5 MLB Players the WAR Statistic Gets Right

The wins against replacement (WAR) statistic is just a number, but the mere mention of WAR can spark arguments (even “war”) between Major League Baseball fans, analysts, and organizations. Advanced statistics are used in every MLB front office, but they don’t always govern what happens on the field.

For example, Yankees manager Joe Girardi will not bench Derek Jeter because he has the worst extra-base power (ISO) in baseball; nor would any manager sit a slugging left-fielder though the team might be weaker defensively when that player patrolled the outfield grounds. A menacing offense is the best defense, he might argue.

Human beings — with their hunches, tics, and emotions — will always be the heart of baseball. Still, WAR may be the most complete stat for determining a player’s value. It can go wrong by overemphasizing defense at a slugging position (as it might in Jason Heyward’s case), but it is hard to argue with WAR for pitching or offense alone. In these cases, WAR often looks the product of a genius. Here are five MLB players WAR is getting right in 2014.

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1. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

Andrew McCutchen does everything on a baseball field a team would want (and then some). WAR may not value his defense (due to the tough nature of the CF position) as much as it should, but there is no faulting McCutchen’s 5.6 offensive WAR. He has all the traditional numbers (.305 BA, .405 OBP, .526 SLG) along with 17 home runs and 17 steals. McCutchen’s baserunning and gutty play cannot be fully quantified, but WAR’s rating him the second-best offensive player is dead right.

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2. Mike Trout, Angels

Mike Trout, widely regarded as the top MLB position player, has been leading in the overall WAR category for most of the 2014 MLB season. Nearly everyone around the game considers Trout’s defense to be above average, but it’s Trout’s offense alone that has put him at the top of the WAR leaderboard throughout the season (he currently ranks first on offense and third among position players).

In Trout’s case, one might argue WAR is getting it right despite the negative rating on defense. If the Millville Meteor played left field, his WAR might be off the charts. As it stands, he’s still ranked as the game’s best at 6.6 offensive WAR and fifth overall.

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3.  Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

As the undisputed anchor and most potent offensive threat on the Miami Marlins, Giancarlo Stanton would be tempting to pitch around. Somehow, he has gotten enough quality pitches to lead the National League in home runs, RBI, slugging and on-base percentage in 2014. He’s also played the third-most games. WAR ranks Stanton as the second-best MLB position player and fourth overall in the game with 6.1 WAR. As the leading candidate for the NL MVP, he’s one of the players WAR is getting right in 2014.

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4. Felix Hernandez, Mariners

The Mariners may have added Fernando Rodney and Robinson Cano in 2014, but there’s no question Felix Hernandez is the best player on his team. WAR recognizes him as the best pitcher in the American League (6.15 WAR) and the third most valuable MLB player in 2014. With Felix’s 13-4 record, AL-best 1.99 ERA, and 185.1 innings pitched in 2014, that sounds about right. WAR would give him the AL Cy Young if the season ended any time soon, and so would anyone with a vote that counted.

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5. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

Clayton Kershaw’s 6.8 WAR ranks him at the top of Major League Baseball in 2014. His 15-3 record, 1.82 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and 6 complete games are all tops in the game. A glance at his hits allowed (106) in his innings pitched (153.1 IP) tells most of the story: Batters can’t hit him. This fact was most apparent when he no-hit the Rockies on June 18.

WAR doesn’t give bonus points for no-hitting a club, but it is able to calculate the dominance of a pitcher in case it were not obvious from the other stats. Certainly, Clayton Kershaw would win the NL Cy Young hands-down if the season ended today. If the Marlins don’t make the playoffs, he may be the choice for NL MVP over Giancarlo Stanton. WAR says he should be, and it’s an argument the advanced stat is probably getting right.