Here are the top 100 North Carolina players who meant the most to their teams during their careers. The rankings are based on Baseball References’ “wins above replacement,” or WAR. This is an advanced statistic that attempts to summarize a player’s total contributions to his team by estimating how many games a team can be expected to win with the player in the lineup instead of an average player coming off the bench or called up from the minors. The player’s value to his team accumulates over the course of a season or, as shown here, during his career. The resulting number is expressed in plus or minus games. For instance, pitcher Gaylord Perry tops our list with a +90 WAR, meaning teams won 90 more games with him on the mound instead of an average pitcher over his 22-year career.
Players help their teams win in many ways — the timely hit, stealing a base or stretching a single into a double, turning a nifty double play, or pitching out of a bases loaded jam. Comparing two players using the standard offensive or pitching stats is useful, but it discounts the potential contribution a player can make by saving runs on defense. WAR is a simple attempt to combine a player’s total contribution into a single value.
Its goal is to provide a holistic metric of a player’s value that allows for comparisons across team, league, year, and era. WAR estimates a player’s total value and allows us to make comparisons among players with vastly different skill sets or from different decades. Who is better, a slugging first baseman or a superlative defensive shortstop? How does Christy Mathewson of the Dead Ball Era compare with a modern pitcher? WAR gives us a method for answering those question.
See FanGraphs for the nerdy stuff on how the batting and pitching formulas are derived.
While it provides a handy reference, WAR has its limitations and we should be careful in using it by itself to judge one player over another. It’s really not suited to answer the question who’s better. Bob Gibson, for instance, has a WAR about equal to his fellow Hall of Famer Perry. Does that mean they were equals as pitchers? Hardly. Gibson accumulated his +89.9 WAR over 17 years, five years less than Perry. His average seasonal WAR puts him in the All-Star category, while Perry’s is in the range of good, not great, pitchers.
Old timers, especially those who played before the major leagues were integrated in the late 1940s, tend to have higher WARs than their contemporaries because the average player who would have replaced them was far less skilled than a modern replacement. There were no talented African-Americans or Latinos on the roster.
The same dynamic is at work for players like Perry who spent most of his career on losing teams. He was for most seasons the best pitcher in the starting rotation. There was really no one to replace him had he gotten hurt. Perry was worth far more to his teams then, say, Jim Hunter, a contemporary, was worth to the Oakland A’s or New York Yankees, both World Series teams stocked with good pitchers. Hunter had a 15-year career WAR less then half of his fellow North Carolinian Perry. Had he gotten hurt in 1974 when he won 25 games for the A’s, the Series’ champs, Blue Moon Odom, a very talented pitcher, would have likely stepped in. Perry, on the other hand, was the only winning pitcher in the starting rotation of the fifth-place Cleveland Indians in 1972, when he won 24 games with a 1.92 earned-run average. Had he gone down, someone like Ray Lamb or Ed Farmer would have taken his place. Neither was a Blue Moon Odom.