While some might like Wins Above Replacement level (WAR) to be that magic ‘one stat’ that tells us which player is more valuable than another, it is not. Brett Gardner is a fine player, but his fWAR (Fangraphs) was basically the same as that of Albert Pujols this season. That does not mean that WAR is useless, just that it is not the ONLY stat when it comes to evaluating players.
That said, WAR is a very good tool. For position players, it attempts to consolidate hitting, baserunning and fielding into a tidy little package that gives us a general idea of his overall value. It is not a fail safe option when calculating team wins.
In 2011, Kansas City compiled a total team fWAR of 39.1 and won 71 games. Chicago had 40.3 total fWAR and won 79, while Cleveland totalled up just 30.1 fWAR yet won 80 games. If you want to know how many fWAR your roster needs to contribute to get 94 wins, I can probably find you 15 different answers…in the last five years. Like I said at the beginning, WAR (be it fWAR or bWAR or some other WAR…good god, y’all) is not the be all and end all of the statistical world.
Here is what I know, if you want to win the A.L. Central, you have to have more fWAR than the other four teams. Detroit won 95 games the division in 2011 with an fWAR of 48.5 (8.2 better than anyone else). Minnesota won in 2010 with 94 wins and a fWAR of 49.7 (6 better than Detroit and 6.7 better than Chicago). Minnesota only won 87 games in 2009, but it was enough to take the Central and their 41.2 cumulative fWAR was 4 better than second place Detroit.
How many fWAR will it take to win the Central? I don’t know. How many will it take to win 92 games? I don’t know. What I do know, is that the Royals are almost certain to need more than last year’s 39.1. If you take my approach of last week that Kansas City should not make any drastic off-season moves (unless someone drops a gem in their lap), then what are the possibilities for the current roster to improve on last year’s mark?
Let’s start with the position players, who provided 25.6 fWAR in 2011. Alex Gordon (6.9), Melky Cabrera (4.2) and Jeff Francoeur (2.9) accounted for 14 of that total. All three played everyday, Gordon and Cabrera set career high marks and Francoeur had his highest fWAR since 2007. Kansas City also got 1.1 fWAR from Mitch Maier, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain. If you believe the Royals’ outfield will total 15.1 fWAR again next year, then I have some start-up tech company stock to sell you.
Almost universally, people think it is far more likely that Alex Gordon is more likely to sustain his 2011 performance than Melky Cabrera. You can count me among them, although I readily admit there is not any real logical reason to have such a clear cut division on two players of basically similar age. Kansas City can afford to have Melky falter, but they cannot make up for a big Gordon drop-off. Simply put, if Alex Gordon is a 2.3 fWAR player next year, the Royals are going nowhere. I don’t think he will drop that far, but I also cannot see Gordon, Cabrera, Francoeur and Cain posting 15.1 fWAR in 2012, either.
Let’s set the outfield aside for a moment and look at three other positions: third, first and DH. Billy Butler was the Royals’ everyday DH and provided 1.8 fWAR – the lowest total in three years. Hosmer provided 1.6 fWAR which we will use to quantify the first base position. (Without getting too crazy, we know that Ka’aihue provided no value at first – fWAR speaking – and Butler played there when one of the outfielder’s took a half day and DH’d – it’s not exact, but close enough for this rough review). At third, the Royals got 0.7 fWAR from Moustakas and 0.5 from Wilson Betemit for a total of 1.2. All told, these three positions contributed 4.6 fWAR last season.
Hosmer is, well he HAS TO BE, the real deal. It seems as though the question is not ‘will Hosmer progress in 2012?’, but instead is ‘how much will he progress?’. In addition, Moustakas seemed to ‘get it’ as the season wore on and while he is not a lock to improve, I would say the odds are decent that he will. I would also expect improvement from Butler, who probably won’t spend the first three months of the season being put off about not getting to play first base.
Is it realistic to say the the outfielder, corner infielders and designated hitter can contribute the same 19.7 fWAR as they did in 2011? Certainly, the contributions might be weighted more heavily to the infielders than the outfielders in 2012, but I can envision Hosmer, Moustakas, Butler making up the difference from the expected regression (hopefully minor) of the three everyday outfielders.
