Will Carroll on WAR in fantasy

By Jason Wojciechowski on September 8, 2011 at 1:45 PM

In discussing Hanley Ramirez in Wednesday's Under the Knife, Will Carroll wrote this:

Where did Jose Reyes go in your draft this year? According to MockDraftCentral, Reyes went No. 33, putting him in the third round for most leagues. And at where did he produce? He's 18th overall in WAR. Only Reyes' availability kept him from being a Top-10 overall guy. Remember, WAR doesn't overvalue steals the way that fantasy baseball does.

First, as ever, please state which WAR you're using. (For the record, Carroll's link is to Fangraphs.) This matters, and it meta-matters. Reyes, for instance, ranks 22nd among position players at Baseball-Reference and 19th at Baseball Prospectus. These numbers aren't hugely disparate, but the different calculations do disagree in ways that consumers and purveyors of the stats should understand. (That's the matters.) I would wish that writers with as big a platform as Carroll might assist their readers in understanding these differences, if not by discussing them directly, then at least by, again, being sure to state that they are citing a particular flavor of WAR. New fans of the advanced analytic movement are going to get there by gateways like Carroll at SI or Jeff Passan at Yahoo or Jonah Keri at Grantland. If I seem like I'm picking on them here, it's because I think it's actually important that writers like them get this stuff right. (That's the meta.)

Second, measuring fantasy value by fWAR is silly. There will be a correlation between WAR and fantasy value, sure, because good hitters with high averages and lots of homers tend to also have pretty good WAR figures (e.g. Matt Kemp: #1 position player in my fantasy league, #4 position player by fWAR), but this strikes me as a very indirect way of measuring fantasy value when more direct methods exist.

Yes, Carroll is right that fWAR doesn't overvalue steals, but that's just a scratch on the surface, and the WAR-fantasy disconnect cuts both ways. It doesn't overvalue runs, RBI, and batting average, either. More importantly, it doesn't undervalue on-base percentage and slugging. And fWAR, most strikingly, doesn't value defensive ability at zero.

Take Shane Victorino. He's got 15 homers this year, along with 85 runs scored and just 56 RBI. His 18 steals are nice, but not elite. He's also got a walk rate very near 10%, significant power that doesn't show up in the homer department, and 7.5 UZRs. Plus, he plays center field, so he gets a positional adjustment in fWAR that most fantasy leagues (using just "OF" as his position) don't care about. All of this adds up to make him 10th in position-player fWAR. But in my fantasy league (one that actually uses OBP, doubles, and triples, categories that boost Victorino's value relative to where he'd fall in a standard 5x5 league), he's 48th, one spot behind the immortal Michael Morse.1 This isn't proof, obviously -- it's merely an illustration of the myriad reasons why fantasy value and real-life value (or however close we can get to real-life value using fWAR) are quite different things.

Third, a quibble, but: Reyes is 18th overall in position player fWAR. Carroll's link to Fangraphs does not include pitchers. There are nine pitchers that Fangraphs WAR has equaling or bettering Reyes's fWAR figure for the season, pushing him down into the 24-28 range.

Fourth, a mere amusement: Reyes actually ranks exactly 33rd right now in my league. Well-drafted, people!

  1. I will note that I'm trusting Yahoo to have its ranking game straight here, and I don't know whether it is. Is Victorino getting proper category-scarcity credit for his 15 triples, for instance? I don't know, but I'd hope that the biggest fantasy provider around will have covered its bases in this area.