Why Mike Minor is ahead of Justin Verlander and other shocking WAR battles

Mike Minor starts Saturday for the Rangers against the Orioles and with a good outing -- a strong possibility given the opponent -- Minor could move into the lead for the best individual pitching season in Rangers history, at least via Baseball-Reference WAR.

I've been slightly obsessed with Minor's WAR for most of the season, ever since he got off to a hot start and then peaked with a complete game on June 26 to lower his ERA to 2.40. By that time, he had established a clear chance to post the highest WAR ever for a Rangers pitcher. He's slowed down a bit since then, but enters this game at 12-8 with a 3.12 ERA. You may be thinking: Sure, that's a nice season, but the best in Rangers history? What about Nolan Ryan or ... umm ... OK, the Rangers don't exactly have a storied legacy of stellar starting pitching. No Rangers pitcher has won a Cy Young Award. The best finisher was Fergie Jenkins, who finished second in 1974. That also ranks -- for now -- as the best season in Rangers history:

Jenkins, 1974: 25-12, 2.82 ERA, 328.1 IP, 29 CG, 7.7 WAR

Minor, 2019: 12-8, 3.12 ERA, 181.2 IP, 2 CG, 7.6 WAR

Now, 1974 is a long ways from 2019, so Jenkins' numbers look ridiculously crazy compared to Minor's. Twenty-nine complete games! Alas, this article isn't about Mike Minor and Fergie Jenkins, but rather that my obsession with Minor's WAR has meant I've seen his name atop the WAR leaderboard most of the season. So this article is about how Minor's Baseball-Reference WAR could possibly be better than Justin Verlander's (and every other pitcher in the sport).

But why stop there? Let's look at a few of the other weirdest and most surprising WAR totals of the season (we're sticking to B-R WAR throughout, with all totals and stats through Wednesday's games).

Case No. 1: Mike Minor (7.6 WAR) versus Justin Verlander (6.7)



Quick timeout. You can skip the next few paragraphs if you know about WAR and just want to get to the fun stuff. WAR has become a mainstream statistic over the past few years -- the Mike Trout versus Miguel Cabrera debates from 2012 and 2013 almost feel like another era. Its usage has advanced beyond the provenance of sabermetric writers (and front offices) as most national and beat writers now reference WAR on a regular basis. MLB Network and ESPN cite it as a routine part of their various shows. Local game broadcasts aren't quite as deep into the mud, but we're seeing or hearing WAR mentioned more often, which means the casual fan who isn't watching Brian Kenny every afternoon is getting more exposure to it.

So, to that fan in particular, this may not compute:

Minor: 12-8, 3.12 ERA, 181.1 IP, 158 H, 58 BB, 180 SO, 7.6 WAR

Verlander: 17-5, 2.56 ERA, 193 IP, 114 H, 35 BB, 257 SO, 6.7 WAR

Verlander leads in every category ... except the one that says Minor is better. For the uninitiated, WAR stands for wins above replacement. The basic framework involves comparing a player to the average player and then the average player to the replacement-level player ... for ease of understanding, think of most players on the Tigers as a replacement-level player. As the Baseball-Reference site explains, "There is no one way to determine WAR. There are hundreds of steps to make this calculation, and dozens of places where reasonable people can disagree on the best way to implement a particular part of the framework."

Anyway, let's get to Minor and Verlander, with a short-and-dirty explanation, not the hundreds of steps part. In evaluating pitchers, there are five primary components to Baseball-Reference WAR: (1) How many runs has he allowed? (2) How much has he pitched? (3) Where has he pitched? (4) How much has his defense hurt or helped him? (5) What opposing lineups has he faced?

Minor has allowed 3.27 runs per nine innings, Verlander 2.66. Park effects help Minor. Baseball-Reference uses three-year park effects and Globe Life Park is a good hitters' park -- a park factor of 111, meaning it boosts offense 11%. Minute Maid, contrary to popular belief, is actually a slight pitchers' park. Including road games, Minor ends up with a park factor of 109.8 and Verlander 98.7. Minor has faced slightly tougher lineups -- his opponents' average runs scored per nine innings is 5.06 and Verlander 4.94. Basically, Minor has had to face the Astros four times while Verlander has had the good fortune of not having to face his own teammates.

