What does wins above replacement mean in baseball ? The baseball world has undergone a revolution, one that has taken place over the past few decades. It has transformed how many view the game. And although no metric can completely quantify the game as a whole, those in and around baseball now have better ways to break down what’s happening and what might happen next.
In addition to batting average, RBIs, pitcher wins and ERA, some advanced metrics — fWAR, wRC+, BABIP, FIP, OOA, wOBA and so many others — give us a more complete picture of what’s going on or why something happened. It isn’t just to replace the “eye test” or scouting, but it is to be layered on top of everything else, sort of like a blue print.
And why is it so important for these metrics to appear in our coverage, in addition to being able to tell more of the story and in more accurate ways?
That’s simple: because teams are using advanced metrics as a part of their decision making, whether it comes to player evaluation as a whole, free agency, trade decisions or the draft. Anything and everything. And since teams have rolled analytical ways of evaluating players into their decision-making, it is imperative that the coverage of those teams reflect that.
Otherwise, readers and listeners are being left out on key aspects that evaluate how teams are operating in this modern age of baseball. Pitcher wins and RBIs leave a lot of context on the table if they are being used to evaluate players against one another.
What is Wins Above Replacement (WAR)?
Wins Above Replacement aims to measure a player’s value to his team in all facets of the game by citing how many additional wins he’d be worth over a replacement-level player, meaning a minor league or readily available free agent fill-in.
So if a player has 4.5 wins in a given season, that means he was worth an extra 4.5 wins to his team over what a replacement-level player would done production-wise. An All-Star caliber player tends to be around, at least, 3-6 WAR in a given season. Once you get over 6 WAR for a single season, and especially once 7 or 8 WAR are eclipsed, you’re probably talking about an MVP candidate.
For position players, batting, base-running and fielding are all components. It is then adjusted for position and league trends that year, making it easier to compare a particular second baseman’s value in 2022 with a specific left fielder in 2016. Pitchers also have their calculations adjusted for league trends and ballpark factors.
What is WAR? How is it determined?
WAR stands for “wins above replacement” and it attempts to measure a player’s overall value to a team by positing how many wins he is worth when compared to a replacement-level player.
It is a complex system which is calculated differently for each defensive position. For example, for a shortstop and a first baseman with the same offensive numbers, the WAR would be higher for the shortstop because a replacement-level shortstop would have a lower level of production than his compatriot at first.
(batting, base running and fielding + adjustment for position + adjustment for league + the number of runs provided by a replacement-level player) / runs per win
Different WAR computations use either runs allowed per nine innings pitched or fielding independent pitching. Those numbers are adjusted for league and ballpark. Then, using league averages, the resulting numbers and his innings pitched total.
Unlike all other stats, which are either offensive or defensive stats, WAR attempts to posit a single number which can measure a player in the round.
This is the principal feature of WAR which the statisticians who evangelize about its virtues cite. It is also the main weakness of the statistic for its detractors.
Pure hitting or fielding stats focus on outcomes that have already happened; a strikeout, a base hit, a home run, a fielding error, a throwing error, etc. WAR, on the other hand, tries to synthesize other statistics to predict what may happen in the future. Also in attempting to find an adjustment figure that can level the field between various positions, WAR is forced to rely on a hypothetical replacement-level player, making the baseline effectively arbitrary.
WAR’s proponents will counter with the statement that no stat can be seen in a vacuum, that multiple areas must be taken into account, and since WAR does this, it is still the most reliable number that we have to measure a player’s overall contribution.
What Wins Above Replacement Actually Means
Given that JohnWallStreet is introducing this column to a new audience, and that it is the start of the Major League Baseball (MLB) season, I will use the next two editions of the Friday newsletter to explain what the ‘Revenue Above Replacement’ (RAR) metric means.
RAR is a play on Wins Above Replacement (WAR)–the most well-known advanced metric used in sports. The origins of WAR trace back to Bill James in the 1980s, but it was made famous by Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball (and even more famous by its blockbuster movie release in 2011).
