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How does Josh Phegley have 1.5 WAR in 105 plate appearances?

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In the shadow of Stephen Vogt's All-Star candidacy, Josh Phegley is enjoying a breakout year of his own.

Josh Phegley rounds the bases at Globe Life Park after hitting his fifth home run of the year, his third off a left-handed pitcher.
Josh Phegley rounds the bases at Globe Life Park after hitting his fifth home run of the year, his third off a left-handed pitcher.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Phegley has 1.5 WAR on Fangraphs in 105 plate appearances, ranking him eighth among all MLB catchers. WAR is a counting stat, and if you take every catcher with at least 100 plate appearances so far this season, and extrapolate every catcher's WAR out to 450 plate appearances this year, Phegley would outclass that field by more than a win:

Team G PA WAR WAR/450 PA
Josh Phegley Athletics 31 105 1.5 6.4
Russell Martin Blue Jays 63 253 2.8 5.0
Stephen Vogt Athletics 69 262 2.7 4.6
Francisco Cervelli Pirates 55 211 1.8 3.8
Buster Posey Giants 69 285 2.3 3.6

Of course, we can't do that because of sample size issues and because Phegley benefits from facing left-handed pitching a disproportionate amount of the time. But WAR isn't all batting. Let's dive into the WAR components and see where he is being credited for being an excellent player in his 105 visits to the plate and his 235 innings behind the dish.

A very brief explanation of WAR

Wins Above Replacement uses six components: (1) batting runs above average, (2) baserunning runs above average, (3) fielding runs above average, (4) a positional adjustment, (5) a league adjustment, and (6) a replacement runs adjustment. The sum of those gives us Runs Above Replacement, which is then converted to WAR.

Josh Phegley WAR components, FanGraphs, 2015 (through June 24)
Batting Baserunning Fielding Positional League Replacement RAR WAR
7.1 -0.3 2.0 2.0 0.4 3.0 14.2 1.5
RAR = "Runs Above Replacement" (may not sum perfectly due to rounding)

How do we take these components to figure out Josh Phegley's wins above replacement?

Begin with the hypothetical MLB replacement player. First we elevate him to an average player in the American League using the Replacement Runs Adjustment and League Adjustment. Then, we give that average player in the American League credit for playing the more difficult position of catcher for 235 innings through the Positional Adjustment. Finally, we turn that average American League catcher into Josh Phegley by comparing Phegley's batting and baserunning statistics to the average player in 2015, and his fielding statistics to the average catcher in 2015.

After all that, we take the resulting number of runs created above the replacement player, and convert that into wins by dividing by the number of runs per win, a calculation that depends on the run environment and is usually between 9 and 10.

If you would like to dive into the guts of each of these adjustments, read FanGraphs' primer on calculating position player WAR, and a complete example for calculating WAR by Neil Weinberg.

Replacement Runs (3.0)

You can read about the nuts and bolts at the Fangraphs library, but "Essentially, you are calculating the difference between a replacement level player and an average player in that season given the number of plate appearances."

The average player with 105 plate appearances creates 3.0 runs more than the replacement player with 105 plate appearances. If this player turns out to actually be a below average player, that will be reflected by negative runs above average scores in the categories unique to the player.

League Adjustment (0.4)

Says the Fangraphs library, "The league adjustment is a small correction to make it so that each league's runs above average balances out to zero." It works out to 0.4 for Phegley's 105 plate appearances. So the average American League hitter with 105 plate appearances produces 3.4 runs above the replacement player.

Positional Adjustment (2.0)

To compare players that play different positions to each other, or understand the defensive contributions of a player that plays multiple positions, one needs to adjust a player's defensive contributions so that they are on the same scale. An average defensive shortstop is more valuable than an average defensive second baseman with the same batting line, for example. If a player is bad at a harder position, compared to his peers at that position, that will be resolved with a negative figure in the fielding runs above average component.

FanGraphs has worked it out such that catcher is the most difficult position (+12.5 runs per 162 defensive games (a defensive game is nine innings)), first baseman is the easiest position on the field (-12.5), and the designated hitter is penalized for not taking the field on defense (-17.5).

I'll limit the discussion to other catchers to avoid most of the controversy about the positional adjustment. In Phegley's case, he receives 2.0 runs for 235 innings behind the plate.

So we know the average American League catcher with 105 plate appearances and 235 innings behind the plate is about 5.4 runs better than a major league replacement player. That works out to around a half-win, by the way. Now we have to figure out how many runs above or below average Phegley has been so far.

