While I’ve soured on WAR for a number of reasons, one big reason is that it understates the value of high-WAR players. That is, players worth seven wins over replacement per season are exceedingly rare. They are worth far, far more than double a 3.5-win player, because 3.5-win players are far more common. To take this further, a team with one 7-win player and one 0-win player is in a far better position than a team with two 3.5-win players. The first team can replace the 0-win player, but the second team will have trouble finding reasonable, and reasonably priced, upgrades over the 3.5-win players.
Now, for the sake of the discussion let’s assume that WAR is a perfect number – this isn’t fWAR or bWAR or anything, just an abstract concept of wins over replacement player. Which situation would you rather be in? A 7 WAR player and a replacement player, or two 3.5 WAR players? Or, more concretely, would you rather have 2011 Curtis Granderson and Carl Crawford (0.2 WAR) or Jay Bruce (3.4 WAR) and Aramis Ramirez (3.6 WAR) over the course of one season? It shouldn’t matter really. In the abstract, both should be worth exactly the same in terms of winning. 7 wins is 7 wins.
Now, the real world is a little more complex than that. If you offered me the choice between players that on average are worth that much at the beginning of the season, I’d actually pick having the 3.5 WAR players on my team every time, because you’re hedging against risk. If each of the four players have equal chance of being injured, then you’re in a much riskier position by taking the 7 WAR player – because chances are the team has a replacement player at Triple-A waiting for a call up. That said, there might be an advantage to the 7 WAR player, especially if they are a pitcher, with what I call the “short bench effect” – the ability to allocate more playing time to better players in higher leverage games or situations, like the playoffs. Either way, the difference is tiny.
That’s all well and good, but Joe alludes to a larger point: teams can go out and get more players. If Carl Crawford is playing at replacement level, the Yankees can go swing a trade for an upgrade without trouble. That’s not so easy with the 3.5 WAR player. And since they are the New York Yankees, they can go out and buy someone on the free agent market if they want to. Or take a bad contract back. Or trade away from player they signed for $3 million out of Venezuela. In fact, the Yankees have the best capacity in baseball (over a long period of time at least) to seek upgrades to inferior players. That means that they benefit more from the 7 WAR player than any team in baseball.
There are huge real-world implications for that statement. It means the Yankees should be looking for a lot more Andrew Brackmans than Cito Culvers on draft day than other teams. It means that they should be be patient on the free agent market for the really, really good players out there, and that they should be able to offer those free agents much more money. It makes those 3.5 WAR type players expendable, and good options to be traded. I’ve been advocating for trading Nick Swisher, in the abstract at least, for some time now on that principle. The Yankees could trade Swisher, a 3.8 WAR player last year, and then replace his production on the free agent markets while benefiting from the trade.
And at the same time, it means the Yankees could theoretically make a Win-Win trade with a team like the Mariners for a player like Felix Hernandez. Seattle has less ability to go out and buy upgrades for their players. That means that they could benefit from trading away Felix Hernandez, a 7 WAR player, and acquiring, say, three players worth 3 WAR. The Yankees would replace two of those players with free agents at roughly equal production, while Seattle just improved by 2 wins. Both teams benefit from the Quality-for-Quantity trade. This is pretty close to the paradigm that brought Curtis Granderson to the Yankees.
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