Stats All, Folks: What wRC+ says about Chris Davis' nightmarish season - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Paul Folkemer

Stats All, Folks: What wRC+ says about Chris Davis’ nightmarish season

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

Welcome to the final installment of Stats All, Folks for the 2018 season. If you’re just joining us, thanks for reading! This is a periodic feature in which I delve into the world of baseball analytics, giving a primer on sabermetric stats and what they mean. Don’t be shy; come on in.

Today’s episode focuses on wRC+, and how it applies to one prominent Oriole who’s suffering through a miserable 2018 season.

The problem with wRC+

Before I delve into what wRC+ actually is, I’m going to explain what’s wrong with it.

Oh, sure, it’s a useful and extremely comprehensive stat, and in sabermetric circles, it’s one of the go-to measures of offensive performance. It faces an uphill climb, though, in ever catching on with many fans or being cited in the average baseball broadcast. Part of the problem is that calculating the stat involves a somewhat complicated formula featuring components that may not be easily accessible.

But there’s an even bigger problem: the name.

I mean, just look at the thing: wRC+. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? It’s a mush-mouthed mishmash of random letters and characters that will alienate anyone who’s already skeptical of sabermetrics.

Fortunately, I have just the solution.

Simply pronounce the “wRC” part as “work.” Then treat the plus sign as if it’s a lowercase T. Put it all together and you get… Work-it.

Isn’t that so much better?

Just imagine you’re at a family gathering and you’re trying to talk baseball with your Uncle Gus. You’re having a nice discussion, but then you say, “Well, according to the Orioles’ double-yoo-ar-cee-plus…” and boom, it’s all over. Gus has wandered off to chat with Cousin Brenda about her detached retina. He won’t be coming back.

But now try that conversation with the new pronunciation. “Well, according to the Orioles’ Work-it…” Now you’ve got Uncle Gus’ attention. “Work-it? What’s that? Tell me more!”

I insist that this pronunciation be adopted into the official lexicon. I’m already writing my petition to the Sabermetric Council of Elders as we speak.

While we wait for them to respond with the good news, let’s explore what wRC+ means and what it measures.

What is wRC+?

wRC+ stands for Weighted Runs Created Plus. It’s an offensive statistic that aims to capture how productive a hitter has been compared to the league average, based on how often he gets on base and the types of hits he gets.

At its core, wRC+ is similar to wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average), which I wrote about last year. Go read up if you want to. I’ll wait here.

If you’ll recall, wOBA enhances on-base percentage by assigning different values to different ways of reaching base. So walks and hit by pitches have the lowest value, singles have slightly more, doubles more than that, and then triples and finally home runs as the most valuable. In that way, wOBA sort of merges OBP and slugging percentage to provide a more accurate overall picture of how well a batter has been hitting.

wRC+ starts with that same basic premise, but takes it a couple steps further. First, it adjusts for park factors. As we all know, some ballparks are more conducive to hitting (or pitching) than others. Camden Yards, for example, is known as one of the better home run-hitting bandboxes in the majors, while Seattle’s spacious Safeco Field is less generous for long balls. wRC+ takes these differences into account.

wRC+ also adjusts for league factors. Any longtime baseball fan can attest that baseball goes through cycles where offense is thriving in one stretch, and pitching is dominant in the next. It wouldn’t be fair to hold a hitter from the dead-ball era to the same standard as, say, the juiced-ball years of the mid-1990s. So wRC+ puts each era of baseball on a level playing field, so to speak.

Finally, wRC+ (unlike wOBA) is a counting stat, not a percentage. It uses 100 as a baseline for a league-average performance; that is, a hitter with a 100 wRC+ is exactly average. Every point above (or below) 100 represents a percentage point better (or worse) than league average. A hitter with a 105 wRC+ is five percent better than the average player at creating runs. A hitter with a 95 wRC+ is five percent worse than average.