Batting runs above average (7.1)

Josh Phegley is credited with 7.1 park-adjusted batting runs above the average batter, ranking him fifth among MLB catchers despite only 105 plate appearances. You get credit when you're creating runs (wOBA is the main statistic used to figure out run creation) at an above average rate, and he has been doing so against both lefties and righties:

Josh Phegley, platoon splits through June 24
vs. LHP 52 3 3 0 6 5 .362 .423 .617 195
vs. RHP 53 2 5 1 8 3 .250 .302 .521 126

Those splits seem really good. First, let's look at the overall picture by compaing him to the 318 other major league hitters with at least 100 plate appearances:

Top 10 MLB wRC+ (min. 100 plate appearances)
Bryce Harper 69 292 218 18.5% 19.9% .340 .466 .719 .379 .364
Paul Goldschmidt 71 313 199 18.2% 18.2% .353 .471 .655 .302 .393
Miguel Cabrera 70 301 186 15.6% 16.6% .351 .455 .590 .239 .390
Justin Turner 63 186 172 7.5% 13.4% .323 .392 .575 .251 .333
Anthony Rizzo 70 312 170 11.9% 12.2% .305 .417 .575 .270 .308
Jason Kipnis 70 327 169 10.7% 12.8% .354 .431 .521 .168 .397
Todd Frazier 69 302 166 7.6% 17.5% .289 .354 .626 .337 .283
Mike Trout 73 311 164 11.3% 23.2% .296 .383 .567 .270 .341
Stephen Vogt 69 262 161 14.5% 19.8% .301 .397 .551 .250 .329
Josh Phegley 31 105 160 7.6% 13.3% .305 .362 .568 .263 .312

That's Josh Phegley, 10th out of 319 alongside some of the most exciting hitters in baseball. The next 10 players on this list are Maikel Franco, Joc Pederson, Giancarlo Stanton, Nelson Cruz, Joey Votto, Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista, and Yasiel Puig. Whoa.

Most catchers bat right-handed, so Phegley's 126 wRC+ is going to appear very high on the catcher leaderboards against right-handed pitching:

Top 10 MLB catcher wRC+ vs. RHP (min. 50 plate appearances)
Stephen Vogt 60 197 168 15.2% 18.8% .298 .401 .578 .280 .308
Yasmani Grandal 54 185 155 16.2% 18.4% .273 .389 .513 .240 .288
Travis d'Arnaud 19 72 153 4.2% 15.3% .303 .347 .561 .258 .308
Buster Posey 66 225 146 11.6% 7.6% .301 .382 .485 .184 .287
Brian McCann 57 183 140 8.2% 16.9% .288 .355 .525 .238 .298
Alex Avila 21 57 133 21.1% 24.6% .244 .404 .400 .156 .310
Nick Hundley 49 159 131 6.3% 17.0% .327 .371 .524 .197 .365
Josh Phegley 24 53 126 5.7% 15.1% .250 .302 .521 .271 .256
Russell Martin 62 204 123 8.8% 22.5% .256 .333 .478 .222 .291
Tucker Barnhart 21 63 119 6.3% 23.8% .293 .333 .483 .190 .341

Stephen Vogt is number one in wRC+ against righties, but Josh Phegley is second in isolated power!

On the catcher wRC+ leaderboard against lefties, Phegley is number one:

Top 10 MLB catcher wRC+ vs. LHP (min. 30 plate appearances)
Josh Phegley 21 52 195 9.6% 11.5% .362 .423 .617 .255
Andrew Susac 16 33 178 12.1% 18.2% .345 .424 .552 .207
Russell Martin 24 49 177 16.3% 14.3% .341 .449 .537 .195
Francisco Cervelli 20 40 177 10.0% 17.5% .389 .450 .528 .139
James McCann 19 42 168 7.1% 26.2% .324 .375 .595 .270
Chris Iannetta 21 40 147 20.0% 25.0% .258 .400 .452 .194
Derek Norris 27 55 142 7.3% 30.9% .314 .364 .490 .176
Stephen Vogt 40 65 141 12.3% 23.1% .309 .385 .473 .164
J.T. Realmuto 23 48 130 8.3% 14.6% .295 .354 .500 .205
Welington Castillo 17 37 111 8.1% 29.7% .265 .324 .471 .206

Among 30 catchers with at least 30 plate appearances against southpaws, Phegley avoids the strike out against lefties at the third best rate (11.5%), has the second best isolated power (.255), and is in the middle of the pack, 12th, in walk rate (9.6%).

