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The modern game of baseball is starting to gain a reputation as a numbers-driven sport. Ever since the movie Moneyball shed light on how teams use sabermetrics to make front office decisions, the way many fans view the game has changed.
Now, the more traditional statistics (batting average, RBI, ERA, etc.) are accompanied by more complex statistical categories that many knowledgable people at the highest levels of the game would argue are more valuable.
One of those stats that scouts and front office executives emphasize is WAR.
WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. Essentially, WAR measures how many wins a player is worth for his team. It is called Wins Above REPLACEMENT because it measures the player’s overall value against an average replacement player.
For example, if Player A’s WAR is 3.5, that means that if he was removed from the lineup and replaced with a player with average MLB production, the team would win roughly 3.5 fewer games.
If Payer B’s WAR is -2.6, it means that if he were replaced by a league-average player, then the team would win around 2.6 more games.
A positive WAR means the player performs at above league average. The higher the number, the more valuable that player is which is why executives place a lot of value on this statistic.
How is WAR Calculated?
One of the reasons WAR is really only used at the highest levels of baseball is because it is very complicated to calculate, and there are several different calculations that can be used.
The MLB’s formula for calculating WAR is as follows:
(Quantity of Runs Above Average in Baserunning, Defense, and Hitting + Position Adjustment + League Adjustment +Number of Runs Replacement Level Players Perform) Runs Per Win
As one can see, this calculation is not for the average person. There are some other ways that people in the baseball world calculate WAR, but this is the MLB’s way of doing it.
What is a Good WAR Value?
When evaluating a player’s WAR, it is important to know the baseline of what is considered to be a good WAR value.
An everyday starter in the MLB should have a WAR of somewhere between 2 and 5. An All-Star level player should be between 5 and 8. Most MVP caliber players have a WAR of 8 and above.
Players that have WAR values between 0 and 2 are mostly backup or platoon players, and players with a WAR below 0 are easily replaceable.
Is WAR Useful in Baseball?
Some front office staffs have different opinions about which statistics are most valuable when it comes to evaluating players. Some teams are more committed to using sabermetrics than others, but most organizations at least consider WAR when making roster decisions.
War is definitely useful in baseball to determine a player’s overall value to the team. The higher the number, the more wins a player is worth to the team. There is not another stat that encompasses a player’s production at the plate, on the base paths, and on defense.
Using WAR to help with roster decisions allows executives to make objective decisions.
For example, does the name Marcus Semien ring a bell to you? Semien is not a household name among baseball fans, but the Blue Jays’ 30-year-old infielder is a hot commodity among scouts and executives.
Why? Because his WAR of 7.3 was good for 3rd in the MLB last season behind Pitcher/Designated Hitter Shohei Ohtani and Pitcher Zack Wheeler.
Despite only batting .265 and playing on a team that did not make the playoffs, Semien was one of the most valuable players in the league. It was his second season in the last three years with a WAR above 7.
The point here is that Semien is not considered to be one of the game’s stars and plays in a rather small market in Toronto, but if he were to become available on the open market, you better believe teams would come after him.
The media may not tell us he is great, but his WAR enlightens us to his value.
Who Has the Highest WAR in Baseball?
This past season, the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani led all of baseball with a WAR of 9.1. He was followed by Zack Wheeler of the Phillies and Semien. Here is the rest of the 2021 top 10 list:
- Shohei Ohtani – 9.1
- Zack Wheeler – 7.7
- Marcus Semien – 7.3
- Carlos Correa – 7.2
- Juan Soto – 7.1
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – 6.8
- Walker Buehler – 6.7
- Jose Ramirez – 6.7
- Robbie Ray – 6.7
- Fernando Tatis Jr. – 6.6
Ohtani deservedly won the American League MVP award becoming the first two-way player to do so. The National League MVP, Bryce Harper, did not finish in the top 10 in WAR. He had a WAR of 5.9.
Career WAR is calculated by adding up a player’s total WAR over each season. This shows the number of wins the player was worth throughout his career. Here is the top 10 career WAR list:
- Babe Ruth – 183.1
- Walter Johnson – 164.8
- Cy Young – 163.6
- Barry Bonds – 162.7
- Willie Mays – 156.1
- Ty Cobb – 151.5
- Hank Aaron – 143.1
- Roger Clemens – 139.2
- Tris Speaker – 134.7
- Honus Wagner – 130.8
This list consists of three pitchers (Johnson, Young, and Clemens), five outfielders (Bonds, Mays, Cobb, Aaron, and Speaker), one shortstop (Wagner), and one player who both pitched and played outfield during his career (Ruth).
