Which New-Age MLB Statistic Should Go Mainstream After WAR?
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Some love it and some hate it, but what's true either way is that Major League Baseball fans can't escape WAR.
Thanks to its starring role in the 2012 American League MVP race and recent widely read articles by ESPN's Jim Caple and Baseball Prospectus' Sam Miller, WAR is on the tip of baseball fans' tongues like never before. I daresay WAR has gone mainstream, and that means...
The journey isn't totally complete, however. The next step involves WAR finding its way onto the backs of baseball cards (they still make those, right?) and onto stadium scoreboards next to batting average and ERA. WAR won't just be mainstream then. It will be a staple of the game, as it should be.
It shouldn't just be WAR that goes from being a sabermetric oddity to a staple of the game. Other sabermetric stats should follow the WARpath as well.
Of all the new-age stats that should go mainstream next, my nomination would be a little ditty called "Weighted On-Base Average." You can call it wOBA for short.
If you're familiar with sabermetrics, then you know what wOBA is and why it's so important. But by and large, I'm guessing I could go ask 10 baseball fans what wOBA is and probably as many as nine of them would have no idea. It's out there, but it's not out there like the way WAR now is.
Here's why it should be.
What Is wOBA?
If this is the first time you're hearing about wOBA, you've probably already guessed that it's some sort of offensive stat.
It is indeed, and the best way to think of it is as a more complex and much more accurate alternative to OPS, which has already gained mainstream acceptance as a superior measure of a hitter's overall skill than his batting average.
The entry for wOBA in FanGraphs' glossary of terms points out the problems with using OPS as a primary measuring stick. The on-base percentage part is fine, but not so much the slugging percentage part. Slugging percentage doesn't accurately measure the true values of different types of hits, and one slugging percentage point is not the same as one OBP point. Simply adding them together makes for crude mathematics.
What wOBA does, in the words of FanGraphs, is combine "all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value."
For FanGraphs, the "all the different aspects of hitting" consists of the following events: unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches, singles, doubles, triples and home runs. Baseball-Reference.com has a slightly different formula that includes stolen bases and caught-stealing into the equation. What both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com agree on is that errors needed to be rejected from Tom Tango's original formula in The Book, as those are things that batters have no control over.
The "weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value" part is where things get a little complicated, but FanGraphs' Dave Cameron summed it up best by writing that "every outcome has a specific run value that is proportional to other outcomes." A home run is worth more than a double and a lot more than a single, and so on.
The tricky part is that the actual values of the different events change each year, so a particular collection of outcomes (i.e. a hitter's key counting stats) aren't going to be worth the same one year as they would be the next. The annual changes in the values, which you can find on FanGraphs, are ever so slight, but the point is that they change all the same.
So those are the ingredients of wOBA. For FanGraphs, the preparation looks like this:
wOBA = (wBB×uBB + wHBP×HBP + w1B×1B + w2B×2B + w3B×3B + wHR×HR) / (AB + BB – IBB + SF + HBP)
For Baseball-Reference.com's version, you add stolen base and caught-stealing values after home runs. Other than that, it's the same.
Here's how FanGraphs' formula looks with some numbers added:
(0.691×49 + 0.722×3 + 0.884×121 + 1.257×40 + 1.593×0 + 2.058×44) / (622 + 66 – 17 + 6 + 3)
Do the math, and you get a final figure of .417. Because wOBA is set to the same scale as OBP, a wOBA of .417 would qualify a hitter as being very, very good.
In fact, that .417 mark was the highest wOBA of any hitter in the 2012 season. The numbers in the above equation belong to Miguel Cabrera, and so does that .417 wOBA. Thus, his wOBA agreed with the Triple Crown enthusiasts who argued that he was the best hitter in baseball last year.
And it makes sense that he would be, right? His .330 batting average wasn't the highest in baseball, but it was right there behind Buster Posey's .336 average. He didn't have the highest OBP in baseball, but his .393 OBP was good for sixth overall.
Elsewhere, Cabrera led all qualified hitters in slugging percentage and led baseball with 44 home runs, which wOBA likes a lot because of their high run values.
Granted, OPS also had Cabrera as baseball's most dangerous hitter in 2012. But lest you think wOBA can't tell us anything that OPS can't, it doesn't always agree with OPS.
