Every now and then I get an idea for a post, but for one reason or another I delay writing it and then someone else writes the same thing. I hate when that happens; I do not want to be accused of stealing someone else’s idea. Well, I wanted to write (again!) about the uselessness of sabermetrics, specifically about WAR. But Jeff Passan over at Yahoo! Sports beat me to it. He even used a couple of the same examples I was going to use. Undeterred, I am writing it anyway. And I did not steal anything from him!
For the uninitiated on uninterested, WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. It is an overly complicated amalgam of statistics that supposedly tells how many more wins a particular player gives a team over some imaginary replacement player. Two otherwise fine websites, Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, each has its own formula; a VHS vs. Beta battle will likely someday determine which formula will be used going forward.
WAR consists of two parts — offense and defense. And this is where the trouble comes in. Our own Juan Lagares is currently eighth in the National League in WAR at 5.4. So the WAR folks are basically saying that Lagares is the eighth most valuable player in the league. He ranks above such stars as Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt and Yasiel Puig. Is there anyone in the world who would not trade Lagares for any of those players?
Of course, Lagares has such a high WAR because of his spectacular defense — his 3.5 Defensive WAR (dWAR) is the highest in all of baseball. His Offense WAR (oWAR) is just 2.1. There is more to WAR than just adding offense and defense (I’m not exactly sure what, though), but defense obviously plays a big role in determining the overall number.
The WAR leader in the NL is currently Jason Heyward at 6.6. His dWAR is an apparently impressive 3.1 while his oWAR is 2.8. Heyward has been among the WAR leaders all season, even though his bat was almost non-existent over the first half of the season.
At the same time, Heyward’s teammate Freddie Freeman was putting up solid numbers but his WAR was way down. It seems Freeman is not a very good defensive first baseman. His dWAR is currently -1.6. So he is allegedly costing his team games in the field. His oWAR is 3.9 for a total WAR of 3.3.
So according to this, Heyward is twice as valuable to the Braves than Freeman. What is the Braves opinion on this? Well, in the off-season they signed Heyward to a two-year, $13.3 million contract. The very next day they gave Freeman $135 million over eight years. You tell me if they value Heyward’s glove over Freeman’s bat.
Now, of course defense is important. But the days of no-hit, all-field players are over. If Juan Lagares were hitting .180, he would not be playing every day regardless of his fielding acumen. If that were the case, Rey Ordonez would still be playing! The old adage is “if you can hit, they’ll find a place for you” (cough, cough Daniel Murphy). So to judge offense and defense almost equally is not reflecting the current state of baseball’s values.
One simple solution is not to have WAR at all. Not scrap it entirely (although I would), but to have separate offense and defense WARs, as they currently do, but just do not combine them. That way, people who may not be familiar with Juan Lagares would not say, “who is this guy and why is his WAR so high?” There would be separate categories so those people would say, “oh, I guess this Lagares guy is a good fielder.”
I think people are putting too much emphasis on WAR. While it might be a good tool to find value in overlooked players, perhaps it gives too much credit to players who really are not worthy.
Need more proof? Okay, who leads Dodgers position players in WAR? Puig? Adrian Gonzalez? Hanley Ramirez? Matt Kemp? No, that would be Justin Turner.