The influence of any one individual on the game of baseball as a whole is usually limited, with a select few leaving a lasting impact on the game. Players are the individuals who possess the most potential for this, with the ability to contribute in the forms of success, societal impact, or inspiration to new generations of players. However, the person with arguably the greatest influence on the modern MLB never played a major league game, and still goes unrecognized by the vast majority of fans. Bill James, the statistician responsible for some of the most revolutionary shifts in baseball ideology since the late 20th century, has ushered in a whole new age of analyzing baseball, fundamentally changing the approaches of players and the lens through which the game is viewed.
Sabermetrics, the statistics for which James is largely responsible, have shifted the nature of baseball, as they attempt to portray the performances of players more accurately than traditional stats. These stats are in a sort of golden age in the MLB, with teams focusing increasingly on analytics and fans catching on to the numbers that more succinctly quantify the game. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a statistic which provides the value of any given player in a single number. WAR, among other sabermetrics, has the potential to further enhance the competitiveness of teams, engage fans like never before in today’s digital media age, and fundamentally shift baseball as we know it. These processes are already occurring today, and it is up to MLB to embrace the change and maintain baseball’s place in society.
Alongside the arrival of WAR comes the phasing out of traditional stats, which are dated and poor in measuring a player’s performance. The most notorious of these are Runs Batted In (RBI) and Pitcher Wins (W). These stats, long used as quantifiers of a player’s ability to hit with teammates on base (RBI) and to pitch well enough to allow his team to win (W), are counting stats which have existed in baseball for decades. The flaw in each, however, comes in the reliance on teammates to create the opportunities to accumulate RBIs and wins.
Mike Trout, perennially baseball’s best player, recorded just 149 RBIs combined in 2017 and 2018, compared to the 132 RBIs accumulated by Giancarlo Stanton in his 2017 MVP season alone. This cannot be attributed to Trout whatsoever, though: while it is incredibly rare for a player to eclipse 10 WAR in a 162 game season, Trout averaged 10.7 WAR for a season through this stretch, including 10.2 WAR in just 140 games in 2018, a pace which would yield 11.8 (!) WAR in 162 games. In 2017, Stanton was worth a total of 7.6 WAR in 159 games. In ⅞ as many games, Mike Trout in 2018 was worth 2 and a half more wins than Giancarlo Stanton in 2017, and yet he had over 50 RBIs less. Simply because of the presence (or lack thereof) of teammates on base, Trout appears drastically behind when comparing RBI between the two, and yet he provided his team with more value according to WAR.
Similarly, the pitcher win is an outdated and misleading statistic. Take, for example, Jacob deGrom, who in 2018 compiled one of the most impressive seasons in recent history:
Jacob deGrom’s ERA by month:
March/April – 2.06
May – 0.69
June – 2.36
July – 1.74
August – 1.24
September – 1.80
Jacob deGrom’s worst month (by ERA) came in June, when he had a 2.36 ERA.
In 2018, Aaron Nola had a 2.37 ERA and Max Scherzer had a 2.53 ERA. pic.twitter.com/wdMwJ86HAk
— Jeremy Frank (@MLBRandomStats) November 14, 2018
Jacob deGrom 2018 facts
MLB single season record with 24 straight quality starts
Only pitcher in MLB history to have sub-2.00 ERA with at least 260 K's, fewer than 50 walks & allowing 10 homers or less
Allowed no more than 3 runs in a single-season record 29 consecutive starts
— Michael Mayer (@mikemayerMMO) November 14, 2018
And generally dominated hitters with a combination of pitches including this fastball which puts the “heat” in heater:
Jacob deGrom, Overpowering 99mph Fastball. ? pic.twitter.com/oK3ElQHObf
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 22, 2018
With the convenient absence of the Mets offense in many of deGrom’s starts, though, his record was an apparently average 10-9 despite a league-best 1.70 ERA. deGrom’s 10 wins put him even on the year in wins with Lucas Giolito, the owner of the worst ERA (6.13) in the MLB for qualifying pitchers. In WAR, however, deGrom was worth 9.6 wins compared to Giolito’s -1.3. The pitcher win, which has long been a fundamental statistic for starting pitchers, is especially invalid in this case. While deGrom won a well deserved Cy Young award in 2018, the win has excluded several deserving pitchers from the award in the past, and the reliance on wins to demonstrate a pitcher’s value is unfounded.
