As a fan of MLB baseball for more than a half-century, it’s taken some time to buy into the analytics thing which rules baseball today. It doesn’t bother me; I just don’t pay much attention to all the hoopla and hype. But one stat has caught my eye in particular that has some juice. Thus, the subject of my column today is WAR.As an elder statesman following MLB for a half-century, I was born and raised as a fan of baseball attuned primarily to a player’s batting average as a measurement of his value to his team. After all, Ted Williams and his lifetime .344 average made it easy to distinguish the Hall of Famer from, just to pick someone, Luis Aparicio, (also a member of the HOF) and his .262 lifetime average.
Then, along came on-base percentage and Billy Beane Ball in Oakland and I said to myself, “Okay, that sounds reasonable,” so I began paying attention to OBP. Again, I didn’t need to be a genius to see that Ted Williams lifetime .482 OBP dwarfed all others.
But when the deluge of what has become know as analytics hit in the last six to ten years, and we were down to how many balls a batter hit to left center field on a one-two count, or how many times a pitcher threw a changeup to a right-handed hitter on a 3-1 count, I pretty much gave up.
I decided to dismiss the whole idea, at least as far as what stats I am going to seek out on a particular player or team during an MLB season. All the while realizing that GM’s like Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein, who make decisions on player personnel every day utilizing these obscure stats, is an integral and necessary part of MLB as we know it today.
Having said that, WAR (Wins Above Replacement) seems to stand above the rest, though. For those who are curious as to how the stat is arrived at, my research says FanGraphs does it best. But for all others like myself, let’s just dive into the numbers because, come to find out, the stat also translates into the value of a player regarding his salary. For example, every +1.0 on the WAR scale equates to eight million dollars on the yearly salary of a player. A player, for instance with a WAR rating of +3.5 is valued at $29 million per season.
With that, comes the inevitable and unenviable task of finger pointing at players who are robbing their team blind, versus the MLB players who have a right to be knocking on the door asking for more because they deserve more. Of which, there are many.
Jacob Shafer, writing for Bleacher Reports names names using FanGraphs as his primary source to uncover the ten worst WAR numbers in MLB in 2017. The list includes familiar names like Albert Pujols (-1.7), Mark Trumbo (-1.1), Jose Bautista (-0.3), Carlos Gonzalez (-0.4), Hanley Ramirez (-0.6), et al.. For the curious, you can check each player’s current salary status at Spotrac.com to see who’s been robbing the bank.
On the other end of the spectrum, here are the Top Ten WAR leaders in MLB for 2017:
To put this list in perspective, though, and there’s no need to get carried away with this, Aaron Judge should be drawing a salary of almost $50 million in 2018, according to the algorithm that has become accepted in MLB based on a player’s WAR. This, as opposed to the $640,000 Judge, will earn in his second full season with the Yankees.
So what we see is that any stat presented under the umbrella of MLB “analytics” needs to be taken with the caveat of “let the buyer beware,” because what you see isn’t always what you get.
And yet, if we are searching for a new stat as I am, equal to or better than the old formulas of batting average and on-base percentage, WAR represents the best we can get. Unless, of course, we wish to get bogged down as fans to become the general manager of a team who is compelled, and sometimes even required to dig deeper when attaching money to a player.
For most of us, when we see Jose Altuve, Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, and a host of others perform on a field at the MLB level, we “don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” as Bob Dylan reminded us many years ago. We feel it, and we know it, in just the same way we see a borderline MLB player struggling to make it in The Show.
Nevertheless, for the first time this season, I’ll be keeping a closer eye on the W.A.R. MLB stats, at least until the next wave comes along if it hasn’t already. For now, though, I’d just as soon not know about the new bells and whistles. I’d rather just watch the games and the season as it unfolds.