This shows us that some of the most valuable positions in the game are pitchers, outfielders, and shortstops. Outfielders and shortstops are often some of the best athletes on the field, and their defensive positions are very demanding.
Since WAR measures a player’s value in all three aspects of the game, it is clear why players who are elite at these positions end up with high WAR values.
As far as active players go, here is the top 10 list of players in today’s game with the highest career WAR:
- Albert Pujols – 99.6
- Mike Trout – 76.1
- Zack Greinke – 73.1
- Clayton Kershaw – 71.9
- Justin Verlander – 71.8
- Robinson Cano – 69.6
- Miguel Cabrera – 68.7
- Max Scherzer – 67.1
- Joey Votto – 64.6
- Cole Hamels – 59.3
Albert Pujols is the leader of this group and coincidentally has played the most seasons of the group (21). The most impressive player on this list is Mike Trout. Despite being only 29 and playing in only 11 seasons — many of which he has been injured — Trout is second on the list.
This shows why Trout is highly coveted as the best player in baseball. Despite playing on many below-average teams, Trout is consistently one of the league’s most valuable players, and his WAR values support that.
For more information about what makes Mike Trout so special, check out our article “Why is Mike Trout so Good?”
What Types of Players Typically Have High WAR Values?
There is often a pattern to what types of players normally have the highest WAR values.
As stated earlier, outfielders, shortstops, and pitchers are often the positions that obtain the highest WAR.
Outfielders are often guys who produce a lot of offense, and the best outfielders often have a lot of speed giving them additional defensive value and making them great candidates to steal and take extra bases on the base paths.
Shortstops are similar, but there is more of a focus on defense at that position. There are few shortstops in the MLB that struggle defensively. When these players are strong at the plate, their WAR often shoots through the roof.
A pitcher’s WAR is calculated differently than a position player’s, but they are so important to the outcome of the game that when they are successful, their WAR is often pretty high.
Basically, any player who plays a position that gets a lot of action on defense and excels at all three aspects of the game (hitting, defense, and baserunning) is a great candidate to lead the league in WAR.
There have definitely been several exceptions to the rule over the years in the MLB.
For example, in 2017, Joey Votto, a first baseman who is not a threat on the base paths, led the MLB in WAR at 8.1. In 2008, Albert Pujols, a power-hitting first baseman, led the league in WAR at 9.2.
For an average defensive player and below-average runner to have a high WAR, that player must dominate at the plate. That is exactly what Pujols and Votto did those years. They were so productive on offense that their defense and baserunning didn’t really matter to their teams.
Both of these guys will be first-ballot Hall of Famers when they retire and have proven that you don’t have to be an elite defender and runner to provide value to a team; you just have to be an exceptional hitter.
When was WAR created?
As are most unconventional stats, WAR can be traced back to the father of sabermetrics, Bill James, who mentioned it in his abstract in 1982. It took some time for it to catch on in baseball, but by the mid to late 2000s, most teams were using it to some degree to help make roster decisions. Now, other professional sports leagues such as the NBA and NHL are jumping on the analytics bandwagon and using their own version of WAR to evaluate players.
Can a Player Make it into the Hall of Fame with a Low WAR?
It is not likely for a player with a low WAR to make it to Cooperstown, but like always, there are exceptions to the rule. Bruce Sutter, a relief pitcher for the Cardinals is a Hall of Famer despite only having 24.5 career Wins Above Replacement. He does have 300 career saves, and his limited role as a reliever is likely why his WAR is so low.
What is the Average WAR for MLB Players?
The league average for WAR is around 2. As long as players keep their WAR in the positive numbers, they have a shot to remain in the league. When their value dips below zero, that is a sign to the front office that the player may be contributing more to losses than wins.
How does War impact a free agent?
WAR is often used by general managers when deciding if and when to sign a free agent. Also, it helps them determine how much money that player is worth. Sometimes, the current market may suggest that the player should make more money than the GM believes he is worth based on his WAR; therefore, the GM may choose not to sign him for more than he believes that player is worth.