Replacement Level in the Flesh

One of the most frequently used numbers here at Getting Blanked is Wins Above Replacement – a counting stat based on offensive production, defensive contributions, and durability (playing time) that is adjusted for position. It is a great way to compare across leagues, positions, and eras.

The components of this metric are familiar to most baseball fans though the concept of “replacement level” often throws new comers to this brave new world for a loop. Who or what is a ‘replacement level’ player?

Is it another way of saying average player? (No.) Would a team of replacement level players win zero games? (No.) Would they win 81 games? (Closer to 45, random chance is a real thing.) What gives? (Lots.) Can one excellent player really lead a ragtag bunch of stiffs to the promised land? (No.)

If we are searching for a great measure for both replacement level and the One True Star phenomenon, the terrible 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks are a nearly ideal test subject.

The 2004 Diamondbacks were truly dreadful. They lost 111 games, featured the league’s worst offense, one of the worst defensive teams in baseball, an awful bullpen and brutal pitching staff (with one exception.) They played in a very deep NL West (the second place Giants won 91 games) and, basically, sucked in a very real way.

Both the team’s position players and bullpen corps collectively finished with negative WAR, meaning their cumulative contributions were below replacement level. The Diamondbacks sent out multiple players that easily could’ve been replaced by free agents unsigned during the previous off season – guys no other team wanted! Danny Bautista and Alex Cintron were the greatest offenders, both of whom saw their name on the lineup card every day despite awful numbers across the board.

The starting rotation, however, managed 12 collective wins above replacement. 12 How could that be? Oh yeah, Randy Johnson.

Randy Johnson turned in possibly his greatest season in 2004. He pitched 245 innings in which he struck out 290 batters versus only 44 walks. He allowed a mere 18 home runs and posted a 2.60 ERA, 2.30 FIP and, ohbytheway, pitched a perfect game against the Atlanta Braves.

In total, his season was worth 9.9 Wins Above Replacement. Which is crazy. Johnson’s final win/loss tally for the year was 16-14, a fact that largely kept him from winning the Cy Young award.

The Diamondbacks of 2004 were one generational talent, two league average players (Brandon Webb & Chad Tracey), a few aging & injury prone former stars, and a whole lot of scrubs. The vast, vast majority of whom could easily be replaced — contract status notwithstanding — with any number of AAA talents with no appreciable impact on the team’s performance.

The concepts of replacement level don’t generally jibe with real life but the 2004 Diamondbacks come very close to representing what it is all about. So many bad players playing so badly with a sure-fire Hall of Famer in the middle. And you thought Felix Hernandez had it bad.