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 lose 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 National League (I broke down the American League on Monday):
* * *
National League East
Actual record: 77-50
WAR record: 73-54
Determination: A magical season, so far.
When you talk Nationals you inevitably find yourself talking about how the team is handling Stephen Strasburg and the immense talents and aura of 19-year-old Bryce Harper. Those are both fascinating topics.
But WAR says they are not the biggest reasons why the Nationals are winning this year. Strasburg has been electrifying, of course, but Jordan Zimmermann has been even better. He’s pitched more innings with fewer runs and earned runs allowed. And Gio Gonzalez has been almost as good as Strasburg. The Nationals lead the league in ERA, they have five starting pitchers above league average ERAs, and they have 71 quality starts, most in the division. This has not been a one-man pitching staff by any stretch.
Harper overall has been a useful player at 19, but he has really struggled for more than two months (.213/.277/.328 since the middle of June). I think he has provided a lot of energy for the Nationals. But a much bigger part of the story has been Ryan Zimmerman who, after a stretch where he scuffed around so much everyone around assumed he had to be hurt, has been killing it (since the middle of June, he is hitting .324/.391/.560). At the moment, the Nationals are -- at best -- a mediocre offensive team, but when you're getting that kind of pitching, mediocre offense is enough. When the Nationals score four runs or more, they are 61-11 … the best record in the National League.
* * *
Actual record: 73-56
WAR record: 71-58
Determination: Lots of good defense.
I was a columnist in Augusta when the Atlanta Braves went from worst to first in 1991 and went on one of the most extraordinary 15-year runs in baseball history. Everyone knows that the run was fueled by amazing starting pitching led by three men, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who will all end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Obviously there were some terrific hitters over that stretch -- Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield for a couple of years, J.D. Drew in 2004, David Justice, Ron Gant and so on -- but that pitching was such an overwhelming part of the story that it's hard not to think of the Braves as pitching first.
They are not. Brandon Beachy was unhittable for a while there, and Tim Hudson is still offering professional craftsmanship, but the guys who were supposed to lead one of the best staffs in baseball -- Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson in particular -- have not.
The Braves’ WAR suggests they are winning games with not only their hitting (second in the league in runs scored) but with some great defense -- they are more than 7 ½ wins above replacement, which is a pretty astonishing number. WAR's defensive numbers are contentious, but as Tom Tango points out: They are consistent. The standings say the Braves are 2 ½ games up on the Dodgers in the wild card race. WAR says the Braves -- with great defensive play from Michael Bourn, rookie shortstop Andrelton Simmons (before he got hurt) and outfielder Jason Heyward among others -- are six games better defensively. You don't have to buy it, but it's interesting.
* * *
Actual record: 61-67
WAR record: 61-67
Determination: What you see is what you get.
The thing about a team growing old is that you know people SHOULD have seen it coming in real time, but few in the middle of it ever really do. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Kansas City Chiefs were one of the best teams in football under the guidance of Hank Stram. And then, as you look back, you can see how their great players got older, the team started losing more and more, their stars like Len Dawson and Otis Taylor and Willie Lanier and Buck Buchanan and Bobby Bell started fading, getting hurt, losing a step … it seems so OBVIOUS and you wonder how in the heck a smart guy like Hank Stram could have missed it.
But, in real time, it was undoubtedly different. One offseason just doesn't seem enough time for a player to lose it. One injury doesn't seem like enough pain to halt the will and talents of these great players.
The Phillies are a dreadful offensive team with a core of players who were very, very good. Chase Utley was one of the best players in baseball. Ryan Howard won an MVP. Jimmy Rollins won an MVP. Placido Polanco was the pro's pro, a .300 hitter who could play any position and play it well. Shane Victorino was an all-star who reminded many of hustling hall of famer Richie Ashburn (minus the walks).
You know what those guy are now: 33 years old, 32 years old, 33, 36 and 31 (and gone).
That seems too young to be old … but this is the trap. There is no precise expiration date. The Phillies have had all sorts of problems this year, and probably the most surprising and apparent is that their incredible starting staff featuring Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels has not come close to living up to the expectation. But that's a very mediocre offense. And yet, I'll bet there are still people in the organization who hope for Utley to stay healthy, for Howard to regain form, for Rollins to have a revival and so on. It's just too tempting.
