229/..305/.376.
On the road, they hit .235/.307/.399.
Both those sets of numbers look awful. But one set isn’t as bad as you might think. See, here’s the thing: Nobody hits in Oakland. The A’s pitching staff has a 3.03 ERA at home (they have a 4.07 ERA on the road). Opponents hit .227/.286/.344 in the Coliseum, which you will notice is actually quite a bit worse than the A’s. The A’s can’t hit much. But at home, they just don’t have to hit much.
The A’s pitching staff has a 18.2 WAR … second only to the White Sox in the league. They are led in WAR (now that Bartolo Colon has been suspended) by Jarrod Parker, who has a 2.48 ERA at home and a 5.11 ERA on the road. My e-migo Brandon McCarthy’s much better at home than on the road. The wonderfully named Grant Balfour is utterly unhittable at home (2-0, 0.79 ERA, 31 Ks, 8 walks) and relatively hittable on the road (0-2, 5.01 ERA, 18 Ks, 14 walks).
I’ve always thought struggling teams placed in unfair situations might try to play in somewhat extreme ballparks and try to build the kinds of teams that can win often there. The Royals did this for years in old Royals Stadium, which was enormous and had that springy and fast astroturf that seemed to favor gap hitters like Brett and McRae, speed burners like Wilson, defenders like White and Otis. The Twins obviously won two World Series by winning a whole lot in that brutal dome. The A’s have a ballpark with lots of foul ground, unpredictable weather and what I’ve been told by pitcher after pitcher is (for some reason) a comfortable mound. It’s been a while since Billy Beane has beaten this unfair game, but you wonder if playing to his ballpark’s strength is part of his new Moneyball plan.
* * *
Actual record: 64-60
WAR record: 69-55
Determination: Underachievers galore.
The Angels are underachieving in two ways, I think. They have the best hitting and defense in baseball by far when you consider WAR. Obviously this begins with Mike Trout, who is on pace to have the best WAR season in the American League since A-Rod in 2000 (10.1) or possibly Cal Ripken in 1991 (11.3). If you somehow beat Ripken, you would have to go back to Yaz in ’67 (12.0). If he beat that, you’re talking Babe Ruth.
But it isn’t just Trout, of course, it’s Pujols, who has been slugging .588 since May 1, it’s Mark Trumbo who is launching gargantuan home runs, it’s Torii Hunter having another nice year, it’s Alberto Callaspo chipping in with a 2.7 WAR.
So, obviously the Angels are wildly underachieving because of their pitching. Jered Weaver is dealing, Ernesto Frieri is striking out everybody, C.J. Wilson is kind of keeping it together, and the rest is pretty disastrous. Ervin Santana: Almost unpitchable. Dan Haren: Almost as bad. Zack Greinke … wow, has he been bad the last four starts. These are obviously big names flopping together, and that’s part of what makes it so shocking.
But I would say that Angels are underachieving in another way -- the amazing offense and defense is not really adding up to runs scored and runs prevented. WAR might say the Angels have the best offense in the league, but they’re just fifth in runs scored … they don’t walk enough, they don’t stretch doubles and triples, it’s just not quite as good as it should be.
* * *
Actual record: 61-64
WAR record: 63-62
Determination: Huge improvement?
The Mariners still can’t hit. John Jaso is the Mariners best hitter, and it’s not close, and that’s over 263 plate appearances. It might not last. The Mariners are dead last in the league in runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Of the seven players they have with 300 or more plate appearances, zero have an on-base percentage higher than .315.
But, hey, this is a team coming off of two astonishingly bad seasons, and so you have to judge them on improvement. And the Mariners are a bit better. Their home park is a pitcher’s heaven, too. And with King Felix pitching at least as well, and perhaps even a touch better, than he did his Cy Young year -- strikeouts slightly up, walks and homer rate slightly down, an insane four shutouts, which is as many as he had in his entire career coming in -- and a decent No. 2 punch this year from Jason Vargas, along with some pretty good bullpen work from guys like Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge, the Mariners are displaying the production to play roughly .500 ball.
You know, if they can get nice leaps from younger players like Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders and Jesus Montero, this team might not be far away.