WAR, What is it Good For? Sabermetrically Speaking, Of Course

If you follow baseball, you’ve probably heard the term WAR. It’s the “comprehensive” statistic that’s taking over the sport and being used to give players a numerical “worth”. So what exactly is WAR? How does one calculate a “Win Above Replacement?” I’m going to do my best to explain to you why WAR is misused and misunderstood.

Let me start by saying that WAR is not a good indicator of how good a player is compared to another player. Let’s check out an example.

Statistic     Player A     Player B

BA                   .346              .290

OBP                .435              .391

SLG                 .675              .592

2B                     25                 26

3B                      1                   1

HR                    22                 25

BB                     42                 54

K                       41                  45

Runs                 74                  61

RBI                   44                  60

SB                     16                  19

wRC+               196                162

Runs Saved       5                   13

I hope you appreciate this table; it was very difficult to make, believe it or not. Anyway…

Both players are, without a doubt, having incredible seasons. I would say, however, that Player A is having a slightly better season due to his better power numbers, while sustaining such a high average and low K rate. Runs scored neutralizes RBIs and weighted runs created + neutralizes runs saved. However, we forgot about the most important stat of all…

Statistic      Player A      Player B

WAR                 5.7                  5.8

Wait what? Player A, if you didn’t know already, is Mookie Betts. Player B is Jose Ramirez. So what gives? How does Jose Ramirez have a higher WAR than Mookie Betts, given all those statistics? It’s quite simple, actually: The Indians are currently worse than the Red Sox.

The most important thing to remember with WAR is that it’s a team-specific statistic. Mookie Betts is extremely important to the Red Sox, but there are capable guys to pick up the slack if he goes down. Without Mookie, the Sox still have J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, and Mitch Moreland, all of whom have an OPS+ of over 130. They’re going to score runs.

On the flip side, the only player other than Ramirez with an OPS+ of over 130 is Francisco Lindor. That’s it. If Jose Ramirez goes down, the Tribe’s lineup is very mediocre.

So, good baseball folk, do we see why Ramirez has such a high WAR, despite deficiencies in certain areas compared to Mookie? It’s because he’s more valuable to his team. That is, in a nutshell, what WAR means.

You can go on and on and on about how Mike Trout is on pace to have the highest WAR in a single season ever, but does that mean he’s having the greatest season ever? No. It just means that he’s had the most profound effect on his team so far this season.

Proper Use

WAR should be used in contract negotiations, as well as creating “tiers” of players. It makes total sense for a player to argue his case for more money by saying “here’s what I’m worth to this team in terms of wins.” As a matter of fact, it’s the perfect statistic to use for this purpose, because between those two parties, that’s all that matters, right? A player worth five wins should certainly be paid more than a player worth fewer wins. As for creating tiers, it makes sense that a 6.0 WAR player is likely better than a 3.0 WAR player. However, a 4.0 WAR player and a 3.0 WAR player are likely similar in terms of talent and production. Better players will obviously have more of an effect on their teams, so it can certainly indicate whether a player is good or not.

When trying to compare players on different teams (and at different positions), leave WAR out of it. If you want an idea of how good a player is, look at his normal statistics. Look at his plate discipline numbers. Look at his Statcast numbers. Take the rest of his lineup out of the picture, and then evaluate him as a player. Don’t claim that substituting a 5.9 WAR player for a 5.1 WAR player is a brilliant move on behalf of the team’s analytics department, because in reality, those players are impossible to differentiate using WAR alone.

Thank you for reading my rant. While I love Mike Trout, I’m tired of hearing how many WAR he has and why that makes him the automatic league MVP. It’s just not that simple.

Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

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