Making the Case for WAR as Baseball's Most Perfect Statistic

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterMay 18, 2013

Mike Trout led MLB with a WAR of 10.0 in 2012 because he does everything, including playing defense, extremely well.
Mike Trout led MLB with a WAR of 10.0 in 2012 because he does everything, including playing defense, extremely well.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Who needs peace when we've got WAR?

Wins Above Replacement, that is.

With sites like Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus making all sorts of statistics easily accessible and readily available, there's no shortage of interesting, intriguing, intelligent—even fun—metrics to consider.

But in the battle to be baseball's best stat, WAR wins.

While the advanced metric may be a bit perplexing to some and certainly isn't as popular or widespread as ol' reliables like batting average, or runs batted in or even more new-age numbers like on-base percentage, WAR has it over all of them.

Here's why...

One Stat Fits All

The biggest notch in WAR's belt is that it's one of the few stats that actually encompasses all aspects of any and all player performance.

By comparison, on-base percentage (OBP) is an offense-only number.

Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), for instance, expresses solely how good a player is on defense.

Ultimate Baserunning Runs (UBR) meanwhile, measures a player's proficiency on the basepaths alone.

And Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) puts a pitcher's performance into context.

WAR, on the other hand, is one-stop shopping for rating baseball players in all of the above: offense, defense, baserunning and pitching.

The fine folks at FanGraphs explain it as well as anyone:

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. You should always use more than one metric at a time when evaluating players, but WAR is pretty darn all-inclusive and provides a handy reference point. WAR basically looks at a player and asks the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a minor leaguer or someone from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?” This value is expressed in a wins format, so we could say that Player X is worth +6.3 wins to their team while Player Y is only worth +3.5 wins.

A Unified WAR

While the two sources for WAR, FanGraphs (a.k.a. fWAR) and Baseball Reference (a.k.a., rWAR), previously had slightly different methods of calculation that caused frustration and confusion, there's now a unified replacement level, as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote back in March.

In other words, it's another win for WAR, as HardballTalk's Craig Calcaterra wrote:

[The separate methods] led to at least some confusion among more casual observers and led to a lot of potshots from the fans and the press looking to take issue with any stat more complicated than batting average. “Hey, why should we care about WAR if you guys can’t even agree what it is,” they would say...

Basically, baseball's best stat just got even better.

Don't Get Caught Up

The blank looks one gets while trying to explain Wins Above Replacement are understandable, because the metric inherently raises the question: "What the heck is replacement level?"

Here's a quick-and-dirty answer from Baseball Prospectus' Sam Miller, who wrote a piece on WAR for ESPN The Magazine's March issue:

A measure of the average production of a bench or minor league player who can be acquired freely at minimum cost. Used as the baseline for calculating WAR.

If that still leaves you scratching your head, the important thing is not to get caught up in the concept and construct of the statistic—if you want more on those aspects, though, feel free to click any of the links we've included to this point and read through. Instead, focus on how to use it.

What WAR Is Good For

This is where WAR really shines.

You see, WAR puts a number to the amount of wins a player adds to his team's win total, and well, what's a more basic stat than a "W?"

Let's put it in simple terms with a player everyone can agree is great: Ryan Braun.

In 2011, Braun posted a 7.3 WAR (per FanGraphs)—meaning he was worth seven wins more than a run-of-the-mill waiver-wire player or minor leaguer. That year, Braun ranked fifth-best in FanGraphs' WAR and second-best in the NL to Matt Kemp's 8.4.

You'll remember that the 2011 NL MVP race was a heated battle between—no real surprise here—Braun and Kemp, which Braun ultimately won in an extremely close vote.

Point being, regardless of which of the two you think the winner should have been, WAR pretty much told us who the top two players were.

Putting WAR in Context

So Kemp's 8.4 WAR and Braun's 7.3 WAR in 2011 were great, but let's put those numbers in context.

For this, once again, we'll turn to FanGraphs, which breaks down the general guidelines for what each range of WAR translates to in terms of performance in a single season:

That shows just how great Braun and Kemp were in 2011.

Comparisons Made Easy

Another reason WAR is fun—if you'll pardon the pun...and the rhyme?

"WAR is context, league, and park neutral. This means you can use WAR to compare players between years, leagues, and teams," as the FanGraphs glossary page points out.

Wanna know how great Mike Trout's rookie season was? Try all-time great: It was the 31st-best year ever at 10.0 WAR.

How about comparing two of the best center fielders in MLB history? In their careers, the Say Hey Kid was worth almost twice as many wins as The Kid.

Curious about where Justin Verlander—who's widely considered the best pitcher in the game—actually ranks among all active pitchers for his career? Try 12th-best and rising quickly.

We should point out here that WAR is a cumulative metric, both over the course of a single season and over a career, and Verlander has dozens or even hundreds of fewer career starts than the 11 hurlers ahead of him.

Not Perfect, But Pretty Close

So is WAR the perfect baseball statistic? Of course not.

There are so many aspects, layers and underlying statistics that get rolled into one single, solitary number—and depending on whether you use FanGraphs' WAR or Baseball Reference's WAR, even that one number is different for any given player in any given season or career.

Put another way: WAR is neat, but it isn't always tidy.

Still, the concept of Wins Above Replacement and all that goes into it—especially the metric itself—makes for a pretty remarkable stat.

If you were already familiar with WAR before reading this, then hopefully you learned something or at least appreciated the journey.

If you hadn't really paid attention to or even heard of WAR prior to this, well, here's hoping you'll at least do one thing going forward:

Give WAR a chance.


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