There are a few things we know with reasonable certainty about Robbie Ray. He was born on October 1, 1991 just south of Nashville in Brentwood, Tennessee. In 2010, the Washington Nationals drafted him in the twelfth round of the amateur draft. The Nationals traded him, along with two other players, to the Detroit Tigers in 2013 in exchange for Doug Fister. A year later, the Tigers traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade that netted the Tigers Shane Green and the New York Yankees Didi Gregorius. So far, Ray has seen major-league action as a starting pitcher with the Tigers and Diamondbacks. He showed promise in his first three appearances (two starts and an inning of relief), for Detroit. He showed less promise in his remaining six appearances– four starts and two relief innings– for that team. Things have ticked back up for Ray since his arrival in the desert, however.
Most baseball fans likely have some familiarity with the player-valuation concept of wins above replacement player, usually labeled WAR. What many fans may not realize, however, is that there actually are three different versions of the WAR statistic. The goal of each version is the same: to determine a comprehensive valuation of an individual baseball player. Each takes slightly different paths to reach that comprehensive valuation, but they typically reach similar conclusions about a given player, such that it’s common to see or hear a player’s WAR cited without specific reference to the particular version utilized.
For example, the three versions– Baseball-Reference’s WAR (“rWAR”), FanGraphs’ WAR (“fWAR”), and Baseball Prospectus’ WARP (“WARP”)– all agree that Mike Trout had a great 2016. He finished the season with 10.6 rWAR, 9.4 fWAR, and 8.7 WARP, good for first, first, and second by each metric, respectively. For another example, they also agree about Trout’s former MVP nemesis, Miguel Cabrera: 4.9 rWAR, 4.9 fWAR, 3.9 WARP. (In my anecdotal experience, WARP tends to run a little lower than rWAR and fWAR for all players.)
While the WAR varietals typically and generally concur, that isn’t always the case. Pitchers can be particularly susceptible to this variance, because the measurement of pitching performance is one of the areas in which the three metrics are most different. In general terms, one of them (rWAR) is based on what the pitcher actually did (runs allowed); one (fWAR) tries to isolate the pitcher’s true talent by stripping out aspects (e.g., team defense) over which a pitcher does not exercise direct control (FIP); and one (WARP) makes a new and complex attempt to determine pitcher talent and contribution (DRA).
Despite these significant methodological approaches, the WAR metrics still often agree about pitchers’ values, particularly when it comes to the good ones. Max Scherzer finished 2016 with 6.2 rWAR, 5.6 fWAR, and 6.2 WARP.
For others, though, the valuation picture is far less clear. Robbie Ray presents an extreme example. As Sam Miller highlighted in his recent column, it’s tough to form a robust opinion on how good or bad Ray was in 2016, because the different WAR metrics viewed his season very differently: 0.7 rWAR, 3.0 fWAR, and 4.8 WARP. Quite a spread. He throws hard and strikes out many, but he also allows many runs and doesn’t win many games. What’s that worth? And what’s the value of a valuation metric, or a collection thereof, that can’t make up its mind?
As with everything he writes, Miller’s article takes the reader on an elegant journey through the baseball mystery that is Ray and, by extension, the way(s) we calculate player value. Read it all here.
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