Generally, the best hitters in the league will have a wRC+ of 150 or better. Last year’s top wRC+ belonged to — surprise, surprise — Mike Trout, with 181. Seven hitters had a wRC+ of at least 150, including MVP winners Jose Altuve (161) and Giancarlo Stanton (159).

It also might not surprise you that of the six best wRC+ seasons in baseball history, three belonged to Barry Bonds and three to Babe Ruth. All were 224 or better, including Bonds’ record 244 mark in 2002.

On the other end of the spectrum, a wRC+ that dips into the low 60s or below means a hitter has had a truly dreadful season. Last year’s worst mark among qualified hitters was the 58 wRC+ by Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor. Even though Odor hit 30 homers, his complete inability to get on base — just a .252 OBP and 32 walks in 651 plate appearances — destroyed his offensive value. wRC+, unlike more conventional stats, reflects that Odor was costing his team a lot of runs despite his power.

wRC+ and Chris Davis’ dubious pursuit of history

That brings us to Chris Davis.

It’s no secret that the Orioles’ first baseman is having an extraordinarily bad year. But just how bad?

Davis is carrying a 49 wRC+ this year, meaning he’s 51 percent worse at creating runs than a league average hitter. Among qualified batters, that’s the worst wRC+ in the majors this season by far. Kansas City Royals’ shortstop Alcides Escobar (55 wRC+) is the only other hitter below 72.

The good news is that Davis is at no risk of setting an MLB record for worst wRC+ in a season. That mark belongs to 1933 St. Louis Browns shortstop Jim Levey, who posted an unfathomable 23 wRC+. Levey batted .195 with a .237 OBP and two home runs in 567 plate appearances that year. It was his final season in the majors.

In fact, Davis isn’t even having one of the 50 worst seasons by wRC+ in the modern era. That’s despite the fact that he’s on pace to finish with the worst batting average by a qualified hitter in baseball history (Davis, at .174, is below the .179 mark held by 1991 Rob Deer and 2013 Dan Uggla). Davis’ 16 homers — although a paltry total for him — keep him from being quite as awful as some of the most punchless hitters through the years.

Davis is, however, in danger of setting an Orioles franchise record for lowest wRC+ in a season. That record is held by Cesar Izturis, who posted a 46 wRC+ in 2010, a year in which he had one homer, 15 extra-base hits and 25 walks in 513 PAs. Izturis was a slick-fielding shortstop who wasn’t expected to produce much at the plate, and he sure didn’t.

As of Sunday, Davis was only three points better than Izturis and was tied with Billy Ripken, who had a 49 wRC+ in 1988. The fact that Davis is now being mentioned in the same breath as light-hitting middle infielders represents a precipitous decline for the once-feared slugger, who just five years ago posted the fifth-best wRC+ in Orioles history at 168. (The best single-season wRC+ in club history was the 195 mark put up by Frank Robinson in his Triple Crown season of 1966.)

When the Orioles re-signed Davis to a franchise-record seven-year, $161 million deal before the 2016 season, they might have expected he would eventually decline. They surely didn’t expect, though, that he’d be approaching an all-time franchise record for offensive futility in just the third year of the contract.

If that’s not a fitting symbol of the 2018 Orioles’ ineptitude, I don’t know what is.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. JCO

    September 17, 2018 at 8:39 am

    Good stuff, Paul.

    One thing that’s sort of crazy about Davis is his power has disappeared. Since his two homer game July 29, he is hitting homeruns at a 14-per-162 game pace. He has not homered in his last 17 games played. He had said he hoped to go into the offseason on an up note, and that is not happening.

    • Paul Folkemer

      September 17, 2018 at 10:52 am

      Yup, Davis almost seemed to be approaching respectability for a while — in a 56-game stretch from June 27 to Sept. 5, he had a .216 average, .690 OPS, 11 homers and 29 RBIs. Obviously those numbers aren’t particularly good, but it was a huge improvement from where he was before. But now he’s 1-for-22 with 10 strikeouts in his last six games.

