Using Fangraphs' calculation of the statistic, both Brett Gardner and Albert Pujols finished the 2011 season with 5.1 Wins Above Replacement (Gardner, Pujols). While the first reaction is probably "Pujols is better, so WAR is bullshit," this is one of the reasons why I find sabermetrics, and by extenstion, WAR, to be so additive to any baseball discussion.
Statistics should provide a way to measure some part of what happens on the field free of bias and preconceived notions. Albert Pujols doesn't get any extra points because he's Albert Pujols the megastar; Brett Gardner doesn't get any extra points because the Yankees are always on TV and have a lot of fans. They both start at zero, and after a 162 game season they ended up at the same number.*
It's obviously an apples to oranges comparison between a speedy slap hitting outfielder and a power hitting first baseman, but, if nothing else, it should challenge the way that you think about value. Consider the following facts about first baseman and left fielders who logged over 500 plate appearances in 2011:
- Fourteen first basemen and seven left fielders had on OPS of over .800.
- Fourteen first basemen and five left fielders hit more than 25 home runs.
- Eighteen first basemen and nine left fielders had a wRC+ of 110 or higher.
While this leads to the obvious conclusion that first base is a more offense heavy position than left field, it is intended to underscore the incredible era of mashing first baseman that we are currently enjoying. With established guys like Pujols, Cabrera, Votto, Gonzalez, Fielder, and Teixeira, as well as rising stars like Hosmer, Trumbo, Freeman, Davis, and Goldschmidt, there really is not a premium on first base offense.
This is not meant to take anything away from a great offensive season from Pujols. Thirty-seven home runs and a .299/.366/.541 triple slash over 651 plate appearances is fantastic production. However, you could probably make the case that Pujols was the fifth best offensive first baseman in 2011, behind Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, and Adrian Gonzalez.
And, that's really all that he does. Pujols plays a position that has a rich history of harboring fielding-indifferent power hitters, and while his defense is normally considered to be above average, I wouldn't call it extraordinary, at least not in 2011. He wasn't much of a base stealing threat (nine stolen bases in ten attempts) or a particularly fast or shrewd base runner (-3.6 baserunning runs).
This is not meant to take anything away from a great offensive season from Pujols.
I'm sure that this is still coming off as far too critical of a brilliant season by a brilliant player, but there's no real way around that. If this is what a down year from Pujols looks like -- and this was possibly the worst year of his career -- that speaks volumes about what a consistent offensive force he has been. Here's what I'm driving at:
The vast majority of what made Albert Pujols good in 2011 was raw production at the plate. He didn't play a scarce position, he didn't play outstanding defense, and he didn't excel on the base paths. So, when his WAR is dragged down by a positional adjustment and just about no value is added from defense and base running, it's not pulled out of a hat. There is a firm foundation of logic why this should be.
The obvious other side of the coin is Brett Gardner, who plays a less deep position, is an outstanding fielder, and is a terror on the bases. Does being able to contribute in other ways make up for the obvious gap in production at the plate? Most of you would probably say no, and you're probably right. Baseball-Reference has it 5.4 to 4.4 in favor of Pujols and defensive value tends to have a stigma of murkiness around it.
It's a lot easier to have confidence that Albert Pujols is an elite hitter than it is to have confidence that Brett Gardner is an elite defender. But, consider the following:
- The last three seasons, Gardner's UZR/150 ratings in the outfield have been +20.5, +31.8, and +29.5. This is not a case of a small sample size leading to a weird off the charts number. He is being fairly rated as about a +25 runs defender.
- From 2009-2011, six players have accumulated +30 UZR: Dustin Pedroia (+31.1), Carl Crawford (+33.5), Adrian Beltre (+37.7), Evan Longoria (+39.5), Brett Gardner (+50.9), and Franklin Gutierrez (+52.8). Alright, so UZR loves his defense. The point to take here is that the other guys who are getting highly rated are all widely considered to be great defenders, not random players elevated by a broken rating system.
Oh, and Gardner did that in over a thousand fewer innings (2064 innings in the field for Gardner over the past three seasons, everyone else was over 3000).
- In 2011, Brett Gardner made the play on 181 out of 192 balls hit into his zone in left field (94.3%) and made 113 plays out of his zone, ranking first among qualified left fielders in both categories. So, he caught almost everything in the normal position of a left fielder and had about two long running catches for every three games played.
Does that mean that he was as good as Albert Pujols in 2011? Maybe. I can continue breaking down the different aspects of apples and oranges and they will still be apples and oranges. But, what I want -- and what things like WAR can be a catalyst for -- is to question the default line of thinking and to inspire a little more digging.