Explaining Why Josh Donaldson Has a Better WAR Than Miguel Cabrera


Sep 15, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Oakland Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) hits a home run during the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

October is looming, which means that the playoffs are about to kick off. Then, when the dust settles and all the champagne is popped, the award winners of the various honors–MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year, etc.–will be announced.

It’s also the time of year when baseball fans and writers start pouring through the stats to pick the winners of the various awards. Advanced, basic, you name it.

One specific statistic has already caused a stir in the American League MVP race. You’ve probably heard of it–WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Last year it took full flight when Mike Trout mustered a 10.0 WAR next to Miguel Cabrera’s 6.9 mark. Cabrera ended up bringing home quite a haul–the MVP and Triple Crown.

A similar debate seems to be in store for 2013, as Trout has been about three “wins” better than Cabrera once again.

Here’s the twist, though: Oakland A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson (7.9 WAR)–gasp–owns a better WAR than Miguel Cabrera (7.6). Yes, that Miguel Cabrera.

Some context is needed here, of course.

Sep 10, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Detroit Tigers infielder Miguel Cabrera (24) reacts to striking out during the game against the Chicago White Sox at U.S Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Donaldson’s WAR is impressive. Heck, it’s better than Miguel Cabrera’s. That’s something in itself. But remember, WAR takes everything into account. So, defense, hitting and baserunning all decide the final product, a two-to-three-digit figure.

That’s where the suspicion between the whole “Donaldson has a better WAR than Cabrera” sets in. More specifically, it’s where the “how” explanation is revealed.

We’ll start on defense, where Donaldson has thrived. His UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of 11.7 ranks sixth in the AL, behind the likes of Manny Machado, Shane Victorino, Evan Longoria, Josh Reddick and Yunel Escobar. That is indeed some elite company.

Assuming you’ve been following along with the theme–WAR takes baserunning, defense and offense into account–you should come to the conclusion that Donaldson’s impressive UZR inflates his overall WAR. Indeed it does.

As one casual observer might expect, Cabrera’s UZR is dead last among third basemen. Not just in the AL, but in all of baseball. He’s saved the least (in other words, negative 18 runs) amount of runs. His range is extremely limited–a chain of injuries isn’t helping this cause. And all of this comes on a grand total of 143 plays, the least in the AL.

In English, Cabrera is getting a chunk of nothing from his defense, which thus waters down his WAR. Donaldson, meanwhile, sees his WAR inflate because of his admirable glove work. Makes sense, right?

As for the baserunning piece of the puzzle, Donaldson’s edge on Cabrera isn’t as radical. Neither swipes bases with any regularity, so it’s basically a moot point. Since it’s a factor, however, it’s worth mentioning.

For this, we turn to UBR (Ultimate Base Running) and wSB (Weighted Stolen Base Runs). UBR takes into account your everyday baserunning happenings–taking/not taking the extra base, tagging up, going from first to third. It’s basically your one-stop stat for getting a sense of a player’s ability on the base paths, without stolen bases and caught stealings factored in. That’s where wSB comes in handy.

As for the final tally… (UBR first, wSB second)

  UBR   wSB
Cabrera  -3.4   0.0
Donaldson   1.3   -0.4

Neither mark is impressive nor much of a factor in either Cabrera’s or Donaldson’s WAR, so we’ll leave it at that.

Now comes the big question: What does all of this mean?

Without getting too fancy, Donaldson’s superior WAR to Cabrera means one thing: He’s been the better overall player in 2013. Before the riot that could very well ensue commences, let me assure you that Donaldson isn’t a better hitter than Cabrera. Few hitters, if any, are.

  wRC+  wOBA   OPS
Cabrera  194  0.458   1.088
Donaldson  151  0.390   0.898

The point of WAR, however, is not to measure just hitting. There are plenty of other stats for that. You can see a few of the best ones in the table above. WAR factors in everything.

So, there is something to be said for being a better-rounded player, even if it’s just by a few ticks.