A month or so ago I wrote about some of the discrepancies I was seeing between the listed WAR (Wins Above Replacement) totals of some players, in that particular instance Brett Lawrie, with their actual play on the field. To reduce the piece down to it’s simplest form, I made the claim that Baseball-Reference.com’s WAR was overcompensating for Lawrie’s defense and inaccurately rating him as the best player in the American League. An in-season adjustment has been made to the bWAR formula to attempt to correct this issue, and Lawrie has since fallen to 9th overall in the American League at 3.2 WAR, which is more accurate but still lacking in truth for a player who has been around league-average at the plate (OPS+ of 97 exactly at the league average). Lawrie isn’t the only player with a questionable WAR and will I was perusing Baseball-Reference.com I noticed another inconsistency that seemed a little bit severe: Brendan Ryan and his 2.7 WAR ranking him as the 19th best player in the American League. This also puts him above every single other shortstop, including the likes of Asdrubal Cabrera, Elvis Andrus, Derek Jeter, and Alcides Escobar. And that’s just a sample of some of the American League players. Again this post isn’t intended to pick on Brendan Ryan, who is a very, very excellent defender, nor is it designed to pick on Baseball-Reference.com (which is my favorite baseball website, by the way). It is intended to point out some inconsistencies in WAR and an attempt to make the statistical world a safer, more accurate place.
Brendan Ryan is hitting .186/.279/.283 (62 OPS+) this season in 301 plate appearances with just 3 homers, 24 RBI 13 doubles, 3 triples, and 7 steals in 12 attempts. His miserable .562 OPS ties him for 3rd to last among all shortstops with at least 300 plate appearances. He’s tied with Dee Gordon of the Dodgers and just ahead of offensive sieves Cliff Pennington (.541 OPS) and Clint Barmes (.524), two of the worst players in baseball. The top 10 shortstops in baseball all have OPS’s that sit at least .160 points higher. The only thing Ryan does offensively at even a league average rate is draw walks with 10.9% of his plate appearances ending this way, otherwise it’s safe to say that if given the choice between Brendan Ryan or an average Triple-A player, you would probably take the Triple-A player on offense.
This isn’t to say Brendan Ryan doesn’t have his merits, the biggest of which is his defense, which is superb. There have been a few write-ups recently that have covered his instinctive, and wide-ranging abilities, the best of which is this interview with Fangraphs. He reacts better than almost any Major League shortstop when a batter makes contact and his range rates near the top of the league at the position. And once he gets to the ball, Ryan has more than enough arm strength to mow even the speediest of base runners down at 1st base. Based on his fielding skills Ryan deserves to be ranked among the league’s best defenders, but again the question needs to be asked – is his defense being overvalued? I say without any doubt in my mind that the answer is a resounding yes and let me show you why.
Let’s begin by comparing Ryan to another one of the American League’s highest rated defenders, JJ Hardy. Hardy by all accounts is having a bit of a rough season offensively, hitting just .220/.261/.376 (76 OPS+) with 14 homers and 37 RBI. He hasn’t stolen any bases and he hits into a ton of double players but his power numbers are much better and his OPS is .76 points higher, therefore Hardy should rightfully be considered a slightly more valuable offensive player.
On defense the two players are about as close to a wash as can be. Total Zone Runs has Ryan good for a +9 rating (3rd in the AL), while Hardy is credited with saving 7 runs so far this season (5th best). Range factor per game ( putouts + assists and divided by games played) loves Hardy, rating him as the best defensive shortstop in the AL and credits him with 5.02 plays per game. Ryan’s range factor/game is 4.33, which is still solid but just outside of the top-5 shortstops in the American League. If you like more antiquated stats like fielding percentage, Ryan ranks 1st in the AL and Hardy ranks 2nd, so I think we’ve established the fact that their fielding skills are similar. So doesn’t it seem a little crazy that the better offensive player (Hardy) out of 2 equal defensive players has a 0.8 bWAR, 1.9 points lower than Ryan?
Now let’s take a look at Asdrubal Cabrera, a completely superior offensive player, an All-Star, and a solid fielder to boot. Cabrera makes some of the most difficult plays in baseball, and he makes them look easy, so he passes the eye test. He also passes the statistical test as well, ranking 2nd in range factor at 4.89 plays per game. Cabrera is hitting .275/.347/.444 (121 OPS+) with 12 homers, 43 RBI, and 2 steals in 5 attempts. He’s accumulated 2.3 WAR according to Baseball-Reference.com, ranking only behind Brendan Ryan at the shortstop position. If that doesn’t seem correct to you, that’s because you sir (or madam) are indeed sane. Nearly every counting stat, rate stat, and everything in between favors the Indians’ shortstop, yet Ryan ranks as the better player by 0.4 WAR, despite the fact that both players have appeared in 87 games.
Seattle isn’t overly shifty on defense either, which was the issue that Baseball-Reference was having with Brett Lawrie a month ago. John Farrell was using Lawrie all over the field, moving him to the shortstop spot, down near the line in right field and in the 2nd base hole, which was why the Toronto defensive star’s Defensive Runs Saved (which is used to calculate WAR) was all wonky. Defensive Runs Saved is currently in love with Ryan, crediting him with 23 runs saved, while players like Cabrera (-3) and Hardy (+8) aren’t seen in the same light, despite the fact that they make more plays on average per game.
All of this information is leading me to believe that defense, which has historically been one of the most underrated aspects of baseball, is now becoming overrated, at least statistically, and this is coming from somebody who loves watching good defensive baseball. The cold hard fact of the matter is that no matter how slick a fielder a player is, the guy who can get on base and hit the ball with authority will always have more value, no matter what WAR says. Hopefully another adjustment to WAR is coming, because as long as Brendan Ryan rates as the 19th best player in the American League while hitting under .200 and getting on base at an anemic rate, the adjustment is needed.