Quantifying Excellence: Using Wins Above Excellence along with Wins Above Replacement

I think I’ve made it clear that I love Wins Above Replacement (WAR). I do have a couple of issues with it, though. One issue is that, like other counting stats, WAR makes it hard to distinguish between the truly elite players and the “compilers” (guys who hang around forever and accumulate impressive career totals through consistently solid—but not exceptional—seasons).

Don’t get me wrong—I have a strong affection for “compilers”. I believe many of them do belong in the Hall of Fame. Longevity is a wonderful thing. But let’s look at Harold Baines. He accumulated 37.0 WAR in his career—not a Hall of Fame number per se, but still a very good total. Baines played for 22 seasons and was solid for most of them. But he had no distinguishable peak and built that total despite never reaching 4.0 WAR in a single season. Albert Belle, on the other hand, accumulated 37.1 career WAR. He had five seasons that cleared 4.0 and would be considered a demonstration of excellence—7.4, 6.6, 6.0, 4.9, and 4.7 WAR. Belle, of course, didn’t last nearly as long as Baines, retiring after 12 seasons. Baines and Belle provided similar value over their career, but Baines did it with sustained performance and Belle did it with a shorter peak of excellence many players can’t reach. Of course, on the other hand Belle couldn’t stay on the field like Baines could.

How do you distinguish between these types of players when using WAR, particularly when you’re getting to the types of career levels that put you in the Hall of Fame discussion? Erik Manning recently posted about “Wins Above Excellence”, a new concept by Sean Smith (the creator of my new favorite site: BaseballProjection.com).

Sean says:

I’m looking at how many wins a player has above three in a season, though his season total can never be below zero. This gives a player credit for great seasons, and ignores anything where a player is average or below, it neither adds nor hurts a player’s case for greatness. A great player should not be penalized if he hangs around past his peak contributing a only little bit to his teams.

Erik uses Wins Above Excellence (WAE) to compare his guy, Jim Edmonds (66.6 WAR), favorably to Duke Snider (67.2 WAR and never questioned as a Hall of Famer) rather than Dwight Evans (61.7 WAR and never came close to induction). Erik found that Edmonds produced 31.4 Wins Above Excellence while Snider clocked in at 31.0. Evans, by comparison, had 16.2 WAE.

Erik also included recent Hall of Fame inductee Andre Dawson in the conversation. Dawson had a career WAR of 56.8 and a WAE of 18.3. He also shows how while Dale Murphy had a career WAR of “just” 44.4, his WAE showed his dominance at his peak with 20.7.

The Evans comparison got me thinking… maybe that’s an area where Jim Rice is better than Dewey. I’ve been trying to find a metric that shows Rice is better than Evans ever since Rice was inducted.

Still looking.

Rice’s career WAR of 41.5 is very low for a Hall of Famer. Perhaps his excellence (WAE) in his best years makes up for it? Nope. His WAE is just 13.0.

I’m not sure if 3.0 WAR is the correct baseline for WAE. Part of me feels that 4.0 WAR would be a better baseline, since that shows more excellence than a 3.0 season. But hey, Sean knows WAR better than any of us? I’m going to include WAE in some future articles… perhaps I’ll experiment with WAE above 3, WAE above 4, maybe even WAE above 6 to show those incredible seasons.

Just one more tool for the ol’ arsenal.