WAR and Luck (and Prince)

How close were the Royals to contending last year?


**Editor’s Note:  Much of this was conceived and written prior to Detroit signing free agent first baseman Prince Fielder to a 9 year, $214M contract.**

The Kansas City Royals finished a typical 71-91 a year ago, 20 games under .500 once again.  Any casual Royals fan can tell you things were very different within that season, a season filled with promising rookies and at times a dazzling offense and a dominant bullpen.  The hardcore fan will say they are at least a year away from contention, if not more.  The ultimate pessimist will say it can never be done, no matter how good the young talent becomes.

Still, 71-91 is a pretty poor record.  They finished a whopping 24 games behind the division winning Detroit Tigers, and 4th place overall, 8 games in front of last place Minnesota.  I was thrilled with how the team played down the stretch, with an infield that averaged 22.4 years of age when even the catcher was figured in, and a bullpen that was nearly as young.  To say the least, I was in baseball-induced withdrawal at the end of September.

The intent of this article isn’t to rehash the 2011 season or tell you how great Eric Hosmer is going to be or how strong Mike Moustakas finished the year, or how dominant Greg Holland was in relief.  No, instead this article is about introducing some more advanced statistics into the average baseball fans lexicon and how it relates to the Royals and the rest of their rivals in the AL Central.

First, the statistics.  Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has been the vogue metric in the baseball community for the past couple of years, as it attempts to place value on a player that goes above and beyond batting average and other rate stats.

At its core, WAR is the expression of how many wins a player provided his team over a minor league replacement.  It boils down to a stat known as Runs Created (RC), which takes a player’s production (batters and pitchers differ) and adds that total to a collection of 25 equal replacement players, or him being the one standout in a sea of mediocrity.

A replacement level team has a winning percentage tagged to it based upon the runs scored and runs allowed it is constructed on.  A Pythagorean winning percentage is generally the method, which looks a lot like this:

               (Runs Scored)^1.83
 (Runs Scored)^1.83 +  (Runs Allowed)^1.83

Take this times 162 (number of games in a full season) and you get the wins.  Now WAR looks at replacing one minor leaguer with your player and the corresponding lift (or drop) in wins is that player’s WAR.  For instance, taking a team of 25 minor league equivalents and subbing out one for Alex Gordon last year displayed that Gordon’s win contribution was 5.9.

A typical major league starter (position or pitcher) has a WAR of 1.5-3.  An All-Star has WARs above 5, while MVPs have WARs above 8.  Anyone less than 2 is considered a contributor and anything less than 0 is a minor leaguer or worse.

Below are the WAR figures for batters (bWAR) and pitchers (pWAR) summing to a total (tWAR) in the AL Central (rank):

TEAM                                  bWAR               pWAR                 tWAR

1.  Detroit Tigers              23.8 (1)             18.3 (2)              42.1 (1)

2.  Cleveland Indians     18.5 (3)             9.4 (5)                27.9 (4)

3.  Chicago White Sox    11.2 (4)            21.7 (1)               32.9 (3)

4.  Kansas City Royals    20.6 (2)           15.1 (3)               35.7 (2)

5.  Minnesota Twins        3.9 (5)               9.5 (4)                13.4 (5)

As can be seen, Detroit led the Central in bWAR and tWAR, while the White Sox led in pWAR.  Of note, the Royals finished comfortably in 2nd place in the division in tWAR, but still a good distance behind the Tigers.  Based on this, KC should have finished about 6.5 games behind Detroit in the standings, and a full 22.5 in front of Minnesota.

The other metric to show here is Luck.  Luck is just what it says, you won more games than your numbers suggested, or conversely, you lost more games than what is normally seen with your stats.  This is measured simply by comparing a team’s actual record against their Pythagorean wins and losses.

For example, a team whose run differential is around 0 (+/- 10 runs) would expect to have a record around 81-81 (.500).  Any deviation from this would be a result of luck.  An 88-74 record means your team outplayed its run differential, and has a Luck figure of +7.  Likewise, a record of 74-88 translates to a -7 Luck factor, all things considered equal.

In 2011, the Royals scored 730 runs (5th in the AL)  and allowed 762 runs (12th).  Plugging these run totals through the Pythagorean winning percentage formula above, one gets a winning percentage of .481, or when taken times 162 games, yields a record of 78-84.

The actual record Kansas City finished with was 71-91.  This all ends in the Royals having a Luck factor of -7, making them the unluckiest team in the American League (next closest was -4 by Yankees and Red Sox), and the 2nd most unlucky in all of baseball, with only the San Diego Padres more unlucky at -8.

On the flipside, the luckiest teams in the majors were all at +6, accomplished by the likes of Milwaukee, Arizona, San Francisco, and Detroit.  Cleveland had a +5 rating.

I’m really interested in the Royals’ division.  Below is a quick synopsis of actual and Pythagorean records + Luck in the AL Central.

