WAR is the answer
Sam Miller [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
February 25, 2013
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This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 4 Analytics issue. Subscribe today!

FORTY-NINE YEARS AGO, Sports Illustrated profiled an engineering professor with jolting theories about baseball. Earnshaw Cook, author of the then-unreleased Percentage Baseball, claimed that advanced math and objective analysis could turn any team into a pennant winner. He didn't call it sabermetrics and he didn't call it Moneyball, but that's essentially what Cook was proposing.

Also 49 years ago, a man in Wilmington, Del., named Herb Groh wrote a letter to the magazine in response. "Thank goodness the game of baseball can never be reduced to adding-machine accuracy," he wrote. "It's much more fun this way."

Groh's letter speaks for many, especially today. Cook's book, meanwhile, speaks for almost nobody: Many of his findings turned out to be wrong and would have actually cost teams wins. But science rarely gets it right the first time; it gets it right over time. Wins Above Replacement -- an all-encompassing measure of a player's value developed through decades of data and debate by baseball's army of amateur analysts -- gets it right.

In 2012 WAR took on a co-headlining role in the American League's MVP race. For Mike Trout supporters, WAR was simple and unimpeachable evidence of a perfect player performing at a nearly unprecedented level. For Miguel Cabrera supporters, WAR was the joyless and inscrutable tool of eggheads, trolls, all of us who never played the game. Cabrera vs. Trout was often reduced to a referendum on the value of data. "This WAR statistic is another way of declaring, 'Nerds win!'" best-selling author Mitch Albom wrote in defense of Cabrera.

Albom has it wrong. At the risk of grandiloquence, this is about more than one MVP race, about more than even baseball. We live in a world of disagreement on epochal issues that we can't resolve even when the science is unambiguous: evolution, vaccines and climate change among them. These issues are daunting. Relying on science that's hard to understand can be scary. So the tendency is to cling to the comforts of ideology and tradition -- even when those ideologies are wrong, even when the traditions are outdated.

Fight it if you like, but baseball has become too complicated to solve without science. Every rotation of every pitch is measured now. Every inch that a baseball travels is measured now. Teams that used to get mocked for using spreadsheets now rely on databases packed with precise location and movement of every player on every play -- and those teams are the norm, not the film-inspiring exceptions. This is exciting and it's terrifying.

Even though I'm a staff writer and editor at Baseball Prospectus, I'm not going to try to convince you that Mike Trout should have beaten Miguel Cabrera for the MVP award. WAR, despite what you might have read, does not take a position on that. But I will try to convince you that WAR represents a chance to respond to the complexity of baseball with something more than ideology or despair.

And fear not, Herb Groh of Wilmington, Del. WAR also makes baseball much more fun.

1. WAR TELLS A GREAT STORY.

A single baseball at-bat is magnificently complex, a single game exponentially more so, a team's season more than that and a player's career more than that. WAR uses the most advanced available data to measure, in each area of performance, how many runs a major league player saved or produced relative to a consistent baseline: the runs likely saved or produced by an average minor leaguer called up as a hypothetical "replacement." It expresses those runs as wins -- about 10 runs to one win -- and calls it a player's "worth" over a year. It takes all of baseball's amazing intricacy and sums it up in a number. Not even a colorful number. Usually a boring number, like 1.3. There's nothing interesting about 1.3.

Reducing a player's worth to a single number can be contemptible, says John Thorn, a seminal sabermetric writer and the author of the 1984 book The Hidden Game of Baseball. That book introduced the Linear Weights System, which attaches a value in runs to every offensive event. (For instance, a single when the book was released was worth 0.47 of a run.) Linear Weights System provides the mathematical basis for WAR's offensive components. Thorn, while supportive of WAR, criticizes the way it is often deployed to end an argument.

"The current lowest common denominator of statistical writing is the fixation on comparing Player A with Player B, which seems to me not only worthless but serves to obscure the larger story of baseball," Thorn says. "Enjoyment of baseball is like enjoyment of art. If you decide it has to have a utilitarian function & you make it seem like work. It's supposed to be play."

But Thorn's complaint is about the user, not about the tool. Loving baseball and loving WAR go together perfectly.

At three hours per game, 162 games a year, 10 or 20 or 80 years, many of us spend tens of thousands of hours on the sport -- and that's not even getting into the fantasy-team managing and card collecting and this-article reading and all the other stuff that a baseball fan does instead of doing his job and mowing the lawn. Few of us will ever make a dime in the game, so why do we watch? For the same reason we love sitcoms and movies: We grow through the story -- struggle, redemption, connection.

WAR tells a new story about baseball. Better, WAR shows that new story, because it embeds every part of the game within its formula. Consider shortstop David Eckstein. The mainstream story about Eckstein -- he's small and not technically very good, but boy does he have grit -- was told through adjectives, not facts. At the media-criticism site Fire Joe Morgan, there was a David Eckstein category comprising 20 separate posts on Eckstein hagiographies. That's nearly 12,000 (hysterical) words mocking the reporters who celebrated the plucky Eckstein despite his weak arm, punchless bat and general failure to be athletic.

Now, here's the twist: David Eckstein was actually very valuable, and it had nothing to do with the adjectives. In 2002 Eckstein (WAR of 4.4, according to analytics-based website FanGraphs) was almost as good as Miguel Tejada (WAR of 4.7), who won the AL MVP award that year. Tejada hit 34 home runs and drove in 131. But Eckstein was nearly his equal while driving in 63 and taking a running start every time he threw to first. How? WAR, and the components that it comprises, tells us:

1. Eckstein let himself get hit by 27 pitches, giving him a better OBP than Tejada and blunting Tejada's power advantage.

2 . Eckstein hit into a third as many double plays.

3. Eckstein was actually a good defensive shortstop with more range than Tejada and more success turning double plays.

A writer who wanted to praise...
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