* * *
Actual record: 59-69
WAR record: 56-72
Determination: A long road back.
Mets third baseman David Wright's WAR numbers are so volatile that the general response to them is to question the statistic itself. In 2007, Wright finished second in the National League with 8.1 WAR and the next year he was again in the top 10 with 6.7 WAR. WAR was saying he was one of the best -- perhaps even THE best -- player in the league.
Then in 2009, you might remember he had that bizarre power outage and his WAR dropped precipitously to 2.9 … then 2.5 in 2010 … finally 1.9 in 2011. WAR was saying he was a declining player with limited value.
This year, his 5.9 WAR leads the National League.
The thing that makes this all so befuddling is that the wild up and down movement of the numbers is closely tied to Wright's defensive performance. In 2007, when Wright was second only to the great Pujols, WAR calculated his defense as being worth 1.4 wins above replacement, making him one of the best third basemen in the game (an assessment others made too because he won the Gold Glove that year). In 2008, his defense was down to 0.7 WAR, still solid.
But in 2009, WAR determined that David Wright was a terrible third baseman. He was -1.2 WAR. The next year, he was -1.3 WAR. And last year he sort of improved to -0.5 WAR.
This year, he is 1.6 Defensive WAR, the best of his career.
So what gives? Is it possible -- or likely -- for a player to have such drastic shifts in his defense? Most baseball fans probably think not. Most baseball fans seem to think of defensive performance as constant, static, if a player is great defensively one year he will be great defensively the next and the next and the next. When people talk defense in baseball, they don't talk about single defensive seasons -- Mays in '54, for instance, or Brooks Robinson in '67. No, they talk about those PLAYERS being great defensively, as if that state is unvarying and permanent (or at least until they are so old they can't stand on their feet anymore).
David Wright's slugging percentages have varied pretty wildly. He slugged .546 in 2007, one hundred points lower two years later, .427 last year and way up to .515 this season. Nobody questions the bizarre nature of such erratic offensive performance because we have come to accept the offensive statistics. I have no doubt that defensive statistics have a way to go and will get much better over the next decade. But I don't think it's unlikely that Wright's defense has gone up and down through the years.
* * *
Actual record: 58-71
WAR record: 54-75
Determination: Don't blame Giancarlo.
Giancarlo Stanton has a 4.5 WAR. The entire Marlins team of everyday players -- this including Stanton -- has a 3.6 WAR. That tells you that the 41 other players who have either gotten an at-bat or spent some time in the field are a COMBINED minus-0.9 WAR. That's not good.
I don't get the Marlins at all, but I never really have. They spend, then they break up the team, then they develop incredible players, then they trade those players, then they contend when you don't expect it, then they flop when you don't expect that. Utterly baffling. I guess one way to look at it is this: In 2004, they played in Pro Player Stadium. Then they played in Dolphins Stadium, which for some reason became Dolphin Stadium. Then they played in Land Shark Stadium, which is the most awesome name. Then they moved into Sun Life Stadium. All those, as you know, are exactly the same place. They played in five stadiums over eight years, all of them the same stadium.
Now, finally, they move into an actual new stadium, Marlins Park, and attendance is up 10,000, which is great, and the team is not good and not especially likable, which is not great. It just seems that's how it goes in Miami.
* * *
National League Central
Actual record: 78-52
WAR record: 75-55
Determination: A good team playing well.
Johnny Cueto might be the best pitcher in the National League right now, a healthy Joey Votto is probably the best hitter, and guys like Brandon Phillips and Mat Latos and Ryan Ludwick make up the core of a terrific team. But let's talk for a moment about Aroldis Chapman.
If you use 50 innings pitched as your baseline, Aroldis Chapman this season is striking out more batters per nine innings (16.26) than any pitcher in baseball history. Of course, this is a list filled with relief pitchers of recent vintage -- every pitcher in the Top 20 of strikeouts per nine was a reliever in the last 21 years. And this makes sense -- pitchers can throw 100-plus miles per hour for an inning at a time or for a short while can throw some sick cut-fastball or slider or split-fingered pitch that hitters simply cannot hit.
