The Recent Examples of a Replacement Level Player

One of the most often cited criticisms of WAR is that replacement level is essentially an arbitrary construct, making the entire model just an act of theoretical speculation. The idea of replacement level is to essentially set a baseline for expected performance from a team that invested the absolute minimum in putting together a Major League roster. This replacement level team wouldn’t have a farm system, so that they didn’t have to spend money on draft picks, coaches, equipment, or facilities. They would rely entirely on league minimum veterans to build out their roster, thus allowing us to see how approximately many wins a team could expect if they did the absolute bare minimum in terms of organizational investment.

That team doesn’t exist, obviously, as even organizations that completely tear down their big league roster work to rebuild through accumulation of young talent, and no team actually spends the league minimum on its Major League payroll. Thus, the criticism that the entire exercise is a thought experiment, not applicable to the Major Leagues and incapable of serving as a baseline against which Major League players should be judged.

However, that argument misses out on the fact that MLB teams give us a pretty great list of replacement level players every winter, thanks to the processes of minor league free agency and the waiver system.

Minor League free agents are the quintessential idea of a replacement level player. For the most part, they simply want a job in the big leagues, and they don’t have enough leverage to be picky about what kind of job it is. They take non-guaranteed invites to spring training in hopes of earning a spot on the roster, and if they don’t play well in March, they end up in the PCL or the International League, waiting for an injury to create a need that will get them back to the big leagues for a little while.

If a Major League team was attempting to build out a roster of league minimum players, these are exactly the kinds of talents they’d be picking from. However, they could also supplement those players with waiver claims, as there is a second pool of replacement level talents available to any team willing to simply use a 40 man roster spot to obtain a player who doesn’t have a say in where he lands. This winter, we saw a number of players — Scott Cousins, Russ Canzler, and Sandy Rosario among the most notable — change teams multiple times, as GMs tried to sneak them through waivers so they could be stashed in Triple-A without requiring a spot on the 40 man roster. Since they wouldn’t require more than a league minimum salary and the price of a waiver claim is so low that it doesn’t materially affect a team’s budget, we’ll include these players in the pool of replacement level talents as well.

Using the Transaction Tracker from MLBTradeRumors, I went through and identified two dozen position players who signed minor league contracts or were repeatedly claimed on waivers this winter, with the sole requirement being that they had at least 100 combined plate appearances between the last two seasons. Okay, I actually only identified 23 such players, but Jeremy Hermida had 93 plate appearances, and two dozen sounds better, so I included him in order to get the list up to 24. Since I did this manually, I’m sure there are a few guys I missed, but as you’ll see, it’s not going to change the conclusion in any meaningful way – these 24 guys a pretty good representative sample of what a replacement level Major Leaguer looks like.

To combat selection bias, we don’t want to just focus on what these players did last year, as the fact that we’re identifying players who were forced to sign minor league deals means that we’re starting with a group that likely underachieved last year. A replacement level player who overperformed in 2012 likely secured his place on a 40 man roster for the winter, removing him from the pool of players available to sign minor league deals or get passed through waivers. So, we need to adjust for the fact that the 2012 performances are likely a bit below their actual talent levels, and we can simply adjust by looking at a larger pool of data. We don’t want to go back too far, of course, as many of these guys are aging players who aren’t what they used to be, so to try and come up with a balance of a larger but still relevant sample, we’ll simply focus on how these 24 players did over the last two years.

Their results from 2011-2012?

Total 10,459 6.8% 20.7% 0.131 0.275 0.233 0.289 0.365 0.288 78 (103.4) (11.9) (0.7)

In the past two years, these 24 players have combined for over 10,000 plate appearances in the Major Leagues, and they’ve combined for -0.7 WAR. If you scale that back to a rate of per 600 plate appearances, that’s -0.04 WAR per full season. For a “theoretical” construct that supposedly doesn’t reflect reality, replacement level seems to do okay.

For those interested, here’s a list of the 24 players, and their 2011-2012 performance. If someone asks you what a replacement level player looks like, point to one of these guys.

