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 ($M)||2013 Cub||2012 Age||2012 WAR|
What about the magical age number when talking about signing projectable free agents? What that split at age 30? Here's that breakdown:
|Position||Under 30: Player Count||Under 30: Cost/WAR ($M)||Over 30: Player Count||Over 30: Cost/WAR ($M)|
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.
Filed under: Guest Post