In 2018, WAR is everywhere. Love it or hate it, the wins above replacement metric has changed the way we evaluate Major League Baseball players. WAR is an attempt to encapsulate all tangible aspects of a player’s value into one number. It allows for all players throughout MLB history to be compared on a single scale. It’s a grand idea that has firmly taken root.
Whether it’s fans, baseball writers, agents, or executives, just about everyone citing WAR understands the general idea. But I’ve long wondered how many of us are capable of pulling open a spreadsheet and accurately calculating WAR, with a reasonable understanding of each component. Furthermore, how many can explain the limitations of the current WAR calculation? And do we understand which subjective choices were made to get to the current formula?
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write this series. I’m a reasonable candidate: I’m not bad with numbers, nor am I especially talented. I know my way around Excel, but I’m not an expert. If I run into roadblocks as I try to understand WAR, perhaps you will too. If not, hopefully you can help educate me in the comments section. Let’s crack open the hood and attempt to understand WAR from a layman’s perspective.
As you might imagine, the WAR calculation differs for position players and pitchers. Plus, major sites like FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Prospectus have different formulas. For this exercise, I’m going to dig into FanGraphs WAR. That’s the version we use here at MLBTR. I don’t have any evidence of this, but I feel that FanGraphs WAR might be the most commonly cited version. Otherwise, I don’t have any justification as to why MLBTR should cite FanGraphs WAR and not someone else’s. By the end of this project I hope to have a clear understanding of the differences.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll begin this exercise by examining position players. From what I understand, there is a little more room for subjectivity in the pitching formula, so we’ll leave that discussion for later. I’ll approach the subject by utilizing a case study, as that will keep us grounded in reality. I’ll attempt to see how if I can reasonably arrive at the known WAR figure that was compiled, examining lessons that arise along the way.
So, here’s a quick preview of what’s coming. Our preliminary subject will be the 2017 season of Chris Taylor of the Dodgers. It’s an interesting year to look at, as he racked up an impressive 4.8 WAR while making defensive contributions at five different positions. It’s easy to see that Taylor made positive contributions in offense, defense, and baserunning. We’ll examine each of the three components in separate installments, beginning next time with Taylor’s work at the plate.
I hope that this exercise will offer plenty of opportunities for dialogue on a notable, sometimes misunderstood subject. I’m looking forward to plenty of respectful debate along the way.