  2. Boog Robinson Robinson

    September 17, 2018 at 9:25 am

    EXACTLY 51% worse than the league average? Does this mean that Crush if somewhat overpaid? Fascinating. Eye opening to say the least.

    Now there’s an analytic that would interest me (and maybe Uncle Gus as well?) How’s about somehow factoring in a players paycheck with this number? Perhaps something like $wWRC+? CashWeightedWithRunsCreated? Maybe we can call it “CashIt” … Or better yet … “CrushIt” in honor of our hero!

    How’s about it Paul? They already got something like that?

    • Bancells Moustache

      September 17, 2018 at 10:39 am

      I concur. Browns SS Jim Levey certainly was a trainwreck in ’33, but he also probably made only a thousand bucks to do so.

    • Paul Folkemer

      September 17, 2018 at 10:56 am

      That’s not a bad idea, Boog. I think I can safely say that of the 50-some players with a worse wRC+ in a season than Davis, none of them were making nearly the kind of money he is. Cesar Izturis was making $2.6 million the year he set the Orioles record for lowest wRC+.

  3. boss61

    September 17, 2018 at 9:35 am

    Over his 7-year contract, it would seem that Crush may be on course for the worst 7-year accumulative WRC+ in baseball history. I wonder about other consistently bad hitters who lasted 7 years.

    • Paul Folkemer

      September 17, 2018 at 10:57 am

      At this point I would be surprised if Davis lasted all seven years on his contract.

    • Jbigle1

      September 17, 2018 at 3:55 pm

      Ryan Howard comes to mind as a bad one. But if you look at the numbers Howard was far better than Crush. His may truly be incomparable.

  4. Jbigle1

    September 17, 2018 at 4:01 pm

    Caleb Joseph is sitting at a 52 WRC+. He does have less than 300 Abs and he does play behind the plate but almost as useless nonetheless. I’m thinking we ought to non tender him and roll with susac/sisco/wynns….

  5. whiterose

    September 17, 2018 at 4:50 pm

    lowest BA for qualifier is .139 by Bill Bergen in 1909. Yes he qualifed, at that time, by appearing in 100 games.

  6. Jbigle1

    September 17, 2018 at 10:36 pm

    Nothing wrong w stats BIff. How many kids do you think are reading Baltimore baseball articles anyway? Paul did a good job laying it out and describing it to people. Turn on the MLB network and you’ll hear Brian Kenny and others throwing it out there like it’s common knowledge. I’m sure there were tons of people on here who didn’t have the faintest idea. Sabermetrics are here to stay. You can not like them but you’ll be seeing them for a long long time.

    • Jbigle1

      September 18, 2018 at 10:21 am

      Lol don’t post an opinion on an internet comment section if you don’t want a retort. Solely* is the word you’re looking for there. It seems like you have a deeper problem with the way Paul analyzes. This article was fine, he explained the stat fully. You don’t need WRC+ to know that Chris Davis has been terrible. 2 eyes will do the trick there. Dan and now Rich rarely if ever use any metrics so there’s plenty of content from the pure baseball aspect. Nothing wrong with a viewpoint from the analytical side of things.

  7. Paul Folkemer

    September 18, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    Biff, first off, let’s cut out the name-calling and the confrontational tone. There’s no place for that here.

    I don’t know where you get the idea that I’m solely dependent on sabermetrics and “can’t understand the game.” Let’s just say you clearly don’t know me very well. I’ve been watching baseball since I was a little kid, and yes, I even played some. And I can, in fact, throw a baseball more than three feet.

    If you’re not a fan of sabermetrics, that’s totally fine. Enjoy baseball the way you want to enjoy baseball. But I very much disagree that it’s hurting the sport. And let’s not rely on tired tropes like “People who like stats are clearly nerds who never played.” That’s right up there with “bloggers live in their mothers’ basement” in terms of dumb stereotypes. Saying things like that is a bad look, and it’s not productive.

    Of course there’s much more to baseball than sabermetrics, and I would never suggest otherwise. That said, this is specifically a series about sabermetrics, so that’s why it’s the focus of this story.

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