We have readers all over the world, so it wasn’t surprising when I get this question from Beau M. of Madrid, Spain.
“hey man! i am no pro with the numbers and definitely not a sportswriter. but yesterdays game got me thinking. i would love to see what our team’s record would be without Wright and Dickey using wins above replacement and all that. just an idea in case you need one. always enjoy your articles!!”
Thanks, Beau M. Well, to determine this, I went with Wins Above Replacement. David Wright is best in baseball, at 5.7 WAR. R.A. Dickey checks in at 3.2 WAR, third in the National League and eighth in baseball.
In the abstract, that’s 8.9 WAR. but would the Mets have fielded a replacement level alternative for both?
Well, Justin Turner probably would have been the everyday third baseman had the Mets not played Wright. He’s been worth 0.1 WAR over 50 games. And Miguel Batista probably would have been the replacement for Dickey in the rotation. He’s been worth -0.1 WAR this season. Let’s go ahead and assume Turner’s negligible value and Batista’s negative value cancel each other out.
So we’re really talking about nine wins so far. Put that in terms of the standings, and without Dickey and Wright, the Mets go from 47-45, at the periphery of the wild card race, to 38-54, third-worst record in the National League, a half-game behind the Cubs, and ahead of only Colorado and Houston. The Mets would be 12.5 games behind Atlanta for the final wild card spot.
But that leads to the obvious question: isn’t every team in baseball likely to suffer if their best player and best pitcher are replaced by backups?
Yes, but not as much as the Mets, in most cases.
Let’s compare the Mets to the Cardinals, who have an identical 47-45 record so far.
Matt Holliday is their best position player via WAR, at 3.6. Kyle Lohse is their best pitcher via WAR, at 2.8. So together, they’ve made the Cardinals 6.4 wins better than replacement in the abstract, nowhere near the 8.9 from Wright/Dickey.
But if Holliday wasn’t in the St. Louis lineup, their left fielder would likely be Allen Craig, who has been worth 1.2 WAR in part-time play. Bump that up to full-time, and Craig is probably worth 2 WAR this year so far. And Joe Kelly, who would have replaced Lohse (and subsequently replaced Jamie Garcia), has been worth 0.6 WAR over seven starts. So let’s bump that to an even 1 WAR, conservatively, if Kelly had pitched for Lohse this year.
In other words, the difference between the Cardinals’ top player/pitcher and their replacements would have been on the order of three wins or so. The difference between 47-45 and 44-48.
This is an important distinction, because not all 47-45 teams are created equal. Like a stock portfolio, the more diversified a baseball team’s talent is, the less reliant it is on a few key performances. This matters, both in terms of how debilitating a player’s downturn or injury could be, but also to how many players have the talent to break out themselves and make a mediocre team into a good or great one.
The Mets are maxing out what they can expect from David Wright and R.A. Dickey, pretty clearly. They don’t really have much in the way of talent that can be expected to produce at close to the level of either, or even to the better players on a team like St. Louis. The Cardinals have another five position players worth between 1.2 and 3.3 WAR. Other than Wright, the Mets don’t have another position player above 1.6, and only three above 0.9.
So the real talent base the Mets are building around for their next contending team involves finding ways to get star-level production from people who aren’t David Wright or R.A. Dickey. If Wright has found a new level of play at age 29 that is likely to continue into his 30s, assuming also that the Mets re-sign him, while R.A. Dickey, 37, pitches at this new level-he’s been worth slightly more in 2012 over 19 starts than he was in 2011 in 33 starts-the Mets can build around these two.
More likely, however, is that Wright and Dickey just had the best halves of their careers. And that makes Sandy Alderson right to look toward 2013 and really, 2014, when he can hope instead that his team’s WAR leaderboard is topped by further developing of Ruben Tejada, along with the peak seasons of guys like Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey.