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Luckily, “replacement level” has entered the general baseball parlance, but the concept of Wins Above Replacement, while worthwhile, doesn’t quite help us in most of our conversations. Generally speaking, when we’re discussing teams and players working to improve their organization or their individual performances, we’re not talking about elevating them from “replacement level” to playoff-bound (team) or All-Star (player).
The Giants, for instance, aren’t looking to field a roster of replacement level hitters — they’re already doing that — but instead want at the very least league average hitters. What’s the difference?
A replacement level player refers to “readily available” minor league players or free agent fill-ins for major league positions. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) does make positional adjustments. As MLB.com puts it:
For example, if a shortstop and a first baseman offer the same overall production (on offense, defense and the basepaths), the shortstop will have a better WAR because his position sees a lower level of production from replacement-level players.
So, when we’re talking about a “replacement-level player”, then, we’re talking about a player worth 0.0 wins. A team of replacement players is projected to win 48 games in the American League and 56 games in the National League. If you’re wondering if that’s actually true, let’s consider the 2018 Giants, who went 73-89.
Were they really just 17 wins better than a replacement level team? According to FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (in case you didn’t know: yes, there are at least three different types of WAR, but their variances are not such that it throws the whole idea into chaos), the Giants’ offense (lol) was worth just 6.5 wins above replacement, second-worst in baseball (thanks, Orioles). Their pitching, was worth 12.9 wins, 19th-best in baseball.
19.4 + 56 = 75.4. That’s pretty darned close; and, keep in mind, their 5-21 September was cartoonishly bad, driven by far too many season-ending injuries to the primary lineup.
What does that mean?
Well, that should establish for the skeptics out there that Wins Above Replacement does predict, describe, or suggest just exactly how a team is doing over the course of the season. What does any of this mean for my larger point about why league average is preferable to above replacement?
Going back to the Giants example, keeping an eye on what a league average hitter looks like will ultimately be a little bit more telling in terms of a team’s struggles. WAR includes defense, positions, etc. but if we just want to know what a league average hitter looks like, we’ll need to ignore WAR and focus on the pure offensive measures.
On that note, there’s Weighted Runs Created-plus (wRC+) which you can read about here. That’s FanGraphs’ primary measure. The competition is Baseball Reference’s OPS+, which you can read about here. The main differences between these two is that FanGraphs makes park and league weight adjustments to performance whereas B-R weights individual offensive outcomes. There’s also Baseball Prospectus’ brand new DRC+, which could very well be the next big thing, but actually doesn’t need to be filtered into this particular conversation.
Yes, we can just look at the wRC+, OPS+ and/or DRC+ leaderboards and find all the players who whose offensive contributions can be boiled down to a single number that equals 100 (100 is “league average”, with greater than 100 being considered “above league average” and any number below 100 “below league average”). In the case of wRC+, there are five such players at this very moment:
So, this is the article, right? I just went to FanGraphs, sorted by wRC+, found the players who are at 100, and then made a list meaning I’m done here, right? Well, I don’t think it’s that simple.
Manny Machado doesn’t figure to be a “league average” player over the course of the season, but right now, that’s where his output has gotten him. He’s hitting .244/.333/.400 in 102 plate appearances.
Calhoun, meanwhile, was exactly replacement level last season in terms of wins (0.0), thanks to his defense and his general output relative to his position, but his wRC+ was just 79. In the prior four seasons, he came in at 124, 103, 117, and 98. He’s hitting .200/.296/.463 in 108 plate appearances.
Calhoun tops Machado in raw OPS, so it comes down to more than that, and that’s what I wanted to highlight. You can also go to FanGraphs and look at the league average for all offensive categories, giving you, essentially, the League Average Line (you can subtract pitchers from the equation so they can’t ruin everything), which looks like this:
.250 AVG / .327 OBP / .432 SLG (.759 OPS) /
22.5% K% / 9.3% BB% / .294 BABIP / .182 ISO / .324 WOBA
100 wRC+ (obviously)
Quick refreshers on...
