“Bruno’s Gold:” Players with the Highest Wins Above Replacement (WAR)
With little more than half of the 2014 season left to play, I thought it would be fitting to look at the leaders of each position on the field (DH excluded) by FanGraphs’ version of WAR (fWAR). I’ll focus on the guys who are most surprising, and not so much on the ones you’d expect to see. All of these players have had a great start to their respective seasons, but can they keep it up in the 2nd half?
Catcher, Jonathan Lucroy: 3.5 fWAR: Lucroy is easily the best catcher in baseball right now. His 1.5 fWAR lead on the next best catcher (Salvador Perez) is evidence enough, but let’s check out his numbers. He’s hitting .341/.405/.536, and his batting average is second in baseball only to Troy Tulowitzki and his ridiculous season. Only one other catcher – with enough at-bats to qualify – is hitting over .300. I don’t like to put a lot of emphasis on batting average since there are better stats out there, but when you’re so far ahead in any category, it usually means something. Lucroy doesn’t just have a high batting average either. He gets on base (.405 OBP), hits for power (34 extra-base hits), drives in runs (37 RBI), scores runs (35 runs scored), has an almost 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio (31 K’s to 28 BB’s), and even has three stolen bases. His runs created plus (wRC+) is 8th best in all of baseball. The guys ahead of him are Tulo, Mike Trout, Yasiel Puig, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz, and Giancarlo Stanton. Quite a group. Ok, so his numbers are very impressive. Can he keep it up? His career line is .288/.342/.442 and he had 18 home runs and 25 doubles last year, so it’s not like he’s been a light-hitting catcher that came out of nowhere. I’d be shocked if he finished with his current line, but I wouldn’t be if he batted .300 for the season. He’s also hitting between the likes of Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, and Aramis Ramirez, in a powerful Brewers lineup, meaning if everyone stays healthy, he should continue to see good pitches and continue to hammer them. I like Lucroy to finish the season as the game’s best hitting catcher, although there isn’t a lot of competition, which makes that an easier pick to make.
First base, Brandon Moss, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt: 2.6 fWAR: Moss, Cabrera, and Goldschmidt all have the same fWAR, but I’m going to write about Moss since Cabrera and Goldschmidt were likely first-round picks in fantasy drafts, while Moss may not have been taken among the first 12 first baseman. Moss hits cleanup for the best offense (by runs scored) in baseball and for the best team in baseball in the Athletics. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement enough, maybe his 17 home runs and 55 RBI, to go along with the 7th best Isolated Power (ISO) in the league at .271 are. His line of .263/.358/.534, may not jump out at you for a guy with the best fWAR at first base, but his slugging percentage (SLG) is 15th best in baseball among all hitters. Basically, the guy mashes the ball. He strikes out a lot and doesn’t hit for a great average, but only three players hit fly balls at a higher percentage than him and with a high home run to fly ball ratio (18.7%), that’s not a bad thing as a lot of them are leaving the yard. Can he continue to mash in the second half though? Moss is a career .254 hitter, but average is not his game. He’s a power hitter. He hit 30 home runs last season and 21 in just 84 games in 2012. The power is not going anywhere and in fact, he’s likely to finish the year with his best hitting season yet. If he does, he won’t be drafted outside of the top-12 first baseman next season.
Second base, Brian Dozier: 2.8 fWAR: Dozier’s line of .238/.350/.447 looks relatively average, but he’s one of only three players to have both double-digit home runs and double-digit steals (he has 15 of each). Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez are the other two, and Dozier has more home runs and steals than both. Dozier is also third in runs scored with 56, and only two other second baseman have more RBI than his 36. He strikes out more than you’d like from a hitter in the two-hole, but he has 11 more walks than any other second baseman. He’s also getting terribly unlucky as seen by his .245 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). He hasn’t had a good BABIP for his short MLB career, but even if it comes up to his career average of .267, look for his batting average to climb above .250. Dozier’s future is difficult to predict since he’s only had one full season in the big leagues (last season), giving us a small sample size. Based on the information we do have however, Dozier has always had some pop in his bat (15 HRs, 33 doubles in 2013) and hasn’t been good at hitting for average (.244 last season). An encouraging sign is that his walk percentage is up significantly, and his strikeout percentage has decreased as well, likely meaning he is seeing the ball better, while making the adjustment to major league pitching. I think he’s got a good chance at keeping pace with his current numbers, and for his batting average to increase. Carlos Santana is the only player with a lower batting average and higher on-base percentage than Dozier, which again brings attention to his low BABIP.
