New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers - Game Three

Some wise old lawyer once said “tough cases make bad law” and they were right. As I understand it, the clearer the better when trying to establish new precedents and regulations. Baseball statistics on the internet are not law. The do change the way we talk about and think about the game of baseball.

The “we” in this case is fans, media, commenters, everyone. The proliferation of advanced statistics is nearly complete. It is not a matter of whether or not stats are “here to stay” in the greater sports conversation, it is the rate at which they adopted by the majority.

No matter how often we reference WAR or wOBA or whatever else, they are not yet consumed by the majority of sports fans. For this, we can point to any number of reasons. The most significant of which might simply be apathy. The “average fan” just doesn’t care to concern themselves with measures more complicated than those they learned by osmosis as a youth.

There remains a significant portion of the sporting population who does care about stats but remains reluctant to pick up the WAR mantle. They will come in time but, for now, remain skeptical.

You know this person – they condemn WAR as a “junk stat” and gleefully profess their own mathematical emancipation before worrying about the ERA of their favorite team’s fourth starter.

WAR is for them and it will find them, in time. But bringing more folks under the “advanced stats umbrella” requires throwing it widely and not full of holes.

David Schoenfield is the editor of ESPN’s Sweetspot blog (my old Blue Jays site was a part of the Sweetspot network of blogs from 2010 to 2011.) Today, David wrote a case study comparing a 50 home run hitter to a guy who hit just .194, noteworthy because these two disparate players compiled nearly identical Wins Above Replacement for their respective seasons.

Prince Fielder hit 50 homers in 2007 though he only managed to post 3.4 rWAR (the Baseball Reference version of the composite stat). Brendan Ryan is the defensive whiz shortstop for the Seattle Mariners who, despite .194/.277/.278 slash line in 2013, managed to post 3.3 rWAR.

The difference between the two is stark, both in terms of these handpicked seasons and their greater bodies of work. Schoenfield does a terrific job breaking down how WAR arrives at its inevitable conclusion, though the case he chose didn’t ring true with me. To all comes back to the key problem many people have with WAR in the first place: if it equates these two players as equals, how can it be trusted?

The real challenge I have with this comparison is the extreme defensive rating…for Fielder. He was worth -15 runs according to BIS Defensive Runs Saved in 2007. This is a very extreme number from the early days of DRS, when the measures were not nearly as precise as now. More to the point, first base is such a limited defensive role that for any player to perform so poorly compared to his peers strains all credulity.

Brendan Ryan saved 27 runs with his glove in 2012 because he is a superlative athlete and defensive shortstop. If 2012 Brendan Ryan played first base, would he save some astronomical number of runs? I don’t think so, as there is not an opportunity to save runs at first base. It just isn’t the nature of the position – even the best defensive player can only have a limited impact when asked to play a limited (or limiting) role.

For reference, Albert Pujols led all first baseman that season with a +31 – the fourth highest DRS recorded by any player at any position, contrasting even more starkly with Fielder’s struggles in the field that season. No player has posted a DRS above 30 since the 2010 season, owing more to better information rather than worse fielders.

The other flavors of WAR show how volatile the defensive component makes the stat, especially in the darker days of video-based metrics. UZR still viewed Fielder’s 2007 harshly but he still managed 5 fWAR in 2007, dwarfing Ryan’s 1.7 fWAR 2012. Such is the nature of single-season WAR totals spread across different defensive metrics. Not perfect but better than the alternative (which is nothing.)

The difference between a valuable defensive player and a one-dimensional offensive player are, more and more, understood by fans and those who watch the game. For years Adam Dunn was the WAR whipping boy, as his defensive uselessness undercut his offensive prowess.

My concern with this extreme example — a 50 home run hitter was rare even when they weren’t rare — diminishes that offensive contribution because of a slightly wonky defensive assessment. While it makes for more spirited arguments and less of a clear-cut choice, I think the Mike Trout/Miguel Cabrera debate is the perfect ground for fighting for WAR.

