Note: This post is not intended to pick on Brett Lawrie. He’s a fine looking young player who has helped the Blue Jays to a solid 35-34 start in baseball’s toughest division, no small accomplishment. This post IS intended to point out that WAR is not what many writers today think it to be, and that’s a full-proof way to determine a players contributions relative to the rest of the league, and the size of the contract the player is being paid.
As of today, Brett Lawrie is the most overrated player in baseball, and its not even close. If you checked baseball-reference.com today, you saw something that is quite frankly shocking – Lawrie is rated, by WAR, as the most valuable player in the American League and the 2nd most valuable player in the MLB. Questions about the legitimacy of WAR as a statistic aside (that’s a post for another day and a can of worms I don’t want to open quite yet), this is quite frankly ludicrous.
Lawrie has a .287/.335/.419 triple slash with 7 homers and 29 at bats. A solid line for sure, but these aren’t even All-Star numbers. Lawrie also strikes out more than your league average hitter, walks less than the league average, and gets extra base hits at a less than league average clip. OPS+, a statistic that takes a hitter’s OPS and makes it league and park neutral, scores Lawrie at a 102, 3 total points above league average. His base running isn’t spectacular either. The Toronto 3rd baseman has only been successful on 9 of his 17 steal attempts, for a 53% success rate, the worst of any player in the AL with more than 10 steal attempts. So why is he rated so highly?
It all comes back to defense, where baseball-reference rates him as the best defensive player in baseball, which is highly questionable. Lawrie has made more plays in the field than any other 3rd baseman, assisting on a play 146 times, while recording 47 putouts, both excellent numbers. However, Lawrie has also made 10 errors this season, more than any other 3rd baseman, as he has a tendency to boot the easy plays just as much as he makes the spectacular. Baseball-reference.com, which uses very questionable defensive statistics like UZR to determine WAR, ranks Lawrie 1st in the league with a 3.0 dWAR, which is where most of his total value comes from.
To contrast, let’s take a look at a player that most observers would say is a below average defensive 3rd baseman, Miguel Cabrera, who has played only 20 more innings at 3rd this season than Lawrie has. Cabrera has actually been ok at the hot corner this season, assisting on 110 total plays as a 3rd baseman, and has 59 putouts, most in the AL, while making 7 total errors. If we add up the assists and putouts and subtract the errors, Cabrera has made 162 plays in the field, and Lawrie has made 183 plays in the field, for a difference of 21 total plays. Cabrera scores only a 0.3 dWAR on baseball-reference whereas Lawrie is credited with 2.7 more WAR because of only 21 total plays!! This is absolute lunacy, enough to render WAR completely irrelevant at this point of the season in my mind, especially when Cabrera has outhit Lawrie in nearly every category, batting .307/.365/.529 with an OPS+ of 141 and 14 homers. Who has really been more valuable? In my mind its Cabrera by a landslide, yet Lawrie’s 4.0 WAR has a sizable advantage on Cabrera’s 2.6.
The problem is that many of the defensive stats used to calculate WAR, UZR in particular, take a very large sample size, specifically 3 seasons of data, to provide conclusive results. So why are so many writers discussing WAR as the be-all-end-all statistic for determining who the best player in the league is? UZR may be considered the best defensive statistic we have today, but if it’s terribly flawed than why do so many have faith in it?
I think its because its easy. Its difficult to watch the games, notice the position the player is in before a ball is hit, and factor how difficult the play was to make. Its easy to see a little number like UZR or WAR on a sheet, and to say or write “Hey, I think that player is great, because these numbers tell me so.” We need to be more careful as fans and as writers, when looking at these statistics, because they blind us from the actual truth. Brett Lawrie isn’t the most valuable player in the American League. He has more statistically in common with players like Ichiro, and Juan Pierre, guys who shouldn’t make the All-Star game, than he does with superstars like Miguel Cabrera. WAR, WARP, and other statistics along this line can be very deceiving, so be careful the next time you see a writer turn to it while trying to make a point.