If so, then the Royals would be looking to Alcides Escobar (2.2 fWAR), the catchers (2.9 fWAR total in 2011) and second base (1.1 fWAR total) to hold the line. Salvador Perez, who provided 1.4 fWAR himself, might be hard pressed to get to 2.9 in his first full season as a regular, but one can hope that Escobar might hit just a little more and that second base might add a little more as well (not exactly sure how, but we can hope).
At any rate, all of the above considered, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Royals’ position players could contribute close to their 2011 output. If they do that, then the pitchers need to hold up their end of the bargain. Wow! I bet you didn’t see that coming did you?
In 2011, the Royals’ pitching staff contributed a pretty awful 13.5 fWAR. Felipe Paulino and Jeff Francis each contributed 2.6, Luke Hochevar 2.3, Greg Holland 2.0 and Bruce Chen 1.7 (remember, throwing innings is big part of fWAR for starters and Chen threw just 155). Joakim Soria chipped in 0.9 fWAR, the lowest of his career (his previous marks were 2.4, 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0). Those pitchers right there get you to 12.1 of the 13.5 fWAR total.
Danny Duffy’s 0.6 is cancelled out by Sean O’Sullivans -0.5. Kyle Davies, yes KYLE FREAKING DAVIES, provided 0.7 fWAR which was cancelled out by the negative contributions of Vin Mazzaro, Jesse Chavez and Robinson Tejeda. WAR, in any form, really does not think much of relief pitchers – which points out how good Greg Holland was in 2011 – and as such, Louis Coleman gets a skinny 0.1, Aaron Crow 0.3 and Blake Wood 0.4. I do believe that WAR undervalues the contributions of a relief pitcher, especially a non-closer, but that is a debate for another time.
Let’s get back to the starting rotation. We pretty much know that Hochevar, Paulino and Duffy will be in the 2012 rotation. Can they better their combined 5.5 fWAR? To begin with, baseball history is full of young pitchers who are not very good as rookies and take a big step forward in year two. I think Danny Duffy is likely to do the same. I am not saying his going to become an ace, but it is reasonable (albeit hardly a sure thing) that he could become a 2.5 fWAR pitcher in 2012. If Paulino can give the Royals another 2.5 fWAR and Hochevar finally, FINALLY, put it all together and become a 3.5 fWAR guy, the Royals could have 8.5 fWAR out of just three starters – that’s not horrible. Problem is, that is just one win more than Francis, Paulino and Hochevar gave them last year.
Does bringing back Bruce Chen give you another two wins? After that, can the number five spot, in combination with the spot starts and injury fill-ins from other starters, get you a ‘barely-head-above-water’ 0.5 fWAR? You would certainly hope for better, but I am not sure logic will back us up on that one. Let’s say that Kansas City does gleen 2.5 fWAR total out of the number four through eight starters. Now, you are at 11 fWAR heading into the bullpen.
Can Joakim Soria bounce back? If he can, Soria is probably good for 2.0 fWAR. Then you have Greg Holland coming off a terrific year, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins (0.0 fWAR by the way) setting him up. Combined, those three accounted for 2.1 fWAR in 2011, you have to get at least that much again in 2012. Now, the Royals are at 15.1 fWAR out of their staff with the back of bullpen coming into play. Basically, there was an entire negative win contributed by a bunch of arms last year, which is not uncommon, but it would be nice to avoid. If the Royals would somehow not have the negative numbers and get another win out of Wood, Herrera, Crow (?) et.al. would that translate into a net gain of 2.0 fWAR? Maybe….maybe just.
If the above scenario played out, Kansas City would have 17.1 fWAR from their pitchers and another 26 from the position players for a total of 43.1. Would that translate into a division title? That is hard to tell, but it almost certainly would get the Royals around or above .500, maybe even into the high 80′s in wins.
In my opinion, getting an eight at the front of your win total and hoping for some luck and good breaks in 2012 is better than stretching to make a risky deal in a skinny off-season market. I would rather the Royals shop for that one arm to put them over the top coming off an 84 win 2012 campaign than to do so now, coming off a 71 win season.