Matt Downs 413 6.1% 20.6% 0.207 0.265 0.241 0.303 0.448 0.327 106 (7.0) (2.0) 0.8
Ryan Sweeney 518 8.7% 17.6% 0.092 0.323 0.263 0.328 0.355 0.302 87 1.6 (2.3) 0.8
Shelley Duncan 511 9.2% 22.5% 0.204 0.257 0.231 0.305 0.435 0.321 104 (6.1) 0.4 0.8
Jason Bourgeois 318 4.4% 8.8% 0.063 0.314 0.287 0.318 0.350 0.297 85 (1.8) 3.0 0.7
Jeremy Hermida 93 10.8% 35.5% 0.159 0.319 0.207 0.301 0.366 0.294 88 4.3 (0.2) 0.6
Brent Lillibridge 425 6.6% 31.3% 0.162 0.297 0.226 0.295 0.388 0.301 85 (5.6) 5.0 0.5
Miguel Olivo 830 3.3% 27.1% 0.162 0.268 0.223 0.248 0.385 0.273 74 (10.6) (3.4) 0.4
Austin Kearns 349 11.5% 26.4% 0.104 0.302 0.222 0.334 0.327 0.303 89 (0.6) (0.3) 0.4
Darnell McDonald 278 9.4% 18.7% 0.159 0.250 0.224 0.301 0.384 0.302 83 2.3 (0.5) 0.3
Chris Snyder 377 13.3% 24.7% 0.129 0.253 0.205 0.320 0.334 0.294 84 (6.3) (4.9) 0.3
Jordan Schafer 698 9.2% 25.2% 0.078 0.306 0.226 0.303 0.304 0.274 69 (6.2) 5.2 0.3
Eli Whiteside 250 7.6% 25.2% 0.112 0.244 0.192 0.261 0.304 0.249 56 (0.6) 0.1 0.1
Cesar Izturis 206 2.4% 11.2% 0.087 0.257 0.235 0.254 0.321 0.251 52 3.4 (0.9) 0.1
Juan Rivera 860 7.1% 12.9% 0.127 0.266 0.252 0.306 0.379 0.300 89 (5.9) (3.9) (0.1)
Russ Canzler 102 4.9% 22.5% 0.125 0.324 0.271 0.304 0.396 0.301 91 (2.3) 0.3 (0.1)
Don Kelly 408 6.9% 13.2% 0.114 0.246 0.227 0.286 0.341 0.280 71 (0.8) 0.4 (0.2)
Ryan Raburn 640 5.3% 26.1% 0.144 0.287 0.226 0.272 0.370 0.281 71 (4.4) 2.0 (0.3)
Yuniesky Betancourt 812 3.1% 10.8% 0.141 0.250 0.245 0.266 0.387 0.281 73 (15.0) (0.4) (0.4)
Ben Francisco 500 9.2% 18.2% 0.131 0.280 0.242 0.317 0.373 0.306 91 (9.4) (1.6) (0.4)
Scott Cousins 150 6.7% 30.0% 0.094 0.209 0.152 0.209 0.246 0.199 17 3.9 0.1 (0.6)
Danny Valencia 769 5.6% 18.2% 0.131 0.264 0.234 0.274 0.365 0.279 72 (8.0) (4.0) (0.6)
Jeff Baker 413 5.1% 22.8% 0.126 0.316 0.254 0.291 0.380 0.292 78 (6.9) (1.0) (0.7)
Bill Hall 213 7.5% 32.9% 0.113 0.311 0.211 0.277 0.325 0.266 65 (11.4) (1.5) (1.4)
Joe Mather 326 6.1% 21.2% 0.110 0.251 0.210 0.260 0.320 0.253 52 (10.2) (1.6) (2.0)

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

34 Responses to “The Recent Examples of a Replacement Level Player”

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  1. AK7007 says:

    Would it be relevant to do this for pitchers as well?

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Yep, but pitchers are a little trickier, since so many minor league deals for starters include incentives that push them well over the league minimum. For instance, Freddy Garcia signed a minor league deal, but could make a few million if he makes the team and stays healthy. That’s not really the ideal replacement level player. Weeding through those guys is a little more work.

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      • Travis says:

        But isn’t that true for these players as well? Betancourt will make $1.4 million if he makes the major league team.

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    • OuchBabe says:

      Would your face be relevant to my boot? Yes.

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  2. larry says:

    This certainly passes the smell test with Russ Canzler as one of the most replacement levely.

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  3. Apple Wood Smoked Pepper Jack Cheese says:

    I count 4 one time Mariner properties. Expected more.

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  4. Guy Smiley says:

    Next year this list will be entirely comprised of members of the 2013 Houston Astros.

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  5. Mr Punch says:

    One thing this list shows about replacement level/WAR, however, is that the offensive and defensive sides aren’t really in balance. Note that Scott Cousins is an extreme outlier here – the only player out of 24 who’s an extraordinarily bad hitter but fields well enough to hang on. It seems to me that if replacement level actually worked the way it was supposed to we’d see replacement-level players strung along an indifference curve.

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    • David says:

      Over a large enough sample size we probably would, but one year’s list of MiLB free agents isn’t very many…

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      • David says:

        …and you’d also have to examine the old saw about how MiLB is full of younger guys who can field well but can’t hit (moreso than the reverse) and how that affects what sort of player gets signed as a MiLB free agent. It may be correct to say that a theoretical distribution of ALL replacement level players would cover all skills in roughly equal doses, but the reality of the sorts of player who have been around long enough to escape team control and yet not be good enough to stick in the bigs (and still trying!) is entirely different

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      • Mr Punch says:

        There is of course another kind of identifiable replacement-level player, the AAAA “prospects.” Daniel Nava (MLB ’10, minmors ’11, no MLB camp invite ’12) is an example.

