Tuesday, July 10, 2012

AL All-Star team not quite ready for WAR

The American League All-Star team playing in Kansas City Tuesday contains great names like Derek Jeter and Prince Fielder. However, according to the WAR metric, neither of these players should be anywhere near the All-Star Game. Indeed, about half of the AL team shouldn't be there, according to WAR.

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

It's the time of year when vigorous arguments about who should be named to the All-Star teams are in season. That will pass in a couple days.

Today, the All-Star rosters are blown all the way up to 34 players each. A little much, we say. An All-Star team should be the size of a team, which is 25 players.

What's more interesting, though, is who gets selected and why, which raises the old questions. Should the All-Star game be contested among players who are the best so far this year? Or, should the All-Star game be about "stars," which favors players who are enormously popular even if they're not great this year?

We usually end up with teams that answer those questions affirmatively and negatively at the same time. A mixture, if you will. That is, the teams never definitively satisfy anybody.

Our preference here is to have the best players going at the present moment. It helps to summarize the season up to this point, and it also gives us a very clear picture about who really are the top performers right now.

The keepers of the baseball statistics, tireless in search of a single number to measure a player's entire contribution, have come upon several candidates. The most popular, at the moment, is WAR (wins above a replacement-level player). We have used WAR on these pages before, in evaluating the 21st century drafts for the Angels and the Dodgers. We're not entirely sold on WAR, but it raises interesting questions about players when we put questions to it.

Here's an interesting question: How would our All-Star teams look, right now, if they were based almost entirely on WAR? That is, only the players with the highest WARs this year are on the teams. If we use that as the guiding principle, adjusting to the requirements that each position be filled and each team represented, we end up with rosters that only halfway resemble the rosters that will play Tuesday night in Kansas City.

First, we shall use WAR, as calculated on baseball-reference.com, to name 25-man rosters with 15 position players and 10 pitchers each. Next, we will add three hitters and two pitchers for 30-man rosters, then we will add two more hitters and two more pitchers each for 34-man rosters.

In this piece, we look at the American League. For a look at the National League, check here.

Here, now, is the American League pitching staff, chosen by WAR ranking:

Justin Verlander, Detroit (4.3), Chris Sale, Chicago (4.2), Jake Peavy, Chicago (4.1), Matt Harrison, Texas (3.7), Jered Weaver, Angels (2.9), David Price, Tampa Bay (2.7), Hiroki Kuroda, New York (2.6), Jose Quintana, Chicago (2.6), Jim Johnson, Baltimore (2.4), Felix Hernandez, Seattle (1.9).

The first nine pitchers listed are one through nine in the WAR rankings among AL pitchers at the All-Star break. Baltimore's Jason Hammel also has a 2.4 WAR, as does the Angels' C.J. Wilson. But we needed to place a Seattle Mariners player on the All-Star squad and King Felix is their top performer this year at 1.9.

Here, now, is the starting lineup, and the batting order, for the American League WAR Stars:

Leading off in center field is Mike Trout, who has been with the Angels barely more than two months and already has 4.6 WAR, second in the league. He might have to settle for Rookie of the Year, but he should get a legitimate shot at MVP if he keeps this up. Batting second at second base is Robinson Cano of the Yankees, who is third in AL batter WAR at 4.2.

Batting third is Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer. One of the interesting findings in this little study is how much more talent the National League has over the American League when it comes to catchers, particularly on offense. The NL WAR rankings list four catchers among the top 17 batters, and six catchers among the top 28. To find a catcher for the American League, we have to go all the way down to No. 28, where we find Mauer with his 2.1 WAR. At that, Mauer is only a half-time catcher right now -- 37 starts behind the plate, 23 at first base and 14 at designated hitter.

Cleaning up is the designated hitter, Boston's David Ortiz. He's still the Red Sox best hitter with a 2.5 WAR, which ranks 19th in the league. Batting fifth is a really nice player, Oakland right fielder Josh Reddick, running fourth in the league with a 3.6 WAR. The A's picked him up from Boston last winter for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney.

The No. 6 hitter is Detroit's Austin Jackson, who will play left but regularly plays center. His 3.5 WAR ranks fifth among AL hitters. The seventh hitter, believe it or not, is Toronto first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who's 3.0 WAR is tied for ninth among AL hitters. Encarnacion is really a DH, but he took 37 starts at first base while Adam Lind missed six weeks, so he qualifies. Remarkably, Encarnacion is way ahead of people like Mark Teixeira and Albert Pujols.

