USA Today // Joe Nicholson

Applying Wins Above Replacement to Illini

Wins above replacement stat doesn't exist in football, but what if it were applied to the Illini football roster?

CHAMPAIGN - I love baseball.

Baseball was the first sport I played. Baseball was the first professional sport I witnessed live.

Despite giving up the game at age 13 because I couldn’t catch up to Tanner Roark’s fastball or have a chance at hitting his curveball -- true story -- I make it a priority to visit a Major League Baseball game or two or five every year. A few years ago, my wife and I made it a priority to get to all 30 MLB ballparks in our lifetime. We’re close to halfway done after visiting Cincinnati, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh last month.

So while football was my favorite to play and basketball remains my favorite to watch, baseball might be my favorite sport to follow.

I’m one of the minority who likes fantasy baseball WAY more than fantasy football. I love the grind. I love the best trade deadline in sports. I love the prospects (2015 rookie class, best ever?). I love checking the daily standings and the waiver wire in my fantasy league(s).

And I really love the plethora of statistics, the analytics that allows us to really get nitty gritty on the game.

Now, I know some old-schoolers revolt against sabermetrics. No, they aren’t the answer to everything. Scouting -- what your eyes see during play -- still is a big part of the equation. But sabermetrics and analytics provide us a bevy of information. More information makes us smarter. It’s why you’ll see me reference KenPom.com and hoop-math.com in my basketball reporting/analysis.

One of the more interesting baseball sabermetrics is WAR, or Wins Above Replacement.

This is how Fangraphs.com explains WAR:

“Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. You should always use more than one metric at a time when evaluating players, but WAR is all-inclusive and provides a useful reference point for comparing players. WAR offers an estimate to answer the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a freely available minor leaguer or a AAAA player from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?” This value is expressed in a wins format, so we could say that Player X is worth +6.3 wins to their team while Player Y is only worth +3.5 wins, which means it is highly likely that Player X has been more valuable than Player Y.”

Basketball analysts use a stat called win shares to similarly calculate player value (James Harden led the NBA last season) with one number. Some football sites use “approximate value” as a single-number measure of a player’s impact.

For fun, I wanted to attempt to translate baseball WAR to Illinois football. There is no science here. This is absolutely subjective and just for entertainment purposes, basically doubling as a player preview for the season. Also, sidenote, I assume health for all 12 games for this exercise.

The only slight calculation I employed was dividing a 162-baseball season to a 12- game football season. So while the elite baseball players average between 5.0 to 10.0 (Trout level) wins above replacement, even very good football players would average about 1.0 due to the smaller sample size.

Also, adding WAR in baseball doesn't equal the number of team wins (so no e-mails telling me I'm projecting the Illini to win more than 10 games). Remember, this is just for fun. Agreed? OK. Without further ado...

2.0 WAR or higher

Wes Lunt, QB - 2.25: No player has a bigger impact on the Illini than the junior signal caller. Yeah, sure, Reilly O’Toole came in to replace him last season and had more Big Ten wins as a starter than a one-legged Lunt. But Illinois won those late games because of an effective run game (helped by O’Toole) and a much-improved defense. When Lunt is healthy, he is one of the better pocket passers in the country. Strong-armed, smart and extremely accurate, Lunt could lead the Illini to the top of the Big Ten passing offense rankings. With Lunt on the field, Illinois should be a bowl team. Without him, they may just finish at the bottom of the Big Ten.

1.0 WAR or higher

Josh Ferguson, RB - 1.25: While few running backs would rank this high, Ferguson isn’t just a running back -- though he’s pretty good at that position. With Dudek out, Ferguson is the Illini’s best slot receiver and one of the better players at that position in the Big Ten. Freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn will be a good-to-great Big Ten running back someday. He and Henry Enyenihi could probably fill in admirably at running back. But they can’t replace all of Ferguson’s roles.

Mikey Dudek, WR - 1.25: I went back and forth on this one. Illinois’ passing attack should be plenty productive without Dudek because there are five or six other talented receivers in the group. But Dudek is just a special dude. He produces quantity (76 receptions last season) and quality (great speed, vertical jump and athleticism). Simply, Illinois wouldn’t have made a bowl game last season if someone else played in Dudek’s spot. Can the Illini overcome his absence (whether four games or 12) this season.

0.5 WAR or higher

Jihad Ward, DE - 0.75: The most disruptive defensive linemen get paid buco-bucks in the NFL. Ward has the potential to be one of those guys some day. The 6-foot-6, 285-pound senior is the most impressive physical specimen on the team and improved immensely from Game One to Game Thirteen last season, and again took a leap this offseason. Ward might not lead the team in sacks, but no one will receive more attention from opposing defenses.

Geronimo Allison, WR - 0.75: Lunt’s favorite target isn’t yet considered a consensus All-Big Ten candidate, but with Dudek out, expect even bigger numbers from the 6-foot-3 target. He and Lunt have perfected the back-shoulder throw, which -- with Lunt’s accuracy and Allison’s athleticism and wingspan -- is almost indefensible. Allison won’t duplicate Dudek’s catch total, but he’s a big-play threat who will be the beneficiary of a talented quarterback and a pass-happy coordinator.

0.25 WAR or higher

Christian DiLauro, OT - 0.5: In a pass-happy offense, you need quality pass protectors. DiLauro has the best feet of an Illini offensive lineman in decades and has the demeanor (and added strength) to be a quality run blocker as well.

Ted Karras, OG - 0.5: One of the few maulers on the Illini offensive line, Karras is the Illini’s best run blocker and rarely makes mental miscues. Get four more of him and your offensive line will rarely let you down.

Dawuane Smoot, DE/LEO - 0.4: The Illini need more difference-makers up front, and Smoot has the best combination physical tools (defensive end strength and linebacker speed) and training camp performance of the potential pass rushers.

V’Angelo Bentley, CB - 0.35: Only half of this number -- maybe less -- comes from Bentley’s defensive exploits. He’s an OK boundary corner and a very good nickelback. But he is one of the Big Ten’s top kick/punt returners and now will be featured as a weapon out of the offensive backfield. He’s capable of making big plays in any of his roles.

Chunky Clements, DT - 0.35: Similar to Smoot, the junior defensive tackle has shown flashes of brilliance but too much inconsistency. But during camp, Clements was a consistent disruptor out of the three technique.

Mason Monheim, LB - 0.30: One of the tougher players to value, the senior linebacker puts up big tackle numbers but has allowed many big plays as well. Still, he’s consistent production and leadership boost his value.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB - 0.25: I’m projecting a bit for the freshman running back, but the four-star prospect with great vision, good burst and solid build is talented enough to give the Illini a productive 10-plus touches a game right away.

Other positive WAR players

Rob Bain, DT: Strong-as-an-ox run stuffer will be solid, though unspectacular

Austin Schmidt, OT: Long arms make him a good pass blocker, but skinny legs limit him in run game

Joe Spencer, C: Can be overpowered, but good pass blocker and leader.

Clayton Fejedelem, S: Former walk-on may be the best hitter and interceptor in the Illini secondary

Carroll Phillips, LEO: One of the team’s best athletes, but can he stick to his assignments?

Taylor Barton, S: After a rough freshman season, Barton was one of the team’s better tacklers last season and has the experience and athleticism to make more big plays in centerfield this season.


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