Third base, Josh Donaldson: 3.4 fWAR: Donaldson is someone you should expect to be here since his 7.7 fWAR was the third best in baseball last season among all players, but he doesn’t get talked about enough so I’m leaving him on here. He’s currently hitting .255/.338/.490 and his 18 home runs and 55 RBI are both good for 5th best in baseball. His walk rate is down and his strike out rate is up from last season, but not significantly in either direction, so no real cause for concern. In addition to hitting for serious power (his ISO is currently .234), he’s also scored the 4th most runs in baseball. He has had the luxury of hitting between the likes of the aforementioned Brandon Moss and Yoenis Cespedes (Is it any wonder the A’s are the best team in baseball?), meaning pitchers have to choose who they attack, and often Donaldson is going to be the beneficiary of some juicy pitches. We’ve seen Donaldson perform at a high level for all of 2013, but can he do it again in 2014? In terms of power, it’s not a question that he can repeat his numbers as he is on pace to fly by most of them. The one area that has suffered this season is batting average, as he hit .301 in 2013. I’m not worried about this since, like Dozier, Donaldson has been unlucky this season with a .269 BABIP, so look for his batting average to start to climb as the season progresses. It’s not a bold prediction to say that the 2013 leader at third base for fWAR will repeat this season, but with Donaldson on the field, there aren’t any serious competitors.
Left Field, Alex Gordon: 4.1 fWAR: The Royals are in contention in late-June and Gordon has the best fWAR of any left fielder in baseball – two things that I did not expect to happen at this point in the season. Gordon is hitting .290/.368/.457 with eight home runs and five stolen bases. He also has 41 runs scored and 39 RBI to go along with an increased walk rate and decreased strikeout rate compared to both last season and his career averages. His offensive numbers are good but not the best among his fellow left fielders (he ranks 7th in wRC+), but where he really separates himself is on the defensive side of the ball. According to FanGraphs’ defensive ratings (fielding and positional adjustment combined), Gordon has a rating of 15.6, which is the best in baseball by almost three points. This doesn’t help Gordon’s fantasy relevance, but it’s a big part of the reason why he’s considered baseball’s best left fielder in terms of fWAR. Gordon’s having a solid year offensively as well, and while his current line is higher than his career line, is it sustainable? Gordon has been healthy for the past three seasons and his average numbers over this time are .287/.357/.460, with 19 HR, 80 RBI, and 12.6 stolen bases. He’s on pace to match those exact numbers, and if he does he’d be a top left fielder fantasy-wise. One concerning statistic is that his line drive percentage (LD%) is currently five points lower than his career average. It’s only a half-season worth of data so it’s not worth going crazy over, but something to watch going forward.
Relief Pitcher, Dellin Betances: 1.8 fWAR: Betances currently leads all relief pitchers in fWAR and is one of only two relief pitchers in the top-ten for fWAR without a save. A career minor leaguer, he pitched just 7.2 innings in the big leagues before his 42 innings pitched for the Yankees so far this year. He’s putting up great numbers, like 15 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, a 1.50 ERA, and an even better 0.92 Fielder Independent Pitching (FIP). Betances has only allowed one home run, and his strikeout to walk ratio (6.36) is 6th best among relievers. More impressive, his strikeout percentage of 45.2% leads all relievers and his miniscule WHIP of 0.71 is bested by just four other relievers. Long story short, Betances strikes out a lot of guys and doesn’t allow many baserunners. However, he’s difficult to analyze from a fantasy aspect since there’s basically no data on him except for this season. He also isn’t the Yankees’ closer, meaning if the situation in their bullpen remains the same, he isn’t going to get many saves, if any. He does have four wins this season, but reliever wins are impossible to predict and should not be relied on to occur. That said, Betances has been a strikeout king at every level he’s pitched, and has been dominant so far this year in the bigs. Since he was a starter for some of his time in the minors, we don’t have much old data to rely on and only have what he’s done so far this season, but there’s no reason to think that he can’t keep up this pace. If you play in a deeper league, or one that has multiple relief pitcher slots, like many of the leagues on this site, Betances offers some value as a non-closer.
Obvious guys: These players are all having great seasons and are players you expect to see at the top of the list for their respective positions. They’re really good and there’s not much more that’s needed to be said.
Shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki: 4.6 fWAR
Right Field, Giancarlo Stanton: 3.9 fWAR
Centerfield, Mike Trout: 4.8 fWAR
Starting Pitcher, Felix Hernandez: 4.4 fWAR
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