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Getting defensive about WAR

A change at FanGraphs

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MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Los Angeles Angels Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, FanGraphs announced a change in the defensive portion of their version of Wins Above Replacement. Instead of Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), fWAR now includes Outs Above Average (OAA) from Statcast.

“We believe the additional data points available in Statcast, such as a fielder’s starting location, help to improve the measurement of a player’s range, especially in situations where players are shifted,” wrote David Appleman.

Among the largest single-season retroactive changes, which go back to 2016, was former Dodgers infielder Logan Forsythe, who originally had a 1.9 fWAR in 2017 but using OAA his WAR lowered to 0.5.

The biggest beneficiary of the last five years was Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed, who went from 4.8 total WAR from 2016-21 to 11.6.

Marc Normandin in his newsletter used Ahmed and the FanGraphs change to highlight the problems with using WAR as part of the pre-arbitration bonus pool of the new MLB collective bargaining agreement. It’s unclear just which WAR the league will use, but Normandin noted that the adaptability of the stat is the problem in using it to directly determine player compensation:

WAR, as said, is not static: it is ever-changing, as new revelations in measuring performance come to light, which means that we’re always needing to look at legacy players and performances in a new light, whether that light is flattering or not. Which in turn means that basing a pre-arbitration bonus system off of whatever version of WAR ends up being utilized is just going to create a significant mess that, as of the way things stand, won’t be cleaned up. Imagine if Nick Ahmed went through his pre-arb years with the bonus system in place, and the WAR variant used to measure his performance was more than a win off every year. He might miss out on receiving any bonus whatsoever, or receive hundreds of thousands of dollars less than he should have through the system that is supposed to reward him for providing significantly more value than his contract status allows him to be paid for producing.