MEET BEN ZOBRIST. He's a utility guy—plays second, right, short, left, center, first, third and DH for the Rays. He's never hit 30 home runs in a season, never driven in 100 runs, and despite having the fourth-best OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) in the American League last year (.948), he didn't receive a single first-place MVP vote.
Yet in some sabermetric circles the versatile 28-year-old was the game's best position player in 2009. Zobrist—or Zorilla, as he's known in Tampa Bay—ranked first in a stat called Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the baseball version of physics' unified theory. WAR measures a player's total contribution (offense, defense, baserunning and pitching) and expresses it as the number of wins he adds to his team beyond what the average player would provide. A player with a WAR of 0 or 1 is easily replaceable; 4 or 5 is an All-Star; 7 and up is Albert Pujols.
WAR isn't perfect, but it's a great tool for comparing players' values on the field and the payroll sheet. In '09 Royals ace and AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke had the majors' best WAR, 9.4. Zobrist—he hit 27 homers, was on base more than 40% of the time and played superb defense all over the field—was second, at 8.6. (Pujols was third at 8.5.) Zorilla wasn't just MVP-caliber, he was the most payroll-efficient player in baseball. He made $415,900, barely above the minimum.
Zobrist, who will make $438,100 this season, is still a bargain. The following pages list the players with the top 2009 WARs at each position (excluding DH), organized by what they'll make in 2010. The result: an All-Star team at various price points—and proof that teams don't always get what they pay for. It's the old argument: Who's the most valuable player? Let the WAR begin.
April 4, 2010
WAR data from FanGraphs.com
Salary data from the website Cot's Baseball Contracts and published reports
2010 Salaries up to $1M
|2010 Salary||2009 WAR|
|C||JOE MAUER, Twins|
|According to WAR, reigning AL MVP was third-best position player in game last year|
|1B||ALBERT PUJOLS, Cardinals|
|No surprise: Winner of last two NL MVPs had league's highest WAR two years running|
|2B||CHASE UTLEY, Phillies|
|Zobrist, Pujols and Mauer only hitters with higher WARs than this elite slugger and defender|
|3B||ALEX RODRIGUEZ, Yankees|
|Game's highest-paid player had only sixth-highest WAR among third basemen|
|SS||DEREK JETER, Yankees|
|Worth every penny? In terms of WAR he was the game's best shortstop in '09|
|LF||MATT HOLLIDAY, Cardinals|
|His 24 homers were his fewest since 2005 but had top WAR among leftfielders in '09|
|CF||TORII HUNTER, Angels|
|Gold Glove winner had career highs in average (.299) and OBP (.366)|
|RF||ICHIRO SUZUKI, Mariners|
|Ichiro's speed, arm, bat control and, yes, power (watch him take BP someday) are the stuff of scouts' dreams, but his most impressive talent might be his consistency. He's led the majors in hits four straight years, the longest such streak in major league history.|
|SP||ROY HALLADAY, Phillies|
|Leader in complete games and strikeout-walk ratio had fourth-best starter's WAR|
|RP||MARIANO RIVERA, Yankees|
|Hard to deny he's the game's best closer but was eighth in relievers' WAR|