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.