Guest Post: The Dollars and Sense of WAR

Guest Post: The Dollars and Sense of WAR

Editor: The following is a guest post from long-time reader Matt Mosconi.  Matt isn't just a fan of baseball and statistics.  For all you local foodies, he also writes a blog here on Chicago Now called Chicago's Worldly Tastes.  For his day job, Matt is a Sales Strategy Analyst and in this post he analyzes the impact of dollars and WAR on the Cubs rebuilding strategy. 

The Dollars and Sense of WAR

by Matt Mosconi

Strong sites like the Cubs Den do a great job of balancing the newer age sabermetrics and the statistics of baseball with the venerable and still-relevant aspects of baseball scouting. Of course when you’re talking about a specific team like the Cubs, you can’t just say “get me the best stats guys and the best tools guys” and call it a day. There are budgets and contracts and other teams involved. That’s why we like to play Armchair GM and think about which players the Cubs can sign, keep, trade, and let go.

The most obvious and prominent sabermetrics “tool” is probably WAR. Sites like FanGraphs and Baseball Reference have created their own versions of it, and we typically use WAR as an overall value reference today – in other words, we might be prone to use “what’s his WAR?” to really ask “how good is the guy?”

Well, when playing armchair GM, how much should we use stats like WAR when thinking about whom to sign? We’ve heard reference to how many dollars 1 WAR typically costs to sign. In a perfectly competitive market with absolute and complete knowledge, everybody would get paid the same rate in terms of WAR, but we know the market’s not perfect. That’s why Theo and his team are well-regarded – they’re known to have exploited “market inefficiencies” in the past to create winning teams at non-Yankee prices.

Are there any market inefficiencies when looking at WAR?

I’ve compiled what is admittedly a rather limited list of players, their salaries, and their WAR in 2012 from free data from Baseball Reference. I purposefully set a few limits – the players must have played in at least half the games in 2012, and I omitted pitchers. For assigning positions, I took the position that they played most often in 2012. Admittedly this leaves in utility players and makes things a bit murky, but I figure if they played in half of a team’s games they were an important piece for the season.

Check out some highlights:

Position Player Count Cost/War ($M) 2013 Cub 2012 Age 2012 WAR
C 30 $1.762 Castillo 25 1.3
1B 36 $4.542 Rizzo 22 2.3
2B 41 $2.004 Barney 26 4.8
3B 36 $2.565 Valbuena 26 0.5
SS 29 $1.735 Castro 22 3.6
LF 41 $2.249 Soriano 36 2.0
CF 39 $1.175 DeJesus 32 1.8
RF 36 $2.459 Schierholtz 28 0.8
DH 14 $4.137 N/A N/A N/A

What about the magical age number when talking about signing projectable free agents?  What that split at age 30?  Here's that breakdown:

Position Under 30: Player Count Under 30: Cost/WAR ($M) Over 30: Player Count Over 30: Cost/WAR ($M)
C 19 $1.608 11 $2.169
1B 22 $2.604 14 $6.761
2B 26 $1.322 15 $2.881
3B 20 $1.653 16 $4.401
SS 20 $1.078 9 $3.385
LF 24 $1.426 17 $3.732
CF 31 $0.782 8 $2.767
RF 20 $1.604 16 $3.104
DH 8 $1.555 6 $15.792

WAR emphasizes the term ‘replacement’ – especially on defense – and prime defensive positions are underpaid. Your WAR is higher if you’re harder to replace, and on average, good defense (range, agility, speed, etc.) is harder to replace than good offense. Think about the conundrums with some of the Cubs’ young stars, like Starlin Castro and Javier Baez. We’re deciding who should move away from shortstop, and we often put the “positional loser” at other positions with little hesitation, such as 2B, 3B, and LF. Why? Because some positions are easier to play than others. Almost any baseball athlete can be pegged into left field or first base. But shortstop, center field, or catcher? No way, José. There’s a reason “strength up the middle” is important for winning teams.What does this all mean in terms of WAR and how to build a team?

What does this mean for the Cubs? It should be very, very, very difficult to pry Starlin Castro from the Cubs. He’s going to be signed onto a team friendly contract for several years, and he plays a premium defensive position that is hard to replace. Even if he’s “just” above average for a long time, that’s huge. What’s easier to find? A good-to-great corner outfielder who can hit, or a good-to-great shortstop who can hit? Flat out, you’re going to struggle to replace Castro for even three quarters on the dollar much more than you would, say, Anthony Rizzo.

