You won't hear the word "sabermetrics" in the film Money Ball. But you will see the story of Billy Beane, a GM whose sabermetric approach to finding the most valuable players transcended the constraints of a small-market club. But these advanced statistics do more than inform MLB front offices - they tell the story of what happens on the field. Accurately. They warn of regressions to the mean, and of misleading tropes like RBI and pitcher Wins. Due to their relative complexity and consequent lack of mainstream acceptance, however, their application in the rich world of theoretical sports debate has so far gone largely unexplored. I've been studying these statistics to enhance my enjoyment and understanding of the game all season long. But with the postseason nearly over and my Giants long since eliminated, its time to take the next step.
If you're new to stats like UZR, SIERA, and WPA, the whole thing can be a little overwhelming. It's nice to start with WAR; a personal favorite, it's certainly the most practical because it condenses a player's overall value - hitting, fielding, throwing, running, even the difficulty of the position they play - into a single number. This number, the player's WAR or Wins Above Replacement, represents how valuable the player was to his team based on how many additional games the team could be expected to win with this player as opposed to a "replacement-level" player at that position - someone they could pull off the bench or waiver wire. (A team with a "replacement-level" player in each roster spot will yield a record of approximately 49-113. Astros fans, you can chalk up those extra 7 wins to the nausea opposing players feel when they touch down in Houston.)
It's not without its flaws, but the math is solid and the practical applications of having a single number to evaluate any player are a lot of fun. It may be hard to take WAR at face value, but take a look at this years' leaders in WAR and you'll see it does a fantastic job of confirming what we already know about who the most valuable players are right now. (If something doesn't seem right, like Ryan Howard being ranked as the 107th-best position player in the league, take a close look at the other metrics and should be able to tell exactly why WAR says what it does about that player. In Howard's case, his high RBI total masks a secretly poor (for him) season where his Slugging dipped, he played piss-terrible defense, and only Paul Konerko cost his team more runs on the basepaths.)
So what do we do with this new information? What's that, you say? Someone should use this incredible WAR stat to make rosters featuring the greatest seasons at each position for every team? And they should start with the reigning champs, my Giants? Well, I'm way ahead of you...
We'll start with hitters, for reasons explained later.
C: Dick Dietz, 1970
WAR: 5.8 // .300 - 22 HR - 107 RBI // .941 OPS // 0 SB // -20 FLD
1B: Willie McCovey, 1969
WAR: 8.4 // .320 - 45 HR - 126 RBI // 1.108 OPS // 0 SB // -8 FLD
2B: Jeff Kent, 2000
WAR: 7.6 // .334 - 33 HR - 125 RBI // 1.021 OPS // 12 SB // 1 FLD
SS: Rich Aurilia, 2001
WAR: 7.6 // .324 - 37 HR - 97 RBI // .941 OPS // 1 SB // 5 FLD
3B: Jim Ray Hart, 1966
WAR: 6.9 // .285 - 33 HR - 93 RBI // .853 OPS // 2 SB // 8 FLD
LF: Barry Bonds, 2001
WAR: 12.9 // .328 - 73 HR - 137 RBI // 1.379 // 13 SB // -5 FLD
CF: Willie Mays, 1965
WAR: 11.5 // .317 - 52 HR - 112 RBI // 1.043 // 9 SB // 15 FLD
RF: Bobby Bonds, 1973
WAR: 8.0 // .283 - 39 HR - 96 RBI // .900 OPS // 43 SB // 14 FLD
According to WAR, those are the players & vintages with whom the Giants would win the most games, given their choice of any player they've fielded since coming to San Francisco in 1958. If that just looks like a bunch of random, confusing numbers to you, this is not for you. If, on the other hand, you have an erection, you are probably on my level of baseball geek-dom, and have found your new favorite hobby. Next season will be your greatest as a fan. You're welcome.
-Players' ages listed in parenthesis.
-Barry Bonds & Willie Mays together own slots 1-16 on the top seasons by any position player in a Giants uniform.
-Dick Dietz? Really? Yes, in fact he owns the second-greatest season by a Giants catcher as well, for his follow-up campaign in '71. If you're wondering where Buster Posey's rookie year ranks, it puts him 6th. Remember that he didn't see much action until late June - given a full season, he'd likely have fallen between the two years in which Dick Dietz channelled the spirit of Roy Campanella.
-Will Clark's NL Championship season in '89 ranks second. Other than that, the Top-5 is all McCovey. Hence the cove.
-Aurilia's 2001 season was largely a product of hitting in front of Barry Bonds, but still the greatest season by a Giants SS by a fairly wide margin. More on #25 in a bit...
-If you're surprised to see someone other than Matt Williams at 3rd, know that his '93 season ranks third, and WAR really hates the way he refused to take walks. He nonetheless owns 5 of the Top-12 seasons by a Giants 3B. Pablo Sandoval just finished #6, despite missing time with injuries.
-Did you catch that Field Of Dreams connection in the outfield? Gotta love baseball.
Now, on to the pitchers...
Here's where the project loses a little steam, for the simple fact that WAR numbers for pitchers only go back as far as 1974. This means the list ignores some pretty spectacular years from Juan Marichal ('63-'69, '71), Gaylord Perry ('64, '66-'71), Ray Sadecki ('67 & '68) and too many others to name. Rather than infusing my own subjectivity into the rotation, we'll take a grain of salt and move forward with only seasons from the 37 glorious years for which pitcher WAR is available.
