The MLB Landscape of Negative WAR

It’s not that hard to delight in the Astros’ performance. I do understand, of course, that they have a weakening hold on their own division. Somehow, some way, the Mariners have managed to keep up. But if you look beyond just wins and losses, the Astros are tied for baseball’s highest team wRC+. They have baseball’s lowest ERA-, and FIP-, and xFIP-. The Astros have baseball’s highest run differential, and the gap between first and second is 50 runs, which on its own would be one of the higher run differentials around. By Pythagorean record, the Astros are easily in first place. By BaseRuns as well, they’re easily in first place. The Astros are an excellent team that has still found a way to underperform. That’s not an easy thing to do.

So there’s no shortage of places to find Houston Astros fun facts. Some of them reflect the bigger picture. Some of them reflect the smaller pictures. I was reminded of something today, when the Astros placed Brian McCann on the DL, and called up Tim Federowicz. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a Tim Federowicz fun fact; I wouldn’t do that to you. But in his tiny slice of 2018 big-league playing time, Federowicz has put up a -0.1 WAR. Keep that in mind, will you?

Here is a very basic bar graph. This shows total team WAR, combining pitchers and hitters (with pitcher-hitters not included):

Pretty fundamental stuff. The relationship isn’t perfect, but there’s a very strong correlation between team WAR and team winning percentage, so the better teams are toward the left, and the worse teams are toward the right. The Astros have the highest team WAR. The Royals have the lowest team WAR. The Astros are very good. The Royals are very bad.

Here now is a similar-looking plot, only, this time, I’ve taken only the players who have put up positive WARs:

Good teams still toward the left, and bad teams still toward the right. The Astros are almost in first, and the Royals are still in last. That plot only really means anything when you also consider this next one. Above, I combined every team’s positive WAR. Below, I’ve combined every team’s negative WAR. Randomness happens, and there’s a difference between a player’s WAR and a player’s true talent, but in theory, replacement-level players should be available. The best and deepest teams shouldn’t have to dip into negative-WAR territory very often. Anyway, the image:

The average team so far has accumulated -3.7 negative WAR. All of the negative-WAR players on the Astros have combined for just -0.2. Meanwhile, all of the negative-WAR players on the Royals have combined for -8.0. That’s an eight-win difference between the teams, just at the very bottom of the roster. If you’re curious, the Indians rank 23rd in combined negative WAR, and third in combined positive WAR. The Pirates rank fourth in combined negative WAR, and 23rd in combined positive WAR. The Rays have their own 18-place difference in rank, and so do the Angels, albeit in the opposite direction. Teams like the Rays and Pirates have managed to avoid playing many legitimately bad players, but they’ve been hurting for higher-level talent. Teams like the Angels and Indians have had the higher-level talent, but they’ve also had a few too many weaknesses. Some of it comes down to injuries, which means that some of it comes down to luck. The Angels probably don’t deserve to have had so many different players end up on the disabled list. But I like to look at this breakdown every season, because I think it helps to tell the story of why different teams are where they are.

There’s another, related way of looking at the data in that last plot. That plot showed total team negative WAR. Here, I’ll show you every team’s share of negative-WAR playing time. So this is just combined negative-WAR plate appearances, divided by overall plate appearances, including both pitchers and hitters:

The Astros have given 0.2% of their playing time to negative-WAR players. Here’s all that is: seven plate appearances by Tim Federowicz, and three plate appearances by A.J. Reed. Reed’s true talent, presumably, is better than that, and Federowicz will now have an opportunity to do a little more. He’s been slugging .560 with Triple-A Fresno. I think it’s unlikely, but there’s a chance that, come season’s end, the Astros won’t have a single negative-WAR player. That would reflect both their depth and their health. The Astros, by and large, have done well so far to avoid the DL, and this is one area where that shows up.

The other extreme data point, once more, belongs to the Royals. The Royals have given almost half of their playing time to negative-WAR players. The breakdown is 46.3%. Alcides Escobar has batted 319 times, and he’s been more than a win below replacement. The Orioles are the distant next team, at 33.6%. A big chunk of that is Chris Davis‘ 272 plate appearances, over which he’s been two wins below replacement. But this isn’t about Davis and Davis alone. The Orioles have already played 20 players with negative WARs. I don’t think you’re going to see all of them flip into the black by the end of the year.

