Last Updated on January 16, 2019 by Luke Arkins
Baseball, like no other sport, relies upon statistics to recognize greatness. Even the casual fan recognizes the significance of milestones such as 3,000 hits, 500 and 600 home runs, and 300 pitching wins. Reaching these heights of statistical superiority places a player in exclusive company.
Fans aren’t the only users of these time-tested milestones. Nearly every baseball writer refers to statistics when discussing the players who merit inclusion into baseball’s Hall of Fame.
It doesn’t matter whether fans view Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds as the game’s all-time home run leader. The fact that that can easily identify one of these great players as the home run king demonstrates the love affair baseball fans and pundits have with records. In recent years, a new method of measuring performance has crept into the collective consciousness of baseball fans — sabermetrics.
As a Prospect Insider reader, you’re already familiar with these advanced metrics, which take an innovative approach to gauging performance — and value — on the diamond. A mainstream fan is most likely to hear about this new-age methodology during baseball broadcasts when on-air personalities note how sabermetrics have influenced defensive shifts, which are a by-product of clubs analyzing the specific tendencies of individual hitters.
Whether it’s the designated hitter, instant replay, or wild card berths, the introduction of something new into baseball is certain to lead to controversy and grumbling from the old guard. The same applies to sabermetrics. Not long ago, I noted the disdain that Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage directed at the new generation of executives who he derisively referred to as “nerds.”
Gossage feels that the new wave of front office personnel are ruining the game. He’s not a solitary voice in the proverbial wilderness when it comes to disparaging these “nerdy” stats. Plenty of fans and pundits — mostly of the older variety — prefer to stick with time-tested statistics such as batting average and runs batted in.
Not every “old guy” loathes the new-age stuff. I’m a Baby Boomer who happens to be well versed in historic milestones and, yet, comfortable with using advanced metrics in my Prospect Insider contributions. I guess that makes me some sort of a hybrid capable of blending old and new ideas together.
With that said, I’m not a “saber-drone.” When doing research, I tend to gravitate towards straightforward stats that help quickly quantify a player’s performance level or value. The last thing I’m looking for is a math lesson and I certainly don’t want to give one to the reader. Just give me something that makes it easier for me to convey my point to a reader. That brings me to wins above replacement.
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. — FanGraphs
Note: For those of you who want to know more about my favorite saber-stat, you can find a superb explanation from FanGraphs here.
Some fans and pundits embrace the use of WAR, while others detest the thought of using such a radical measure. Longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan made it clear that he’s frustrated with the influence that WAR is having on baseball writers and “seamheads” when he declared, “WAR is nonsense.”
To be fair, Ryan isn’t a saber-hater. He believes sabermetric pioneer Bill James “led a true revolution in baseball thinking and has performed a valuable service.” However, the veteran writer laments that the revolution started by James has been “commandeered by zealots.”
Although I don’t fall into the “zealot” category, I do consider WAR my “go to” stat when initially reviewing and comparing position players. It lets me compare players who played different positions or in a different era. I guess you could call me a WAR-monger.
For me, WAR serves as a starting point, but not a stand alone statistic. To see how it can serve as a starting point of an analytical journey, let’s take a look at the five position players who had the highest WAR during the 2015 season.
I think that most fans would agree that these individuals deserve consideration for a top-five player ranking. Sure, some will bicker over the order or suggest several other worthy names. There’s no denying that WAR provided a good yardstick, but further analysis is required.
The next five players prove that point. A couple of names listed below provide ammunition for anti-WAR activists who dispel the use of WAR as utter “nonsense.”
Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays is a great player, but he wouldn’t make the top-10 list of many baseball fans or observers outside of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t a dynamic and valuable player. But, he’s not a top-10 player.
The “problem” with Kiermaier is that the majority of his WAR value is rooted in his superb defensive prowess, while his on-base percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage were both league-average in 2015.
Although most fans would love to have Kiermaier patrolling center field, I believe that most would prefer Lorenzo Cain, Andrew McCutchen, or Mike Trout to Tampa Bay’s star. Kiermaier may “out-glove” the trio. But, all three are — at the very least — decent fielders and provide more offensive upside than the 2015 Gold Glove winner.
