MLB’s 7 Most Indispensable Players in 2014

How is value defined on a Major League Baseball field? That debate has raged on since the beginning of time, which in baseball’s case was 1871. More recently, statistics gurus have come up with the formula known as WAR, which stands for wins against replacement.

WAR attempts to quantify what would happen if a player were removed from the game (by injury, suspension, retirement, or otherwise) and replaced by the average player on the market. For an idea of how that can impact a team, take the case of Robinson Cano leaving the Yankees after the 2013 season. According to WAR, that may have cost the Yankees more than four wins this season, according to Cano’s 2014 WAR (4.56) set against that of Brian Roberts (0.0 WAR), who was Cano’s replacement.

Ignoring the debates about what WAR can and can’t do, this simple illustration lends credence to the stat. So does the fact Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth have the first and second best single-season WAR ever. Fangraphs.com explains it takes offensive output (wRAA), baserunning prowess (UBR and wSB), and defensive value (UZR) to come up with the magic number.

Here are the seven most valuable — most indispensable and irreplaceable — MLB players of 2014 in terms of WAR. Stats are current as of August 8, 2014.

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7. Giancarlo Stanton, Miami

Giancarlo Stanton makes a great case for the validity of advanced statistics. The slugging Marlins outfielder has powered 27 home runs and 26 doubles in 72 games, slugging at a .546 clip with a .389 OBP. He’s also posted 10 steals and 79 RBI in 2014. These numbers give him MLB’s seventh-best 5.21 WAR.

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6. Jason Heyward, Atlanta (tie)

Atlanta’s Jason Heyward is unique in that he contributes more defensively (2.62 dWAR) than offensively (2.23 oWAR). A run saved is, of course, as good as a run produced when a team is trying to win ballgames. Heyward’s a defensive wizard who covers tremendous range in the outfield. In fact, his defensive rating gives him the status of top MLB defender according to WAR. Overall, he is tied for fifth/sixth in the game with his 5.36 WAR.

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5. Clayton Kershaw, L.A. Dodgers (tie)

Most organizations would choose the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw over Jason Heyward if they had one choice, but WAR ratings have them tied for impact on their respective teams through early August. How is a pitcher with a 1.82 ERA and 0.85 WHIP (both MLB bests) somehow worth the same value as Heyward? For starters, the statistic measures the cumulative effect over the entire season. Since Kershaw missed several starts in 2014, that affected his 5.36 WAR. His 128.1 innings pitched rank him at No. 76 in baseball.

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4. Josh Donaldson, Oakland

Donaldson’s defensive WAR (2.27 dWAR) rank him fourth in the game, but combined with his offensive rating (3.49 oWAR) he also ranks fourth overall with a 5.58 WAR. Donaldson is one of those players who passes the eyeball test as well as the metric test at third base. Offensively, 23 HR and 18 2B pumped up his relatively low .330 OBP and .244 BA.

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3. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado

Stuck on one of MLB’s worst teams, Troy Tulowitzki won’t get many MVP votes in 2014, but that doesn’t diminish his clear value to Colorado. His 5.61 WAR make him among the game’s most indispensable players in 2014, despite time lost to injury. Tulowitzki’s defensive contribution at short (1.29 dWAR) is considerable while his .340 average and 1.035 OPS are MLB bests.

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2. Felix Hernandez, Seattle

King Felix Hernandez pitches in the same division as Oakland and the L.A. Angels when he’s not navigating other DH-laden lineups in American League towns. Despite the tall order every fifth day, Hernandez has posted a 1.97 ERA and 0.88 WHIP, both AL bests in 2014. Add in the extra hitter factor (rather than the pitcher stepping to the plate) plus his high innings total (173.1 IP), and it’s easy to conclude Hernandez is the most valuable MLB pitcher this season.

After the injury to Masahiro Tanaka, Hernandez has been the clear frontrunner for the AL Cy Young award. Anyone who likes win-loss records can have their fill on King Felix as well. He’s 12-3 in his first 15 decisions.

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1. Mike Trout, LA Angels

There’s little Mike Trout can’t do on a baseball field, which makes WAR look good in this regard. Trout’s 6.08 WAR tops everyone in baseball, but it may surprise many to learn the Melville Meteor actually has a slightly negative defensive rating (-0.29 dWAR). Considering the impressive feats Trout performs in the outfield, someone should check the calculations.

Regardless, Trout’s 6.62 offensive WAR simply overwhelmed the negative. Traditional metrics like batting average (.300), home runs (25), doubles (33), and RBI (81) contribute to a gaudy stat sheet in any estimation. Thankfully, WAR got it right with the player most people consider baseball’s best in 2014.

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