Could It Be Time to Update WAR’s Positional Adjustments?

It’s been quite a week for the WAR stat. Since Jeff Passan dropped his highly controversial piece on the metric on Sunday night, the interwebs have been abuzz with arguments both for and against the all-encompassing value stat. One criticism in particular that caught my eye came from Mike Newman, who writes for ROTOscouting. Newman’s qualm had to do with a piece of WAR that’s often taken for granted: the positional adjustment. He made the argument that current WAR models underrate players who play premium defensive positions, pointing out that it would “laughable” for Jason Heyward to replace Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, but not at all hard to envision Simmons being an excellent right fielder.

This got me thinking about positional adjustments. Newman’s certainly right to question them, as they’re a pretty big piece of the WAR stat, and one most of us seem to take for granted. Plus, as far as I’m aware, none of the major baseball websites regularly update the amount they credit (or debit) a player for playing a certain position. They just keep the values constant over time. I’m sure that whoever created these adjustments took steps to ensure they accurately represented the value of a player’s position, but maybe they’ve since gone stale. It’s certainly not hard to imagine that the landscape of talent distribution by position may have changed over time. For example, perhaps the “true” replacement level for shortstops is much different than it was a decade or so ago when Alex Rodriguez Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada were all in their primes.

I decided to try and figure out if something like this might be happening. If the current positional adjustments were in fact inaccurately misrepresenting replacement level at certain positions, we’d expect the number of players above replacement level to vary by position. For example, there might be something like 50 above-replacement third basemen, but only 35 shortstops. Luckily, the FanGraphs leaderboard gives you the ability to query player stats by position played, which proved especially useful for what I was trying to do. For each position, I counted the number of plate appearances accumulated by players with a positive WAR and then divided that number by the total plate appearances logged at that position. Here are the results broken out by position for all games since 2002.

Ch1

Based on this data, it seems like the opposite of Newman’s hypothesis may be true. A significantly higher portion positive WAR plate appearances have come from players at the tougher end of the defensive spectrum, which implies that teams don’t have too difficult of a time finding shortstops and center fielders who are capable of logging WARs above zero. Less than 13% of all SS and CF plate appearances have gone to sub-replacement players. But finding a replacement-level designated hitter seems to be slightly more difficult, as teams have filled their DH with sub-replacement-level players nearly 30% of the time. Either teams are really bad at finding DH types (or at putting them in the lineup), or the positional adjustments aren’t quite right. The disparities are even more pronounced when you look at what’s taken place from 2002 to 2014.

Ch2

The share of PAs logged by shortstops and center fielders hasn’t changed much over the years, but the numbers have plummeted for first basemen, corner outfielders, and DH’s. From Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, to Jay Bruce and Domonic Brown, this year’s lineups have been riddled with sub-replacement hitters manning positions at the lower end of the defensive spectrum. Meanwhile, even low-end shortstops and center fielders, like Derek Jeter and Austin Jackson, have managed to clear the replacement level hurdle this season if we only count games at their primary positions.

The waning share of above-replacement PA’s coming from 1B, LF, RF, and DH has caused the overall share to drop as well, with a particularly big drop coming this year. Here’s a look at the overall trend.

 

Ch3

And here it is broken down by position…

 

Ch4

And just between this year and last…

 

ch5

 

Frankly I’m not sure what to make of all of this. I’m hesitant to call it evidence that the positional adjustments are broken. There could be some obvious flaw to my methodology that I’m not considering, but I find it extremely interesting that there’s been such a shift between this year and last. We’re talking an 8 percentage point jump in the number of PAs that have gone to sub-replacement-level players. Maybe its been spurred the rise of the shift or maybe year-round interleague play has something to do with it, but it seems to me that something’s going on here. And I’m interested to hear other people’s thoughts on these trends.





Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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haishan
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haishan

This really isn’t much more than a just-so story, but it seems plausible to me that in 2002 — well within the steroid era, and pre-PITCHf/x — there was a relative surplus of players who could hit the crap out of the ball but couldn’t run/field/throw very well at all. In other words your prototypical 1B/DH. If this is the case there would be a good argument for tweaking those positional adjustments. I have no such hypothesis for why so many PAs are going to sub-replacement level players in 2014, though. Maybe it’s just weird noise and things will bounce… Read more »

Z
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Z

I think it somewhat has to do with the fact that the offensive positional adjustments are done in runs, but the impact of runs on winning depends on the run environment. Saving runs isn’t quite the same as earning runs, because well… you can’t save runs past 0. No amount of run-saving will help you if your team scores zero runs. Correspondingly, as the run environment gets more bleak for hitters, people who give significantly extra offense add more value. Since we’ve lost about 10% of the runs scored (~4.75 to ~4.25), you’d expect that the runs that you get… Read more »

tz
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tz

Two points come to mind: 1. The overall decline in offense in baseball over this period is driven a lot by a big increase in strikeouts, which probably tends to hurt DH/1B/LF types more than guys who play up the middle. This would bring the average batting runs contributed closer together across positions. 2. If you consider the long-term fluctuation of talent mix by position, then the only positional adjustment that looks like it might need a change is for DH. This might be a consequence of fewer teams having a full-time DH, but using it as a place to… Read more »

