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C.J. Wilson's WAR Revisited

That ridiculously clever title was used way back in May, when C.J. Wilson was among the leaders in the Wins Above Replacement stat at FanGraphs. Monday night, Christopher Fittz put together a nifty piece on the underratedness of the Rangers' pitching, with brief notes on the AL Cy Young candidates and how Wilson compares.

That prompted this post, which is a quick set of lists ranking Wilson by the three big versions of WAR available out there. Also, with Cy Young Argument Season coming up, this could be used for that, too.

First, there's the Baseball-Reference version, typically called bWAR. It basically uses a pitchers runs allowed, adjusted for ballpark and the quality of the defense behind him (using Total Zone) to arrive at its estimate of how many wins above a scrub a player has been worth. The more innings you pitch above that level, the higher your total will be, so work horses are rewarded. It does not assume there is any sort of luck in when a pitcher clusters his hits together, and assumes defense plays the same way behind said starter as it plays in general.

While it may be missing things, including what happens on a field that is actually the responsibility of the pitcher, it is likely the best form of WAR at estimating how many actual wins a team would lose if they switched their pitcher for a scrub, as it does not deal much with "luck."

In any case, here is where C.J. Wilson ranks:

  1. Justin Verlander 8.5
  2. Jered Weaver 6.7
  3. CC Sabathia 6.6
  4. Josh Beckett 6.2
  5. Ricky Romero 5.6
  6. James Shields 5.5
  7. Felix Hernandez 5.1
  8. Doug Fister 5.0
  9. Jon Lester 5.0
  10. C.J. Wilson 4.7

Nothing wrong with being top 10! That's an elite year for a pitcher, easily a top of the rotation guy, and, depending on your definition of the nebulous word, an ace.

Unsurprisingly, in a form of WAR closely tied to what goes in to a Cy Young argument, Justin Verlander -- who is probably going to win it handily -- comes out very much in front. Weaver and Sabathia, who should probably round out most ballots, are second and third.

It gets better as you go along, though. Perhaps the most popular form of WAR is the FanGraphs version, called fWAR (you can find an explanation here). Rather than look at runs allowed, typical defense, or anything like that, it simply looks at the three outcomes that are only between the pitcher and the hitter: strikeouts, walks, and home runs (which, as it turns out, is a really good way to estimate ERA). It extrapolates the expected amount of runs allowed from a pitchers rates in those three aspects (adjusted for ballpark) over his innings pitched, and turns that in to wins.

So, defense matters very little here, and as a counting stat, lots of innings pitched is again a good thing. The more you strike a guy out and avoid walks and home runs, it says, the more wins you've created for your team; any other fluctuation is out of your control.

Here's the leaderboard up to C.J:

  1. CC Sabathia 7.1
  2. Justin Verlander 7.0
  3. Dan Haren 6.1
  4. Jered Weaver 5.6
  5. Felix Hernandez 5.4
  6. C.J. Wilson 5.4

As with the above, Wilson has been hurt by a really bad showing in Seattle, but he isn't hurt so much when you only look at three true outcomes. This is comfortably an elite player, sitting in the top six in the league, and not far from being in the top three (especially with Weaver and Haren fading down the stretch, partly due to short rest perhaps). FWAR, essentially, puts Wilson not only among the best in the league, but presents a guy who might just have a case to be third on Cy Young ballots when the season ends.

Again, Verlander looks like a Cy Young candidate, but now he's ever-so-slightly behind Sabathia. Verlander is almost certainly going to win the award, and that's just fine, but don't let anyone tell you there's no existing argument that someone else could deserve it.

A third form of WAR comes from the website StatCorner. They use a concept similar to FIP, called tRA, for their WAR. TRA estimates runs allowed based on peripherals, but includes quality of contact allowed; essentially, how many runs are expected off of line drives, fly balls, ground balls, etc. So we have the pitcher held responsible for more things than fWAR does, but still trying to look more at what is actually within the pitcher's control than bWAR. You can get a tRA explanation here.

Leaderboard time:

  1. Justin Verlander 7.5
  2. Dan Haren 6.6
  3. Jered Weaver 6.6
  4. CC Sabathia 6.3
  5. C.J. Wilson 5.7

Another spot up the leaderboard for C.J! The total picture is about the same as FanGraphs gives, a guy who's been worth 5-6 wins more than a scrub, which is easily an ace-level pitcher. Top five in the league is absolutely nothing to sneeze at, especially when park factors don't necessarily capture the difficulty of logging big innings when every home game is over 100 degrees.

Verlander is back to dominating. He's going to win the Cy Young award. Wilson is not too far behind anyone else, and with a couple more good starts and a couple more bad starts by the Weaver/Haren tandem, he could have more than a solid argument here for belonging on Cy Young ballots.

So, overall, the argument made by the forms of WAR is that Wilson has not just been good, he's been one of the best in the league, and a pitcher the quality of which Rangers fans rarely ever get to see. Not very often someone goes from long time reliever to a guy who's turned in consecutive years as an All-Star caliber performer.

Of course, he is behind two of the three opposing No. 1 pitchers from the other AL playoff teams, and would be the third or fourth best pitcher in Philadelphia. But he's not so far behind you need to panic.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.