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The Curious case of WAR

1 September 2014 By Jonathan Munshaw, Editor-in-Chief No Comments

What is WAR good for? This semester, I’m reading “WAR and Peace.” All’s fair in love and WAR. An act of WAR. Did you see “WAR of the Worlds” yet?
OK, that’s enough wins above replacement puns for the time being, so let’s get to the good stuff. For the uninitiated, WAR in sabermetrics — advanced statistics in baseball — is actually a relatively simple concept on its surface.

The baseball website Fangraphs defines WAR as, “an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic.”

For position players, it means taking into account how that player hits, fields and runs the bases, and then the position that they play, so all the fielders are on an even playing field — if you will.

For pitchers, it mainly takes into account the main pitching statistics and their overall ability.

WAR is now seen as the top statistic in baseball for player evaluation. Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera are generally seen as the two best players in baseball because of their WAR, but my money is on Trout.

Unfortunately, there’s no one standard equation for WAR, and each major baseball website has their own way of finding it.

I prefer Fangraphs for all of my statistical baseball needs, and they use a number of things, including weighted runs above average, ultimate base running, weighted stolen bases and ultimate zone rating (a defensive statistic that uses throw-outs, double plays and errors), to produce WAR.

The final WAR number is produced for batters by putting together their batting numbers, fielding numbers, how difficult their position is, what the average replacement player in the MLB does and then finding out how many average runs are needed to win a baseball game that year.

For pitchers, it mainly deals with fielding independent pitching (which adjusts a pitcher’s ERA as if they all had the same average fielders), what the average replacement pitcher does and where the pitchers are playing (is their home field a pitcher’s or a hitter’s park?).

Baseball-Reference’s (bWAR) is about the same, but they are always making adjustments to the formula. For example, they just changed it in March 2013 to make sure there’s 1,000 WAR to go around the league.

Baseball Prospectus also has a similar stat called wins above replacement player (WARP), which uses a higher replacement level than the WAR numbers at Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.

So, let’s put all of this in to context. I’ll use the Orioles as an example, since they are the team of choice for most of Towson.

Manny Machado is done for the year. Prior to his injury, Machado had a fWAR of 2.3, a bWAR of 2.3 and a WARP of 2.11. To compare, Adam Jones leads the team in fWAR with 4.5.

For the time being, Chris Davis has mainly been playing third for Baltimore in Machado’s absence.

He’s had a down year, posting a 0.0 fWAR, and a 1.5 bWAR. All-in-all, though, Machado was only worth about two wins more than Davis — at least for this season.

The other problem with WAR is that although it seems to be an objective number, some of the parts are actually subjective.

For example, for catchers, pitch framing is taken into account for catchers in WARP.

There still isn’t a reliable stat to measure pitch framing, because it’s entirely subjective.

Measuring fielding in all three versions of the stat can be tricky. Just like traditional scoring in a baseball game, 10 different people can watch the same infield ground ball that ends up in a hit, and three people might say it’s an error, and the other seven will credit the batter with a hit.

There used to be a time when RBIs were thought to be the most telling stat in baseball.

How do players do when they have the opportunity to score their teammates?

But over time, analysts realized that players’ RBI numbers could be inflated if they are on a very good team and have teammates who got on base often, while players on terrible teams would automatically have deflated RBIs.
The point? WAR is only going to improve. The great minds who come up with these formulas understand the game far more than I do, and their knowledge will only grow over time.
But for now, I hope you have a better understanding of how to look at WAR in baseball, and realize that in some cases, WAR can be the solution to a problem.

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