Mike Newman
Member

Hey Chris, Thanks for building off of my piece the other day. Any chance to learn and grow baseball knowledge is awesome. After reading it, I have a couple of thoughts on the topic. First off, my argument comes down to scarcity and the idea 3 people on planet earth can play SS defense as well as Simmons, yet a great deal of SS, 2B and CF can transition to LF and leverage their athleticism into strong defensive numbers at an easier position. Even with the positional adjustment, it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. Speaking directly to this piece, common… Read more »

sam
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sam

I think a possible explanation could be that, with the decline of offense, more of the overall available WAR in a given season is given to pitchers, resulting in a decline in the share of WAR being given to position players.

Thanks, Comcast
Guest
Thanks, Comcast

The ratio actually stays the same every year; 57% of league WAR goes to position players and 43% goes to pitchers. There’s certainly a reasonable argument to be made that more of that should go to pitchers, though, given that the decline in offense is largely related to increased strikeout rates and a decrease in homeruns (both of which are independent of fielding). More to the point, more strikeouts means fewer balls in play. That’s reflected by the UZR portion of WAR (as it’s cumulative), but not by the positional adjustments. It makes since to me that if the range… Read more »

Thanks, Comcast
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Thanks, Comcast

Do batted ball trends come into play at all? League wide GB/FB ratio is at its peak, and overall groundball% has steadily trended upward over the past decade. One could certainly envision that causing a shift (oh, and there’s that, too) in the relative value of infielders versus outfielders.

But I think Z’s above comment about the change in run environment is probably the best starting point for improvement.

Peter Jensen
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Peter Jensen

Interesting research. Three possible explanations come to mind. Injuries, which Mike Newman suggested above. Easily testable using MLBs DL data base. Long term contracts. The front office has much more incentive to stick with a player with a long term guaranteed high dollar contract even when he falls below replacement level. Testable by looking at the percentage of below replacement level PAs at each position going to subs or going to players with multiyear contracts. And third, September callups. I’m hypothesizing that September callups may be given more PAs as DHs that at other positions. You could run your query… Read more »

Cool WHIP
Member
Cool WHIP

Forgive my ignorance, but why would a drop in offensive production necessitate a change in positional adjustment? Why would you alter a metric of defensive aptitude based on offense? Unless 1B or DH somehow become “more difficult” to field relative to other positions, I don’t understand why positional adjustments would explain a drop in PA shares of positive WAR players. Maybe the league’s DHs as a group are declining offensively, making it harder for them to crack a positive WAR.

Would anyone care to elaborate?

Cool WHIP
Member
Cool WHIP

Third sentence is meant to read: “Unless 1B or DH somehow become “more difficult” to field relative to other positions, I don’t understand why you might consider changing their positional adjustments.”

Cool WHIP
Member
Cool WHIP

Forgot to mention- thank you for the article. It has inspired quite a bit of thought already

Word
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Word

This is really interesting, Chris. Mike makes an interesting point about the role of injuries as well — is it possible we see more replacement-level (and sub-replacement) ABs at positions like first base because more ABS are given to actual replacement players? My only contribution would be to wonder if we need to expand the time frame, to make sure this isn’t skewed by the current batch of players. There’s the famous example of CFs in the 1950s. I doubt it’s the case, but it seems plausible that right now we just have more good players at the premium defensive… Read more »

olethros
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olethros

How much of that DH drop is due to NL teams playing in AL parks with a bench/utility guy as DH?

DavidKB
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DavidKB

First off, great article. Second off, I have a question. Are WAR values for people who play in multiple positions based on a weighted average of the positional adjustments, or based on the most valuable position they regularly play? To me it seems like it should be the latter, since a player’s WAR really shouldn’t depend on external factors (e.g. platooning, logjam, etc), which are a result of the team he plays on.

DUTCH4007
Member
DUTCH4007

Thank you for doing this article! To me it makes complete sense that it would be harder to produce WAR as a DH then a position player. The replacement for a SS is the next best SS the replacement for a DH is the next best hitter independent of position. If DH’s were producing WAR at about the same rate as position players it would make me wonder.

Ben Fenker
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Ben Fenker

It may be worthwhile to break out the overall WAR into fielding/hitting WAR. This is a more reliable stat and would be a more accurate representation of the offensive quality of hitters at the different positions over time.

Billy
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Billy

I hope I’m not weighing in too late on your piece, Chris. This is a bit similar to a question I’ve had for a while about positional adjustments, though mine was more narrow in focus since I was concerned with only the outfield. I was concerned with how merely changing from CF to a corner OF spot (or vice versa) could make a defender look better or worse due to comparison to easier or tougher competition respectively. Theoretically, shouldn’t the two even out exactly overall and leave WAR unaltered when a player makes a switch? In my casual observation, that… Read more »

Paul Kasiński
Member
Member

Positional adjustments change every year based on the performance of players at those positions.