St. Louis Cardinals: WAR, what is it good for? Absolutely something

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ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 2: Carlos Martinez #18 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates with teammates after hitting a solo home run during the sixth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Busch Stadium on May 2, 2018 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 2: Carlos Martinez #18 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates with teammates after hitting a solo home run during the sixth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Busch Stadium on May 2, 2018 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images) /
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The St. Louis Cardinals have had some rather bizarre personnel performances to start the 2018 season, and despite the unexpected drop-offs from some of their key performers, they are hanging around the top of the National League Central Division.

So what’s allowing the St. Louis Cardinals to do so?  Well, part of the explanation can be gleaned from a look at one of the key analytics in today’s game, Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.

WAR is a formula — or should we say a set of formulas, because it’s calculated differently, depending on which site you prefer (eg, Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, etc) — that looks at how much better a player is than a player that would be available to replace that player.

WAR is hardly perfect, and most of its adherents are clear that it’s only one regression analytic that puts a lot of criteria in a blender and mushes them into the baseball equivalent of WARled peas (ok, that was indeed a terrible pun, but it’s too late to take it back).

But that’s WAR’s strength too; it lets you see relative values of players at a glance. So it’s hardly surprising that Mike Trout, with his crazy combo of average, on base, slugging, steals and defense,  lands at or near the top of each season’s WAR stats . At age 26, he’s already seventh in WAR among active position players.

Trout’s 2018 WAR so far is 2.5, a figure that many major league players would be happy to attain for a full season.  Not Trout; he’s been between 6.7 and 10.5 WAR for each of his full seasons.

Certainly the St. Louis Cardinals have no one even near Trout this season on the hitting side — Carlos Martinez is easily the closest, with his 1.9 pitcher WAR value. His starts, other than his first, have been a wonder to behold, offering as good an April as any starter in the Cardinals vaunted history.

And indeed the Cards’ pitching overall has been splendid, despite fan frustrations. The team ranks fourth overall in the majors for ERA and is tied for sixth in quality starts. And while St. Louis is tied for sixth worst in blown saves with six, keep in mind that 16 teams, including the juggernaut Houston Astros, have four or more.

But it’s not really the pitching that provides the mystery to the Cards’ early success, as they hover around the top of the heap and several of the starters and relievers have a WAR of 0.5, certainly credible at this point.

No, it’s the team’s hitting that’s middle of the pack, and the mediocrity shows in the WARs of some of their key pieces.

Consider that after a month, the following players range from a plus 0.3 WAR all the way down to…well, down to atrocious.

By Baseball Reference WAR calculations:

That is so bad that all four together add up to -0.5 WAR, in almost 470 PAs.

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So how the heck are we keeping pace, then? Well, a handful of their teammates are doing quite well, but not necessarily the ones and in the ways you might think.

Paul DeJong and Tommy Pham are leading the offense at 1.1 WAR each, but they get there in different ways. DeJong has a solid 1.1 offensive WAR (oWAR) and a very credible 0.2 defensive WAR (dWAR) (no, you’re not hallucinating —  oWAR and dWAR do not add up to produce total WAR; they’re both parts of the formula).

Pham, on the other hand, has a robust 1.4 oWAR, as you would expect with his OPS hanging around his 2017 totals. But he’s been a tad off in defense this year; his great 6.2 WAR in 2017 included 0.8 in dWAR.

It’s the next two on the list that might surprise you. Jedd Gyorko has a 0.7 WAR in only 31 PAs. You read that right; he has twice Carpenter’s WAR in a quarter of the PAs. His early electric bat has mostly been left on the bench in favor of Carpenter, and for the reasons, you’ll have to consult with the manager.

Related Story: Gyorko is better than Carpenter

But the shocker of April for WAR is absolutely, positively, Kolten Wong. His WAR to date is 0.6, which given his zero oWAR, comes solely from a dWAR of — are you ready — 0.7.

Wong’s played in 26 games, which is roughly one-sixth of a season. If he replicated that total six times, he’d finish the year with a 4.2 dWAR.

Know how good that is? No? I’ll tell you. That would tie him for the 12th best dWAR season.

Ever.

That’s why even as he’s struggled at the plate, his value to the team is utterly significant in the field, especially when so much of the April success was wrapped up in pitcher performance. Lose Wong’s edge up the middle, and you lose part of what makes those pitchers effective.

WAR is no magic one-size-fits-all explainer, for sure. But the dominance of Martinez on the mound; the offensive woes of half the team’s expected producers; and the astounding defense of Wong, are all evident in the WAR values.

Next: Cards Prospects: 2018 so far

Collectively, those figures tell the story of a team that has been good but is being held back by weak early hitting and the mysterious, repeated benching of the team’s best April hitter. Only time will tell if the team reverts to historical WAR norms, and if the best contributors thus far get a chance to keep producing.

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