The final category is team defense. You should understand: Defensive evaluation is still controversial! Baseball-Reference uses defensive runs saved, calculated by Sports Info Solutions. According to DRS, the Rangers have been a bad defensive team and the Astros a very good one, with the Rangers' D costing Minor 0.24 runs per nine innings and the Astros' D saving Verlander to 0.24 runs per nine.

So the difference in defense alone is worth almost half run per game in favor of Minor. Going back to each pitcher's runs allowed per game, that would lower Minor's total to 3.03 and raise Verlander's to 2.90. From there, the park effects and quality of opposition increases Minor's value and he ends up credited with 55 runs saved above an average pitcher and Verlander 46 runs above average. Those figures are then translated to the above WAR numbers.

Is this reasonable? Certainly, especially if you accept the defensive numbers. On the other hand, Verlander has certainly been more dominant: Many fewer hits allowed and many more strikeouts. Baseball-Reference spits it all out and says Minor has been the best pitcher in baseball this year.

P.S. FanGraphs WAR, which uses a different philosophy in rating pitchers, says Verlander has been better. But it also says Lance Lynn-- Minor's teammate -- has been better than Verlander and rates as the best pitcher in the American League.

Let's move on.

Case No. 2: Ketel Marte (6.6) versus Christian Yelich (6.4)



Cody Bellinger versus Christian Yelich, Christian Yelich versus Cody Bellinger. The NL MVP race has been a two-man battle all season after both players had monster Aprils. If there's a third wheel in the discussion, maybe it's Anthony Rendon. Yet ... there's Ketel Marte, the Arizona Diamondbacks' center fielder/second baseman who hit one home run for the Mariners in 437 at-bats in 2016, surging pass Yelich into second place on the National League WAR leaderboard. It's a wonderful thing, this baseball season we're living in. Their stats:

Marte: .328/.387/.591, .978 OPS, 30 HR, 85 RBI, 92 runs

Yelich: .326/.422/.672, 1.093 OPS, 43 HR, 93 RBI, 96 runs

Yelich's OPS is more than 100 points higher, he has more home runs, he's even stolen 26 bases (in 28 attempts) to nine for Marte. How can Marte be better? (Keep in mind that small differences in WAR are meaningless, so don't get too worked up ever two-tenths of a win. Still, nobody is putting Marte in the Bellinger/Yelich MVP discussion.)

For position players, WAR evaluates a player's offensive production, baserunning and defensive value. There is also a position adjustment to consider. Playing shortstop or center field is more difficult than first base, so WAR accounts for that. Keep in mind as well that WAR is a cumulative statistic, so more playing time helps. Marte has had 27 more plate appearances than Yelich, a minor factor in his favor.

For offensive value, Baseball-Reference determines how many runs a player has created compared to an average hitter and then makes a park adjustment. Clutch hitting is not considered (maybe one of the most controversial aspects of WAR). A home run against the Orioles counts the same as a home run against the Dodgers.

Yelich is credited with 51 runs above average (including park effects) to 35 for Marte. On defense, Marte has plus-9 DRS while Yelich is at minus-1. That makes it 50 runs for Yelich and 44 for Marte. Yelich gets plus-5 runs for his baserunning (includes base stealing and advancement on the bases) and Marte plus-2. Hitting into double plays is a bad thing, so that's another category. Both players are plus-1 run there, so Yelich leads, 56 runs above average to 47.

One last adjustment. Marte has started 78 games in center field, 44 at second and five at shortstop. Yelich has started 116 games in right field and three in left. Marte receives a positional adjustment of five runs. Yelich plays lower on the defensive spectrum and receives an adjustment of minus-5 runs. That makes it 52 to 51 runs above average in favor of Marte, and thus the slight edge in WAR.

If the positional adjustment doesn't make sense, view it this way. If a shortstop is credited with 10 runs saved on defense and a first baseman is credited with 10 saved, if you didn't make a positional adjustment, both players would receive credit for the same value on defense. But shortstop is more difficult to play (and the first baseman would probably be a terrible shortstop), so we need to make an adjustment to more accurately compare the two players.

