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Saturday, June 29, 2013
WARfare, 2013 style

By Christina Kahrl


With the season roughly halfway over, I thought it would be a good idea to dig into the numbers to see what WAR (wins above replacement) is telling us. I'll start with a man who has been at the center of a lot of WAR talk in the last year.

1. Miguel Cabrera is putting that whole Triple Crown thing in the shade.

You probably already know that Miggy is on pace to hit more homers, drive in more runs and hit for a higher average than he did in 2012, when that old-school Triple Crown helped him beat out Mike Trout in the minds of many MVP voters. And, to grossly simplify matters, a lot of Trout advocates relied on WAR as a key element of their case, pointing to Trout's 10.9 WAR to Cabrera's 7.3.

So what does it say about this season that Miggy already has a 4.4 WAR, good enough to run neck-and-neck for the AL lead with Manny Machado? Here, as in the classic Triple Crown components, Miggy's en route to having a better season, but just as Chris Davis might keep him from winning all three elements of the crown while he sets career highs, Machado might keep him from winning his first WAR tiara as well.

2. And another thing about Miggy ...

WAR is sort of like sabermetrics' answer to the philosopher's stone, converting everything -- hitting, pitching, fielding, baserunning, you name it -- into one currency, wins. That said, we know a lot more about being precise about the value of a player's contributions on offense than we do about defense, and simple WAR can mask something truly historic, which is the value of Miggy's year at the plate.

So far, in a little less than half a season, Miggy has cranked out 5.2 offense-only WAR (or oWAR). If he keeps this up over a full season, he would become the first player since Barry Bonds to reach double digits of offensive value in WAR in a single season. Bonds did it three times (2001, '02 and '04), and Bonds was the first person to do it since Mickey Mantle (1956, '57 and '61). There have only been 29 individual 10.0 oWAR seasons, and just six of those have come since integration.

Miggy has a chance to post the single greatest season at bat in the last 50 seasons of American League history -- which Trout hasn't done (yet, but given time ...).

3. Just one pitcher in 10 years has produced a season worth 9.0 WAR or better

And that would be Zack Greinke for the Royals in his Cy Young season of 2009. But this season two pitchers might challenge that mark: Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers (4.5 WAR) and Cliff Lee of the Phillies (4.6 WAR and counting).

For pitchers, piling up big stacks of value from on-field performance is tough, especially in today's workload-conscious era as teams mitigate risk. But even allowing for that, while there have been 182 pitching seasons worth 9.0 WAR or more, just 30 of those seasons have come since divisional play started in 1969. Or about one every three years in each league, only it's happening even less frequently these days.

So, if we get two seasons like that in the same league in the same year (I'm pretending for the moment that Lee won't get dealt, so play along), it would be pretty rare. Whether that means Kershaw gets his second Cy Young in three seasons, after just missing out last year, we'll have to see.

4. Andrelton Simmons could be putting up the most valuable season afield

In less than half a season, Simmons' defense-only WAR (or dWAR) has been worth 3.0 wins to the Braves so far. That's awfully abstract, of course, and we're all probably much less familiar with -- or confident about -- quantifying defensive value as we are offense or pitching.

But to put that into context, Ozzie Smith's best single-season tally in dWAR was 4.7 in 1989; Mark Belanger's best was 4.9 in 1975. Those two rank fourth and third all-time, behind two Deadball Era shortstops, Art Fletcher (5.1 in 1917) and Terry Turner (5.4, 1906). All four of them played at a time when there were considerably more balls in play, giving them that much more opportunity to mound up piles of a counting stat like dWAR.

So, playing the admittedly lazy game of multiplying everything by two at this stage of a live season, Simmons could top these marks in just his first full season. When scouts, players, ex-players, managers or analysts tell you Simmons is something special, as subjective as you might think those comments might be, and as tricky as defensive metrics might be, that's already being reflected in the data as well.

5. Albert Pujols is arguably the best first baseman of all time.

Say wha ...? Now, I know it's easy for some of you to write Albert off as he struggles through an injury-wracked season, and for some folks it's reflexive to decry the amount of money he's making. But give credit where it's due: He earned a huge payday.

For total career value via WAR, with his current tally of 92.8 Pujols has outproduced every first baseman in history not named Lou Gehrig or Jimmie Foxx -- two hitters who profited from playing in the tiny eight-team American League that had as little going for it by way of competitive balance as it did from integration.

And if you're suspicious about the defensive components of WAR, Pujols still rates third all time behind that same pair in an offense-only tally like Baseball-Reference's Rbat (or Runs Batting). Given that Gehrig and Foxx were beating up on the same small group of pitchers without having to face many of the best (their own teammates), maybe folks should skip worrying how Arte Moreno chooses to spend his money and give an all-time great his due.

All WAR citations rely on Baseball-Reference.com and ESPN.com.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.