In its role in invalidating RBI, Wins, and other stats, WAR is becoming a vital part of the analysis of baseball today, and just as it is valuable to highly invested fans who may use it as a basic tool for player comparison, WAR may also be useful in marketing the MLB to fans who are less involved with baseball. The presence of one number which helps fans comprehend the production of a player creates an interface with the game through which more casual fans gain an understanding of the players that they’re watching. For people who don’t follow the game well enough to know players who aren’t on their favorite team, WAR allows for a quick understanding of any given player’s skill level, creating a sense of connection with the game which makes it more enjoyable to watch. The statistic is beginning to make appearances on stadium scoreboards and in TV broadcasts as people are realizing its power.
While WAR carries a great deal of potential in attracting more casual baseball fans, it also has a large influence on those more involved in the game, including established baseball writers. Traditionally, MVP voters have strongly favored traditional statistics such as Home Runs (HR), RBIs, Stolen Bases, and Batting Average (AVG) or On Base Percentage (OBP), all indicators of a player’s offensive production. However, these stats all demonstrate the value of a player in specific aspects of his game, and omit entirely the contributions of a player in the field, leaving out an important aspect of many players who demonstrate a high level of well-roundedness. Even with many stats to consider, voters tend to prefer excellence in a single stat, such as the high stolen base totals of Rickey Henderson that contributed to his 1990 MVP award, or the 59 home runs that Giancarlo Stanton mashed in his 2017 MVP campaign.
The voting results, however, are beginning to demonstrate a shift towards the consideration of overall value rather than excellence in a single skill. A very prominent example of this is the recent announcement of the results of MVP voting for the 2018 season.
J.D. Martinez was not one of the three AL MVP finalists, a sign of changing standards among voters. Where he ranked in AL:
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) November 5, 2018
JD Martinez, one of the best hitters in the MLB in 2018, split time between starting in the outfield and as a designated hitter, racking up arguably the most impressive line of traditional offensive stats in 2018 and threatening to win a triple crown for the majority of the season. Martinez’s offense also earned him two Silver Slugger awards in the same season, a feat never before accomplished in the MLB. However, without as much time in the field as other players, Martinez did not accumulate the same high WAR totals as many of his American League counterparts. This showed in the MVP voting, where Martinez finished 4th in the American League to 3 players whose improved defensive value and similar offense led to the accumulation of much more WAR. In the same MVP race, the award went to Martinez’s teammate, Mookie Betts, the MLB leader in WAR. The value of WAR is increasing to the most important analysts of the game as players begin to be regarded more for all that they bring to the game, rather than just the individual skills at which they excel.
Beyond baseball writers, Major League teams themselves now use WAR and other sabermetrics and analytics as powerful team-building tools. The Red Sox, Astros, and Dodgers, all of the pennant winners in the last two years, are notoriously analytical teams, with the Red Sox having Bill James himself as a consultant for the team. These teams are notable also as examples of franchises who are building analytics departments as a part of their development in order to construct the most effective teams and develop players to the greatest level of success possible. This potential for improvement is true for individual players as well. In an effort to gain any possible advantage in the highly competitive MLB, sabermetrics, including WAR and many others which apply to more specific aspects of the game, are an indispensable tool to the most competitive teams and players.
With its increasing presence as a more accurate analytical tool, its power in attracting larger populations of fans, and its influence on baseball writers and the sport itself, WAR is a powerful resource which must be embraced by the MLB. Through the widespread influence that this statistic and many other new metrics have, the game sees improvement in overall competitiveness and involvement of fans, aspects which will continue to prove vital as the MLB seeks to attract a new generation of fans who are presently dissuaded by longer games and less action compared to other major sports. MLB has begun the use of WAR as a marketing tool on social media, and this is a practice which will prove vital to the longevity of the league as a whole. Baseball remains a dynamic, human sport, but the statistics are growing to adapt to this, and they are already revolutionizing the game as we see it.
Special thanks to Evan Alvarez for his input on this article!
Featured photo: Keith Allison