LORD OF WAR: When it comes to Wins Above Replacement, young gun Mike Trout absolutely owns the rest of pro baseball. Photo courtesy Mike Stobe/Getty Images

“We count everything.”

That one line from ‘For Love of the Game’ starring Kevin Costner might best sum up what it means to be a fan of baseball. We do, we count everything. It’s one of the beautiful parts of the game. You can literally recreate a nine-inning game mentally just by reading the box score.

This eternal quest to quantify the game combined with pioneers in the game determined to revolutionize the sport in order to gain some sort of advantage has led to a dawn of new statistics in the last decade or so by which we measure the game.

PIRATE’S BOUNTY: The Pirates have cooled off, but Andrew McCutchen remains amongst the league leader in WAR. Photo courtesy David Banks/Getty Images

The cynics call it useless. Just a bunch of man-child baseball fanatics sitting in their basement trying to drum up some new angle to a game that has been scrutinized for almost 200 years. But ever so often, someone DOES find a new way to look at the game. You might best imagine this in the film ‘Moneyball’.

But the story of Moneyball took place in 2002, a decade ago to this current baseball season. The infamous Sabermetrics, which the film features as the basis for Oakland’s miraculous season back then, has itself grown up.

One of the ways it has evolved is the increased use of a new statistic called Wins Above Replacement, or simply WAR. The goal of the WAR statistic is to find a way to objectively quantify a player’s significance to his team, whether it be a pitcher or a position player. And, as this current baseball season winds down and the MVP race heats up, the numbers might surprise you.

Essentially, WAR is the number of games any given player might give his team compared to a “replacement” player. There’s no set definition for this replacement player, but the general understanding is that it would be someone of a bench/minor league skill level. If Ryan Braun’s WAR is 4.3, that doesn’t mean he’d win 4 or 5 more game than say if Matt Kemp was out there instead.

So how is WAR calculated? Well, as the statistic, generally speaking, is still in its infancy, the number actually varies. WAR isn’t yet what you might call a “standardized” statistic. In fact, MLB.com doesn’t even calculate it. And the websites that DO calculate it, Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference among others, often have different approaches.

Still, while the exact numbers very, the ranking of players often ends up being very similar. Just look at the top players in WAR between the two websites mentioned above split by the American league and National League:

Baseball-Reference NL

Fangraphs NL

Baseball-Reference AL

Fangraphs AL

1. A. McCutchen 6.0 1. R. Braun 7.1 1. M. Trout 9.3 1. M. Trout 8.3
2. J. Cueto 6.0 2. D. Wright 6.5 2. R. Cano 6.2 2. R. Cano 5.9
3. D. Wright 5.9 3. M. Bourn 6.3 3. J. Verlander 6.1 3. M. Cabrera 5.9
4. R. Braun 5.8 4. A. McCutchen 6.2 4. M. Cabrera 5.9 4. J. Verlander 5.8
5. M. Bourn 5.8 5. C. Headley 5.9 5. A. Beltre 5.4 5. F. Hernandez 5.8
6. Y. Molina 5.5 6. J. Heyward 5.9 6. F. Hernandez 5.3 6. A. Beltre 5.3
7. B. Posey 5.1 7. B. Posey 5.5 7. C. Sale 5.3 7. A. Jackson 4.9
8. R. Dickey 5.0 8. Y. Molina 5.3 8. H. Kuroda 5.2 8. J. Hamilton 4.7
9. J. Heyward 4.9 9. A. Ramirez 5.1 9. D. Price 5.1 9. B. Zobrist 4.6
10. J. Votto 4.8 10. M. Holliday 5.0 10. A. Jackson 5.0 10. A. Gordon 4.6

The table is a perfect illustration of how the current inexact science of calculating WAR paints, in broad strokes, a good picture of what should be the MVP race in each league while, at the same time, showing that the statistic has a long way to go before it is widely accepted. And, while it can’t be used on the same level of other geeky statistics like Expected Wins and Losses and Batting Average on Ball In Play just yet don’t be surprised if you see the letters W-A-R on a television set very, very soon.