The bottom line: Yelich is having an amazing season. But so is Marte! I think with offensive stats, we sometimes overestimate the difference in numbers between hitters. We see Yelich with the big home run total and slugging percentage and it feels like he's on another plane of existence. Maybe he is. Did you see him in the Body Issue?

Here's another way to look at this. Think of the Tigers versus the Twins. The Tigers have a .682 OPS while the Twins are at .841. That's a huge difference, larger than the difference between Marte and Yelich. The Twins have scored 822 runs to 503 for the Tigers. That's an average of 35 runs per lineup position -- the difference between the highest-scoring team in the league and a team with a historically terrible offense. The difference between Marte and Yelich is smaller than a typical Twins hitter and a typical Tigers hitter.

So maybe it's time to add Marte to the MVP talk.

Case No. 3: Marcus Semien (5.8) versus Mookie Betts (5.8), Rafael Devers (4.8) and Xander Bogaerts (4.8)



Speaking of MVP talk, we hear Devers and Bogaerts mentioned as American League MVP candidates (non-Mike Trout division), but not Semien, the underrated shortstop for the A's. Numbers:

Semien: .272/.355/.491, .846 OPS, 26 HR, 75 RBI, 100 runs

Betts: .289/.388/.516, .905 OPS, 25 HR, 75 RBI, 125 runs

Devers: .318/.367/.575, .941 OPS, 29 HR, 107 RBI, 114 runs

Bogaerts: .310/.386/.574, .960 OPS, 31 HR, 103 RBI, 102 runs

This one is about park effects and defense. The three Red Sox players are having better offensive seasons, but the difference -- again -- is not significantly better, especially after factoring in Fenway Park (hitters' park) and Oakland (pitchers' park). Baseball-Reference has Bogaerts at 38 runs above average, Devers at 32, Semien at 27 and Betts at 26.

Then we get to defense:

Semien: plus-2 DRS

Betts: plus-12

Devers: minus-6

Bogaerts: minus-20

When translating runs to wins, every 10 runs is approximately one win of value, so Bogaerts is losing about two wins of WAR due to his defense. Is he really 20 runs worse than an average shortstop? That, dear readers, is a debate for another day. Remember: Defensive evaluation is controversial! For the record, Bogaerts is steady, but probably does lack range. He was at minus-19 DRS last season and minus-11 the season before, so DRS is at least consistent in his evaluation.

Bottom line: Semien has quietly had an outstanding season, even if it's not a super flashy outstanding season. He gets on base, hits for power, plays every game and has turned into a solid shortstop. Props.

Case No. 4: Nick Ahmed (4.4) versus Freddie Freeman (4.3)



Wait, what? Freeman is hitting .300, has 38 home runs and leads the majors with 114 RBIs. Ahmed is hitting .264 with 17 home runs and 77 RBIs ... which, wow, when did Nick Ahmed become a competent major league hitter? Still, nice numbers, but not MVP-caliber numbers like Freeman.

You can guess where this one is going. Freeman has a 33-run advantage with his hitting (32 to minus-1), but Ahmed makes up for it in other areas:

Defense: plus-18 to plus-4

Baserunning: plus-4 to plus-1

Avoiding double plays: 0 to minus-2

Position adjustment: plus-7 to minus-7

Freeman will finish high in the MVP voting. Ahmed will be lucky to get a 10th-place vote or two. I'm not suggesting that's criminal if that happens. I'd take Freeman as well. We can at least acknowledge that Ahmed, who will probably win his second straight Gold Glove, has become a very valuable player for the Diamondbacks.

Case No. 5: Kolten Wong (4.5) versus Gleyber Torres (3.7)



This one is interesting because we're comparing two middle infielders, not a shortstop and first baseman. Torres has 34 home runs and Wong has 10, so there's 24 runs right there! Despite Torres' big edge in power, his offensive edge over Wong is only 10 runs -- 20 runs above average to 10. Wong's advantage is a higher OBP (.346 to .368), although surprisingly park effects have little to do with this comparison as Busch Stadium and Yankee Stadium both rate as slight pitchers' parks.

What? Yankee Stadium, with that Little League porch in right field?

