FanGraphs WAR and Positional Scarcity

Buster Olney caused a stir on ye olde Internets when tweeting his skepticism of the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) stat. Many responses were snarky and derisive, few were educational. Dave Cameron took it upon himself to do some teaching with a post at FanGraphs. If you have any confusion as to how WAR works, I cannot recommend enough that you click over and read Cameron’s article immediately. In fact, I’ll link it again -> here.

A passage I found insightful:

[Ben] Zobrist, on the other hand, is an excellent defensive second baseman and a terrific baserunner, and we’ve got him at 11.5 runs better than average between those two aspects of the game. While he doesn’t have Fielder’s power, he is much faster and more athletic, and is able to use those skills to more than close the gap once defense and base running are factored in to the overall package.

By solely focusing on offensive metrics – especially things like HRs and RBIs, which are heavily skewed towards power hitting first baseman – and not looking at the position averages at each position, the sport has had a long history of overvaluing Prince Fielder’s specific player type. The Ryan Howard extension is a perfect example – he’s something pretty close to a league average first baseman, but he’s getting paid like a superstar.

However, teams have begun to learn from their mistakes. Look at the relative salary difference that guys like Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth commanded last winter, compared to a bat-only guy like Adam Dunn. By nearly any measure you want to use, Dunn was the superior hitter (until this year, anyway), but he got nearly $100 million less than Crawford because teams realized there was more to the the game than standing at the plate and swinging for the fences.

FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) has not been proven to be the most accurate depiction of a player’s value. Along with Baseball Reference WAR (rWAR), the two have the most credence as they are backed up by (mostly) objective measurements and a transparent process. As Tango recently pointed out, “everyone has their own WAR”. The challenge is getting everyone to spell it out and be consistent with it.

Olney is not wrong for being skeptical and he should not have been lambasted the way he was minutes after his round of tweets. When we start blindly accepting Sabermetric tenets, the science stagnates. Sabermetrics cannot improve without skeptics who look at stats, ask questions, and seek improvement.

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