Two terrific players who had (obviously) insane seasons. The difference being Trout’s ability to influence the game in ways Cabrera, a lumbering third baseman in name only, cannot. It is not meant to undercut Cabrera’s achievement but celebrate all which Trout accomplished in 2012. Even without a swollen UZR or DRS, Trout is still the clear cut WAR champion over Cabrera.

Dredging up Prince Fielder’s 2007 won’t win any new WAR acolytes. The suspicious fan who might see through the Triple Crown veneer is more likely to give Wins Above Replacement rather than stating a no-bat shortstop had a better season than a guy who posted a 153 wRC+ with 50 home runs.

A novel coincidence but, for me, less likely to provoke any “a-HA” moments in readers than a more apples to apples comparison, one in which the playing field is a little more level to better highlight WAR’s strengths rather than its greatest weakness.

Comments (27)

  1. I think part of the reluctance for people to include WAR in their baseball vocabulary is due to the disconnect between WAR numbers and on-field activity. WAR is opaque due to its complex formula.

    Any old fool can calculate ERA in his head, or WHIP, or OBP, but good luck reciting how WAR is calculated.

    WAR is called an advanced stat for a reason. I don’t blame the average casual sports fan for not wanting to bother with the math and settling for simply watching the bloody game on the field.

    I heard a TV commentator say he wouldn’t be surprised if they started flashing WAR numbers alongside or even in replacement of traditional stats in television broadcasts.

    Jeez, I hope not. I’m not anti-WAR, but I wouldn’t want a legion of baseball fans walking around quoting WAR numbers when they have no idea how they’re calculated.

    • Yes you’re right; the same legions of fans who dismissed OBP as a superior stat to batting average for discussing the success of an offensive player felt that way because OBP is so much more complicated than Batting Average which is calculated in a lot more steps than the percentage of times you got on base..

      • The reason the “average fan” doesn’t concern himself with WAR or “advanced statistics” is because they are bullshit and, because; the “average fan” is smarter than you are.
        Not all nerds are smart, sometimes; they’re just nerds.
        What…you think they didn’t have math or stats in 1910?

        • If by “bullshit” you mean based on nonsense or arbitrary factors, then you’re wrong.

          Plus, I’m no stats nerd, I just think advanced stats like WAR are just another tool for enjoying, understanding and appreciating the game. WAR is a valiant effort to create a short-hand for a player’s overall value, including defensive abilities, which are overlooked by traditional stats.

        • LOL. this is a perfect troll comment

        • What they didn’t have in 1910 that they have no is this little thing called the “microprocessor”, with which one can analyze more than 100 years of baseball history (which they didn’t really have then either) to learn more about the game.

          Also, around 1910, somebody “made up” a “bullshit” stat called “RBI” and added it to their “box score” which they kept to track the game they loved to watch. Amazing how the game “evolves” and the way we “understand” it evolves right alongside.

          • WAR is a worthless stat. The only one that really counts is RBIs (and walk-off WS homers)

          • Change does not necessarily equate to evolution and what happened 50 years ago on a baseball field has very little to do with what will happen tomorrow. Attempting to create a GUT metric for any complex system is a futile and arrogant exercise pursued only by fools and dreamers.
            Occam’s razor is why WAR is bullshit and reading a shit-tonne of Shakespeare doesn’t not qualify anyone to debate anything other than their opinion of Shakespeare.

            • Nobody suggests WAR is any kind of grand unified theory. YOU want to throw the baby out with the bathwater for what it isn’t, not for what it actually is and does.

              Nobody says WAR unlocks the secrets of the game nor can it predict the futre. It’s a counting stat – a descriptive stat meant to summarize the contributions one player made relative to other players. That’s all. It’s a tool, not a magic wand.

  2. Kudos for linking to the Whittal piece. I’ve read it twice now and think it’s probably the best thing I’ve read on the score, other than the comments on Stoeten’s Morneau article of course.

  3. An attraction of baseball for me (certainly not the main one, but up there) is participation in baseball pools. I will grant that not everyone in the pools can be counted as a stats-happy fan… but those who are not tend to place in the bottom of the pools.

