Selecting MLB's Biggest 'WAR' Heroes, Position by Position

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterMay 17, 2014

Selecting MLB's Biggest 'WAR' Heroes, Position by Position

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    Any discussion of WAR in baseball has to include Mike Trout, but his center field position is loaded with talent.
    Any discussion of WAR in baseball has to include Mike Trout, but his center field position is loaded with talent.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Baseball is a game of inches. It's also a game of numbers and statistics, and one of the primary metrics used to measure and evaluate player performance is wins above replacement—or WAR for short.

    While WAR has its fair share of critics and certainly isn't a be-all, end-all statistic, there are plenty of reasons it has become arguably baseball's go-to metric in recent years. The biggest one? WAR allows us to roll all aspects of the sport—hitting, baserunning, defense and pitching—into one easy-to-use figure in order to compare players across positions, leagues and eras.

    To prove that WAR actually does a pretty good job of telling us who's better and who's best, we highlighted the leaders in the statistic at each position dating back to the start of the 2013 season, according to Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, the primary providers of the metric. Beyond the top spot at every position, there are a few honorable mentions along the way, too.

    Because when it comes to WAR, or any statistic for that matter, not everything is cut and dry.

    Statistics come from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, except where otherwise noted. WAR totals are accurate as of Friday, May 18. In cases where a player has played multiple positions, he is listed at the one where he's spent the most time across the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

Catcher: Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Baseball-Reference WAR: 7.2

    FanGraphs WAR: 7.0

    It took a while for Yadier Molina to become a great major league hitter, but he's been among the best—if not the best—defensive catchers in the game since, like, forever.

    In addition to his soft hands, quick feet and rocket arm (see video of him throwing out speedster Emilio Bonifacio this year), Molina's know-how behind the dish has helped guide and lead one of the most consistent pitching staffs around for the better part of a decade.

    The 31-year-old now owns a career triple-slash line of .285/.339/.406 and five straight All-Star appearances to go along with his six consecutive Gold Glove awards—all of which have made him a bonafide MVP candidate who finished in the top five in voting in 2012 and 2013.

    Honorable Mentions: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants (6.8 bWAR/6.2 fWAR); Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals (5.8 bWAR/5.0 fWAR); Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins* (5.7 bWAR/5.6 fWAR)

    *No longer a catcher, but he deserves mention here.

First Base: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Baseball-Reference WAR: 8.7

    FanGraphs WAR: 7.7

    In some ways, Paul Goldschmidt is like the inverse of Molina in that he's hit since day one in the bigs but has had to make himself into a better defender upon his arrival.

    This is a 26-year-old with a .293 average, .375 on-base percentage and .519 slugging since he debuted in August of 2011 and whose breakout 2012 season was only a tip-of-the-iceberg performance leading up to an incredible 2013 that nearly won Goldschmidt the NL MVP. He's doing more of the same this year.

    The fact that he's become a strong defensive player (Gold Glove last year and 13 defensive runs saved across 2013-14) and a capable base stealer—he swiped at least 15 bases the past two years—only helps Goldy add value and distinguish himself from the first base pack in WAR.

    (It should be noted here: Miguel Cabrera would have squeaked out the top spot at first base based on the numbers, but the two-time reigning AL MVP registers at third base because he's played more games there since the start of 2013. If any player gets short shrifted based on positioning in this exercise, it's Miggy.)

    Honorable Mentions: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves (6.2 bWAR/5.8 fWAR); Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds (7.8 bWAR/7.1 fWAR); Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles (6.4 bWAR/6.8 fWAR)

Second Base: Robinson Cano, 2B, Seattle Mariners

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    Baseball-Reference WAR: 8.1

    FanGraphs WAR: 6.5

    Despite a slightly disappointing beginning to his career as a Mariner, if only in the power department (one homer), Robinson Cano remains baseball's top second baseman pretty handily, according to WAR.

    That might bring some argument from Boston Red Sox fans, who have their own great keystoner to tout, but Cano unquestionably has been the best offensive player at the position over the past several seasons. As mentioned, it's considered "slightly disappointing" that he's hitting .301 so far in 2014.

    The 31-year-old's exploits with the bat have been the main reason he's finished in the top six in MVP voting the past four years, but Cano's D is better than he often gets credit for, too. The former New York Yankees star has won a pair of Gold Gloves and possesses one of the best arms at the position. So what if he doesn't steal bases?

    Honorable Mentions: Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox (7.7 bWAR/6.5 fWAR); Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals* (6.5 bWAR/7.4 fWAR); Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays (6.2 bWAR/6.6 fWAR); Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians (6.3 bWAR/4.8 fWAR); Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies (5.1 bWAR/6.0 fWAR)

    *No longer a second baseman, but he deserves mention here.

