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Ervin Santana and the RA9-WAR vs. fWAR debate

What do we want when we look at pitcher WAR? What questions are we trying to answer?

Ervin Santana winds up, a 1-2 pitch ready to be delivered to Giants catcher Buster Posey. He steps and releases. At 87 mph, it’s an off-speed pitch, and Jason Castro presents it perfectly. Posey is rung up. Santana steps to the left of the mound, taps his cherry red glove twice and looks up to the sky, presumably thanking God. Then, he get a bro-hug from Castro. The Twins have won, 4-0, and Santana has thrown a shutout in his league-leading third complete game of the season.

To some, Santana is having a career year at age-34. He’s pitched 95 innings to a 2.56 ERA, good for 5th in the Major Leagues. He’s 8-4. The Twins win when he’s pitching. To others, though, Santana’s performances have been “fool’s gold.” Sure, his ERA is elite, but even still, Santana’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is below his career average. He’s bound to regress.

According to FanGraphs, as a result, Santana’s been only worth 0.9 fWAR. How is that possible, then, if he’s limiting runs and pitching the Twins to wins? Well, FanGraphs calculates their WAR using FIP, which basically looks at a player’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (among other things). Santana’s FIP isn’t particularly good, and his WAR isn’t great as a result.

WAR isn’t supposed to be a predicative stat. It is supposed to tell us how many wins a player has been worth, not how many they will potentially be under regression. Santana’s been great so far this year, so shouldn’t WAR reward him for that? FanGraphs would tell you “no.” They’d argue that Santana’s ERA total is not a good indicator of how he has pitched as a pitcher himself, and his WAR should be based upon his contributions alone. And, much of pitching success (as measured by runs allowed) can be traced to defensive success. The only things that pitchers can theoretically control in a vacuum are strikeouts, walks and home runs. So, they’d argue that using FIP is the fairest method to see how many wins a pitcher has been worth alone, without their teammates’ contributions. And, that’s fair.

Unfortunately, WAR is not a perfect science. That’s why there are three commonly used calculations in the baseball world — bWAR (Baseball Reference), fWAR (FanGraphs) and WARP (Baseball Prospectus) — all of which would tell you something slightly different. I’m personally an fWAR fan, but that is after I’ve done reading on all three systems and “chose” one. But, as mentioned above, it can be hard to see the tangible correlation between the performance of a player like Santana and his WAR. To alleviate this, FanGraphs does have something listed on their website entitled RA9-WAR, which uses a player’s runs allowed, rather than their FIP, to calculate their WAR. One could argue that this WAR is in some sense “better” than their regular fWAR because, as I mentioned, WAR should be based on actual, rather than estimated, performance. So, let’s take a look at the leaders in RA9-WAR this season, along with their ERA.

RA9-WAR vs. ERA

Name RA9-WAR ERA
Name RA9-WAR ERA
Dallas Keuchel 3.8 1.67
Clayton Kershaw 3.7 2.23
Ervin Santana 3.6 2.56
Jason Vargas 3.6 2.10
Max Scherzer 3.2 2.36
Yu Darvish 3.0 3.03
Robbie Ray 3.0 2.62
Chris Sale 2.9 2.97
Ivan Nova 2.6 2.83
Luis Severino 2.6 2.75
Data via FanGraphs

It’s an interesting, although not direct, comparison. Adjustments are still made, of course, like those for park- and league-factors. It wouldn’t necessarily be fair to compare the performance of a pitcher’s park pitcher to that of a hitter’s park hitter. Since WAR is often used as a comparative tool, adjustments like these are necessary. Besides, the worst ERA on this Top-10 list is Yu Darvish’s, which ranks as the 16th-best in the Majors. The adjustments are pretty marginal; it’s a fairly strong comparison.

Unsurprisingly, Santana ranks near the top of this list. As mentioned, he has one of the best ERAs in the league. According to this metric, a version of WAR that evaluates Santana only on the runs he allowed, he has been worth 3.6 wins above replacement level, making him the third-most valuable pitcher in baseball. What about by fWAR? Santana ranks tied for 63rd in the Major Leagues among pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched, with a 0.9 mark. The difference here is almost three entire wins, giving him the greatest such disparity among all pitchers in the Majors.