Furthermore, the Cubs are hurting at centerfield, in my opinion, unless Brett Jackson pans out. I’d consider centerfield the biggest question mark on the Cubs right now in terms of premium defensive positions. Shin-Soo Choo could be a good stopgap if the Cubs could land him at a not ridiculous price.

Productive players who are still on their first/rookie contracts provide extreme value. This one is probably a little bit more obvious, but I think it’s underappreciated when thinking about overall team salaries. There’s no doubt that the cost/WAR numbers are lower for the under-30’s group I put above because of these players. You’re simply getting well above market value for these guys; it’s effectively a “freebie” for however many years you have this player under control. This is a huge reward for those teams with solid player development and payroll ceilings.

What does this mean for the Cubs? It means keep up the good work with the scouting and development, and like my note on Castro above, don’t just give away your Travis Woods for some flyers or even just decent prospects. Simply the fact that we have him under control for cheap for three more years means that’s essentially an extra $5-$8 million per year the Cubs can put elsewhere during that timeframe. Same with Darwin Barney (for now). There’s no reason to trade him unless we’re getting a very good haul in return.

This also makes me more hesitant to trade James Russell for more than anything than a good haul in either quality or quantity. He’s just a middle reliever and he’s replaceable, but the fact that we have him for cheap for a couple of years means we’re not shelling out the $3-$5 million on a veteran version of the same player.

Conversely, the value is typically lost after a year or two with older players under lengthy contracts. It’s just not likely that a star who signs a big, lengthy contract in his late-20’s or later is going to live out the value of his deal. Maybe a year or two, sure, but after that? Nope. At the Cubs Den, many of us have come to respect Alfonso Soriano and his production in the past couple of years, and I am one of them. But still – he cost us $9 million per WAR in 2012. That’s not even remotely in the ballpark of championship value.

What does this mean for the Cubs? It means stay the course with what you’ve been doing, at least with the majority of your personnel moves, and “overpay” with dollars instead of years to older players whenever you can. I was a proponent of getting Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols at their time of free agency. I’m now glad that the Cubs passed. Pujols looks like a terrible mistake, and while Fielder has done well thus far, the length of his contract alone makes me think that the majority of those contract years will be a poor investment at what will likely amount to 10-15% of the Tigers’ player payroll.

Lastly, WAR is not perfect. Opponents of WAR can probably throw much of my analysis above out the window. Darwin Barney’s WAR last year was 4.8. Is he really worth $10-$15 million a year? No, not to anyone. Even though I don’t have the pitching numbers here, I bet that a #1 starter’s WAR is maybe 3-5 points higher than a #5 starter. But it’s obviously a terrible route to the World Series to put your money into a bunch of mashers and defensive whizzes and rely on 5 Travis Woods to get you a World Series championship.

What does this mean for the Cubs? Keep their scouting department intact with a solid mix of old and new, which they have.

So after a quick look at a snapshot of the WAR numbers by position, my opinion of what Theo and Jed are doing is even more positive. They seem to be sticking by the rules of locking up youth at value rates and avoiding overpaying too many veterans (even if they have to overpay one or two players in the future, as has been mentioned here on Cubs Den, that can be washed out by the “freebie” or value contracts of the young guys), and as far as I can tell they’re recognizing the value of players up the middle.

Now let’s see if he can take advantage of that market efficiency with defensive whizzes.

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  • fb_avatar

    Excellent work Matt. Very timely in lieu of the trade deadline. Given your analysis, it's probably safe to say that Garza is gone, as is Kevin Gregg-given his age and market value. I was thinking that Valbuena would have good market value but given his salary and contribution, would likely be better served staying with the Cubs.

    As for Center field, I'd say we give Sweeney and Borbon a chance to shine while DeJesus is hurt. Interesting to see if the glove Borbon brings makes him more valuable than Sweeney. I can't see the Cubs bringing up BJx until he at least has a hot streak.

  • In reply to Dale Miller:

    Thanks Dale, I appreciate it.

    I like your ideas above though I do hesitate a little bit on Garza. This is a total personal opinion, but I think I trust the pitching WAR numbers a little bit less than I do the hitters' WAR numbers (and either way, I didn't include pitchers in my analysis above). It also seems as if pitchers can last a little bit longer and retain their value better than hitters (think a Jamie Moyer or a Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson or even Ryan Dempster).