        I’m pretty sure that a player who hit like Jose Iglesias fields and vice versa wouldn’t be in Pawtucket. Frank Thomas, for example, is headed to Cooperstown.

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  6. AJB says:

    I can’t imagine I’m the only one who sees Joe Mather’s name and thinks “A trip to the courthouse to change your name to Cotton would be glorious for all involved.”

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  7. Klements Sausage says:

    I didn’t think Yuniesky Betancourt was even replacement level-good, so congrats to him on achieving that.

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  8. pft says:

    I think understanding that replacement level player provides about 2 wins less
    than a league average player helps some.

    Guys like Sweeney, Duncan and Downs are more than replacement players. Not much more, but more.

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  9. Nivra says:

    So I’m confused at the concept of replacement level vs. selection bias. The way major league rosters work is you can collect an unlimited number of minor league free agents and not promise them any roster spots. Let’s say you sign 5 MLFA pitchers to fill your last bullpen spot or 5th starter spot. Then, as spring training progresses and the season starts, you can pick and choose the best of the 5 to fill your actual 25-man roster.

    Let’s say the spread of performance for 5 replacement level players has a standard deviation of 0.7 WAR. There’s a very good chance that best of those 5 players is playing above replacement level. That’s the one you choose for your team. In essence, you’ve just picked up a 0.7 WAR player for a pittance. Sometimes you might get lucky and it might be a 1-2 WAR player. Looking at the list above, this seems to be the typical spread for freely available talent.

    Doesn’t this imply that the actual (as opposed to theoretical 0 WAR) replacement level for the last spots on a team’s roster should really be 0.5 WAR or higher? Brian Sabean is a great example of a guy who uses this strategy well. Year after year, he signs many MLFA’s, and each year one of them becomes a key contributer: Torres, Vogelsong, Blanco, Arias. You may think he’s good at cherry picking, but there’s also tons of MLFA’s that don’t ever see the big league club. For every Vogelsong there’s a Bonser or Petit. For every Arias there’s a Bill Hall or Todd Linden.

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    • nick says:

      Of course you’ll pick the best of them (or what you think will be the best of them), but the best can be pretty bad. Joe Mather did play in the major leagues last year.

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    • John R. says:

      This only works if you assume that you can determine a player’s true talent in spring training or a handful of regular-season appearances, and that whatever you learn that way trumps the projection you’d make based on their entire career before that. Neither of these assumptions is likely to be true.

      So yeah, you can sign five MiLFA’s and give the roster spot to whoever performs best, but the odds are that that guy is overperforming and will come back to Earth any day.

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  10. glib says:

    No Giants? This is truly Sabean2.0. Where are Roos, Marv, Bill gone? I feel a bit disoriented.

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  11. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Thank you for this Dave, it helps to provide context.

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  12. epoc says:

    This is a nice little shorthand analysis, but it misses what is to me the most important aspect of the “replacement level is entirely theoretical” objection to WAR. Namely, that replacement level is set at some theoretically determined level (.250 or .300 or .320 or whatever). People who take this stuff seriously aren’t oblivious to the fact that freely available talent tends to perform near “replacement level,” but those that object to the theoretically-derived aspect of it are uncomfortable with the arbitrariness of placing that level at one well-below-average point rather than another (as well as numerous similarly reasonable objections).

    (“Objection” may not be the right word here. I don’t think many people who take this stuff seriously really “object” to WAR. It’s more like there’s a reasonable debate to be had about just what WAR’s utility is and the extent to which it is or isn’t useful in those roles.)

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I prefer WAA (Wins Above Average).

      If I’m not mistaken, the NBA (or at least NBA2K13) uses Wins Above Average as the metric.

      The “average” at a given position seems to be more easily determined than “replacement level”.

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      • Sylvan says:

        “League average” is easier to determine, but it doesn’t solve the problem because it leaves you with no way to assess how valuable an average (or slightly below) player is.

        We know those players are valuable, because GMs are willing to pay millions to secure their services. But if you used WAA, you would think a slightly below-average player was less valuable the more playing time he got.

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        • vaujot says:

          I think the value of an average player is quite easy to determine:
          A team full of average players would be expected to win half their games. A team without any players would win zero games. Just Divide the expected number of wins of a .500 team by the number of roster spots. In other words, a .500 MLB team wins 81 games. Divided by active roster spots (25) that’s 3.24 wins above zero per roster spot.

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  13. brian says:

    Four members from the 2012 Red Sox.

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  14. DQ says:

    Joe Mather… smh

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  15. chinghu says:

    I would like to see a similar list for players signed to minor league contracts or through waivers in 2011 and how they perform in 2012.

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  16. MGL says:

    Dave, if you concede that selection bias means that these players likely underachieved in 2012 as a group (which is probably true), then using 2011 and 2012 data still produces a result which is likely less than their actual talent level. Using only 2011 brings up age and injury issues, so using 2011 and 2012 is fine, as long as you qualify your results with the caveat that the -.04 WAR likely still understates their true talent.

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