WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is today's go-to statistic used to determine just how much value a player brings to a team's win-loss record. Admittedly, it still confuses me, and not just because there isn't one universal formula used for its calculation. It's the basic premise that I find baffling; WAR is designed to measure the disparity between a given player and a "replacement-level" player, the latter of which, as Baseball Reference clarifies, is not meant to be interpreted as "average."
Replacement-level players are typically minor leaguers, non-roster invitees or life-long bench guys—essentially, they are worse than average. The rationale, according to Baseball Reference, dictates that average players are generally more difficult to acquire (read: rarer) and therefore make less sense to use as a basis of comparison. That's solid reasoning...except that if we're talking about Major League Baseball, it's also true that some teams are less likely to use replacement-level players when a starter goes down.
Hello, my name is Corey and I'm a fan of the New York Yankees.
I've watched my fair share of Yankees games, and I've witnessed my team endure some potentially devastating injuries over the years. And sure, I can name a few times when a so-called "replacement-level" player was used for a significant number of games; Cody Ransom comes to mind, as does Erick Almonte.
But more often than not, the Yankees cover their bruises with dollar bills.
Gary Sheffield hurts his wrist? Let's go get Bobby Abreu (2006).
Jorge Posada needs season-ending surgery? Okay, go trade for Ivan Rodriguez (2008).
Of course, there's also that guy the Yankees acquired after Aaron Boone messed up his knee playing pick-up basketball. Boone must have had the shortest tenure as Hero of New York since Alfonso Soriano hit that go-ahead home run in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.
(Side note: I know this sounds snotty and/or ungrateful. That comes from the part of being a Yankees fan when every other team's fans whine about how you buy all the best players, or once-best players as the case may be, and you realize they're right. And you hate them for being right. But you also kind of wish your team didn't always make them right.)
(Addendum to that side note: I hope that made sense. I intentionally sped through that paragraph because that feeling is a difficult one to admit, though my baseball therapist tells me it's important to share these things.)
Now, I understand that WAR, by using a common basis for comparison (albeit a basis that still seems insufficiently defined), allows us to quantify just how much more valuable, say, Albert Pujols (3.7 WAR) is than Lyle Overbay (0.2).
But, as I understand it, that's not the primary reason for WAR's existence. (Feels like that's a spot for either political commentary or an Edwin Starr shout-out, doesn't it?)
Once again referring to Baseball Reference, "The idea behind the WAR framework is that we want to know how much better a player is than what a team would typically have to replace that player." To me, that kind of measurement should factor in the team resources of the player in question.
The player the Yankees "typically" have to replace one of their guys is different than the player the Pittsburgh Pirates have to replace one of theirs. Of course, that would also mean that each original player (i.e. Alex Rodriguez) is less valuable, given that his replacement would be of a higher caliber. And that might make sense.
Again, I'm no sabermetrician, but I wanted to use WAR and the idea of "replacement players" as an entry point to shed some light on the Yankees' season. I'll be honest, the Bombers' recent skid (roughly .500 over the past month) is not entirely unexpected. This team is flawed. The starting pitching screams "inconsistent" and dry hitting spells always seem to become contagious (remember the series in Oakland?).
And let's not forget, these guys are old. I'll always root for Derek Jeter, but let's be real here—he's exceeding most expectations. (Or maybe he just had his kinks worked out.)
Of course, the Yankees have also had some help from their underachieving American League East foes. (Although, I'm personally a believer in the Baltimore Orioles.) But the biggest sources of relief have also been the most unexpected.
If I had told you that any team would play most of the season without its leadoff hitter and lights-out closer, and would lose its cleanup hitter for up to two months, how would you like its chances?
That's what the Yankees have contended with, as Brett Gardner and Mariano Rivera have essentially been sidelined for all of 2012, and Alex Rodriguez recently broke his hand. Again, to be fair, these are the Yankees—they can recover from losses like these easier than most. But the Yankees didn't make any major deals to compensate for these injuries (although now I suppose you can say Ichiro Suzuki is here to be Brett Gardner-lite, as weird as that sounds). The primary players who have been filling in were already on the roster, albeit with lesser roles in mind, at the beginning of the season.
Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez and Rafael Soriano have undoubtedly kept the Yankees afloat.
Yes, it's especially easy to say this about Chavez after he just wrecked Detroit Tigers pitching the last four days and won Thursday's contest with his go-ahead solo home run in the eighth inning. But he's been a steady replacement for the increasingly average A-Rod, so much so that their WAR values are only separated by 0.3 (1.5 versus 1.2). And Chavez has almost 200 fewer plate appearances. Throw in his still-solid glove at third base, and two months without Rodriguez suddenly doesn't seem insurmountable.
Who has made the biggest contribution this season?
(Also, I know this shouldn't count for anything, but Eric Chavez seems like a legitimately good guy. And I'm not even saying that with post-game interviews in mind; the look on his face as he saw impending plunkage was one of genuine concern and remorse, even as announcers and fans alike responded with chuckles. In related news, I'm sometimes easily won over.)
As for Ibanez, what can I say? I truly thought the signing was horrible, or as horrible as one-year, $1.1 million deals go, before the season began. I thought he'd be cut by May. But four-plus months into the season, who's third on the team with a .498 slugging percentage? Mr. Ibanez. (By the way, Chavez is second with .511.)
I guess it's not fair to mention him without the other half of the left-field platoon, Andruw Jones. (Though "half" is used somewhat lightly here.) Still armed with the same powerful swing and killer smile he had as a 19-year-old World Series foe of the Yankees, Jones has transitioned well into a reliable bat off the bench and starter against lefties.
His career path has taken such unexpectedly weird turns—seriously, look up his numbers with the Braves, and then remember what he was like in center field— that it's strange to accept him in this role, but after awhile it doesn't feel weird anymore. Kind of like watching Ashton Kutcher in Two and a Half Men. (Not that I watch that show or anything.)
Soriano should be the least surprising "replacement," as he was brought to New York with previous closing experience. But his performance so far may be the most important, for the sake of sheer stability.
Losing Mariano Rivera could have been potentially disastrous, if only because of the unpredictable cause of his absence. That is to say, the Yankees have known that Rivera wouldn't always be there to shut the door, but they probably figured they would have time (like, a post-retirement offseason) to adjust, both mentally and structurally.
So the fact that they had Soriano, who wasn't even the first option to take Rivera's reins (remember, David Robertson filled in initially, and Soriano took over when Robertson got hurt) was especially valuable. Who's calling that three-year, $35 million contract ridiculous now? (Okay, probably still a few people.)
Sure, we could point to Jeter's resurgent season, Curtis Granderson's pursuit of the single-season solo home run record and the dynamic bullpen duo of Clay Rapada and Cody Eppley (known collectively before this year as "Who?") as reasons the Yankees are in first place here in the second week of August.
But the fact that the Yankees have been able to minimize the effects of their injuries has been the difference. Nothing is more demoralizing than when a key player goes down. (Just ask the Boston Red Sox.) Chavez, Ibanez and Soriano have made sure the Yankees don't skip a beat.