Shedding some light into the Derek Jeter-Lou Whitaker WAR debate

The baseball world has changed dramatically in these last few years, dating back to the whole Moneyball revolution that Billy Beane created in Oakland, it’s clear that the roles have changed, guys like Bill James are now respected characters in the game, more and more fans become aware and familiar with sabermetrics.

We have come a long way, but there is still so much to explore.

Today, i want to touch base on a fact, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg, but due to bad analysis and a certain lack of awareness to truly understand what is going on and why is it going on that way, becomes a factor in the analysis of certain statistics.

WAR, Wins Above Replacement is now a big part of performance evaluation and because of its formula, analyzing all aspects of the game, batting, base running and fielding it, sometimes you get results that challenge the “conventional wisdom”, which generates pushback from some people, who have been in the game for a while and are accustomed to using pitchers wins and RBI as ways to evaluate performance.

If you follow baseball closely, there is an extremely high change, at some point you heard a radio host or TV analyst, say:

Lou Whitaker has a higher career WAR than Derek Jeter, that’s obviously a bunch of nonsense, Jeter was so much better, therefore, WAR sucks.

That argument is wrong in so many ways that if presented to a person with good knowledge of sabermetrics, they will simply ignore it, knowing it is so far off, the guy probably has no clue what he is talking about.

But for the majority of fans, who rely on the media to provide them with information about the game, it becomes harder to trust and buy into the advanced stats, when they hear something like that.

Even for the analysts themselves, people who were taught to think along one line and then, out of nowhere, are told that all they have learned was wrong and this is the proper way to analyze the game, regardless of the circumstances there is gonna be some pushback, people’s default setting is to do that when threatened with radical change, especially if it messes with their way of thinking, and when you get results like that, conflicting with their belief, it’s hard to overcome it.

Because of all this, we must break it down what is actually happening, anyone can look up the WAR leaderboard, you need to learn what makes WAR, how is it calculated.

This is the WAR formula for batters.

WAR = (Batting Runs + Base Running Runs + Fielding Runs + Positional Adjustment + League Adjustment +Replacement Runs) / (Runs Per Win)

What you learn from that, is WAR attempts to measure a player’s overall value by using a formula containing the best metrics we have to evaluate all phases of the game.

To measure Batting runs, you look at the player’s wRAA Weighted Runs Above Average, which relies on wOBA arguably the best, most complete stat to evaluate hitting and you also get park adjustments.

To evaluate BaseRunning runs, you add up UBR, wSB, wGDP, that take into the account the 3 parts of base running.

wSB Weighted Stolen Base Runs: measures stolen base and costs stealing value.

UBR Ultimate Base Running: measures non-stolen base type base running, taking the extra base for instance.

wGDP Weighted Grounded into Double Play Runs: which is basically a comparison of the expected number of double plays to the true number of DP’s measured in runs.

Fielding Runs: uses UZR Ultimate Zone Rating, for every position except catcher, such stat is probably the most used stat to measure defense, for catchers it uses rSB Stolen Base Runs and RPP Runs Saved on Passed Pitches.

This right here is part of the reason why WARP is a better way to evaluate catchers, WAR struggles to evaluate catchers defensively.

Position Adjustment: basically puts each player’s defensive performance into context, based on what position they play, it’s harder to be average at shortstop or center field than first base and left-field.

Here are the positional adjustments used in WAR by FanGraphs.

Catcher: +12.5 runs (all are per 162 defensive games)

First Base: -12.5 runs
Second Base: +2.5 runs
Third Base: +2.5 runs
Shortstop: +7.5 runs
Left Field: -7.5 runs
Center Field: +2.5 runs
Right Field: -7.5 runs
Designated Hitter: -17.5 runs

League Adjustment: is a small correction to make it so that each league’s runs above average balances out to zero. The impact is pretty small, it adds about 0 to 5 runs to each player

Replacement Level Runs: it’s used to tell you the difference between replacement level performance and an average performance because average play has its value and WAR is trying to determine how much better than replacement level you are

FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference use the same formula on that  one

RPW Runs per win: the last piece of the puzzle converts runs into wins.