TEAM                                  Act W-L         Pythag W-L        Luck (+/-)

1.  Detroit Tigers              95-67             89-73                       +6

2.  Cleveland Indians    80-82              75-87                      +5

3.  Chicago White Sox   79-83              75-87                      +4

4.  Kansas City Royals  71-91               78-84                       -7

5.  Minnesota Twins      63-99              62-100                     +1

A quick analysis from this suggests the Royals were the 2nd best team in the division, despite finishing officially in 4th place.  Each and every other team had a positive Luck figure.

Here’s where things get a little interesting, from both a WAR and Luck perspective.  First WAR.

Nothing is ever set in stone, but if Detroit’s lineup goes like last year, it should produce more WAR offensively.  Take DH/1B Victor Martinez’s 2.9 WAR away and replace it with Prince Fielder’s 5.2 WAR, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the benefit in signing him to fill a void caused by an ACL injury.

This alone raises Detroit’s bWAR to 26.1.  Fielder has posted some fairly inconsistent WAR numbers over the past 5 years though.  His 6.1 in 2009 was by far his best season, although 2011’s 5.2 was good.  After that you have a 3.8 in 2007, 2.7 in 2010, 2.1 in 2008, and a head-scratching -0.5 in 2006 in 648 plate appearances.  Which Fielder will Detroit get this year?  If he’s the same as he was in 2010, this is actually a negative for Detroit.

Fielder has never posted positive defensive (dWAR) in this career.  He’s an immobile first baseman that will not assist the other infielders in converting tough throws and bad hops into outs.

Miguel Cabrera moving to third at least part-time helps the Tigers’ offense by removing a black hole known as Brandon Inge and his sub-.200 batting average.  What hurts them is his defense.  He was pretty awful at 3B his last 2 full seasons at the hot corner (2006-7 in Florida), posting fielding percentages under .960, with a .941 in 2007; he has yet to post a non-negative dWAR component in his major league career too.

Basically, the Tigers’ infield of Fielder at first, Ramon Santiago/Ryan Raburn at second, Jhonny Peralta at short, and Cabrera at third might seep more runs than meets the eye.  Defenses tend to get magnified in shoddiness the more questionable parts you place on it, particularly without a vacuum at first base to erase bad and hurried throws.

The Royals must replace a nice offensive season from Melky Cabrera, who posted a career-best 4.8 oWAR, but because his defense was viewed so poorly (-1.9 dWAR), he was worth only 2.9 to the team.  Still, replacement Lorenzo Cain will have some big shoes to fill, as Melky batted a very good .305 / .339 / .470 / .809 (OPS +121).

One must remember the Royals were a upper-third offense in all of major league baseball last year with years like this from the following positions for most of the season:

Catcher (Matt Treanor (230 PA) and Brayan Pena (240 PA)):  .238 / .318 / .324 with 23 extra base hits in 470 plate appearances.

Second Base (Chris Getz (429 PA), Johnny Giavotella (187 PA), and Mike Aviles (85 PA)):  .247 / .297 /.331 with 33 XBH in 701 plate appearances.

Mike Moustakas pre-Aug 17:  .182 / .237 / .227 in 217 plate appearances.

Kila Ka’aihue for 1 month + of .195 / .295 / .317 crappiness before Hosmer saved the position.

All of this sums up my point that the extra year of seasoning the likes of Hosmer, Moustakas, Giavotella, Perez, and Escobar got at the plate should translate to improvements in 2012 and beyond.  Can they improve enough to organically make up the 5.5 WAR shortfall between them and the Tigers on offense?  Maybe.

Pitching wise, Detroit benefitted from an MVP season from Justin Verlander, but when you strip away his 8.6 WAR from his Cy Young season, and replace it with his 4.1  in 2010, the Tigers’ advantage of 3.3 WAR over the Royals vanishes in an instant.  Should Verlander come back to Earth (18-9, 3.37 ERA in 2010) and Jose Valverde not close every save opportunity, it could be a very real fact that Detroit’s staff is eclipsed by the Royals.

Now, the Royals jettisoned Jeff Francis and his 1.4 WAR and are subbing in Jonathan Sanchez for 0.1.  That would seem to be a bad thing, but Sanchez’s injury-plagued 2011 should be weighed against his 3.6 WAR 2010 just as much.  There is opportunity for KC to cash in if Sanchez can repeat his 2010.

Also, the three headed monster of Kyle Davies, Sean O’Sullivan, and Vin Mazzaro (who started 27 games) and its collective WAR of -3.2 will be replaced by more inning going to Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy, who put together a WAR of 2.4 last year, a swing of over 6 WAR.  Examples like this show the Royals have room to grow just by making some adjustments in the rotation and eliminating the use of trogs like Davies/O’Sullivan/Mazzaro.

Finally, the Luck difference between the two can only get narrower.  Joakim Soria, the Royals former All-Star closer, will not blow 7 saves this year and post an ERA over 4.00.  Valverde will blow saves this year, it is inevitable.    What happens if the Royals and Tigers would have swapped Luck factors last year?

Kansas City Royals    85-77

Detroit Tigers                83-79

The question is, who got better and who stayed put?  Only time (and Prince Fielder) will tell.


~ by goetgre on February 15, 2012.

One Response to “WAR and Luck (and Prince)”

  1. I am writing to see if you are interested in applying to write for FanSided MLB. For more info email bblontz@gmail.com.


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