Third Base: Josh Donaldson, Oakland Athletics

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    Baseball-Reference WAR: 10.9

    FanGraphs WAR: 9.6

    Surprise! Did you see this one coming? If not, then you haven't been paying close attention over the past season-plus. Over that time, Josh Donaldson has gone from no-name to breakout star to legitimate MVP candidate in true whirlwind fashion.

    The 28-year-old is sporting a .293/.375/.497 slash line since the start of 2013, and he's on pace for nearly 40 homers and 120 RBI this season. That would dwarf even his 24 and 93 from last year.

    Beyond that, Donaldson's among the very best in the field at the hot corner, where the former catcher's athleticism and reckless abandon allow him to get to balls other third basemen simply cannot. Just click on the video up top for a few examples.

    Honorable Mentions: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers* (8.6 bWAR/8.7 fWAR); Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays (7.5 bWAR/8.1 fWAR); Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles (6.1 bWAR/6.1 fWAR); David Wright, New York Mets (6.1 bWAR/6.4 fWAR); Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers (5.9 bWAR/5.3 fWAR)

    *No longer a third baseman, but he deserves mention here.

Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies

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    Baseball-Reference WAR: 9.4

    FanGraphs WAR: 9.1

    This one wasn't close, folks. Troy Tulowitzki is baseball's best all-around shortstop.

    Despite battling numerous injuries in his career, the 29-year-old has been pretty healthy of late, and that's allowed him to nearly double up the competition at the position in WAR. In fact, whether we're using Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs, Tulowitzki's lead in the stat is the largest of any position.

    That's what happens when a player is hitting .391/.497/.750 to start off this season.

    As wizardly as Andrelton Simmons is on defense, Tulo is pretty great with the glove himself. To wit, his 17 DRS is second among shortstops to Simmons' astounding 42 since the start of 2013. 

    Honorable Mentions: Simmons, Atlanta Braves (7.2 bWAR/5.3 fWAR); Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers (5.8 bWAR/5.7 fWAR)

Left Field: Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Baseball-Reference WAR: 6.6

    FanGraphs WAR: 5.6

    Some might have expected to see Tulo's teammate, Carlos Gonzalez, here, but the Rockies slugger has missed a little too much time on the disabled list to take the WAR crown at this position. As such, it's worn by Starling Marte, who essentially is a center fielder playing left field while possessing the arm of a right fielder (video evidence above).

    The athletic, swift 25-year-old is aided by his fantastic defense—his 26 DRS in left ranks No. 2—which more than makes up for his flaws on offense. To that end, Marte's aggressive approach (4.8 percent walk rate for his career) has held his on-base percentage down to a tolerable .338 since the start of last year.

    Marte's a good, not great, player, but he benefits from a lack of elite (and healthy) company out in left field.

    Honorable Mentions: Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals (5.2 bWAR/4.5 fWAR); Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies (4.5 bWAR/4.9 fWAR)

Center Field: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Baseball-Reference WAR: 11.5

    FanGraphs WAR: 13.0

    As if it could possibly be anyone else. Despite being widely accepted as the sport's best player, Mike Trout actually had some heady competition here. That's how darn deep and glorious the center field position is today.

    Still, the 22-year-old's career is off to a historic start with two straight MVP runner-up campaigns. Whether it's playing good defense at a premium up-the-middle position, hitting for average (.309 BA career) or power (.542 SLG), getting on base (.399) or stealing them (91 for 103), Trout does a little of everything—check that, a lot of everything.

    The choice is Trout, and that's no slight to these very honorable mentions.

    Honorable Mentions: Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates (10.2 bWAR/10.1 fWAR); Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee Brewers (10.7 bWAR/9.4 fWAR)

Right Field: Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Baseball-Reference WAR: 6.8

    FanGraphs WAR: 6.0

    This final position is loaded with talent, so fittingly enough, this call was the closest of all. You might say this battle was a real WAR. (That is, if you were into bad puns.)

    The choice could just as easily be Jose Bautista, the Toronto Blue Jays slugger who missed the end of 2013 with injury, but Yasiel Puig gets the edge here—barely—because his game is a little more well-rounded. While he's made his share of mistakes, Puig is a bigger threat on the bases and has been a better defender. And that's what WAR is all about.

    Don't forget, either: The 23-year-old Cuban sensation-slash-lightning rod has racked up the highest total in this cumulative statistic despite not debuting in the majors until early June last year.

    Now go ahead and debate the choice of Puig—everything else about the man is divisive—or any of the other positions in the comments. 

    Honorable Mentions: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays (6.0 bWAR/6.3 fWAR); Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants (5.0 bWAR/6.7 fWAR); Shane Victorino, Boston Red Sox (6.3 bWAR/5.8 fWAR); Jayson Werth, Washington Nationals (5.6 bWAR/5.5 fWAR); Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins (5.3 bWAR/4.8 fWAR); Jayson Heyward, Atlanta Braves (5.1 bWAR/4.9 fWAR)

    To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11