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WAR (Wins Above Replacement): What is it good for?

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Comparing pitchers on the trading block, for starters...

Jose Quintana pitches at Wrigley and contemplates the logo on his hat in 2015
Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

It’s trade season and there are a lot of posts out there evaluating player talent and trying to project their worth. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to compare some of the arms on the trading block using one of my favorite stats: Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.

Since WAR is a really cool way to compare players across teams and time I thought it would be a fun stat for evaluating potential deals that move players around Major League Baseball. A few caveats to start with (I swear, all of the fancy technical stuff is front loaded here, keep reading, it gets better!)

There are a few major ways to calculate WAR and they emphasize slightly different things. The main WAR values you’re likely to run across in baseball discussions are the following:

bWAR (Baseball Reference’s calculation of WAR) and fWAR (Fangraphs’, you guessed it, slightly different calculation of the same metric). There are some other variations out there (Baseball Prospectus’ WARP and Rally Monkey’s rWAR come to mind, but bWAR and fWAR seem to be used the most.)

If you attempt to dive into the math of this and you aren’t really a math person, you’re likely to quickly come across something like this (and maybe run away screaming as you flashback to your high school math classes):

Wikipedia trying to simplify bWAR

And frankly, that’s unfortunate, because you have to be pretty nerdy about baseball stats to care about the way WAR is calculated (although if you do care about those things, Baseball Reference has you covered with this chart). What’s really important is that you understand what the stat is trying to do, you understand the different ways that defense and player positions are weighted in the equations (it’s where most of the variation comes from), and that you only compare players within the same type of WAR (so only comparing fWAR to fWAR, not fWAR to bWAR).

For today’s comparison of starting pitchers who could still be moved at the trade deadline I’m going to use fWAR, because that’s what I tend to use. And I like Fangraphs. Oh, and substantively, fWAR uses FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) rather than RA (runs allowed). I prefer FIP for cross team comparisons because it mutes out some of the noise you’d get from different defenses, etc, and lets us look at what pitchers can actually control.

With Jose Quintana now getting used to his new home on the North Side of Chicago the most interesting starting pitchers left on the trade market are: Johnny Cueto, Matt Moore, Jeff Samardzija, Sonny Gray, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Julio Teheran, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano. For purposes of comparing how the Cubs did on the Quintana deal, I’ve included him at the top of these charts. I think you’ll be pleased.

One caveat, here. WAR let’s us look at the value of these players relative to a replacement level player in a statistical vacuum. It’s a very good statistical vacuum that takes into account lots of things like park effects, but it doesn’t take into account some things that are pretty important in the context of trades. For example, one of the things that made Quintana’s deal so valuable was that he was signed for 3.5 more years at an extremely team favorable rate of ~10.5 million each year. That said, if you’re interested in WAR relative to contract, Fangraphs has you covered on that.

2017 Starting Pitcher Trade Candidates by WAR

Pitcher 5 Year WAR 2016 WAR 2017 WAR
Pitcher 5 Year WAR 2016 WAR 2017 WAR
Quintana 20.6 4.8 2.5
Cueto 15.7 5.5 0.7
Moore 4.8 2.2 0.5
Samardzija 14.3 2.6 2.3
Gray 10.9 0.7 1.9
Garcia 6.1 1.2 1.1
Stroman 9.2 3.6 2.1
Estrada 8.1 3.0 1.6
Liriano 9.7 0.4 0.5
Lynn 10.7 N/A 0.5
Tehran 9.9 3.2 0.0
2017 Starting Pitcher Trade Candidates and WAR Fangraphs

This chart looks at a couple different WAR stats. First, I look at a five-year cumulative WAR to give you an idea of what these pitchers have done over their last five years. Second, I look at individual seasons for 2016 and 2017 (so far, more on that in a second). The two-year trend is helpful for noticing which pitchers are very consistent, which have struggled a bit this year, and which have maybe fallen off after strong earlier years. Since WAR is a cumulative stat, I’d expect 2017 to be approximately half of a pitcher’s average yearly WAR at this point, in the instances where it’s not (Cueto, for example) there has been some regression.

Some takeaways

Quintana is by far the most productive pitcher in this group. It’s not particularly close, in fact, as has been mentioned in a few places, his numbers track very closely with Jon Lester. With Quintana off the board, the most likely ace in the group is no longer available.

Cueto and Stroman are the next most consistent pitchers on this list, although Cueto has fallen off considerably this year. The Cubs apparently inquired about Stroman and were told it would take someone on the 25-man roster. If that’s the asking price for Stroman, I’m not entirely sure which team would be willing to pay it. Cueto is having a down year, but has demonstrated success changing teams in the middle of the year in his career. He also has a lot more post-season success than many others on this list. I have to imagine that would be compelling for teams looking for help in the post-season.

The next tier of pitchers here, for me, is Estrada, Tehran, and Samardzija, consistent three-ish WAR pitchers who can bolster the middle of a rotation. Samardzija is having a good year relative to historical averages whereas Tehran is down. For teams looking for a reasonably priced innings eater, these are your guys.

And then, there are the wild cards: Garcia, Gray, Liriano and Lynn. These are pitchers who have demonstrated flashes of brilliance, but it hasn’t been recently and you’re definitely taking a chance. If those chances pan out and you wind up with the four WAR version of one of these guys, you’ve hit a bit of a jackpot, but there is a lot of risk in these trades.

Matt Moore is sort of an outlier here. His five-year numbers aren’t in the same ballpark as the other pitchers. In fact, he is, definitionally, a replacement level arm. Last year appears to be an outlier, but if you had reasons to believe he’d be slightly above replacement, and were looking for a stopgap pitcher to eat some innings, he’s a good bet, but you aren’t looking for a middle of the rotation guy with this move, you’re just trying to fill a hole in the rotation.

With 11 days until the trade deadline it will be interesting to see which of these pitchers move and where. It will also be interesting to see how they are valued relative to prospects and position players. It’s early in the Quintana era of the Chicago Cubs, but by this metric, it looks like the Cubs landed the most consistently valuable starter of this trade class.