Remember, park effects are about run environment and not whether a park is simply just a good home run park or about a player's specific home/road splits. Yankee Stadium boosts home runs, but takes away in other areas (doubles, mostly) to make it a more neutral park overall. Understanding run environment is important. It's not suggesting this player will perform a certain way in another park. It's just placing a value on the runs a player has created in his home park. Five runs at Petco is more valuable than five runs at Coors Field.

Anyway, Wong grades at plus-13 runs on defense and Torres at minus-4, making up for Torres' offensive edge. I mentioned earlier that WAR doesn't take clutch hitting into account (or timely hitting, if you dislike the term "clutch"). It also doesn't factor in a player's batting order position. Wong has spent most of the season hitting seventh or eighth. His on-base skills would have been more valuable if he hit in front of Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna all season, since he'd score more runs than he did while hitting in front of the pitcher, but WAR values a player in a neutral context, stripped of his humanity and regarded as only the sum of bases gained and outs made.

Case No. 6: Jon Gray (4.5) versus Hyun-Jin Ryu (4.0)



Well, this is a bit barbarian: The guy who has been the Cy Young favorite most of the season versus the perennially frustrating Gray, who is now out for the season with a foot fracture.

What's the deal here? Well, park effects, of course. Gray, pitching half the time on Mars, has a park factor of 116.2; Ryu has a park factor of 96.

The second hidden factor is defense. The Rockies' defense is essentially average -- minus-.08 runs per nine innings. Defensive runs saved views the Dodgers' defense as the best in the game and credits it with helping Ryu to a whopping 0.54 runs per nine innings. Gray also has faced slightly tougher lineups (including the Dodgers three times).

Baseball-Reference's evaluation says Gray's 3.84 ERA in 150 innings while having to pitch at Coors Field is more impressive than Ryu's 2.45 ERA in 161.2 innings at Dodger Stadium with a great defense behind him.

Assuming Ryu gets back on track after his recent struggles, I don't think Cy Young voters will be buying this one, however. Ryu probably still rates as the favorite or co-favorite, even if he does rank just tied for 10th among NL pitchers in WAR.

Case No. 7: David Fletcher (3.3) versus Eugenio Suarez (2.9) and Jorge Soler (2.6)



It's OK to admit that you don't know who David Fletcher is. He plays for the Angels. Mostly third base, but also 25 games at shortstop, 15 at second base and 17 in the outfield. Second-year guy.

We present this:

Fletcher: 5 home runs

Suarez: 40 home runs

Soler: 40 home runs

This is why some people hate WAR. They can't wrap their heads around the idea that a five-homer player could be more valuable than a 40-homer hitter, even in a time when everyone hits home runs. Or maybe because everyone is hitting home runs. No power, no love.

What's the story? Well, Fletcher isn't a complete zero on offense. He gets on base (.345 OBP), hits some doubles, plays good defense (plus-10 DRS) and gets a positional adjustment of plus-3 runs. He's a nice, underappreciated kind of player.

Suarez has created 93 runs to 70 for Fletcher, but after park effects that difference ends up as 15-run advantage. His defense at third is below average at minus-2 DRS. With the other minor tweaks, Fletcher moves ahead in WAR. Soler is better on offense (25 runs above average), but he's a plodding right fielder (minus-8 DRS) and has also started 89 games at DH so gets a positional adjustment of minus-10 runs.

Bottom line, I guess: There's more to baseball than home runs, even in 2019.

Case No. 8: Billy Hamilton (0.7) versus Franmil Reyes (0.5)



Reyes is already a minor legend of sorts, with rockets and lasers and towering home runs. He has the fifth-highest average exit velocity in the game and has ripped 34 home runs. He's fun to watch for that possibility that he may hit the next pitch 500 feet. It's also really his only skill. He can't run, he's bad on defense, he doesn't draw many walks. There's a reason the Padres traded him and why the Indians are using him as a DH. He does have flaws.

Hamilton is his polar opposite, a guy how makes his living with his legs. He hasn't homered all year. If my math is correct, that's 34 to 0 in favor of Reyes. Hamilton is also hitting .218 with a .285 OBP and the Royals waived him. He can't possibly be more valuable than a guy hitting .254/.316/.531 with 34 home runs, can he?

WAR says, yes, it is possible.

Here's what I know: I'd love to see a team of Billy Hamiltons take on a team of Franmils.
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