    The keys to me with Garza are 1) can the Cubs trust him to stay healthy, and 2) is he willing to sign a reasonable contract? If either answer is "no", then definitely trade him, but if it's two "yeses" I'd keep him. I'm all for turning short-term assets into longer ones but at some point or another we're going to need to have reliable front-line starters, and those are only going to get more difficult to come by.

  • Good stuff Matt. Nice research and info.

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    Just another reason so many folks put the Cubs Den at the top of the list when search for Cubs info! Well done sir!!

  • In reply to bocabobby:

    Thanks Bobby. Great stuff by Matt.

  • Nicely done, Matt.
    It's clearer how "Win Now, Pay Later" doesn't pay off when it comes to long-term contracts for guys past their prime.
    Look at the Angels and Dodgers -- their Champagne Binge will give them a hangover when the bill is presented...and presented...and presented.

  • Thanks for the kind words everyone, and John, thanks for giving me the opportunity to write something up for such a great site.

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    Excellent work Matt! I love it.

  • Nice job, Matt. Interesting points made throughout. I have also thought that the Cubs would have to be blown away to move Russell. I know he's "just" a middle reliever, but he's excellent, young and cost controlled. Also, you know what you have in him. If the Cubs were to get someone(s) who they think can excel above and beyond in a SP role then by all means, but I don't think he's just someone to dump for some mediocre prospect.

  • In reply to Pura Vida:

    Definitely not someone we move for a mediocre anything right now. He's our best BP arm for setting up Greg right now. When we moved Marshall, he had 1yr of control left. We were going to lose him anyways. We had Russell waiting for his opportunity and we got T Wood, ++ for 1yr of Marshall. We'd have to be blown away to move Russell now. We may actively shop him when he's only cost controlled for a year, even then the haul should be substantial. I don't see anybody needing Russell bad enough to make us such a ridiculous offer now.

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    Yeah, I'd probably only move him for a Marshall package or better, but I agree that few teams are probably looking to do that at this point.

  • First time crapper (sorry, poster) on this page. Just started with CubsDen in last few months and it is really great site for a long suffering Cubs fan. Matt - I have to take to task one of your articles' comments - that Theo and boys "known to have exploited market inefficiencies to create winning teams at non-Yankee prices"...Theo had the 2nd largest payroll in baseball pretty much every year he had those winning teams in Boston, his two WS winners had payrolls more than 25M greater than the next highest payroll teams in '04 & '07. I guess you are technically correct that they did it without Yankee payrolls, but a lot of other GM's could be lauded for being consistent winners without "Theo RedSox payrolls" as well?

  • In reply to Charlieboy:

    Fair point, Charlieboy. I'm still holding strong on the "market inefficiencies" pieces as I feel that Theo and his crew have worked on finding those for a while (i.e. overpaying for prospects before the rules changed), but you're right in that the Red Sox had a large payroll.

    Perhaps more broadly, I feel that exploiting inefficiencies and getting ahead of the curve are the best ways to win long-term, and that's especially true for the "non-Yankee" teams. So perhaps someone like Andrew Friedman and Tampa Bay would have been a better example there. Good call.

  • In reply to Matt Mosconi:

    Well, maybe not. There was a greater difference in average player salary between the Yanks and the Red Sox than there was with the Red Sox and the team with the 18th largest payroll per player. The Red Sox were closer to the middle of the pack than they were to the Yankees.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    And wasn't there more "meddling" by Red Sox ownership that pushed Theo to take players he didn't necessarily think were the right fit for the ballclub? I guess it's a fine line as to questions about payrolls.....

  • In reply to bocabobby:

    Sounds to me like SMKH drew the right comparison here with L.A. and Anaheim.

  • In reply to bocabobby:

    All GM's have to deal with a degree of meddling from their owners don't they? Did Jim Hendry have the easiest ownership situation to deal with in his Cubs GM tenure? 3 different owners all with different visions for how the baseball side should be run. Sam Zell pushing short-term, visible success to the damnation of all else. Was Soriano's contract really on Hendry - I get a lot of different versions of that story.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    One of the other things this FO has done an excellent job of is finding value away from the metrics and incorporating the two. i.e., they saw value in Schierholtz by looking at what he did away from SF and then projecting that over a full season, etc. So far so good.