1. Tim Lincecum, 2009
WAR: 8.0 // 15-7 2.48 ERA // 2.34 FIP // 10.42 K/9
2. Tim Lincecum, 2008
WAR: 7.5 // 18-5 2.62 ERA // 2.62 FIP // 10.51 K/9
3. John Montefusco, 1975
WAR: 7.0 // 15-9 2.88 ERA // 2.57 FIP // 7.94 K/9
4. Jason Schmidt, 2003
WAR: 6.7 // 17-5 2.34 ERA // 2.64 FIP // 9.01 K/9
5. Jason Schmidt, 2004
WAR: 6.6 // 18-7 3.20 ERA // 2.92 FIP // 10.04 K/9
-It's a little comforting to note that Marichal's FIP never dropped lower than Lincecum's 2.34 in 2009. Translation: Even in a perfect world, The Freak reigns supreme. You wonder, though, if the Giants All-Time WAR squad would run into chemistry problems when '08 Lincecum starts smoking all of '09 Lincecum's pot.
-15-Win seasons didn't receive a ton of praise in 1975, even if you were a rookie like Montefusco, so it's not surprising that his legend doesn't cast much of a shadow. This also may or may not have something to do with the fact that rather than retiring to the commentary booth, he did time for attacking his ex with a steak knife.
-Both Madison Bumgarner & Matt Cain submitted Top-10 seasons in 2011.
1. Robb Nen, 1998
WAR 8.0 // 40/44 SV 1.52 ERA // 2.12 FIP // 11.17 K/9
2. Gary Lavelle, 1977
WAR 3.3 // 20/27 SV 2.05 ERA // 2.54 FIP // 7.07 K/9
3. Robb Nen, 2002
WAR 3.0 // 43/51 SV 2.20 ERA // 1.97 FIP // 9.90 K/9
4. Rod Beck, 1992
WAR 2.6 // 17/23 SV 1.76 ERA // 2.01 FIP // 8.51 K/9
5. Brian Wilson, 2010
WAR 2.6 // 48/53 SV 1.81 ERA // 2.19 FIP // 11.21 K/9
-A big problem with the WAR team bullpen is that middle-relievers and set-up men are essentially a non-entity. ML Managers - the atavistic, stubborn bunch that they are - tend to pick a closer with experience and stick with him, even when younger, hungrier pitchers in the bullpen put up far superior numbers in the middle-innings. There's certainly something to be said for a closer's ability to handle 9th inning pressure, but sabermetrics strongly suggest that the whole idea of "clutch" is more of a constructed narrative than it is a reality based on players' ability in certain situations. If I'm handpicking Giants for this team, there's no way my bullpen goes without '11 Sergio Romo or '01 Felix Rodriguez, both of whom were underutilized on Giants teams that missed the playoffs.
One thing that really sticks out to me is that the SF Giants' one & only championship year, 2010, is represented only once, amidst the labyrinthian beard of #38. NL Championship teams in '62 and '89 are without representation and the '02 NL Champs are represented only once, again in the bullpen, driving home the point that on an MLB team, no one player guarantees success - unlike the NHL or NBA where individuals carry more weight and the fluidity of play brings a star players' intangibles and influence on their teammates into the W-L column.
Now let's take a closer look at that left-fielder because: wow. Everyone knew we were watching history as it happened, but Bonds' 2001 season has only had its place in history solidified by sabermetrics. BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play), for example, measure a player not by their success, but by how that success relates to what we would expect of a hitter making that kind of contact, at that rate. It's a very helpful stat for examining which players are hitting .300 because they're seeing the ball well and which players are hitting .300 because they've caught some fortunate hops and drilled the ball at a lot of inept fielders. Without further ado, my favorite baseball stat ever:
Barry Bonds, 2001 BABIP:
If your jaw is not on the floor, you haven't yet understood sabermetrics fully. At least, not BABIP.
Compare that .266 to the league average, which is around .300. What this means is that during his 2001 season - one of the most successful not only by SF Giants, or baseball players, but by professional athletes in general - Barry Bonds was actually a victim of fate, not a beneficiary. It is important to note that WAR does not take this into account.
The closest anyone other than Bonds himself has come to that 12.9 WAR in the last 43 years was when Joe Morgan reached 11.4 in 1975, a full 1.5 wins lower (Morgan's BABIP that year: .336). Had Bonds gotten the same number of kind bounces most hitters did in '01, it'd have been substantially higher. In the history of the game, only Ruth & Gherig have eclipsed 12.9 WAR. You might imagine they had great fortune during the years they did, and you'd be right. Their composite BABIP: an indulged .375.
What a performance. Enhanced by drugs? Most assuredly. But so were many of the other hitters of that era, all of whom failed to hold his jock. Stepping outside that 2001 season for a moment, Bonds' dominance continued through 2004. During that four-year run, his closest competitor was A-Rod (admitted PED user), who trailed him by 14.9 WAR. To put that into perspective, 14.9 WAR represents greater output than all-stars like Derek Lee, Johnny Damon and Alfonso Soriano over the same span.
It's also helpful in evaluating Bonds to remember that many of the pitchers he faced were juicing. And that his most productive years came in a pitcher-friendly stadium notorious for it's sobering effect on left-handed power hitters. I can only imagine the havoc he'd wreak hitting in front of a raging Dick Dietz.
But the fun doesn't end there. The Giants' All-Time WAR Team has a total WAR of 119.4. How does that fair against, say, the Mariners' All-Time WAR Team? Or the Yankees and Sox? Stay tuned...