Have I mentioned WAR in this space before? I don’t think so. A few introductory words about Wins Above Replacement, then. For anyone who’s new to the subject.
I love WAR, the metric. I hate WAR, the acronym.
WAR the metric is designed to incorporate everything we’re able to measure and arrive at one number that tells us with some precision just how good a player has been. Not necessarily how valuable he’s been, mind you; that gets into arguments about clutch performance and team performance and other sticky issues. But rather how well he’s performed as a singular player, relative to what a replacement-level player — say, a bench player or a top minor leaguer — might have done.
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WAR the acronym is just terrible, maybe the worst thing anyone with good intentions has ever invented. It’s obviously an invitation to clichéd derision; the Edwin Starr references will outlive me. Also, war is hell and baseball isn’t. If someone had invented WAR for football, it would have made PERFECT sense. But as George Carlin so cannily observed, baseball isn’t football. Not by a long shot.
So I tried to come up with something else. Not a different metric. I’m not nearly so smart. Just a different name for the metric: Wins+. My initial idea was just a different name, anyway. I also toyed with the idea of adding the FanGraphs version of WAR (fWAR) and the Baseball-Reference.com version (bWAR) and dividing by two, since they sometimes disagree and nobody’s quite sure which makes more sense (at least on the hitting side; I’m a fan of FanGraphs’ version for pitchers, although I can see the counter-argument there, too).
Of course my silly little effort was half-hearted and doomed from the beginning. But like a lot of writers, I do enjoy the occasional windmill-tilting.
Anyway, I happen to bring all this up today because I’m going on the television next week to discuss WAR, and also because I happened to glance at a stats page today and found some strange numbers in the WAR column.
First, there was Charlie Blackmon. I’m going to wager that at least a few of you don’t know much about Blackmon, the Rockies’ primary center fielder. Can you picture Blackmon in your mind’s eye? I can’t. So here’s a visual aid for all of us:
Charlie Blackmon, ladies and gentlemen.
Yes, friends, there’s your Best Player in Baseball So Far in 2014, at least according to WAR.
Which is why we don’t really care about WAR in April. I don’t mean to suggest that Blackmon won’t or can’t have a good or even great season. Sometimes 27-year-old players will surprise the stuffing out of us. But there’s simply nothing in Blackmon’s professional history to make us think he’s an outstanding major-league hitter. What are you going to believe? Six years, or three-and-a-half weeks?
Eric Young is batting .224/.341/.289 this season … and ranks eighth in the majors in WAR, thanks to some killer fielding stats.
Jason Heyward is batting .198/.309/.296 this season … and ranks 11th in WAR, thanks to some killer fielding stats.
Granted, both Young and (especially) Heyward might be outstanding fielders, and defense does count. But unless you’re an Ozzie Smith-level shortstop or something, you can’t hit like that and rank among the best players in the majors. The math just doesn’t work.
At least not for a whole season. I suspect that Young and Heyward have just been fortunate enough to make a few extra plays out of their assigned areas; in April, that’s enough to skew the fielding metrics wildly.
That said, WAR in late April isn’t completely meaningless. Hey look, there’s Mike Trout atop the American League! There’s Josh Donaldson again! There’s Healthy Chase Utley and Healthy Giancarlo Stanton and All-Underrated Ben Zobrist and 2014 MVP Andrew McCutchen and oh by the way it looks like Melky Cabrera actually can hit.
It’s mostly meaningless, though. Not to mention sort of pointless. For the life of me, I can’t think of a practical use for seasonal WAR in April. In April, I’m a lot more interested in OPS, because in April the hitting stats are the only stats I’m going to trust much. The hitting stats will tell me that Charlie Blackmon’s on a tear, and the hitting stats will tell me B.J. Upton didn’t rediscover his swing since last October.
You know when WAR (or Wins+!) gets interesting? After the All-Star Game, when we start talking about MVP candidates. Then, everything’s fair game.