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The Value of Things: Replacement Level Primer

What does WAR have to do with football?

Houston Texans v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

As I mentioned in my introductory piece, I come from a baseball background. It’s one of those things I hate to brag about, but I have written four books on it and if someone buys one today I might be able to go to Taco Bell next month. There has been one major statistical advancement that has taken that sport by storm. The concept of WAR is fairly recent, but there are already elements of it being used in the new MLB CBA.

Obviously, WAR (wins above replacement) has its detractors. I could go into a long and drawn out discussion on those, but suffice it to say, some people differ on the math involved while others differ on the concepts behind it. As far as I know, there is no football equivalent, but I have to believe it is on the horizon. So, let me lay down a brief description of how it works in baseball and therefore try to draw parallels to football.

It starts from very basic idea. How much better is Player A than Player B at the same position? Of course, we get into problems there. Who do we exactly compare Player A to? It began with comparing Player A to the average player at that position. The only problem there was that half the league was better than the average (by sheer definition) and an average player obviously would cost dollars and/or player capital that an organization might not be willing to invest.

Conversely, casual fans talked about losing a player and thus losing 100 runs or 100 RBIs. The notion was patently ridiculous. They weren’t about to replace that player with no one. Someone would play first base or in the outfield in their place. They would certainly score runs and drive in runs over the course of the season. They just wouldn’t do it at the same rate as the guy that left.

So, the concept came down to figuring out what a reasonable approximation would be. Naturally, some casual fans get angry when you suggest someone could easily be replaced. “I want to see you go out there and do it.” Well, the Astros aren’t going to have me catch or play shortstop. However, they might bring up a guy from AAA and that guy might be a decent replacement. Therefore, the typical AAA player became the marker for the replacement level player.

From there you can imagine where this ends up going. If a player is replacement level then there is no reason to pay him more than the league minimum salary. After all, I could get that level of performance from a number of different sources. From there, it becomes a question of how much better someone is than replacement level and how much those runs (which get converted into wins) are worth. The industry has a complex formula that most teams use to determine how many millions a win above replacement is worth. Sometimes it is standard and sometimes it is dependent on particular positions.

Making WAR make sense in football

So, what does this have to do with football? Calculating a mathematical score for wins above replacement player for football is difficult at best. Team action creates problems when trying to assess one player’s role in a team’s success or failure. A player might have fewer sacks, fewer tackles, fewer yards per carry, or fewer catches because they are substandard players or because they are surrounded by substandard players. They also could be in a substandard scheme. Beyond that, runs in baseball are an efficient unit of measurement. Points in football are the closest equivalent and it’s not as clean. Not only that, but how many points would equal a win? I’m sure people better at math than me are working on it,

Then, we would have to determine who the frame of reference would be for replacement level. The NFL doesn’t have a AAA. Maybe the XFL, CFL, or USFL could suffice as a comparison, but we would probably just have to compare players with a typical street free agent. Even then, such stats would have to be more position specific. A street free agent could concievably come in and kick reasonably well. We’ve seen it happen all the time. A street free agent at quarterback could be more comical.

All that being said, the concept is simple enough and it is one that makes a ton of sense when it comes to team building. Why would I pay someone ten million dollars when they are no better than a replacement level player? If I could easily pay someone league minimum to do the same job you are doing then why would I pay you five, six, or ten million dollars to do the same job.

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Applying this to the Texans

Let’s take a practical example. Jon Weeks is an established deep snapper. The Texans signed him to a modest contract this offseason. I’m sure there are metrics that would suggest he is the best deep snapper in the business. Surely, there is reason why he has remained with the team all these years. Well, if he is the best deep snapper in the business and he has been doing it for so long then shouldn’t he be making five million a year? How about ten million?

This is where replacement level comes in. No, I could not do what Jon Weeks does. I have no doubt that it’s more difficult than simply firing up the barbecue pit on the weekend. We’ve seen other teams struggle with deep snappers that have bad snaps in key moments. So, it is important. The question is how valuable it is. Are we willing to cut a player or two on the offensive or defensive side of the ball in order to afford the best deep snapper in the business?

The notion is patently absurd. Yet, it isn’t absurd when you start looking at other positions. Is Eric Murray really better than a replacement level safety? Is Royce Freeman anything more than a replacement level running back? When you put a face on it then it becomes more real. On one level it might not seem that big of a deal. After all, we could easily draft guys better than that with those additional picks we will be getting. So, those replacement level players become backups like they should be. Except, they aren’t being paid like replacement level players.

The notion of replacement level performance then hits football the same way it hits baseball. Every team has a finite amount of resources. They have a certain number of draft picks. They have a certain amount of money to spend. Every time you spend more money than you should or dedicate a draft pick in trade for someone that likely is street free agent material then you are wasting those resources. Those are resources that could go to players that are better than that. Maybe it doesn’t matter in 2022, but it will matter some day and bad habits die hard.