This is the fifth in an ongoing series about understanding advanced statistics in baseball. Each volume will take an advanced stat, explain it, and contextualize it in the hope that the basic fan can better understand the numbers that drive the game today.
For generations, the greatest players were measured by simple numbers. Ty Cobb’s career .367 batting average made him the best contact hitter ever, right? Don’t forget about Pete Rose’s 4,256 career hits though. Hank Aaron and his 756 Home Runs were the gold standard of consistent power hitting, and put him by default into the “greatest outfielder ever” conversation. What about Willie Mays though? He had the speed and Glove that Hammerin’ Hank never did. Does that make him better?
For a sport built on the cold, hard, objectivity of statistical measurements, there’s an awful lot of debate on who’s better. Did defense matter? Are stolen bases really the only metric that matters when it comes to base running? As these questions continued to simmer, the need for an all-encompassing metric to measure a players overall performance was needed. That’s where we get Wins Above Replacement… WAR for short.
What Is it?
WAR isn’t a metric in it of itself, but more of a composition of several different measurements that quantifies a players complete performance on the field, and how that contributes (or detracts from) his teams overall performance. Every player starts at 0 WAR, which is generally regarded as “replacement level”. Fangraphs does a pretty good job at defining what that means here:
“If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a freely available minor leaguer or a AAAA player from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?”
For those wondering, a “AAAA player” is a common referral to a player who’s skill doesn’t necessarily warrant a major league roster spot, but could fill in if needed. These players typically bounce between the AAA level and the Majors, hence the term “AAAA” player.
As a player gains plate appearances, chances in the field, and opportunities on the base paths, the data for those events gets recorded, and then summed into WAR. Every negative event doesn’t necessarily mean they will cede ground on their WAR, as long as they excel enough in another metric to counter balance it. So what goes into this sabermetric cocktail? That’s complicated…
Fangraphs has one way of calculating it, (called fWAR), then Baseball Reference has another (called rWAR), and Baseball Prospectus decided to throw their hat in the ring with their version, called WARP…. See, totally not complicated.
See, WAR (or whatever variation you choose to accept) has become a bit of a flashpoint for those who shun the new school, analytically driven version of todays baseball. Not only from the obvious sources (no citation needed, just google Goose Gossage, baseball’s resident cloud yeller), but also from the likes of Bill James and others in the analytics community. There is yet to be much consensus on the number, how its calculated, and how truly accurate it is, unless of course, we’re talking about how great Mike Trout is.
Happy 28th birthday to Mike Trout!— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) August 7, 2019
No hitter in MLB history had more WAR in his first 27 years on the planet than Mike Trout pic.twitter.com/9wTtEHRzHH
So What Does it Tell Us?
What WAR tells us is how a player contributes to his team in total, relative to a readily available free agent, or minor league stand in. It gives fans and evaluators a way to look at a player and tangibly measure their value as a total performance from an elevated view, as opposed to having several different metrics that don’t tell the complete picture. Often times, WAR is your first stop (this player is really good, he’s worth adding and we’ll build around his weaknesses) or your last stop (this player excels at one thing that compliments another player, but I need to make sure his weakness isn’t too much of a drag on the team) when evaluating a player, and requires large sample sizes to get the most accurate number. For this reason, WAR is more commonly used to measure a players career more so than an individual season or specific stretch of time. For many learning about saber metrics or just wanting to understand the numbers driving todays game, Wins Above Replacement is a good number to know, but it can be extremely difficult to truly understand without getting too far into the weeds.
It’s like Gumbo: Just enjoy the dish, don’t get too caught up in what the ingredients are.
So Who’s the Best at it?
Babe Ruth: 182.4 rWAR
For as little consensus as there is on this number, we can all agree that the Babe reigns supreme. This is aided by the fact that he was not only one of the greatest hitters of all time, but he supplemented that with being an elite-level pitcher at the same time. Two way players are almost a thing of the past, and Ruth has amassed such a lead (Even Barry Bonds would have needed two more MVP caliber seasons to even catch up to the Babe) that it’s hard to imagine anyone even coming close to challenging the Sultan of Swat for his WAR title…
Well, almost anyone..