Mark Teahen is a turkey sandwich

This past week I was on a long bus ride sitting next to a (Canadian) friend I had just met about two weeks ago. Because my idle thoughts usually revolve around baseball, our conversation eventually shifted to that subject. As you probably expected, the average Canadian isn’t so knowledgeable about baseball, Tom Tango not withstanding. I was explaining different ideas to him, and he was asking a lot of good questions.

So we’re talking about what pitches different guys throw, and he asks about pitch counts, so I mentioned my post from a few days ago. I started to tell him about the whole statistics side of baseball, and player value and such. That’s when the “R” word slipped out. He looked at me blankly and said, “Do you expect me to know what a ‘replacement player’ is?” This friend of mine had only a vague notion of what the minor leagues consisted of, and now here I was being asked to explain a concept that not even JC Bradbury understands.

Here’s where the title of this post finally comes into play. I was searching for a way explain player value and the components of WAR (Wins Above Replacement)–batting, defense,
positional adjustments, and the replacement level (essentially playing
time) adjustment–to someone who didn’t know the difference between a curveball and a slider. As I mentioned before, I’m usually thinking about baseball. But after that, food is a close second. And food is what this post will be about.

I used the following analogies to explain to my friend the different concepts associated with WAR. Feel free to use this as a guide if a sabermetrics newbie ever asks you to explain wins above replacement, and/or the value section of a FanGraphs player card.

Batting

The first thing you have to realize in batting is that an average hitter has value. If you look at the batting section of a FanGraphs player card, you’ll see numbers that are both positive and negative in this section, depending on the player. Mark Teahen of the Kansas City Royals has both positive and negative numbers on his card, but is usually around zero batting runs. However, in every year since 2006, he has provided his team positive value, despite just an average glove. How is it possible for zero to be positive? Think of it like a plain turkey sandwich (I know, 5 paragraphs in I finally get to the title). If you had a plain turkey sandwich for lunch and dinner every single day of the year, you wouldn’t be saying, “wow that was fantastic!” after every single meal. Chances are, you’d feel that each meal, taken in isolation, was pretty decent, but nothing too special and nothing too bad. A turkey sandwich scores about a 5 out of 10 in terms of deliciousness, assuming you don’t get sick of having it every day. It will keep you from being hungry and dying of starvation, but let’s be honest…it’s not #1 on your list of things to eat before you die. The fact that a turkey sandwich will satisfy and sustain you is why it has value despite being just average. 

Replacement Level

What is replacement level? In baseball terms, it’s the AAA minor league scrub who you can get for the league minimum. In food, it’s the simple bread and water. You can’t get much worse than bread and water and expect to survive for very long. Essentially, this meal is the minimum level of food you can expect to have in your diet. The 2003 Detroit Tigers were the bread and water of baseball, and even they seemed to skip a few meals. Despite being horrendously bad, the Tigers were still considered major leaguers, just as bread and water would still be considered a diet.

Remember the plain turkey sandwich from before? An average turkey sandwich has value because it is more valuable than bread and water or a AAA scrub. Bread and water is the minimum, and every turkey sandwich you have instead of bread and water increases your level of satisfaction and overall health. The replacement level adjustment found on FanGraphs player cards accounts for playing time. A replacement player’s offense is expected to be around 20 runs below average for every 600 plate appearances. So for every 600 plate appearances, we add around 20 runs to a player’s contribution to measure value versus replacement level instead of versus average. This is why a player who is average on offense, average on defense, and doesn’t play any position especially well has positive value. One such player can be said to be Mark Teahen. And this is why Mark Teahen is like a turkey sandwich. A turkey sandwich won’t be anything special on offense or defense, and it can serve various purposes–at the beach, a picnic, dinner, etc.–but the more times you eat a turkey sandwich instead of bread and water, the more positive value you will have in your life.

Positional Adjustment

This one took some thought, but I eventually came up with something that I think works pretty well. Again, we’ll stick with Mark Teahen and the plain turkey sandwich as examples. Here’s why we actually use positional adjustments in baseball: Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), the fielding metric used at FanGraphs, measures fielding versus the average player at the same position. Zero is average, plus-15 is very very good, minus-15 is very very bad, and it’s all measured in runs above or below average. Mark Teahen in 2006 played primarily at third base, and was about average there (zero runs above average). In 2007, Teahen moved to right field, which is an easier position to play, and was 8 runs above average. All UZR numbers are calculated specific to the position a player plays. So Teahen was zero runs better than the average third baseman in 2006, but 8 runs better than the average right fielder in 2007. The average player is expected to add about 10 runs to his UZR rating when moving from third base to right field. This makes sense, since it should be obvious that right field is easier to play than third base. That statement is easier to understand when looking at more similar positions, so think about it this way: most second basemen became second basemen because they weren’t good enough to play shortstop. Those players got a boost in their UZR ratings by moving to an easier position, and we have to account for that when determining player value. An average fielder at shortstop is more valuable than an average fielder in right field, despite both having the same UZR. All of the positional adjustments can be found at this link. Now let’s get back to food.

I said before that a turkey sandwich would rate about a 5 out of 10 for most people. But how would that rating change depending on who you asked? If you ask a world-class Italian chef what he thought of it, he’d probably give you a lower rating than, say, a homeless person desperate for food. Depending on the situation a turkey sandwich is eaten in, its rating would change; depending on the position a player plays, his UZR will change. It’s the same turkey sandwich, it’s just playing a different position. The positional adjustment accounts for this. Just as it’s easier to get a 7 out of 10 rating from someone who’s used to eating scraps than it is from a world-class chef, it is easier to save 5 runs in right field than it is in center.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t give defense its own section, because it’s pretty much explained throughout the rest of the article. I hope this can serve as a guide to anybody trying to explain the basics of win values to someone who doesn’t have a clue what they’re all about. While you’re busy doing that, I’m gonna go get something to eat. 

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