The question I would have is this: Will there be a pitcher who, for one inning, is simply and truly unhittable for a season? Obviously Mariano Rivera played that role quite well for the Yankees, but I mean even more unhittable than Rivera. With hitters striking out more and more, and with more and more pitchers emerging with 100-mph fastballs, with pitching roles become more and more defined, will there be a pitcher who comes along who literally comes out and strikes out the side virtually every time?
Heck, will Aroldis Chapman be that pitcher? In one year, I got to see Chapman throw in spring training and Strasburg throw in Rochester, and while in most ways I was more impressed with Strasburg's arsenal of pitches, his poise, his obvious future as a superstar, I was blown away by Chapman. I have never seen anyone throw so hard with so little effort. Realistically, I probably have never seen anyone throw so hard PERIOD but he really didn't seem to be working all that hard at it. It was kind of a Usain Bolt 100-mph fastball, one that left you wondering if he could throw 110 if he tried really hard.
From April 5 to June 6, Chapman gave up seven hits, one earned run and struck out 52 of the 106 batters he faced. What if that was just a warmup act?
* * *
Actual record: 71-57
WAR record: 76-52
Determination: Here they come.
When you see a team underachieving -- as WAR suggests the Cardinals are underachieving -- the first place to look is at the one-run record. That usually tells a big part of the story. As Bill James has written many times, baseball people often point to one-run record as the difference between good and bad teams, but the reality is probably the exact opposite. Blowout records tell you the real difference between good and bad teams.
• The Cardinals are 27-12 in blowout games.
• The San Diego Padres are 14-20 in blowout games.
The Cardinals are a good team. The Padres are not.
But if you look at one-run games, the Padres have a significantly better record (17-17) then the Cardinals (14-21). This is probably not because the Padres are better at doing the little things or are puffed up with a little more gamer power but more likely because one-run games are, by their nature, toss-ups and the lesser team is more likely to win a tossup than go out and blow out a better team.
The Cardinals have the best offense in the National League, even without Albert Pujols, and if they are in the playoffs they have to be considered a serious threat because there is no dominant team in the National League, and it's no fun going through the middle of that lineup with Matt Holliday and David Freese and Carlos Beltran and the suddenly staunch Yadi Molina. Maybe it was seeing the Cardinals pull off that crazy championship last year but it sure feels like these Cardinals could do it all over again.
* * *
Actual record: 68-60
WAR record: 60-68
Determination: Have way overachieved … which is why the last month is scary.
When you compare the WAR record to the actual record, Pittsburgh is the biggest overachiever in baseball. The Pirates have a winning record in one-run games (25-22) but to me that still would not fully explain why they are so wildly overachieving. Maybe it doesn’t need to be explained … only enjoyed.
But, of course, Pittsburgh overachieved for four months last year and then disappeared into the abyss and lost 90 games -- their 19th straight year with a losing record. And signs of such a collapse are frighteningly apparent again.
Last year, Pittsburgh went into August with a winning record and promptly went 8-22 in the month.
This year, Pittsburgh came into August with not only a winning record but they were 15 games over .500 … and they are 9-16 this month so far. All of it is better … but only by degrees.
I do believe Andrew McCutchen is having the best season in the league. His 5.8 WAR is second only to David Wright, but that WAR is assuming that he’s been a below replacement outfielder, something many would dispute. He’s such a good player and so much fun to watch, but it seems he still does fly well below the radar, and will until the Pirates finally break through and reach the postseason. It’s funny, you can watch pretty much every baseball game, but wonderful players in Pittsburgh and Kansas City and Seattle and San Diego and other places can simply not break through the general consciousness of the game. I remember when Carlos Beltran had his unbelievable postseason for the Astros, someone said to us Kansas City guys: “OK, but you didn’t know he could be THIS good.”
And we had to kind of shrug and say: Yeah, actually we did.
Actual record: 60-67
WAR record: 61-66
Determination: Looking for a direction.