The other player who’s likely to receive scrutiny from the casual fan and WAR opponents is Jason Heyward, who signed an eight-year/$184 million deal with the Chicago Cubs during the offseason.
Observers who rely upon conventional statistics generally believe that Heyward is a solid player, but his good — not great — performance didn’t merit the fourteenth highest contract in the history of baseball. Although I’m a WAR proponent, I tend to agree.
In my mind, Heyward is much like Bernie Williams. An excellent player who makes a good team better. Every fan wants players like them on their team’s roster. However, they’re not the kind of player who can carry a team. They’re elite-level complementary players if there’s such a thing.
Both Kiermaier and Heyward catapulted into the top-10 thanks to their value as a defender. When ranked based solely on offensive WAR (oWAR), the top-five had the same names. But, the next five had a much different look to it.
Gone are Kiermaier, Heyward, and Cain, while Nelson Cruz, Andrew McCutchen, and Kris Bryant take their place. I suspect that the new players combined with the holdovers from the previous lists would form a better-received top-10 list in the eyes of most.
As I said earlier, WAR lets us compare players from different eras, which helps put today’s performances into context and helps fuel another passion of baseball fans — the annual Hall of Fame arguments.
With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the 10 players with the highest career WAR ever. All are historical figures and I doubt that the outcome will come as a surprise to most baseball fans.
Babe Ruth is viewed by most as the greatest baseball player in the history of the sport. Therefore, it’s no surprise to find him at the top of the list. I suspect that most baseball observers would agree that Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Hank Aaron belong in the top-five conversation.
Some may not view Barry Bonds as an all-time great due to allegations of performance enhancing drug use and that’s fine. I’m not trying to defend anyone’s credentials. But, there’s no denying that the statistics that Bonds amassed during his 22-year career — including his WAR — place him among the top performers in the game, ever.
Some fans may notice that a couple of notable names — Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig — didn’t make the top-10 WAR list. There’s a simple explanation in both instances that proves why you can’t rely on WAR alone to solve problems.
Williams — the last player to hit .400 or higher in a season — lost considerable playing time to the real and devastating kind of war. The “Splendid Splinter” didn’t play for three full seasons between 1943-45 due to military service during World War II. He also lost most of two seasons to the Korean War when he only played in a combined 43 games during 1952-53.
Let’s put that lost playing time into perspective. Williams’ first tour of military duty occurred between the ages of 24 and 26. Imagine the impact on the baseball careers of Mike Trout or Bryce Harper if they missed the next three seasons when they’d be approximately the same age as Williams during his World War II involvement.
Considering that Williams’ combined WAR was 21.5 during the seasons prior to and after his return from World War II, it’s realistic to assume that he’d have registered another 25-30 WAR if he had never left. Add value lost due to the Korean War and you’re looking at one of the top-three players of all-time. Perhaps, the best.
Sadly, Gehrig’s career and life were shortened by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Unlike Williams, Gehrig’s lost playing time came at the end of his career.
Known as the “Iron Horse” for playing in a record-setting 2,130 consecutive games, his WAR dropped from 7.7 in 1937 to 4.3 the following season. Under normal circumstances, that decline would be chalked up to Father Time since Gehrig was 35-years-old at the time.
In retrospect, the underlying cause of Gehrig’s withering value was ALS. Assuming his performance regression followed a more conventional path; it’s reasonable to expect that he would’ve played three or four more years and cracked the top-10 list.
So, what does all of this prove? For a WAR-monger like me, it proves that WAR is a great metric to gauge a player’s value to his team and his standing among peers and even all-time greats.
With that said, relying solely on WAR is inadvisable. As we saw with Ted Williams, Gehrig, Kiermaier, and Heyward, you have to look deeper in order to get the “rest of the story” on players. But, WAR is a good starting point.
In the end, isn’t every baseball statistic nothing more than a conversation starter? Debating which player was the best of all time is a time-honored tradition for baseball fans. WAR just adds another layer to the fray. All that I’m saying to Goose Gossage, Bob Ryan, and other naysayers is don’t take WAR off the table as an option. Just give WAR a chance.