If his first start of the year was any indication, Yu Darvish is set to build off his huge 2012 season and break out in 2013. Darvish was an out away from a perfect game against the Rangers on Tuesday, ultimately allowing just one hit and striking out 14 batters. Last year, Darvish rode a dominant second half to a 16-9 record with a 3.90 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 191.1 innings. He was an All-Star and finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting. However, he came in ninth in Cy Young voting, earning just one fifth-place vote.
It's not a huge surprise that Darvish barely registered in the minds of award voters, who traditionally depend on surface stats such as win-loss record and ERA. Of the six starters who finished ahead of Darvish in the Cy Young voting, all had a better ERA and only one, Felix Hernandez, had fewer wins. If you, too, counted on those stats this draft season, you might have preferred Chris Sale or Jered Weaver, both of whom finished ahead of Darvish in the Cy Young voting, over the Texas righty. But there was one metric by which Darvish was the third-best pitcher in the American League last year. If the Baseball Writers Association of America voters paid it more heed, Darvish likely would have taken his rightful place higher in the Cy Young standings. Be sure you don't make the same mistake.
In the AL, only Justin Verlander and Hernandez had a better Wins Above Replacement than Darvish last year. His 4.9 WAR was better than that of Cy Young winner David Price (4.8). Why does that matter? Understanding WAR will give you a better idea of a player's true value, and could help you exploit inefficiencies in the market.
WAR measures the number of wins a player provides over a replacement-level player, which generally refers to someone in Triple-A or a typical major league reserve. For a pitcher, the sabermetric Bible Fangraphs calculates WAR by taking the player's Fielding Independent Pitching (don't worry, we'll tackle that one during the season) and converting it to runs based on how many innings a pitcher threw. FIP is a great stat to use because it evaluates a pitcher strictly on the things he can control, such as home runs allowed, walks, strikeouts and hit batters. Each 10 runs generated count as one win. It may sound convoluted, but it is actually rather easy to calculate and has taken root in the sabermetric community.
Darvish's 4.9 WAR means he provided the Rangers with nearly five more wins than they would have registered if a replacement player had occupied Darvish's spot all season. To put that number in context, Fangraphs defines a superstar player as someone with a WAR between five and six. Verlander posted a 7 WAR, followed by Hernandez at 5.9, Clayton Kershaw at 5.4 and Gio Gonzalez at five. They were the only pitchers in the league more valuable to their teams, from a WAR standpoint, than Darvish. If you placed an emphasis on WAR when ranking players -- and what better way to measure a player than by how many wins he brings to his team? -- then chances are you enjoyed a near perfect game out of Darvish this week.
Moreover, if you know WAR is calculated with FIP as a major input, you would have been able to look at Darvish's 2012 splits and see a pitcher trending in the right direction. Darvish struggled a bit early on last year while getting acclimated to the majors. Still, he was able to post a solid 3.71 FIP before the All-Star break. In the second half, however, he turned into a machine. His ERA after the break was an unsightly 4.26, but that belied his 2.80 FIP. Darvish morphed into a truly elite pitcher over the second half of the 2012 season. WAR and FIP told us that, and portended a monster 2013 season.
Of course, Darvish isn't the only pitcher who would have vaulted up draft boards if WAR were a major determining factor. Johnny Cueto's 4.6 WAR was tied for 10th best in the majors, Wade Miley's and Max Scherzer's 4.5 were good for a tie for 13th and Hiroki Kuroda tied with Matt Harrison for 20th place, as both posted a 3.7 WAR. It will be interesting to track these pitchers all season long to see if their 2012 WAR totals track with their 2013 performance. If they all manage to outpitch their average draft positions, it would be a strong argument that WAR should be more of a component in draft day rankings than it typically is.