The 3 big parts to really focus on are the first 3, that measure batting, base running and fielding, the other ones are there mostly to make adjustments based on the context of each player’s performance, and are not affected by such.

WAR as i said it before is a culmination of the best metrics to measure all phases of that game along with a proper adjustment for factors around a player’s stat line, like what position he plays, which park is his home one, which era did he play on, that stuff.

When talking about Derek Jeter and Lou Whitaker it is true that Jeter is generally viewed as the far better player, and that Baseball Reference has Lou with a slightly higher career WAR.

74.9 to 71.8

This small text can force a bunch of fans into dismissing WAR, and it shouldn’t, so let’s see if we can explain why that happened.

Note: I used FanGraphs WAR explanations which in some subtle points differ from Baseball Reference but i’ll break it down in a way it is very understandable to everyone.

Looking at the 3 big stages we referred to, here are the stats for both players.

RBat, Runs Batting

Jeter: 353

Whitaker: 209

Rbaser, Runs from Baserunning

Jeter: 56

Whitaker: 32

Rfield, Runs from Fielding

Jeter: -246

Whitaker: 77

Rpos, Runs from Positional Scarcity, the equivalent of positional adjustment:

Jeter: 135

Whitaker: 64

This right here explains virtually everything, there has been a lot of improvement in evaluating defensive performance which definitely helps calculate WAR for players in today’s game, but when talking about legends of the past, the metrics for defense used in the WAR equation are different.

Before UZR first existed in 2002, the statistic used was Total Zone.

Derek was obviously much better in all offensive categories, but his awful stats on defense, hurt him too much, how can a five time Gold Glove winner at Shortstop have some of the worst defensive numbers ever i don’t know what to make of that, if it was today it would be easier to determine his actual value, but how can either side be this wrong

Jeter represents one of the biggest gaps between perceived defensive value and what defensive metrics show in the history of baseball,

The Yankee Shortstop won five gold gloves 2004-2006, 2009 and 2010, based on the available stats he had 2 redeemable years as a defender.

1998 Total Zone: 2

2009 UZR: 6.3.  DRS: 3

Every other year he either was bad, really bad or awful.

Career Numbers.

From 95-01

Total Zone: -71

From 02-14

Ultimate Zone Rating: -76.1

Defensive Runs Saved: -152

DRS and UZR date back only to 2002.

Jeter’s remarkable negative 152 career DRS is by far the worst ever, only Prince Fielder reached the -100 plateau and he finished at -101. The negative 76.1 on UZR is second to Jermaine Dye who played some of the worst defense ever in RF for the White Sox.

Lou was a pretty good player who benefited from high Total Zone numbers making him a contributor on every aspect, but the story here is Jeter probably is a bit underrated as a hitter by the sabermetric community, here is a guy who reached 71.8 WAR through his career solely on his offense.

Jeter got some of the worst defensive stats in history, if he gets average stats defensively his WAR number would be significantly higher,

To give an example.

Adrian Beltre has a career Rbat of 262, on slightly more games than Derek who had 353, meaning Jeter’s bat was more valuable than Beltre’s and is not that close, but with Adrian having some of the best defensive numbers ever his WAR is an astonishing 93.9.

Next time you hear someone talking about this, and ranting about WAR, know to mention Jeter’s WAR being lower than Whitaker is just a consequence of Derek getting some of the worst defensive stats ever and despite that, the difference between the two is minimum, making Jeter almost an underrated hitter based on how he is viewed and if you are sure Jeter was an average to above average defender and think the metrics (TZ, DRS, UZR) got it wrong, know that in such case, he’s clearly above Lou in the WAR leaderboard all be it in a potential scenario.

Feel free to comment, suggest, subscribe and more as always is my pleasure, apologies for dragging this one out, the subject required some context, so the text became very long.


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