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.