To understand WAR, it is helpful to breakdown the metric into its two main component parts. Essentially, what does it mean to “win” and what exactly is a “replacement” player.
Most people’s intuitive sense of winning reflects what winning means in the context of WAR. Essentially, baseball teams win games by scoring more runs than the opponent. Players that can increase the number of runs scored for their team or decrease the number of runs scored for the opposing team have greater WAR values.
Excel Analytics has identified hitting, pitching, baserunning, and fielding as the variables with the highest correlations to winning. While we have created our own proprietary “Excel Wins” metric, which includes unique ways to calculate these winning variables, our base player win totals are often consistent with other WAR models created by FanGraphs (or fWAR) and Baseball Reference (or bWAR).
We will focus on hitting and pitching in this column given that those variables tend to have the most impact on runs scored and runs prevented, respectively.
One common long-time baseball mantra is that “a walk is as good as a hit.” Walks are a good outcome in WAR, but statistical analysis shows a walk is not as good as hit–at least certain types of hits.
Since a half inning only has three outs and an out is the most likely outcome of any at bat (i.e. the MLB batting average across all players was .243 last season), triples, and doubles are far more valuable than walks; the fewer at bats it takes to score runs the better.
Home runs are also valuable because there is no amount of fielding prowess than can cause an out (also true with walks). Better fielding teams or players can only prevent runs from being scored if the ball is in play.
There is also relatively little downside to a strikeout relative to any other type of “out” (i.e., an out is an out regardless of if it is a strikeout, a pop-up out, or a ground out).
That is primarily why home runs and strikeouts have generally increased (and batting averages generally decreased) with the increased usage of advanced analytics in baseball.
Hitting the ball harder tends to lead to more multi-base hits, even if not a home run.
So, players that can hit the ball harder (i.e. have a higher exit velocity) and are more likely to hit the ball in the air (i.e. have the right launch angle) are most likely to maximize the probability of runs scored.
The converse of this analysis is that the players that prevent the ball from being hit (and hit hard) are the most valuable. The pitchers that can throw the ball the hardest and have the most pitch movement are the ones most likely to generate strikeouts. Pitchers that prevent the ball from being put in play are also not reliant on fielders to make outs on their behalf.
Similar analysis can be done for baserunning and fielding. All the metrics are then combined to create a single value (WAR) that is focused on players either increasing their teams’ runs being scored or preventing opposing teams’ runs from being scored.
If we now understand winning, then what exactly is a “replacement” level player?
Essentially, economics dictate that teams should only pay above the MLB league minimum when a player generates performance greater than (or “above”) a player that can be acquired for the league minimum. The thinking is a team can almost always sign a Triple-A level minor league player to its roster that can perform at a “replacement” level and would “only” command a salary at or near the league minimum.
It may seem like a low threshold. But further analysis shows that is not the case. Minor league players are often the very best high school, college, or international players in the world not on an MLB roster.
Finding players better than those at a replacement level seems more difficult given that context and helps to explain why Fangraphs recently projected that teams pay between $6.5 million and $8.5 million more per win (i.e. the market value for wins), with the best players making on the higher end of the scale.
The Fangraphs piece specifically breaks players into groups of 2+ WAR and 0-2 WAR projections. That is because average (but still better than replacement) players typically generate 0-2 additional wins, good players generate 2-4 more wins, and very good players generate 4+ additional wins for their team.
Applying the Excel Wins measurement model across MLB players, Shohei Ohtani tops the list. That’s no surprise given that he was both one of the best hitters and best pitchers in MLB last season.
His 10.21 Excel Wins shows how good Ohtani was and how difficult it is for one player in baseball to help a team reach the postseason. Clubs typically need to win at least 85-90 games to make the MLB playoffs.
The other challenge with relying exclusively on WAR is that it typically undervalues a player’s contributions to the team from an economic perspective. More specifically, a player’s star power and ability to drive revenue for his team is not fully captured by his on-field performance.
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