David Sheinin wrote the following in yesterday’s Washington Post.
VORP can open your mind. It can bring your world into crystal-clear sharpness. Go ahead — try some. Did you know, for example, that if you exclude the resurgent Cristian Guzmán (VORP: 21.5), the Washington Nationals’ offense has a negative VORP — which, in essence, means if you released every last one of their position players (except Guzmán) and replaced them with cheap, waiver-wire scrubs, the team would be better off?
Or, to be accurate, the Nationals would be expected to be better off — because there is a theoretical aspect to VORP, which stands for value over replacement player.
What is it, you ask? It measures the number of runs a player contributes (or, in the case of pitchers, prevents) beyond what would be expected from a “replacement-level” player — which is to say, one that could be had as a cheap fill-in and who would be expected to produce at around 80 percent of the league average at his particular position during a particular year.
As for a team — that is, a theoretical team — made up entirely of replacement-level players? According to Keith Woolner, the sabermetrics pioneer who invented VORP in the late 1990s, “They would be expected to win between 45 and 50 games, which is comparable to the worst teams we see.” Well, not all of them: The 43-win Detroit Tigers of 2003 own the worst offensive VORP (-50.8) of the past 50 years.
I don’t use VORP, and it’s not that I don’t understand the concept: I just cannot figure out what I gain by using it over other metrics. Sheinin gives the following reasons that I should change my mind.
Why should you care about VORP? Because it presents the most complete picture of a hitter’s or pitcher’s true value. Unlike most other statistics, for example, VORP accounts for why a catcher — for whom it is difficult to find a replacement, because not as many players are capable of playing there — is more valuable than a left fielder with similar offensive numbers.
I don’t understand how VORP helps me here, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard this explanation. Are catchers really more valuable than equally-talented batters who play left field because of scarcity? There are plenty of catchers in the minor leagues and major-league teams often carry three catchers. Teams don’t normally carry nine outfielders, do they? Imagine how bad a ninth outfielder must be–see the 2008 Braves if you are having trouble imagining this. Teams can draft and develop more catchers if they believe there is a shortage. I suspect that catchers are more expensive because they offer a greater defensive contribution. After all, they are the only other player besides the pitcher involved in every pitch. I admit that valuing catchers is difficult, but if VORP has a breakthrough at the catcher position by better-valuing the on-field contribution, then I’d like to see this spelled out.
It accounts for the fact that a run prevented is more valuable in 2008 than during a low-scoring year such as 1968.
You can make the same corrections to any baseball metric. The simplest is OPS+, but you can make more precise adjustments for any offensive statistic as Michael Schell has done. To me, that is superior to VORP, because I know what each of those statistics is telling me.
And it also accounts for the fact that, say, a .600 slugging percentage for someone who plays home games at Coors Field isn’t as impressive as the same percentage for someone playing at Petco Park.
Again, you can adjust any statistic for home-park bias. Park-effect corrections are hardly a novel contribution.
There is also the potential gains of valuing a player relative to “replacement level” as opposed to the average. I still don’t get the advantage of this. First, you have the task of defining replacement level. What is the point of this exercise? It is just an alternative benchmark to the average. I can explain to any baseball fan: “this player is above/below average.” To explain a player relative to “replacement level” requires a long, boring, and unnecessary conversation. Below-average players are valuable, and this isn’t difficult to understand.
What about using VORP to judge salaries? For example, if the league-minimum salary is $390,000, and a team signs a replacement level outfielder for $1 million, hasn’t the team overpaid? Not at all. Player value is determined by opportunity cost as determined by marginal revenue product (MRP). If a player generates many millions of dollars, his value is determined by this, not by how much he makes. Teams pay players with less than four years of service (approximately) less than their MRPs because the collective bargaining agreement allows them to do so. A team that plays a young and reserved player forgoes the potential return from trading the player to another team or from keeping down his service time. Signing a veteran for $1 million can be cheaper than promoting a young player who would provide equal value now by holding down service time.
My point isn’t that VORP is an awful or useless stat. To the contrary, there is clearly useful information contained in it. And those who prefer to hold discussions based on this metric should continue to do so. But there is no need for someone who does not speak the language to learn the ins an outs of a new metric, as Sheinin suggests. I can talk about all its components without dropping the V-bomb. If you want to talk hitting, we can use OBP and SLG. Then you can bring in stolen bases and defense to capture other effects. For pitching, we can use strikeouts, walks, and homers. The big advantage of these is that I can have these conversations with people other than die-hard stat-heads. I can also explain the advantages of these metrics over traditional triple-crown stats, and that is a huge benefit.
I view VORP as an insider language, and by using it you can signal that you are insider. It’s like speaking Klingon at a Star Trek convention. I can signal to others who speak the language that I am one of you. But, the danger of VORP is that once you bring it up the discussion goes down the wrong path as the uninitiated have reason to feel they are being told they are not as smart as the person making the argument. It’s like constantly bringing up the fact that you only listen to NPR or watch the BBC news at dinner parties. The response is likely going to be the same, “well fuck you too, you pretentious asshole!”
Last year, Murray Chass wrote the following.
I receive a daily e-mail message from Baseball Prospectus, an electronic publication filled with articles and information about statistics, mostly statistics that only stats mongers can love.
To me, VORP epitomized the new-age nonsense. For the longest time, I had no idea what VORP meant and didn’t care enough to go to any great lengths to find out. I asked some colleagues whose work I respect, and they didn’t know what it meant either.
Finally, not long ago, I came across VORP spelled out. It stands for value over replacement player. How thrilling. How absurd. Value over replacement player. Don’t ask what it means. I don’t know.
The thing is: I can actually sympathize with Chass here, though for different reasons. I too get the occasional VORP e-mail, and my normal first reaction is to roll my eyes. I don’t speak VORP, and I shouldn’t be expected to do so. If you want to talk about why a player may or may not be valuable, we can have that discussion in a language that I speak.