Leaning on WAR to set bonuses for young MLB stars is a recipe for mass confusion

·8 min read

In the ongoing slog of the MLB lockout, virtually the only sign of progress has been movement toward creating a central bonus pool to reward the young, increasingly productive players who have not yet reached arbitration.

There is still a chasm to bridge on how much money would be in this bonus pool, but the basic principle is in place. Early career players who would typically be making the major-league minimum or thereabouts, no matter how valuable their performance, will now have a chance to earn more for star-level play.

In a break with the sport’s longstanding rule that incentives must only attach to playing time or awards, this bonus pool would seek out the 30 best pre-arbitration players by leaning on a statistical measure. Namely: Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.

Devised in the 2000s and fully popularized over the past decade, the all-in-one measure of player value is a bedrock metric for contemporary baseball, with several public versions increasingly guiding fans’ impressions of their favorite stars and writers’ votes for awards and the Hall of Fame. Inside the game, even more detailed proprietary versions of the metric underpin the workings of ever more sophisticated front offices.

It is also an internet bogeyman, Public Enemy No. 1 for fans clinging to the shreds of an anti-information platform that the tides of reality and big business have already washed away.

That created a confusing crossfire effect to objections over the application of WAR for bonuses. There are legitimate worries about how owners will attempt to sprout this concept into a wider salary-suppressing system in the future, and over the potential effects of tying player compensation to the evolving work of unaffiliated public websites. WAR as an idea is not the problem, though. Paying young players more based on the best available measure of their overall contributions makes a lot of sense.

In practice, MLB and the players are walking into a mess. Despite its ubiquity, WAR is not a singular, established, hard-wired calculation. The formula varies significantly even between the most prominent public versions. As Yahoo Sports’ Hannah Keyser reported, the current bonus pool proposal would rely upon a simple average of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs WAR.

Which is like averaging your heart rate with your blood pressure reading.

Especially for pitchers, the different iterations measure entirely different things.

Splitting the difference is a recipe for confusion and unintended consequences, a lazy and unacceptable solution for one of the game’s most significant problems.

A proposed bonus pool for young MLB stars would use an average WAR number involving the calculations of the public analysis site FanGraphs, whose founder David Appleman is shown here calculating the pitching statistic FIP. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A proposed bonus pool for young MLB stars would use an average WAR number involving the calculations of the public analysis site FanGraphs, whose founder David Appleman is shown here calculating the pitching statistic FIP. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Warring WARs won’t work for pitchers

What unites all WAR metrics is their goal of estimating the same thing — how much better each player was over a season than a theoretical “replacement” player who could be found at Triple-A. What separates them is, well, basically everything they use to actually create that estimate.

Hitters are easier to square. The major WARs use park-adjusted metrics that weight certain outcomes in slightly different ways, but usually come out pretty close.

Pitchers, though, are a nightmare. Credit for preventing runs is far more difficult to allocate than credit for creating them.

Baseball-Reference WAR zeroes in on results, in all their messy glory. It is more in the what you see is what you get vein. A sparkling ERA typically translates to a top-of-the-charts WAR. That feels tidy for helping less analytically inclined fans bridge the gap from the ‘90s to the present, but it risks unduly tying pitchers’ fortunes to their teammates’ abilities. The site does make adjustments for the strength of a team’s defense, but that in itself is a murky science.

At FanGraphs, the WAR formula for pitchers is built to strip away the noise of defense and luck to focus on the pitcher’s sphere of influence. It does that by accounting only for strikeouts, walks and home runs. The stat that takes center stage — Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP — uses those events to estimate the ERA a pitcher earned.

In terms of capturing a pitcher’s true talent level and figuring out who would be better if two pitchers were dropped into an identical situation, FanGraphs’ model actually works better. Numerous studies have shown that FIP predicts future ERA better than past ERAs.

That doesn’t settle the philosophical question of whether we should financially reward ability or actual results. We don’t award the World Series to the team with the best run differential, for instance. We play it out, letting ability and luck mingle until a champion emerges from the chaos.

It’s a tough question! No one envies the parties who have to hammer out the details that could alter hundreds of players’ financial lives. But that’s the job. The current proposed method of averaging the two WARs is owners and players simply throwing up their hands instead of dealing with that conundrum.

As a basic rule, if money is tied to number, players and teams need to be able to comprehend and articulate how to strive to reach that number. These two WARs don’t really measure the same things, so they shouldn’t reasonably be averaged. Beyond that, they could provide conflicting incentives to any player that does seek to understand the path to a bonus.

DETROIT, MI -  SEPTEMBER 24:  Pitcher Casey Mize #12 of the Detroit Tigers during the third inning of a game against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park on September 24, 2021, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Detroit Tigers rookie Casey Mize posted a 2021 season that was valued at vastly different WARs by Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

How would the bonus pool have looked in 2021?

If we apply the loose hypothetical of the bonus pool to the 2021 season — where the 30 best pre-arbitration players would be eligible for a piece of the pie — we can see some of the strains. (There are some details that just aren’t fully clear, such as how award voting might be factored in, so we are ignoring that for now and going with the top 30 players by WAR.)

Atop the class sit the obvious hitters. Breakout Baltimore Orioles star Cedric Mullins II leads in both WAR rankings, with Bo Bichette, Kyle Tucker and Jake Cronenworth close behind. The pitchers are more complicated. Surprise Philadelphia Phillies star Ranger Suarez blazed through 106 innings with a 1.36 ERA and would rank as the second-best pre-arb player in the majors if Baseball-Reference’s estimation ruled the day. If FanGraphs’ WAR were gospel, he would still be in line for one of the bonuses, but as the 13th-most productive youngster.

That chasm gets hairier when the question becomes extra money vs. no extra money. Detroit Tigers rookie Casey Mize, the former No. 1 overall pick, managed a promising 3.71 ERA despite a generally bad defense behind him, so Baseball-Reference hails his year as a 3.3 WAR triumph. However, he only struck out 7.1 batters per nine innings and gave up a lot of home runs, so FanGraphs sees it as a bit of a smoke and mirrors act and pegs it as a 1.4 WAR season.

If the league implemented the averaging method as described, Mize would be in line for a bonus over quite a few players whose bonafides are less disputed.

On the flip side, Tampa Bay Rays starter Shane McClanahan would miss out on a bonus despite posting a better ERA (3.43) and far better underlying numbers, admittedly in five fewer starts. Why? Because in Baseball-Reference’s attempt to account for the effects of team defense, it dings McClanahan for playing in front of a very good one.

Stats are stats, and a variety of complicated, intertwined factors influence things as simple as a home run total. But the fence is the fence; players know when a ball goes over it, and they can clearly gauge whether that boosts or hurts the value of their performance.

When Mize or McClanahan fling a fastball toward home under the proposed bonus pool rules, what should they hope happens to maximize their earning potential? Beyond striking out every batter of every game, there’s no good explanation.

The most responsible solution to this problem takes more work. But even if it can’t be completed before the 2022 season, MLB and the players should plan to jointly create a new WAR that removes the burden from public analysts and provides a clear, carefully considered framework for the players whose earnings depend on it.