At the bottom of the AL order, we have some defense. The shortstop with the best WAR in the AL is Tampa Bay's Sean Rodriguez, the former Angels farm hand. Rodriguez has a 2.2 WAR, 2.1 of which is for his defense. He bats eighth. Finally, batting ninth, we have Brett Lawrie, the Toronto third baseman who's 5.0 WAR leads all of the American League. Of that WAR, 3.7 is defensively earned. Ever heard of Brett Lawrie? According to WAR, he's the most valuable player in the American League.

Compare this with the real AL starting lineup. The real lineup has five players -- Texas catcher Mike Napoli, Detroit first baseman Prince Fielder, Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre, New York shortstop Derek Jeter and New York center fielder Curtis Granderson -- who don't even make our 34-man AL WAR team. Jeter is clearly a lifetime achievement selection. If he hangs around for another six or seven years, he can be the new Hit King. However, his 0.7 WAR is tied for 86th in the AL with, among others, the great Drew Butera and Lou Marson.

For that matter, our WAR starting lineup includes five players -- Reddick, Jackson, Encarnacion, Rodriguez and Lawrie -- who aren't on the real AL All-Star team at all. That group only includes three of the top five AL players by WAR this year.

Here are the reserves for the 25-man AL WAR squad: Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters (1.7), Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis (3.4), Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton (3.2), Cleveland outfielder Shin-Soo Choo (3.0), Chicago outfielder Alex Rios (2.9), and Kansas City outfielder Alex Gordon (2.8).

You might notice that we have only two catchers and believe it really should be three, just in case. If so, then we add Chicago's A.J. Pierzynski, who is all the way down at 47th in AL WAR at 1.5. The player we subtract is Rios, who does have a higher WAR than Gordon. However, we have to keep Gordon because he is our only Royals player.

That's the 25-man AL team, according to WAR. Four of these reserves -- Kipnis, Shin-Soo, Rios/Pierzynski and Gordon -- aren't even on the 34-man real AL team.

Now, we build up to a 30-man team. Assuming we decided to have three catchers on the 25-man team, we now add Rios back in, along with four other players. One of them is Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera (3.1). For another, we can pick between Toronto's Jose Bautista and the Angels' Mark Trumbo, who are tied for 11th, with Rios, among AL hitters at 2.9. We'll pick Bautista because he has been doing it longer. Bautista is a starter in the real All-Star Game, but he barely makes the 30-man roster here. The additional pitchers are Hammel and Wilson, who barely missed the 25-man cut. Neither Hammel nor Rios made the real AL All-Star team.

Now, by adding four more players, we get to 34, the same roster size as the real All-Star team. Now, Trumbo makes the team for sure. Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas and Seattle shortstop Brendan Ryan, are tied for 15th among AL position players at 2.7 WAR. We're taking Ryan because we like the way he wears the clothes. All of Ryan's WAR is on defense. The added pitchers are Texas right hander Yu Darvish and Oakland right hander Brandon McCarthy, who are tied for 12th among AL pitchers with a 2.3 WAR.

A full 16 players who made the real AL All-Star team do not qualify for the 34-man WAR team. Four of them are relief pitchers -- Ryan Cook of Oakland, Joe Nathan of Texas, Chris Perez of Cleveland, and Tampa Bay's Fernando Rodney. Their combined WAR is 5.4, which means four relief pitchers between them are just a game better than Verlander by himself. Perez has a war of 0.4, ranking 103rd among AL pitchers.

Obviously, big league managers regard relief closers much more highly than does WAR. So do the general imperatives to put on a spectacle. A relief closer is a star, which is a lot different from being a producer.

Among the reserves, the players who made the real AL All-Star team and not the 34-man AL WAR team are Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler of Texas, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko of Chicago, Billy Butler of Kansas City, Asdrubal Cabrera of Cleveland and Adam Jones of Baltimore. According to WAR, Dunn (0.8) and Butler (0.9) don't belong anywhere near the All-Star Game. Kinsler (1.1) isn't much better.

A rather dramatic contrast emerges between the real All-Star teams and the WAR rankings, obviously. Six of the top 10 AL position players by WAR aren't even on the real All-Star team. Players like Lawrie and Kipnis, who have no national profile, are quietly among the league's best players. Likewise, Shin-Soo and Encarnacion, top ten AL players by WAR this year, are not on the All-Star team.

Of the top 20 AL position players by WAR, only eight are playing Tuesday night in Kansas City. Our version of a 34-man team has 17 of those top 20 -- missing three because we had to dip down to find three catchers.

The moral of the story? The All-Star Game is about perception. Baseball people often like to say that perception is reality. WAR advocates would have to disagree. Strongly.

And if you believe WAR, then you believe the team we have named here is better than the AL team playing Tuesday in Kansas City. Do you?

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