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WAR: What is it Good For?


If you just sang out “Absolutely Nothing,” I’m guessing you’re not a stat-head.

That’s okay. There’s room in this world for all types of baseball fans: some who just enjoy the athleticism and tension of the game, some who prefer to analyze and memorize every moment in the game with numbers, and the rest of us, who are somewhere in between. People in the first category don’t care about Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and people in the second category have probably already memorized the WAR of every player in the last 20 years, so this article is for the third category.

The formulas for calculating WAR differ for pitchers and hitters, but both are too complex for me to explain in this space. If you really want to know how to calculate a player’s WAR, here’s a good place to learn. Instead, I would like to bring to your attention a simple WAR calculator, courtesy of Lewie Pollis of Fansided’s Indians site, Wahoo’s on First. Just plug in a player’s stats, and give an estimate of how good his fielding and running skills are, and you’ll get a pretty decent estimate of the player’s WAR. For example, I input Joe Mauer‘s data from 2011, giving him a 4 for below average baserunning and a 3 for above average fielding, and the calculator put his WAR at 2.0. According to Fangraphs, he actual WAR was 1.9 last year, so the estimate is pretty close.

What does this all mean? Simply put, WAR is a good estimate of how much better a player is for your team than a “replacement player,” or a AAA callup/benchwarmer. You might think that the 2011 Twins consisted entirely of replacement level players, but it turns out they could have been much worse. According to Fangraphs, Twins hitters had a collective WAR of 10.0 last season, and pitchers’ WAR was 10.8, for a team total of 20.8. You would usually expect a team full of replacement-level players to win about 45 games (though estimates vary), so the 2011 Twins’ win total of 63 was very close to the total of 66 that WAR would predict.

On last year’s squad, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Drew Butera, Trevor Plouffe, Rene Rivera, Matt Tolbert, Justin Morneau, Steve Holm, and Joe Benson all had negative WAR at the plate. The worst offender was Nishioka, with a stunning -1.4 WAR. Nishioka’s presence on the team actually caused them to lose more than a game more than they would have if his roster spot had been filled by a AAA player. On the pitching side, Phil Dumatrait was the worst, with a -0.6 ERA, which somehow didn’t stop the Twins from re-signing him. But he wasn’t alone in costing the team wins: Matt Capps, Jim Hoey, Dusty Hughes, Jose Mijares, Alex Burnett, and Kyle Waldrop also were in the red on the WAR ledger. Note: unless otherwise noted, all WAR totals that I quote on this site will be from Fangraphs. Baseball Reference calculates WAR differently, so the numbers on the BR pages may vary.

The good news is that WAR can provide a clear benchmark of how much the team needs to improve. If it takes 90 wins to make the expanded playoff field in 2012, the Twins need to improve their WAR by 27.

They have already started in the right direction. Replacing Nishioka’s -1.4 with Jamey Carroll‘s 2.2 adds a net of 3.6 wins. Ryan Doumit has come in to do the backup catching. If he replaces Drew Butera entirely and matches his 2011 total of 1.8 WAR, that’s another 2.6 win improvement.

You also have to assume that some of the regulars from last season will improve. Mauer’s 1.9 WAR last year was a career low (if you don’t count 2004, when he played only 35 games). From 2005 through 2010, he averaged 5.4 WAR. If he can return to that level, it’ll be another 3.5 WAR improvement for the team. Justin Morneau’s -0.3 was obviously an injury-induced fluke. If he plays a whole season next year, he will easily improve to the 2.0 or 3.0 WAR range. If Denard Span is healthy, his WAR could easily jump from 2.2 to around 3.5. Danny Valencia slumped to 0.5 WAR in 2011, but in 2010 he showed he was capable of 2.7.Finally, Francisco Liriano is erratic, but it would be very difficult for him not to improve on his 1.0 WAR from last year. A 3.0 WAR season seems reasonable for him.

Add the newcomers to the reasonably expected improvements, and the current Twins roster is likely to improve by about 17 or 18 wins.

The team’s remaining free agency decisions become crucial. Michael Cuddyer brought 3.1 WAR to the table. Will he take those wins to Colorado or St. Louis? If he does, maybe Josh Willingham can fill some of the gap with 2.1 WAR. How about starting pitching? My favorite free agent, Edwin Jackson, has earned at least 3.6 WAR in each of the last three seasons. That would be a nice jump over the 0.7 WAR Nick Blackburn brought to the table last year.

By my calculations, that would bring the team over .500, but it’ll take more for them to make the playoffs. A couple of key players are going to have to exceed expectations the way Liriano did in 2010 (6.0 WAR) or Mauer did in 2009 (7.9 WAR). And all of the players who were such a negative drain on the team need to go.

Note: I thought my “WAR: What is it Good For” joke might be original when I started to write this post, but I quickly realized others have thought of it before. No problem; as long as it gives me an excuse to link to “Rush Hour,” I’m going to go ahead and use it.