Baseball WAR Doesn’t Pass The Little League Test
At ROTOscouting, we use baseball WAR to project prospect values across the site. It’s a popular metric to use in pieces because it breaks players down to a common denominator. When zero is replacement level, two is an above average regular, four is an All-Star and six is a Hall Of Fame season, readers are easily able to understand the information presented. Unfortunately Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward have thrown a wrench into the formula, raising questions about the value of WAR.
Quite often, baseball writers come off as smarmy when defending their favorite statistic or player. Bash Xander Bogaerts’ .232/.297/.349 season and it will ruffle this author’s feathers (even though I’d be wrong). Baseball WAR tends to bring out the worst in the baseball writing populace. From beat writers dismissing it as nonsense because of its imperfections to those with an advanced knowledge of statistics challenging less mathematically inclined people to come up with something better, the discussion is rarely moved forward in a productive way. Fortunately, @jsbearr is there to discuss the finer points of WAR and how it’s used in a civil, educational way.
In a recent discussion on baseball WAR, the focus was if hitters are compared to all hitters, then why are defenders only compared to defenders at their respective positions? No matter what the reasoning, it made little sense to me, a former baseball player through college. From childhood through the minor league season which ended last week, defensive value has always been judged differently because each position on a baseball diamond does not exist in a bubble. In little league, the most talented player is the shortstop and the worst are hidden in left or right field. This line of thinking doesn’t end at the parks and rec. field either. Many of the best hitters in baseball used to play more challenging defensive positions.
Miguel Cabrera? Former shortstop. Adam Jones? Former shortstop. Justin Upton? Former shortstop. For the most part, the only time the best all-around player on a team doesn’t play short is when he has hard hands. Then, center field or second base it is. Using the three players listed as examples, shortstops often move down the defensive spectrum as professionals because the position proves too difficult to play. This happened to Cabrera who moved from shortstop to corner outfield to third base to first base.
Now note this rarely happens in reverse. Cabrera was an example of this, moving back to third base for a season. Mike Trout conceded center field for a time because Peter Bourjos was considered a better outfield defender. However, these are the exceptions, and mentally testing the theory to the extreme by envisioning the game’s best right fielder, Jason Heyward, replacing Andrelton Simmons at shortstop is laughable. But do readers doubt Simmons’ ability to play right field if given a couple of weeks to practice route running and adjust to the angle of batted balls? With his throwing arm, he’d be awesome.
In the case of baseball WAR, lumping Alex Gordon, a former third baseman (and good one at that) with Michael Morse (a designated hitter playing left field) rewards Gordon for playing an easier position than he can. And in right field, Jason Heyward’s counterparts include a number of players who should be designated hitters at this stage of their career including Torii Hunter, Marlon Byrd and Dayan Viciedo. Just 24, it’s possible a healthy and durable Heyward would play more center field if it didn’t pose an increased injury risk. If the blueprint for breaking baseball WAR is little more than taking an overqualified defender and playing him at a position reserved for lumbering sluggers, then it’s a problem.
Doesn’t it make more sense to compare every player defensively to the best glove in the game regardless of position? Absolutely!
As of this publishing, Zack Cozart has a defensive value of 18.9 per FanGraphs. Juan Lagares, Dustin Pedroia and Heyward are credited with more value, but few would disagree shortstop is the hardest position to play defensively. So if Cozart is the best defender per defensive metrics at the toughest position to play, then every other defender needs to be compared to him in some way. Ultimately, defensive value needs to be a simple as the little league baseball diamond. Everybody else takes their place in line.
Baseball WAR: A Challenge To Advanced Statistics
At ROTOscouting, contributors use advanced statistics to support or refute information gleaned at the ballpark. We have no interest in creating metrics, but want to use them to enhance our work whenever possible. From experience, the best scouts today are those who have a working knowledge of scouting and the principles of sabermetrics. Because of this, statistical evidence finds its way into every piece.
However, these metrics have to pass the sniff test at the ballpark. If few players can play an adequate shortstop and many more players are passable in left field, then don’t treat baseball positions like an apples to oranges discussion. In scouting, a shortstop who has to move off of the position is downgraded. End of story.
If the sabermetrics community is comfortable projecting future statistics, then develop a way to measure how awesome Andrelton Simmons would be in right field given his athletic ability and cannon for a throwing arm. By the same token, take the 6-foot-5, 245 pound Heyward and project his left-handed glove at shortstop. For an accurate measure of baseball WAR, this is what’s needed or else it’s really not a reflection of baseball value on the field of play.
8 Sep 2014 / Mike Newman / 15
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