Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Angels according to WAR

The statistical confection known as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has become something of a new religion among a certain strain of baseball fans. As such, it requires a leap of faith, which some of us aren't quite willing to take. Here's what WAR says about the Angels in 2013.



According to WAR, Angels pitchers are considerably better than they were last season, and Scott Downs, in particular, is about five times as good (Keith Allison/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license).


By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles

The Angels have become a dangerous team since this season's terrible start, which was even worse than last year's terrible start. It remains that, at 43-45, they are well behind the pace of last year's outfit, which finished 89-73. At the rate that the Angels have won through their first 88 games, they would finish 79-83.

Again, though, the Angels started this year 15-27. Since then, they are 28-18. If they can keep playing at that 28-18 pace (a .609 percentage), they would finish 88-74, which gets them very close to the present pace for the Tampa Bay Rays, who are 50-40 and positioned for the second wild card at 90-72.

The question before us is this: Considering that the Angels, taking the first 88 games in total, are paced to finish ten games worse than they finished last year, what is that difference? How, specifically, are the Angels ten games behind last year's rate of victory?

Like many other commentators, we're intrigued by Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as a way to measure specific player contributions to winning games. Unlike many of those same commentators, who talk as though WAR should be the last word on important questions like a player's worthiness for the Hall of Fame or a Most Valuable Player award, we're not sold on WAR. We're still kicking the tires and checking under the hood.

A check under the hood involves a critique of the methodology, a critical look at the assumptions involved in working out the formula for determining WAR. Tire kicking involves putting certain questions to WAR and seeing how it answers. What follows is an exercise in tire kicking.

Baseball-reference.com (insert deep bow here) bases WAR on the assumption that a team composed entirely of "replacement" players, players of the "4A" type who are easily available to every team, would win 48 games in a 162-game major league season. Thus, a team that wins 90 games in a season would have 42 games of WAR value -- the 48 games that a team full of replacements would win, plus 42 "wins above replacement."

One legitimate criticism of WAR is that it misses by a little. One of WAR's virtues is that it doesn't miss by much. But it does miss by enough to be questionable. For example, as the Angels won 89 games last year, we would expect their WAR to total 41. Instead, by the Baseball-reference.com version of WAR, it totaled 46.3. If the Angels had won at the rate that WAR would predict, they would have finished with 94 wins, which would have put them into the playoffs. In the world according to WAR, the Oakland Athletics would have won 95 instead 94, the Texas Rangers would have won the same 93 and the Baltimore Orioles would have won 87 instead of 93. So, the Angels would have been in and the Orioles would have been out.

That's a pretty different world. So, WAR raises at least as many questions about itself as it answers about player value, and that should be kept in mind as we put it to work. It's a long way from being perfected.

It's also a lot of fun. So, back to the fun. Let's look at the Angels.

So far in 2013, Angels pitchers have produced 6.6 WAR, which works out to 12.2 WAR over 162 games. As it happens, Angels pitchers produced 4.8 WAR for all of last season. If WAR is to be believed, then Angels pitchers actually are better this year than last year, even though they rank 11th in American League ERA this year (4.23) and they ranked eighth last year (4.02).

At the end of last season, the Angels let go of Dan Haren (-0.4 WAR in 2012) and Ervin Santana (-1.3) and, essentially, replaced them with Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton. Vargas, with a 1.9 WAR so far this year, projects out to about 3.7 WAR over a full season, though we know we're not getting that because he'll miss about six weeks with a blood clot. Blanton has a -0.4 WAR, which works out to about -0.8 over the full season. Between Vargas and Blanton, the Angels would realize about 3.0 WAR over the full season, an improvement of 4.7 WAR over the combination of Haren and Santana in 2012.

C.J. Wilson finished with 0.7 WAR last year and now has 1.3 WAR in 2013, which would take him to about 2.5 over the full season. That's an upgrade of 1.8 WAR. Jered Weaver last year had 4.0 WAR and, so far this year, has 1.4 WAR, which would get him to about 2.8 over the full season. But Weaver is the reverse side of Vargas in that the former already has been injured and we might expect him to outpace the WAR he has established so far. The way Weaver is going lately, he might match last year's 4.0.

Last year, the Angels brought in Zach Greinke as a short timer and he gave them 1.4 WAR. He's pitching across town now and the Angels don't have an obvious replacement. However, Jerome Williams is good enough for WAR purposes. Last season, Williams totaled -0.2 WAR. This year, so far, he is 0.6, which rates out to about 1.2. That's an improvement of 1.4, which was precisely Greinke's contribution last season.

Ernesto Frieri last year totaled 1.4 WAR and he has 0.9 WAR so far this year, so he would come in around 1.8 for a small increase. But Scott Downs is showing a big increase, up from 0.4 WAR last year to 1.2 so far this season. He would pace out to about 2.4 WAR this year, a full two games better for a situational left-handed reliever. Even Garrett Richards works out better this season. Last year, he finished with -1.0 WAR and this year he projects to about -0.2 WAR.