    They haven't quite as consistent (yet) on their TJS value theories. But they may still pay off.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    That's because they traded here largest salaries. AGon, Crawford and Beckett were 3 of there top-salaried players.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    They didn't have A-Gon when they won their first WS. I should have specified that was the data from when Theo won his first WS and he did add a lot of value at the margins back then.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Hi John - I don't exactly understand your point in this reply. Aren't the Yankees the statistical outlier here. Their spending during the Theo Red Sox years was so much different from the rest of baseball - what's the point in comparing someone else to them and drawing positive or negative conclusions from the comparison?

  • Matt,

    I think your conclusion regarding James Russell is a little off. Surely I don't want the Cubs to trade Russell only to buy a veteran version of the same player. That said, I think they can probably replace Russell with a similar player who is also cheap and under team control. He's having an excellent season but he's more LOOGY than relief ace. This was a terrific piece but it should acknowledge that third possibility.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    I don't see what trading him nets you though unless you get a Sean Marshall like return. More prospects that might (maybe, possibly) be as good as he is? He's young and cost controlled and actually productive and reliable. I think the Cubs should hold on to him until they are forced to make a decision. Again, not saying that if a team approaches them and offers them a similar deal as Marshall got that you don't take it... I just don't see why you trade young, talented players for younger players that may or may not ever see the light of day. Surely, there is area between these two... but then again, that's what Russell is already, isn't he?

  • In reply to Pura Vida:

    You're dead on Pura. I commented to you above. We've got no reason to move Russell now unless somebody blows our socks off with significant value.

  • In reply to Pura Vida:

    Eddie and Pura, I think you both have good points here. It's almost a matter of value to your own team vs. other teams, like an internal WAR vs. an external WAR.

    I think Russell has high overall value because of his performance and cost. So the Cubs shouldn't trade him for anything less than a strong, similarly cost-controlled package. However to your point, Eddie, if the Cubs were to trade Russell they could probably internally replace him more easily than other teams could. It's sort of the same reason why Baez is a potential trade candidate -- it's an excellent "problem" for a team to have two very good, young shortstops.

  • In reply to Matt Mosconi:

    I'm probably jaded, but I'm becoming more conservative about projecting replacements for players. What I mean is that, yes, theoretically the Cubs should be able to replace him, but look how hard it is for them to field a competitive bullpen right now. I just think that some of the guys we may look at and count on as replacements may flame out and not succeed at this level. What we have in Russell is someone who has proven over a couple of seasons that he's an above average bullpen arm. By definition, those aren't easy to replace.

  • Looks like we have another draft pick signing

    Trey Masek ‏@treymasek 5m

    Just signed my contract, officially a member of the Chicago Cubs organization! Couldn't be more blessed!

  • I have a simple word to cover most all aspects. Productivity. Get enough productive players, you win. Get underachieviers or has-beens(listening there, Calif Angels?) gets you a losing record and more likely several unproductive seasons. Jim Hendry, anyone? The biggest SIN GLE reason the Cubs suck right now is the failure to produce a strong farm system. Not a single # 1 draft pick from Hendrys regime remains in our system, and only Prior and Cashner really had any degree of ML productivity.

  • What about Baez?

  • In reply to rdacpa:

    Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson are still in the system too.

  • According to fangraphs, Barneys WAR was just 2.4. You are completely right about WAR not being perfect. I think to do any sort of WAR analyses there needs to be a composite number coming out of each of the major formulas. Otherwise all conclusions are inconsistent. Nice article, though. Definitely want to hear more from you.

  • fb_avatar

    Anyone who hasn't seen it should link to BA's Draft Tracker, and how much money is left for each team, including our Cubbies:

    According to this we are a smidge under budget, but Trevor Clifton's bonus is not posted yet, which figures to eat into that.

    Maybe they'll get some savings from Henneman or Bryant, we'll see

  • Great post Matt. I think your points on Castro are especially good for Cub fans to hear. There is SOOO much scrutiny over everything he does and he is the recipient of great criticism, but at the end of the day he just has so much value as a SS. Even if he never becomes the 20+ homer, .300+ AVG guy we all desire, he'll most likely be very valuable throughout the entirety of his contract.

  • Matt, that's great stuff, man! The FO definitely has the Cubs going in the right direction. I agree with you in that they better get REALLY nice hauls for Barney and/or Russell. I'm also really hoping Valbuena is a Cub for another two or three years and doesn't get moved before the deadline. His value is growing by the day. Sweeney too.

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