Sunday, April 15, 2012

Jackie Robinson Day

There's been a ton of pixels spilled over Jackie Robinson Day, and what I want to add is this: One thing many people forget about Robinson is that, in addition to being a pioneer and a hero, he was a hell of a ballplayer. A hell of a ballplayer. By some measures, he was the best player in all of baseball from 1949 through 1952—ahead of Musial, Williams, Campanella, Kiner, Snider, and others. And he was already 30 years old when he began that streak. Imagine what he could have done if he’d come to the majors as a 22-year-old instead of as a 28-year-old. 

Another question I’ve thought about: Could he have played better if he hadn’t had to put up with the beanballs and racist epithets? I say no. I think sticking it to the racists helped motivate Robinson to become the player he was.

Friday, April 13, 2012

WAR: What is it good for?

Please forgive the title, but I couldn't resist. Today's topic is Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. I've been using WAR on this site as a nice shorthand to compare player seasons, but it's still unfamiliar to a lot of fans. So I'm going to reprint the entry about WAR from my new book, The Book of Baseball Literacy: 3rd Edition.

WAR is fairly new sabermetric statistic that aims to quantify a player’s contribution to his team in the field, at the plate, and on the bases compared to that of a generic “replacement player”—meaning a typical player readily available from the minor leagues (which is not the same as an average major leaguer). Like Win Shares, WAR is complicated to calculate, and even among those websites that do make the effort—including,, and Baseball Prospectus—they each make slightly different calculations, so the numbers for any given player don’t exactly match up.

One thing to realize with WAR is that the calculation literally translates to the number of wins a player is responsible for above and beyond the contribution of a replacement player. For example, in 2010, Josh Hamilton registered a WAR of 8.7 (according to Fangraphs), the highest in baseball. That means his bat, glove, and legs personally delivered 8.7 wins to the Rangers more than an average minor league outfielder.

Does that seem low to you? At first glance, it does to me. I mean, Hamilton was the best player in the league that year, and he was only responsible for 8.7 wins? At second glance, however, it starts to make sense. Because of the nature of baseball, a team filled with Triple-A replacement players would probably win at least 40 games. A team filled with Josh Hamiltons would probably lose at least 40 games. The 82 games in between are what separate major league–quality teams from minor league–quality teams, and there are 25 players on the roster all contributing to the club in one way or another. In that context—25 players diving up 82 wins, or an average of 3.28 per player—Hamilton’s 8.7 makes more sense. WAR suggests that he was between two and three times as good as the average player on his team, and that seems about right.

It’s possible to register a negative WAR, but in practice, players who do usually don’t last long in the majors because teams will be quick to replace them with a cheaper, younger alternative from the minors. (However, some veterans do keep their jobs despite scoring poorly; Melky Cabrera, Carlos Lee, and Adam Lind all scored negative WARs in 2010, but still have major league jobs because teams are hoping against hope that they’ll return to their former glory.)

WAR is an exciting new statistic that is accepted in the sabermetric world but has a long way to go before casual fans can believe in it. But it’ll get there.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Are the Cincinnati Reds insane?

It appears that the Reds are locking up Joey Votto until age 40 with a huge contract worth $225 million. My question is: Are they insane? Same goes for the Tigers and Cecil Fielder, and for the Angels and Albert Pujols (not to mention other long-term contracts like A-Rod and Mark Texeira).

Why do I wonder that? Because history tells us that it's highly likely that these players are going to be paid like superstars well past the point when they're producing like superstars.

The fact is that hitters rarely put together productive seasons after the age of 33. If we use 5+ WAR as a guide (that's about All-Star quality), we can do a quick research project to find out how many 1B/DH types have had 5+ WAR seasons after the age of 33. The results are disheartening if you're a Reds/Angels/Tigers fan.

Five 5+ WAR Seasons
1: Edgar Martinez

Four 5+ WAR Seasons

Three 5+ WAR Seasons
7: Paul Molitor, Stan Musial, Johnny Mize, Dolph Camilli, Jack Fournier

Two 5+ WAR Seasons
3: Mark McGwire, Lou Gehrig, Bill Terry

So realistically the best they can hope for is to match Edgar Martinez, with five such seasons. The problem is, ages 33 through 40 is actually eight seasons, so even the best case scenario is that they'll have three lost seasons in the mix.

That's what history tells us, anyway.

Now let me answer the question I posed earlier: No, I don't think the people who run baseball are insane. They're just rich — and about to get richer. With the way baseball revenues are exploding (thanks to inflation and soaring local TV revenues), it's probably going to turn out that those huge contracts won't seem out of place in 10 years. Maybe paying $25 million for 3+ WAR will seem perfectly in line with the salary structure because Jason Heyward or somebody we've never heard of is making $35 or $40 million and the average payroll is $175 million.

All I know is that I wish I were younger and a power hitter and about to hit free agency.