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Sabermetrics surprise: Anthony Rizzo, David Bote have the same WAR

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 18: Anthony Rizzo #44 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after popping up to third base in the sixth inning during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on August 18, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775137104

It has been an up-and-down season for Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and his .803 OPS is 96 points below the lowest of his previous four seasons. Even so, Rizzo is solidly above the .771 major-league average for his position.

So how can rookie third baseman David Bote, with only 109 plate appearances, have contributed as much value as Rizzo has in 502? At Baseball-Reference.com, Bote and Rizzo each are listed at 1.3 wins above replacement; at Fangraphs.com, Rizzo has a 1.6-1.0 edge.

Part of the reason is defense and positions. Part is Bote’s success since he got the call to the big leagues and part is Rizzo’s extreme early-season slump.

Defense is given heavier weight at Baseball-Reference than at Fangraphs, and that’s a major reason bWAR is closer than fWAR. Bote has been outstanding, with six defensive runs saved in his short time at third. Rizzo, meanwhile, is at +3 at first. Zero runs saved signifies an average defender.

Positional factors expand Bote’s edge. There are fewer players who can handle third base than first. For example, aging third basemen who still can hit sometimes move to first, but aging first basemen don’t move to third. Baseball-Reference starts first basemen with an adjustment of -9.5 runs per 150 games; the adjustment at third is +2.5 runs.

Even an above-average first baseman can have a negative defensive WAR, and Baseball-Reference does list Rizzo at -0.4 dWAR to Bote’s +0.7.

That leaves Rizzo with a offensive bWAR edge of 1.1 to Bote’s 0.7. (Note: oWAR and dWAR each have a positional adjustment, but the adjustment is applied only once to overall WAR.)

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Bote has been a big offensive contributor, with a .290 batting average, .376 on-base percentage and .462 slugging percentage for an .839 OPS to go with three home runs and 18 RBI. His walk-off grand slam to beat the Nationals 4-3 on Aug. 12 is the stuff of legend.

Still, with such limited playing time, how can Bote’s oWAR be in the same ballpark as Rizzo’s, who has 18 homers and 78 RBI?

Think back to the first month of the season. At the end of April, Rizzo’s OPS was a paltry .448. Through May 6, when Rizzo’s 108 plate appearances were just one shy of Bote’s current total, Rizzo was hitting .177 with a .561 OPS. His wRC+ stood at 54, where 100 is an average hitter. (Bote is at 124.)

That’s well below replacement level, and Rizzo’s WAR would have been in negative numbers at that time. He had a steep hill to climb to get back into positive metrics.

Rizzo’s wRC+ starting May 7 is 130. You’d expect him to outperform Bote going forward.

But is it out of line for WAR to indicate their values have been close so far? No. Bote’s stellar performance at the plate and in the field, his position and Rizzo’s lack of productivity early in the season, when he played below replacement level, have taken them to their 1.3-1.3 bWAR standoff.