Here are the 10 pitchers that are “outperforming” their WAR by the most wins.

Highest RA9-WAR vs. WAR

Name RA9-WAR WAR Difference
Name RA9-WAR WAR Difference
Ervin Santana 3.6 0.9 2.7
Dallas Keuchel 3.8 1.9 1.9
Lance Lynn 2.1 0.4 1.7
Yu Darvish 3.0 1.3 1.7
Jason Vargas 3.6 2.1 1.5
Gio Gonzalez 2.4 0.9 1.5
Clayton Kershaw 3.7 2.4 1.3
Tyler Chatwood 2.1 0.9 1.2
Dylan Bundy 2.5 1.3 1.2
Kyle Freeland 2.0 0.9 1.1
Data via FanGraphs

There are some really interesting names on this list. You wouldn’t expect to see Clayton Kershaw on a list like this, but when put in context, you start to see it make sense. Kershaw’s fWAR, like his RA9-WAR, ranks atop the Majors; in fact, it’s the fourth-best mark in the Majors. But, his run prevention has been even better than his already great FIP. All this shows, then, is that Kershaw is great in both the WAR and RA9-WAR departments.

It’s also interesting to see two Rockies pitchers — Kyle Freeland and Tyler Chatwood — on this list. Both have only been worth as much as Santana in the fWAR department, yet they continue to dominate as measured by the runs they’ve allowed (or, more accurately, not allowed). Perhaps this adds another argument to my already highly contested piece about why the Diamondbacks are better set to make a run for the postseason than the Rockies, but that’s a discussion for another time. (And, no, I’m not still mad that people vehemently disagreed with me. At least, not a lot. Maybe a little.)

Now, here are the 10 pitchers that have outperformed their RA9-WARs. These pitchers should have good strikeout-to-walk ratios, but may have been getting BABIP’d for most of the year. Simply, they’ve allowed more runs than they should have, and their ERAs have been inflated. Let’s see how many wins they may have lost.

Lowest RA9-WAR vs. WAR

Name RA9-WAR WAR Difference
Name RA9-WAR WAR Difference
Bartolo Colon -1.9 0.2 -2.1
Tyler Glasnow -1.7 -0.3 -1.4
Jeff Samardzija 0.7 2.0 -1.3
Chris Sale 2.9 4.0 -1.1
Josh Tomlin 0.0 1.1 -1.1
Robert Gsellman -0.3 0.8 -1.1
Jake Arrieta 0.1 1.1 -1.0
Rick Porcello 0.4 1.4 -1.0
Data via FanGraphs

I’m shocked to see Bartolo Colon on this list. Colon has been getting shelled this year (7.78 ERA), but he has produced a positive fWAR. How is this possible? It’s because while Colon’s strikeout-to-walk ratio has been bad, it has not been as bad as his ERA suggests. But, according to the runs he has allowed so far, he’s cost the Braves almost two wins this year.

Chris Sale is almost the anti-Clayton Kershaw on this list. Sale is pacing the Major Leagues in fWAR, but his RA9-WAR is much more down-to-earth. Why is that? Well, Sale’s results haven’t been elite level. He’s posted a 2.97 ERA, and while that’s good, his K/BB ratio of 126-17 is much better. But these have been his results, and this article is pro-results, so we should see that Sale really has only been worth a measly 2.9 wins rather than 4.0. His name still is among the league-leaders in RA9-WAR alone.

I’ve talked — rather, written — a lot, perhaps without a lot of direction. What is the point?

Mostly, this has been an attempt to look at a situation where WAR for pitchers was results-based rather than predicative-based. Yes, you can argue a strikeout-to-walk ratio is an example of a result, but the most important thing a pitcher can do is limit runs. The better a pitcher limits runs, the more likely a team wins their games. And it is true that a pitcher is more likely to limit runs with a high strikeout-to-walk ratio.

But, when we look at WAR, we should see how well a pitcher has limited runs, not how likely they are to. It’s the only fair way to evaluate a pitcher’s season performance.

And, Ervin “Cherry Red Glove” Santana would agree.

All stats through games played on June 14, 2017.

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.