I wouldn’t suggest making too much of this; teams have only so much control over their negative WAR, and teams can’t always be blamed for when they need to find emergency reinforcements. Additionally, replacement level is an arbitrary cutoff, and in theory a team could completely avoid any negative WAR and still suck. What I like about this approach is that it just gives you some extra details. Why are the Braves in first place? In part, it’s because they haven’t had to play many bad players. They’ve had sufficiently talented available depth. The Astros have been good, and deep, and healthy. The Royals haven’t been maybe any of those things. And while the Angels hung around the race, and while the Indians lead their own division, they’ve been held back by depth problems. So have the Rockies and Nationals. You never think you’re going to have to play negative WAR. Once you’re doing it, you want to do something about it. Some teams have faced this situation far more often than others.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Roger McDowell Hot Foot
4 years ago

“teams have only so much control over their negative WAR, and teams can’t always be blamed for when they need to find emergency reinforcements”

This is an interesting thing to say if only because it highlights how much the idea of “replacement level” has drifted over time. The whole reason it’s called that is that, originally, it was meant to be a quantification of essentially the exact thing you mean by “emergency reinforcements” — it turns out, though, that (as this article neatly demonstrates) it’s pretty difficult to get “replacement level” from your replacement players all, or most, of the time.

4 years ago

If replacement level players project for 0 WAR, about half will produce 0 WAR. Getting some negative WAR is by design. What’s difficult is to have your replacements be better than the league replacement level (What the Astro’s have done).

4 years ago
Reply to  Forrest

In theory, yes. In practice, the Royals don’t fit that either. They have managed to pick up several replacement level players (either scrubs from AAA or in FA) in Duda, Goins, Dozier, Cuthbert, Almonte, Butera, and Escobar who all have negative WAR, and some pretty impressively. And that’s just the hitters. Among the pitchers, they have Skoglund, Junis, Grimm, and Boyer. And in terms of total WAR, well, look at Jeff’s charts.

(On the other side of the ledger, we have Brad Keller, McCarthy, and Hill, but that’s much).

4 years ago

I think it’s important to remember that replacement level players on average are worth 0 WAR. Sometimes they’re worse, like those encapsulated above, sometimes you find Justin Turner or Max Muncy. As a Rangers fan, look at our roster and you’ll see a wide range of replacement level players.

Sammy Sooser
4 years ago
Reply to  Sertorius

Muncy has been ridiculous. How do you survive losing a guy like Seager? Simple, call up a JD Martinez analogue from Oklahoma City. Every team has that guy laying around, right?

4 years ago

It looks like it is time for the annual article explaining what we mean by replacement level. Here is a good start:

The league wide value of a replacement level player has nothing to do with who the Royals “emergency reinforcements” are, or in the case of Escobar, Duda, Goins, Butera, Boyer, Grimm, who their off-season free agent signings were.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
4 years ago
Reply to  Terence

This is a truly excellent website for having things explained to you that you quite obviously already knew.

4 years ago

You clearly didn’t already know what replacement level meant.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
4 years ago
Reply to  Rotoholic

Even better! I wonder what other knowledge I only think I have? Appelman should be charging more for a site that can provide this kind of psychoanalysis.

4 years ago

Think it’s worth mentioning that teams playing negative WAR players may be doing so for reasons other than a lack of available talent.

For example, the Angels have Albert Pujols and Kole Calhoun. Calhoun has been a consistent 3 WAR player over the past 4 years. There is simply nothing to indicate that he is finished. Yet, his performance this season has been historically bad (though he has turned things around quite a bit of late). You can’t just bench the guy – you need him to hit his way out of things.

Then you have Pujols. He SHOULD be sitting and I’m positive there is someone else in the organization that could replace him. However, his contract situation makes that an almost impossible situation.

Those are just 2 examples where teams make decisions based on things other than what the computer spits out. Not saying that it’s right, just that it is a reality.

4 years ago

I might be wrong here, but I don’t think “replacement level” and “emergency reinforcements” are synonymous. My impression of replacement level has been that it represents “readily available replacements”, both inside a system and outside. But as this article discusses, if you take a hit in the wrong place, or too many hits in one area, you are essentially reaching PAST typically readily available replacements and towards “street free agent” players.

To put it another way, I don’t think replacement level was meant to be seen as a floor.