    When you devote a fair slug of time to your fantasy teams, unfortunately you have to treat stats like RBI, BA, and yes even cursed W (even worse – S) as important. Because the vast majority of fantasy leagues treat them as such. The example above is perfect in the sense that I would push my grandmother out of the way to trade Ryan for Fielder if somebody offered it to me on the basis of “equal WAR”.

    I wonder, if WAR (whichever version) became a more standard stat in Fantasy pools (obviously not the head-to-head flavour… dunno could you use WPA or something?) would it creep more quickly into the standard baseball talk, fueled by the average fantasy player?

    I recognize the importance of the stat. I refer to it when looking at trades my favorite team has made, or when engaging in discussions about who-was-better-than-who… But… My guy had 114 RBI last year !!!!!

    • I think the difference here is in equating the average fan to the average fantasy player – Even fantasy players who care about RBIs are aware that they are largely a stat category controlled by team offensive prowess and position in the lineup as much as a hitter’s propensity to get hits. A more average fan would tell you that player A had more RBIs and therefore was a better hitter.

    • As an advanced stat geek, I can tell you that my experience playing in a pool with advanced stats was much less exciting. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s just more fun to looking up your guy’s 3-for-5 night with a HR, 4 ribbies and a stolen base.

      I’ll never forget seeing Mike Cameron’s name beside a 4 HR night – I may have screamed like a young lady – and quickly griping, “Only 4 RBI?!?!?!?”

      • Heh – I think my favorite might have been when Texas pasted Baltimore 30-3 in 2007. My two Rangers, Young and Cruz, combined for a whopping ZERO RBIs. At least they got a few hits… To add insult to injury, for some reason I had Brian Burres (0.2 IP, 8H, 1 BB, 8 ER) on my active roster.

  4. Could you guys recommend some good books on advanced stats? I’m looking to educate myself

    • I think The Book is your best bet if it’s the numbers you’re after.

    • I really loved Baseball: Between The Numbers by the Prospectus gang. Some of the numbers and stats are a bit out of date (VORP?), but the concepts ring true. I found it far more accessible than The Book.

      • their newer Extra Innings books is just as good if not better than Baseball Between the Numbers – it does a fantastic job of really explaining some of these concepts in a clear, concise, and accessible manner while still including very interesting essays on, for example (and my fav.), some of the actual published science on PEDs and baseball.

  5. This is the great thing about baseball. There are so many stats and almost everyone of them, you can find a flaw with it as to how important it really is.

  6. Offensive WAR is an amazing stat helps you compare the offensive contributions of a high OBP speedy shortstop with a slugging catcher.

    Defensive WAR is what makes Ryan and Fielder seem equivalent, or that claims Yunel Escobar’s 2012 was as good as Derek Jeter’s. If people were willing to use oWAR as WAR and then add a caveat, rather than a hard number, for defensive metrics, there would be a lot fewer outliers and a lot less debate.

  7. Great. Thanks for the recommendations!

  8. My biggest problem with WAR is it’s inability to capture a position player’s versatility and how much that helps the manager fill out the rest of the lineup card. When Jose Bautista was shuffling between 3B and RF or when Ben Zobrist plays 5 positions well there’s a hidden value that I haven’t seen anybody try to calculate. The cascading effect seems really difficult to measure but we’re going to see with the Blue Jays this year how much fun it is for a manager to have guys like Izturis and Bonifacio that he can play all over the field.

    • While I don’t disagree, I think the counterpoint to your suggestion goes something like “if he was a good shortstop, they could just play him there full time.” Or something.

      More practically, perhaps a boost to the positional adjustment for guys who log significant innings at multiple positions?

      • That’s all I’m looking for. Neither Bautista or Zobrist is anywhere near the top at any of the positions they play, but the fact that the manager can move them around the field without having to worry about it has tremendous value. In fact, even if you consider the player a below average player at the position he still deserves additional credit for playing there. The manager is only putting him there because he’s in a bind and his lineup looks best with Player X playing at a position that isn’t his best, so let’s not penalize players for that.

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