For example, OPS had Edwin Encarnacion as the sixth-best hitter in baseball last year. wOBA had Prince Fielder in that spot, as it recognized the only real advantage Encarnacion had on Fielder was home run power. Indeed, a hitter who specializes in home runs shouldn't be valued over a player who specializes in everything.
If you came into this not knowing what wOBA was all about, well, there you go. More so than OPS, it's an all-inclusive offensive metric that accurately measures just how good hitters really are.
In and of itself, that's a good enough reason for wOBA to replace OPS on broadcast graphics and baseball cards. But there's more to it than that.
The Benefit of Knowing wOBA
The anti-WAR fans out there have a common complaint that is totally understandable. The critics understand what WAR is supposed to express, but it's hard to treat it as gospel because it's made out of mystery meat.
Fair enough, but here's a tip: One of those mystery meats happens to be wOBA.
Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com use a stat called "Weighted Runs Above Average," or wRAA, as a primary offensive batting metric when calculating WAR. Baseball-Reference.com uses a more complicated version, but the idea of it is the same either way.
As summed up by FanGraphs, wRAA "measures the number of offensive runs a player contributes to their team compared to the average player." It's another stat that can confirm that Cabrera was the best offensive player in baseball last year. He led baseball with a 57.3 wRAA.
That's because the key ingredient for determining wRAA is wOBA. Here's the formula:
wRAA = [(wOBA – league wOBA) / wOBA scale] × PA
"League wOBA" is just what it sounds like, and that's the league-average wOBA for the year in question. The "wOBA scale" is the wOBA scale coefficient, which varies from year to year just like the league-average wOBA.
Once you have your wRAA, you're basically a third of the way finished calculating a player's WAR using FanGraphs' methods. After that, you just need to factor in base running value and fielding value and then make a few adjustments, and you're ready for WAR (so much pun, you guys).
So if you're baffled and/or on the fence about WAR, you can put yourself on a path toward accepting it by getting to know wOBA. Once you know it, you'll know how hitters are being judged, and that will make WAR less of an alien concept.
A Few More Stats to Consider
That WAR has become so mainstream is a victory for the sabermetrics community. If wOBA one day supplants OPS as the go-to offensive stat, the sabermetrics community will have scored another victory.
Sabermetricians will be able to celebrate a few more victories if a few other stats find their way into the mainstream as well. Such as...
Ultimate Base Running
One day, somebody decided to come up with a sort of ultimate base running statistic and, fittingly, called it Ultimate Base Running.
UBR is the base running component of FanGraphs' WAR calculation. It's not the easiest stat to explain, but the best way to think of it is as a stat that quantifies all the base running plays that get taken for granted. It looks at situations where runners get opportunities to take extra bases, stay out of double plays, tag up on fly balls and so on. UBR looks at how runners performed in these situations and assigns them positive and negative credit accordingly.
We still tend to think of great baserunners as the guys who steal bases. This stat shows there's a lot more to it than that.
Ultimate Zone Rating
Ultimate Zone Rating has been around for a while and has gained some mainstream acceptance, but I'll speak for myself and say that I've come across plenty of commenters who want nothing to do with it. They're usually Derek Jeter fans.
I'll just repeat what's already been said a million times before, and that's that judging fielders based on their errors and fielding percentage is foolish. They deserve a stat that judges them for both good and poor play, rather than just poor play.
UZR is one of a couple stats that attempts to quantify fielders' skills by measuring them in terms of runs above or below average (zero). FanGraphs prefers UZR as a fielding component when calculating WAR.
The other stat that attempts to do this is...
Defensive Runs Saved
Discussions about defense shouldn't start and end with UZR. It's a good idea to reference Defensive Runs Saved as well.
DRS comes from Baseball Info Solutions, and it does pretty much the same thing as UZR in that it measures a fielder's skill in terms of runs above or below average. It plays a part in Baseball-Reference.com's calculation of WAR for position players.
UZR and DRS are calculated differently, but they tend to agree on who the really good fielders are and who the really bad fielders are. For example, they both agreed that Jason Heyward and Michael Bourn were awesome on defense in 2012 (see FanGraphs). Likewise, they both agreed that Curtis Granderson and Rickie Weeks were awful.
When UZR and DRS agree, that's when you can make definitive statements about a player's defense. That's something that should never be done using only fielding percentage.
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