Taking the next five Angels pitchers by appearances in 2013, we find Michael Kohn (0.7 so far), Kevin Jepsen (-0.0), Dane De La Rosa (0.5), Robert Coello (0.0) and Sean Burnett (0.6). They total 1.8, which would bring them in around 3.5. Compare them with the Angels next five pitchers from 2012 in appearances: Jason Isringhausen (0.1 in 2012), Jepsen (0.4), Jordan Walden (0.3), LaTroy Hawkins (0.0) and Hisanori Takahashi (-0.3). They total 0.5. So, the Angels, considering the solid back of their staff, are about 3.0 WAR better than last year.

Assuming that the discrepancies involving Weaver and Vargas will come out in the wash, the body of pitchers so far considered would come in right about 12 WAR better than last year. As to the remaining pitchers from each year, the guys who come and go, the Angels are about two WAR worse in 2013.

Position play, WAR tells us, is where the Angels really suffer this year in comparison with 2012. Defensively, in particular, WAR tells us exactly what the eye tells us. The Angels are ghastly this year. In 2012, they totaled 4.6 defensive WAR. In 2013, they are -4.7 WAR, which comes to about -9.0 over the full season. Perhaps WAR is telling us something about the relationship between pitching and defense, because the common measures tell us that the Angels pitching is worse this year, while WAR tells us that the pitching actually is better and it's the defense that's worse.

Offensively, WAR tells us that the Angels are a little worse than last year. Their offensive WAR last year was 36.7 and their offensive WAR so far this year is 17.1, which paces out to about 33. The less mysterious measurements tell us that that the Angels are more than a little worse offensively this year. The Angels are down from third in the league to seventh in runs, down from third to fifth in OPS and their OPS-plus is down from 116 to 111.

The big differences are found in individual position players, where we see enormous declines in WAR. That 12-game improvement in WAR among the pitchers is much more than offset by a projected decline of about 20 WAR among the position players.

Erick Aybar last year was 4.3 WAR and he's 0.2 WAR so far in 2013, so he paces out to a four-game WAR drop. Alberto Callaspo has dropped from 3.5 WAR to 0.0 WAR, so his decline is that large. By letting go of Torii Hunter, who had a 5.8 WAR last year, and replacing him with Josh Hamilton, who is 0.2 this year, the Angels figure to be another five WAR in the red. Albert Pujols did 5.0 WAR last year and he's 0.8 so far in 2013, a drop of about 3.5 over the full season. Mike Trout has followed last year's incredible 10.9 WAR with 3.9 so far this year. He paces out to about 7.7 WAR in 2013, another drop of three games. Were these players to maintain their WAR levels, they would end up being about 20 WAR worse in 2013 than 2012.

All of that is somewhat offset by improvements from other players. Howie Kendrick, who finished last year with 3.1 WAR, already has 2.8 in 2013 and would come in around 5.5, an increase of about 2.5 games. Chris Iannetta finished 1.4 in 2013 and already has 1.3 in 2013, so he figures to come in about 2.5, an increase of about one game. Peter Bourjos last year had 1.2 WAR and he has 1.3 already this year, so he would be about 1.2 better over this full season, except that he can't stay in the lineup. Mark Trumbo, 2.7 WAR last year, is 1.5 so far this year, so he would come out about the same. So, we see an improvement of about five WAR in 2013 among these players.

But when we go to the secondary position players, we see mostly decline. The next five Angels position players by appearance in 2012 were Kendrys Morales (2.2), Maicer Izturis (0.3), Vernon Wells (0.6), Bobby Wilson (0.9) and John Hester (-0.1). They total up to 3.9 WAR in 2012. The next five of those players for 2013 are J.B. Shuck (0.3), Brendan Harris (-0.6), Hank Conger (1.0), Luis Jimenez (-0.0) and Andrew Romine (-0.3). They add up to 0.4, which paces out to about 0.8, another drop of three games from the comparable players of 2012.

Putting it all together, WAR tells us that the Angels, over 162 games, would be going on four games worse offensively (down from 36.7 WAR in 2012 to about 33 this year), about seven or eight games better in their pitching (up from 4.8 to 12.2) and about 14 games worse defensively (down from 4.6 to about -9.0). That accounts, give or take, for the 10-game difference to the bad this year for the Angels.

Outside of WAR's suggestion here that pitching really isn't the Angels' problem, which is a little surprising, this quick and dirty study supports much of what we can plainly see by quantifing our qualitative intuitions. We could already tell that Hamilton instead of Hunter has turned out to be a bad exchange. WAR gives us an inkling of how bad. We could already see that Pujols, Callaspo and Aybar aren't as good as they were last year. WAR gives us some purchase on the extent of those declines.

In some respects, though, we're finding WAR quite hard to believe. WAR tells us that Trout is -1.3 defensively in 2013. Really? This season, the Angels are 10th in American League ERA by starters at 4.43, compared with fifth last year at 4.04. But WAR would have us believe that they get better starts this season. According to WAR, the Angels are a couple of wins better behind the plate this year. That isn't obvious.

WAR certainly is a salty concoction. It makes our discussions, like our food, tastier and more interesting, in the right amounts. In excess, it causes thirst, bloating, high blood pressure and weakening of the bones (osteoporosis), which might also characterize a good many baseball arguments that take WAR as gospel. Perhaps, WAR should be taken with a grain of salt. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it. But it’s not a good main course.

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