... BAbip (batting average on balls in play):
measures a player’s batting average exclusively on balls hit into the field of play, removing outcomes not affected by the opposing defense (namely home runs and strikeouts).
For example, a hitter who goes 2-for-5 with a home run and a strikeout would have a .333 BABIP. He’s 1-for-3 on the balls he put in play.
... ISO (Isolated Power):
measures the raw power of a hitter by taking only extra-base hits -- and the type of extra-base hit -- into account.
For example, a player who goes 1-for-5 with a double has an ISO of .200.
and wOBA (Weight On Base Average):
a version of on-base percentage that accounts for how a player reached base -- instead of simply considering whether a player reached base. The value for each method of reaching base is determined by how much that event is worth in relation to projected runs scored (example: a double is worth more than a single).
Also, in this case, I’m talking about Major League Baseball and not being NL or AL-specific (again, pitchers subtracted), and rather than focus on one number for what represents league average — because, again, Manny Machado is not someone we consider a league average hitter), let’s consider that there are other ways to be a league average hitter and that some of these measures might actually be more predictive over the course of the season (WAR and the various pluses really do serve to record what happened rather than project ahead).
Sure, the league averages will fluctuate over the season, but generally speaking, those walk and strikeout rates figure to hang steady. The league average strikeout rate was 21.7% and walk rate was 8.6%. So, figure anything around 22% and 9%, respectively, will work. Here’s a sampling of players in that range:
Nelson Cruz 21.8% / 12.8%
Austin Meadows 21.7% / 9.6%
Mitch Moreland 21.8% / 10.3%
Billy Hamilton 22.0% / 11.0%
Eduardo Escobar 22.0% / 9.2%
Billy Hamilyon is a huge outlier here, as he has a career wRC+ of just 70. And this season, he’s at 61. Meanwhile, Moreland has a 122 wRC+, Escobar is at 119, Cruz at 168 and Meadows at 188, so, obviously — obviously — we can’t just rely on those rates to find our league average hitters. Still, it’s not hard to see how it points us in a general direction of who’s actually good and where the outliers fall, we’ll spot them.
What about something like OPS? Who are some .759 OPS havers currently in baseball. Hmm... well...
Kole Calhoun and Lorenzo Cain did, as of this morning. They’re both at 100 wRC+. Jorge Soler also registered a .759 as of this morning FanGraphs leaderboard update but checks in with a 97 wRC+. Neil Walker has a .758 OPS and a 108 wRC+. Albert Pujols is at .755 with a 105. So, OPS actually does kinda-sorta get us close, but OPS is really more of a quick and dirty stat. On Base Percentage and slugging percentage shouldn’t be weighted equally (which is all OPS does, add OBP + SLG).
The reason why not all of these league average rate-havers don’t settle into that league average mode in terms of those rate stats and OPS is because separately, they don’t tell the full story, although they can point us in the right direction. Taken together, however, and weighted accordingly, they tend to tell a fuller story. If you’re just trying to figure out what a league average hitter in 2019 looks like without considering his defense and you want to refer to just one number, then you should consider Weighted On Base average.
Here are the five players who are within the league average range of .324:
Adalberto Mondesi (.325)
Byron Buxton (.325)
Matt Carpenter (.323)
Logan Forsythe (.323)
Brandon Nimmo (.323)
And here are their wRC+ values:
Adalberto Mondesi (100)
Byron Buxton (99)
Matt Carpenter (101)
Logan Forsythe (93)
Brandon Nimmo (105)
Nimmo’s absurd 36.4% strikeout rate is buoyed by a 13.6% walk rate (above league average) and a .178 ISO (near league average). Similarly, Buxton and Mondesi both have walk rates under 6% and higher than league average strikeout rates, but both have OPSes above the league average.
So, what does that tell us? wOBA gets us a lot closer to seeing what a league average hitter looks like, and if you’re ever pressed for time but want to figure out if the latest waiver claim, trade, or free agent signing could work out for your team, look there first.
For what it’s worth, the only current starting player on the Giants with a wOBA over .300 right now is Brandon Belt (.354).