By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008
The time has come, you traditionalists, grizzled holdouts and old-school .300-hitter-lovers, to let a little VORP into your lives. C'mon, don't be scared. You can still have your batting average, particularly when a Chipper Jones comes along and extends a spring flirtation with the hallowed .400 into the summer. And you can still show off how progressive you are by dropping an occasional "OPS" into casual conversation, and act indignant when you must explain it means "on-base plus slugging."
But deep down, you know even OPS doesn't give a full measure of a player's value. Which is why it is time to acquaint yourself with VORP.
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.
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. It accounts for the fact that a run prevented is more valuable in 2008 than during a low-scoring year such as 1968. 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.
It probably would surprise no one that the best offensive VORP of the last 50 years (145.9) belongs to Barry Bonds in 2001 -- the year he hit 73 homers and slugged .863 -- while the top pitching VORP (117.5) belongs to Pedro Martínez in 2000, the year he posted a 1.74 ERA in a season in which the league ERA was 4.91.
Woolner, whose affiliation with the Web site http://BaseballProspectus.com helped bring VORP a wider audience, said it has been both rewarding and amusing to see VORP slowly inch its way into the mainstream.
"It became common enough in the online baseball-sabermetrics world; the fact it had a pronounceable name that was kind of odd and goofy probably helped," said Woolner, who was hired by the Cleveland Indians last year to work in their front office. "And then I started seeing it creep into other places. I distinctively recall watching 'Baseball Tonight' and hearing a discussion of VORP, and someone asked John Kruk about it, and he made some snide comment.
"I figured if it's being ridiculed on national television, that meant it had arrived."