Fielding runs above average (2.0)

In WAR, Catchers are evaluated differently from other fielders because they don't have to range for plays and are rarely involved in double plays. Phegley is credited for two runs in his ability to prevent stolen bases, but other components are assumed to be average, at least in the current incarnation of WAR on Fangraphs.

Pitch calling and pitch framing

Because research continues on the effects of pitch calling and pitch framing, and how much credit to give to the catcher in each of these cases, every catcher is assumed to have the same abilities.

If you would like to add a pitch framing component to WAR, StatCorner rates Phegley's framing as 3.6 runs above the average catcher, which would add about a third of a win to Phegley's total.

Plate blocking

Usually, WAR also includes a pitch-blocking component that compares the number of passed balls and wild pitches one would expect from the pitches a catcher has received to the number that have actually happened. However, that data is unavailable on FanGraphs so far.

Phegley has 11 wild pitches and four passed balls (15 passed pitches) in 235 innings that are not yet reflected in his fielding runs. To compare, Russell Martin has 39 passed pitches in 500⅓ innings, while Kurt Suzuki has just 21 in 499⅓ innings. In 2013, Phegley was 2.7 runs below average in blocking in 516 innings, so if you want maybe take off a tenth of a win in your mind to account for your evaluation of plate blocking.

Preventing stolen bases

The only catcher fielding component available to Fangraphs is the stolen base runs component of Defensive Runs Saved. That calculation compares the career expected number of stolen bases and stolen base attempts against what actually happened. The catcher therefore receives credit for throwing out more base runners than has historically occurred when a given pitcher has thrown, and also is credited for base runners declining to even attempt to steal because of the catcher's abilities.

Josh Phegley has been credited with two runs above average, which is behind Russell Martin and tied with Derek Norris and Jason Castro for second despite significantly fewer innings than all of them. Phegley is 10-for-23 in throwing out base runners over his 235 innings.

Baserunning runs (-0.3)

Salvador Perez has the worst baserunning runs above average figure, -3.1, but few catchers will have a positive figure here. The Fangraphs library explains how baserunning runs are calculated best:

Base Running Runs (BsR) at FanGraphs is the combination of Ultimate Base Running (UBR) for non-stolen base type base running, Weighted Stolen Base Runs (wSB) for stolen base and cost stealing value, and Weighted Grounded into Double Play Runs (wGDP) for runs added or subtract due to a hitters knack for avoiding or hitting into double plays.

Phegley has not been especially bad as a catcher on the base paths. A -0.3 over 105 plate appearances puts him around the middle of the pack.

Look who's laughing now

Back in December, South Side Sox wrote this about Josh Phegley:

Put simply, he's not a major league baseball player. He'll be 27 next season and I don't think there's much hope for further skill development. He's got a heck of a strong arm but accuracy will limit its utility. His pitch framing is bad and his blocking skills are bad. Offensively, he's got legitimate pop in his bat but that's pretty much it. He's not going to draw many walks and I don't think he has the contact skills to make any impact with his bat. Of the four players, I'd rate him as the least likely to do anything at all in the majors.

Jim Margalus, after the A's traded Derek Norris and John Jaso to other clubs, wrote about who the A's will have as their backup catcher, "If they roll with Phegley, though ... well, Athletics Nation is sold on the idea of Phegley as 'reportedly a plus defender,' so one blog should have the opportunity to laugh at the other this year."

To be fair, the limitations in the fielding runs component for catchers make those statements about Phegley's defense a little hard to evaluate, but as I said his pitch framing appears to be quite good this year. The plate blocking is worrisome, but Phegley's bat has obliterated concerns about below average performance in that area.

Jeff Samardzija has been worth 1.6 WAR taking the hill every fifth day for the White Sox. Josh Phegley has been worth 1.5 WAR getting behind the plate every third day for the A's. Will Phegley stay this good? I don't know.

I do know that Jeff Samardzija's contract is done at the end of this year, however. I do know that the Chicago White Sox are comically bad at hitting left-handed pitching (dead last in wRC+ with 51). I have not even begun to talk about the other pieces of that trade. All I know is that what at least one Chicago commenter basically called the fourth piece of that deal from the White Sox seems to be performing just as well as the centerpiece the White Sox received in return. And the A's have control of that fourth piece for at least another five years.