That’s because WAR does has gotten the closest to doing something statisticians have been trying to do for decades: develop and objective way to value pitchers and position players side-by-side. As you see above, pitchers are where some of the largest disagreements come between the two formulas, but as with guys like Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez, the cream always rises to the top.

And really, that’s all that matter for right now. If one WAR calculation puts Scott Diamond at 23 and another puts him at 53, go ahead and let it. Generally speaking, we don’t care about the wide swath of good-but-not-great players that make up a majority of Major League Baseball. No, we care about the MOST valuable players.

WRIGHT MAN: David Wright might be a more serious MVP candidate if his team wasn’t headed towards the cellar of the NL East. Photo courtesy Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

So let’s look at that. According to WAR, who are the MVP’s? Let’s start with the AL first because it’s quite easy. Hands down, every computer is agreeing that Mike Trout is the man. But could a rookie really be MVP? It’s happened twice before. Many of you will remember when Ichiro Suzuki did it in 2001 but he had already played baseball professionally in Japan. Well, Ichiro was actually only the SECOND player to ever do it. Fred Lynn was the first-ever back in 1975 when he racked up both the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP trophies playing for the Red Sox.

But Lynn was 23 that season. Mike Trout is 21 as of a month ago today. Two years and some change younger, Mike Trout would become the youngest of the three to pull it off. Having been the only rookie in history with at least 25 home runs and 40 stolen bases, Trout is a virtual lock for Rookie of the Year. Still, MVP is a different beast entirely.

But Trout may have the goods nonetheless to do it. Aside from his impressive statistics, which includes a .330 AVG, .957 OPS, 75 RBI, and 108 Runs Scored, Trout has already been named AL Player of the Month once. Only one player has been named it twice this season, Josh Hamilton, and he has cooled off considerable since then.

Now, for the National League, things are a lot more congested. The two sites I cited here have four of the same players inside their respective Top Five’s, but the order varies greatly. The two guys who lead each site’s calculation, Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen, are fourth on the other chart. In between, David Wright is second on one list and third on the other. And that doesn’t even account for pitching where Johnny Cueto is second according to Baseball-Reference and not even in the Top 10 on Fangraphs.

Yeah, the NL MVP race could be a toss-up this year.

For what it’s worth, I am one of those people that is of the belief that team success should play a role in deciding the MVP. It’s one thing if you’re having an absolute monster year, but does it really matter if the team you play for is 25 games out of the division?

For the sake of argument, based on the WAR numbers above, let’s draw a candidate pool of Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Braun, David Wright, and Michael Bourn. Of those four, Braun’s and Wright’s teams have losing records so let’s scratch them off. And, when you look at just McCutchen (ranked 1st and 4th) and Bourn (ranked 3rd and 5th), the decision becomes a bit easier.

That is the beauty of WAR, even with plenty left to figure out when it comes to the statistic, it already helps make the very complicated rather simple. Yes, there is still some debate here, but the WAR formulas that currently do exist give us a narrow group of individuals consistently at the top. It’s not the end-all-be-all just yet, but it’s a valuable point of reference.

Without it, statisticians could spend hours arguing who is deserving of each MVP title citing any one of dozens of statistics. Instead, WAR does that for you. Better yet, it does it OBJECTIVELY. Are you a baseball writer who roots for the Red Sox and despises the Yankees? Congratulations, WAR doesn’t care. What about a Dodgers beat reporter who loathes the Giants? Nope, WAR still won’t give Clayton Kershaw a biased boost.

Like Kevin Costner said, we count everything in baseball. However, perhaps that’s because baseball statistics, in their first 200 years or so of existence, have been going about it all wrong. Maybe we have been trying to measure each limp and body section of a man when all we really care about is their overall height. With statistics like WAR, a simpler future in the mind-numbing world of statistics is ahead.

Now, there’s something to give you PEACE of mind.

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NOTE: This story was originally posted on SportsHead. To read this article and others click here.
When Bryan isn’t writing, he is on Twitter! Make sure you follow him @bclienesch for MLB updates and other shenanigans!