One of the toughest challenges in sports, I think, comes after building and building your team up, reaching your peak, and then realizing that the peak is just not quite high enough. For five or so years, I loved what the Brewers were doing. They drafted and developed Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, as good a one-two punch as anywhere. This guy Corey Hart came out of nowhere, and Rickie Weeks looked like a potential star.
They had Ben Sheets, they showed some moxie by picking up C.C. Sabathia for a stretch run, they developed hard-throwing Yovani Gallardo, they traded for Zack Greinke … there was just stuff going on in Milwaukee.
And … they made it to the NLCS last year. Not quite high enough.
Now you look at the team, and it kind of has this feel of a picked over yard sale. Braun is still Braun, hitting as well as anybody in the league, but Fielder's gone and Greinke's gone and Gallardo is settling into a good but not necessarily great pitcher, and it's apparent that Rickie Weeks isn't going to be a star. Corey Hart is at first base and isn't quite as exciting as when he emerged. Longtime actors like Aramis Ramirez (who is having a nice year) and Cesar Izturis and Randy Wolf are part of the daily cast now. When you look at the Brewers team you see the value of the Red Sox trade from a fan's perspectives. Sometimes, even if it means taking several steps backward, you just want to blow everything up and start over and forget that your team wasn't quite good enough.
* * *
Actual record: 49-78
WAR record: 50-77
Determination: Theo wanted a challenge …
The Cubs are 15th in runs scored and 13th in runs allowed so it's hard to know where Theo Epstein should start.
I've had an argument for two years with a couple of friends about Starlin Castro. I was never a big fan. I WANT to be a fan because I want the Cubs to be good again. I like it when the Cubs are good. Chicago is better when the Cubs are good. My Cubs friends are happier when the Cubs are good, and one of my best friends, a huge Cardinals fan, is hilariously panicked and self-aware when the Cubs are good. I would love for Starlin Castro to become a great player -- he's only 22, it could happen -- and lead the Cubs back into contention, and if he does I will happily admit being wrong.
But … I don't see it. And I never did. He is a free swinger who strikes out a lot, hasn't shown much power, doesn't walk and isn't especially fast. This year, WAR suggests he's playing a very good shortstop, which does make me feel better about him because a couple of scouts I was talking to around the league weren't sure he could stick at shortstop.
Of course, Castro fans will tell you he will develop power, he hit .300 as a 20- and 21-year-old so he's obviously a good hitter, he's so young, he's been playing on a lousy team, he's been developing both on and off the field, he will emerge as a superstar. It could happen. I don't think it will. This is why it's so much fun. They don't know. And I don't know. We're all guessing.
* * *
Actual record: 40-88
WAR record: 44-84
Determination: Don't do it. Please … just don't.
Sure, part of me wants to see Roger Clemens pitch for the Astros. Part of me loves stunts like that. I wish I had seen Satchel Paige pitch for the Kansas City A's, and I wish I had seen Eddie Gaedel take four pitches, and I wish I had been there on Disco Demolition Night. I would love for an NFL team to run the option, just to see.
Something about Roger Clemens pitching again strikes me as something different from fun. There's little doubt in my mind that Clemens at 50 is STILL a better pitcher than most of the Astros, so it's not that I think he would embarrass himself.
But let's face it: the Astros would only want him for the attention, which is kind of pathetic. And Clemens would want to do it for reasons he and he alone would understand. The story goes that after Satchel Paige pitched three scoreless innings at age 58 (with the Red Sox dutifully going down in deference to the great man) he felt certain that he would get more opportunities to pitch in the big leagues and was mildly bitter when he did not.
I know that to a hopeless team going nowhere signing Clemens might sound like fun. But it strikes me as being potentially very sad.
* * *
National League West
Actual record: 71-57
WAR record: 67-61
Determination: It's all about the Melky.
We're messing with the physics of WAR a bit, but Melky Cabrera's WAR this year is 4.7. That means, in theory, that if the Giants had a replacement level player taking up Melky Cabrera's spot, the Giants would be five games worse -- 66-62. But it really could be worse than that because the Giants are overachieving against WAR*, so you could argue that the Giants would be nowhere in the standings had they not had the now-tainted Melky Cabrera.
