A Brief Note on Lou Brock’s Relatively Low Career WAR Total

Later today, Jay Jaffe will give Lou Brock the longer look his career and place in history deserve, but I felt it was worth delving into a subject that comes up from time to time when baseball analysts discuss the St. Louis stalwart’s accomplishments. Since his passing on Sunday, I’m sure many a modern fan has looked up Brock’s stats page, found his 43.2 career WAR, and opted to either discount WAR as a stat or Brock as a player, along with the writers who voted him into the Hall of Fame on the first try. I would caution against either approach.

Wins Above Replacement is an incredibly useful framework for comparing players to their peers and across eras. It’s also impossible to quantify every aspect of a player’s game, and it gets harder the further we get from the present. Brock presents a rather unique case, one I’ve written about in the past. The outfielder was an above-average batter for a very long time (only 23 batters in the last 70 years have more than Brock’s 11,238 plate appearances and 109 wRC+). He wasn’t just a singles hitter either, as his power was roughly average during the run-starved 1960s, but he’s obviously more well-known for what he did with his legs. Metrics available at the time Brock played serve to diminish his WAR in a manner that left most of his peers unaffected.

To wit, of Brock’s 187 offensive runs above average, 75 were due to stolen bases. Unfortunately, this misses all of the other runs Brock created advancing on batted balls, which would likely give him somewhere between five to 10 wins above his current WAR. His peers have fewer potential issues in this regard because the majority of their runs come from hitting, meaning WAR misses little of their career production, while Brock gets uniquely penalized.

And while defensive metrics are still somewhat noisy today, the Total Zone metrics used for Brock’s era are further removed from the field. Those metrics would have you believe Brock was an above-average fielder in his 20s and then immediately became one of the worst left fielders in history in his 30s. Brock showed little sign of aging as a hitter and was a more prolific basestealer in his 30s, but he dropped nearly 10 wins in defensive WAR alone over his early 30s, two to three times as much as comparable left fielders. You don’t have to give Brock those five to 10 wins on defense, but we should at least accept the possibility that his value in the field is greater than he’s being given credit for in WAR.

Lastly, there’s Brock’s postseason performance. Brock played in three World Series that each went seven games, with the Cardinals winning two of those three championships. His .391/.424/.655 line resulted in a 213 wRC+ over 92 playoff plate appearances. He added 14 steals, getting caught just twice. In Game 1 of the 1967 World Series, Brock stole second base and then scored on two groundouts for the deciding run. In Game 7 of that same series, he stole second and third and scored on a sacrifice fly to increase the Cardinals’ lead. If Brock performed like he did in the World Series over a month of the regular season, it would be worth around two wins. Brock did it in the 21 most important games of his career in events across a five-year period.

Context is important. While we often focus on what a player or a statistic can’t do, there’s more value in understanding what a player or statistic can do. Much of what a player accomplishes on the field is captured by WAR, including much of the career of Lou Brock. The Cardinals’ great was a good offensive hitter, one of the greatest basestealers of all time, and one of the greatest players in World Series history. Much of that value is captured in WAR, but Brock’s unique skillset and postseason heroics are a bit of anomaly when compared to other Hall of Fame-level players. This post isn’t an attempt to sum up Brock’s career or his life — I’ll leave that task to Jay — but it is a reminder that every player deserves a deeper dive than a single number might provide, no matter if it is 43.2, 938, or 3,023.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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3 years ago

Thank you, Craig!