Brett Lawrie and the Problem with WAR

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.

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7 comments

  1. Sean Forman (@sean_forman)

    Thanks for the note. We use Defensive Runs Saved in our defensive numbers which involves a person sitting and watching every single game and tracking the # of opportunities each player has had while in the game. It takes into account positioning etc. The issue that we are having with Lawrie and BIS is looking into this is that the Blue Jays are using the shift a lot and he may be getting too much credit for plays made while in the deep 2B position. I suspect we’ll make a change before the year is out.

    We have a full rundown on WAR here
    http://www.bbref.com/about/war_explained.shtml

    Thank you for the feedback

    • David Hruska

      That’s really interesting. I wasn’t aware that you use defensive runs saved, which I think is a better statistic, but one that still has flaws. The fact that the issue is coming from John Farrell’s excellent deployment of the shift is fascinating. What are you guys having an issue with? Maybe I can help out? Also thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: Defensive Shifts Part III: The Blue Jays Use of Brett Lawrie « TheCutoffMan
  3. JayZ

    Comparing Lawrie’s defense to Cabrera’s is insane! If you watched Lawrie play defense on a regular basis you would realize that his range as compared to other 3rd baseman is off the charts. He attempts and makes plays at 3rd that no other 3rd baseman could (look up his video highlights at MLB.com). I agree that the WAR calculations are absolutely wrong as he is not one of the top 10 players overall in baseball this year but defensively he is the best 3rd baseman in baseball (I have no doubt about saying this and I am a Mike Moustakas and Evan Longoria fan). So please do not downplay his defensive abilities to make your point. How about if we simply agree that the WAR calculations need some revisions.

    • David Hruska

      I assure you I watch plenty of games, as I am a MLB.tv subscriber who takes full advantage of my account. And if you think I was comparing Lawrie and Cabrera on defense you missed the point. I took a fielder who’s defense has been around league average (Cabrera) and a fielder with an excellent reputation (Lawrie) and pointed out the fact that (at the time of writing) their was a 2.7 dWAR difference despite that fact that they had a difference of 21 total plays between the 2 players, which struck me as odd. Lawrie is in the mix with Zimmerman, Longoria, Beltre, and Moustakas for the title of best defensive 3rd baseman in baseball. Lawrie makes plays nobody else makes because his manager, John Farrell correctly moves him all over the diamond.

  4. mark maloney

    “The Shift” could only be a subset of the change we’re seeing. Maybe what we’re seeing is the dawn of a new era of defensive baseball. In the past, it was not unusual for past great fielders to have their best dWAR seasons well into their careers. Brooks Robinson had dWAR of >4 at age 30 and 31; prior to that his high was 2.1. He AVERAGED dWAR of 2.6 from age 33 to 38. Why? Not because of quickness– all players are quicker at 21 than at 31. But probably with experience they knew where the ball was coming in different situations. Maybe because the pitchers had such confidence in you they pitched a certain way. These players exhibit this pattern: Belanger, Ozzie Smith, Rizzuto, Ventura, Rolen, Jackie Robinson, Rey Sanchez, Buddy Bell, Clete Boyer, among others. After all, the great ones (as opposed to the good ones) are often those that keep perfecting their craft. (Of course not everyone is like this… Marty Marion, Pee Wee Reese and many others had higher dWAR at 25-27 than above that age, but I digress.)

    My guess (not backed by hard data) is that peak dWAR age will show a dramatic drop over the next few years due to much better datacrunching and aggressive positioning strategies. You no longer have to have years in the game to know where the next ball will be hit…. Your laptop and your coaches tell you that now. As an example, Andrelton Simmons has 2.0 dWAR in 33 games as a 21yr old rookie! Darwin Barney has a 2.9 dWAR in only 82 games)

    And as for whether Brett Lawrie, Darwin Barney and Andrelton Simmons deserve the credit for fielding those balls…. well, if the manager puts you in the lineup, it’s for a reason. It’s because he’s got faith that you are going to make the play. These guys wouldn’t be there if there weren’t deserving.

  5. Pingback: Problems with WAR II: The Brendan Ryan Issue « TheCutoffMan

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