*Their one-run record: 24-17.
Of course, such things are impossible to figure … just as it is impossible to figure how good Melky Cabrera would have been had he not used a banned substance. The only thing anyone can say for sure is that the Giants STILL got the better of the deal when they traded Jonathan Sanchez for Melky.
* * *
Actual record: 69-60
WAR record: 64-65
Determination: Things are looking up.
When the Red Sox "dumped" Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett on the Dodgers, I thought this was exactly the sort of trade desperate fantasy baseball owners try at the end of lost seasons. They try to dump their biggest name players on some team in exchange for some future consideration, like a hotshot Class AA prospect who might be a star next year. And inevitably this leads to a huge league-wide fight, with the commissioner needing to step in.
Because while Adrian Gonzalez might have been a toxic reminder of things gone wrong in Boston, in Los Angeles he might just be the incredible hitter he has been for most of his life. That trade (along with the Melky suspension) might have shifted the entire axis of power in the National League West. Of course, it might not work that way … but if I was the Giants, I would have gone to the commissioner and shouted, "Hey, they can't do that! Come on!"
* * *
Actual record: 64-65
WAR record: 65-64
Determination: Even Steven.
The last three teams in the NL West all have extreme parks. Arizona has an extreme hitters park, and this can fool people. It seems like the Diamondbacks are scoring enough runs -- they are a more-than-respectable fifth in the league in runs scored. But much of this is an illusion of ballpark. They have scored 76 more runs at home than on the road (326 to 250).
And, more to the point, their pitchers have ALLOWED 90 more runs at home -- which tells you those 76 runs are not worth enough. A run is simply not worth as much in Arizona as it is elsewhere. Three runs won't win you many games in Arizona, four runs won't either. The Arizona pitchers have a 4.56 ERA at home, but the Diamondbacks have a winning record.
Meanwhile, the Arizona pitchers have a rather sparkling looking 3.39 ERA on the road. But that is only good enough for a 31-33 record. Bill James got into this and it remains true: It's easy, when you have an extreme hitters park, to believe that your offense is better than it really is, and your pitching is worse than it really is. Arizona has scored more runs than anyone in the division except Colorado (which has an even more extreme hitter’s park). But the offense hasn't been good enough.
* * *
Actual record: 60-70
WAR record: 60-70
Determination: No pitching in a pitcher's park.
San Diego's story is very much the opposite of Arizona's. The Padres play in an extreme pitcher's park, which shields just how bad their starting pitching has been all year. At home, the Padres have a 3.11 ERA, which would tell you that they're pretty awesome. On the road, it's 4.66, which is abysmal.
Here's one for you: The Padres have walked 451 batters, most in the league. Logic suggests this shouldn't be so. When you have an extreme pitcher's park, like Petco Park, it seems you would just groove batting practice fastballs and hope for the best before you would give up free base after free base. But the reality is the reality … the Padres (led by Edinson Volquez, who has a shot to be the first pitcher since 2004 to walk more than 115 in a season) walk about as many at home as on the road.
* * *
Actual record: 52-75
WAR record: 57-70
Determination: No hitting in a hitter's park.
And finally, we have the greatest ballpark illusion of all. The Rockies are second in batting average, second in on-base percentage and first in slugging. They have scored the second-most runs in the league. Meanwhile, they have the worst ERA by far and are dead last in pretty much every pitching category including hits allowed and home runs allowed.
And yet … WAR tells you the Rockies are really not a good hitting team, not a good pitching team, and are terrible defensively.
Back to those home/road numbers. The Rockies have scored 63 percent of their 589 runs at home. They are hitting 50 points higher at home and slugging 100 points higher. Their offense is an illusion.
Same (to a lesser extent) with their pitching. The Rockies have allowed 61 percent of their runs at home. The league hits .306 and slugs .509 against them at Coors Field. It's a somewhat less extreme .266 and .433 on the road.
This is not to say that the Rockies pitching is good enough. It's clearly not. But it might be tempting for the Rockies to decide that their offense is FINE -- after all, they score the second most runs in the league -- and just working on their pitching this offseason. I don't think that plan would work.