Kris Bryant and the deficiency of WAR

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Kris Bryant
Kris Bryant’s bat was sorely missed in the first game of the Cubs’ season. (USA TODAY)

It’s an article of faith among many people — including some who read this website regularly — that WAR (or Wins Above Replacement) is a valid way of determining a player’s value to his team. However, I’ve never been one of those people, and last night’s season opener at Wrigley Field is as good a reason as I can offer to explain why.

The underlying premise behind WAR — as I understand it — is that a good player helps his team win ballgames they otherwise might not win. If you or I were playing second base, for instance, we might boot a ground ball and let runs in as a result. But if Robinson Cano was playing instead, he would make the play on that ground ball and keep those runs off the board. So, a positive WAR for him as a result.

But what this assumes is that anyone can see an alternate result other than the one that really happened on the field during a game. And nobody, regardless of how well they know the game or how prescient they may be, can actually tell the difference between an actual second baseman and a theoretical “other” second baseman.

When you look at last night’s Cubs-Cardinals game at Wrigley Field, you see just how pointless assigning WAR values to a player can be. The Cubs as a team were 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position against Adam Wainwright and the rest of the Cardinals staff. Mike Olt, who was the Cubs’ starting third baseman on Sunday night, was 0-for-2 with runners in scoring position, and 0-for-4 overall with two strikeouts.

I want very much to say that Kris Bryant would have come through on Sunday, in at least one situation where Olt did not. But no matter how much I want to say this, I can’t because he was sent back to the minors to start the season. So give Mike Olt a negative WAR if it makes you feel any better about how the game ended, but it doesn’t move the Cubs into the win column, which is really all that matters anyway.

Those who agree with the move to send Bryant back to the minors for the start of this season will never have to answer to verifiable proof that the decision will cost the Cubs to lose any games they otherwise would have won. Such proof can never be definitively produced. I can say — and I will say — Olt’s presence in the lineup Sunday did not help the Cubs offense.

But did Olt’s presence in the lineup cost the Cubs to lose the game? I can’t say that, but I’m certain that some will assign a negative WAR to him, to somehow prove something that cannot be proven.

If subscribing to the utility of WAR helps anyone to understand the game better, fine. I’m all for anything that helps baseball reach more fans. But what I can’t go along with is the premise that Kris Bryant’s presence in the lineup — instead of Mike Olt’s — would have made the difference between a win and a loss for the Cubs on Sunday night. All I can do is point to a missed opportunity for the Cubs to open the season, and I will make sure to do that every chance I get.


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