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Red Sox

Time For Baseball’s WAR Supporters To Tone Down The Arrogance

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Mike Trout posted a 10.7 WAR in 2012 but lost the MVP race to Miguel Cabrera, who received 22 of 28 first-place votes despite a 6.9 WAR. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Mike Trout posted a 10.7 WAR in 2012 but lost the MVP race to Miguel Cabrera, who received 22 of 28 first-place votes despite a 6.9 WAR. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — Over the past several years, a statistical revolution has undeniably taken place in the baseball world. Gone are the days you can try to honestly assess a player without looking into advanced statistics which were known by very few people as recently as 10 years ago.

Plenty of good has come from the inclusion of all these fancy acronyms making their way into baseball, sure, but sometimes the celebration of the statistics go overboard.

Such was the case on Tuesday, when ESPN ran a story by Sam Miller titled, “WAR is the answer.” The blurb on ESPN’s homepage read, “After WAR helped heat up the 2012 AL MVP debate, it’s now a permanent part of looking at player performance.”

That’s certainly a bold claim, considering it wasn’t more than 65 years ago when the color of a man’s skin was a determinant for selecting an MVP, and also considering Miguel Cabrera won in a landslide over Mike Trout, the man with the significantly better WAR last season. Nevertheless, those folks who want so badly for everyone to view the sport of baseball exactly as they do went absolutely bonkers.

“MUST READ!!!” they tweeted with a link to Miller’s story. “Inspiring stuff,” others said, while too many uncreative folks tweeted, “WAR, what is it good for? Absolutely something!” I half-expected to look out my office window and see a WAR parade marching down the street. (People who have only seen anti-war parades would be a bit puzzled watching a pro-WAR demonstration making its way down Broadway.)

Don’t get me completely wrong — Miller and the WAR people have plenty of helpful additions to the conversation about baseball. But my goodness, can we tone it down a little with the gloating?

“In the larger perspective, the debate is over, and data won,” Miller wrote in the conclusion to his 3,000-plus-word article for ESPN The Magazine’s analytics issue. “So fight it if you’d like. But at a certain point, the question in any debate against science is: What are you really fighting and why?”

The answer to that question is simple: because there’s no singular way to watch and analyze baseball, and far too many people want to treat the sport like one giant math equation.

I realize that by saying that I sound like the group of baseball fans who yell “Shut up, stat nerds!” at the first sight of any statistic that hasn’t been around for 100 years, but I assure you I’m not. (Unless you start equating BABIP to good or bad luck. Then we would have to fight with our fists.) There is certainly something to be gained by WAR.

But there is not that much, people.

Look through the year-by-year top 10 lists for WAR, and you’ll see pretty much 10 of the best players in baseball for any given year. Last year, the leaders among position players included Mike Trout, Robinson Cano, Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, David Wright, Adrian Beltre, Yadier Molina and Alex Gordon. Those were certainly 10 of the best players last season, but for one, they weren’t absolutely the 10 best players, and secondly, did you really need WAR to tell you that those guys were good?

Seven of those players were also in the top 10 in batting average, seven were in the top 10 in slugging percentage, six were in the top 10 in on-base percentage, five were in the top 10 in OPS and three were in the top 10 in home runs.

Expanding further, the top 10 WAR leaders (position players) all time are Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial and Ted Williams. All of them except Bonds are Hall of Famers (and Bonds’ exclusion has nothing to do with WAR), and all the HOF voters were able to tell those players were pretty good, long before WAR had ever made its way into baseball. In fact, the only players in the top 30 all time in WAR who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are either active players or named Barry Bonds. Opening it up to the top 50 overall WAR leaders (including pitchers), every single player who’s eligible for the Hall and hasn’t been linked to steroids (Bonds, Roger Clemens) is in Cooperstown. However did voters determine those players to be great without relying on WAR?

To treat WAR as this revolutionary, incredible tool of perfection is just wrong. But that’s what some of these folks want to do.

I apologize for the forthcoming long excerpt from Miller, but it’s necessary.

“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. … WAR represents a chance to respond to the complexity of baseball with something more than ideology or despair.”

A little excessive, no?

I don’t need to sit here and try to break down every argument made by Miller. WAR makes him happy. He made that very clear. And it makes a lot of people happy. Hey, one number that can serve as a catch-all for everything in this wild and crazy game? Cool!

But WAR is not evolution of man. It is not the polio vaccine. It is not the melting of any polar ice caps.

It’s a baseball statistic.

And while there’s no handy-dandy stat to compute this, I’d comfortably estimate that at least 80 percent of the people who live and die by WAR don’t even know exactly how it’s calculated. Those who do know how it’s calculated know that UZR is a factor for position players, and those who treat UZR as a black-and-white statistic are no friends of mine. They also know that there is no UZR for catchers, so there’s essentially a somewhat random scramble to try to equate what a catcher does to what a shortstop does by using different metrics. That makes complete scientific sense, except for that it totally does not.

As for myself, I admittedly would benefit from learning a bit more about some of these stats. I don’t dismiss them as completely meaningless like some people might, yet for the life of me, I can’t understand why so many people make it their life’s work to trumpet WAR and metaphorically spit on your cleats if you try to speak to the value of intangibles.

These are, after all, human beings we’re talking about. There’s a reason companies interview candidates for open positions rather than just make a decision based on a resume. There are factors in humans that can’t be properly printed out on a piece of paper, and while the science of trying to gauge someone’s leadership or ability to think on one’s feet is far less precise than a perfect math equation, it nevertheless remains a crucial element to any and every talent assessment that takes place in the world. Sports should not be exempt from that. Sports especially should not be exempt from that.

I’d honestly be more accepting of the stat revolution types if they didn’t seemingly make it their life goal to attack the RBI and all it stands for. “Driving in runs is meaningless!” they argue, saying a batter can’t control how often runners get on base in front of them. That’s true for sure, and it should be taken into account when trying to compare a 110-RBI man on the Yankees and an 88-RBI man on, say, the Astros. That Yankee is not necessarily better or “more clutch” than the Astro … but he still drove in 110 runs, which is damn impressive.

To try to treat a bases-empty, one-out at-bat in the fourth inning as the exact same scenario as a two-on, two-out at-bat in the eighth inning when a player’s team is trailing by two runs is absolute lunacy. This is sports we’re talking about — emotion and composure matter. There’s a reason we remember Michael Jordan, Joe Montana and Joe DiMaggio in better light than we do Dan Marino. We like players who perform best in the biggest moments of the year, because we like to see our teams win championships, which is the entire point of sports. Yes, one baseball player cannot carry a team to a championship the way a quarterback or small forward can, but that doesn’t mean you have to completely dismiss the factors that are at play for each individual at-bat.

At-bats are different. When a hitter steps into the box in of those pressure-packed, late-inning situations, with a crowd of 40,000 going absolutely nuts and the opposing team’s best reliever on the mound, it’s different. His heart rate accelerates, he sweats more than usual and it takes more effort to focus his energy on the task at hand. If he doubles in that situation, it’s more meaningful and impressive than if he doubles in a tie game in the second inning with nobody on base. It just is, and that’s science, too.

Such factors can’t be ignored, and while considering them won’t create an easy-to-read spreadsheet, it’s still OK. You can just … watch the games and understand. Isn’t that why we enjoy the sport to begin with?

We all don’t need to war over WAR (damn, those terrible cliches are just so hard to resist). You’re not right, I’m not right, and there’s not one individual statistic that is right. Much like the way last year’s AL MVP race played out, WAR can be a factor without being the factor. Unlike the statistic itself, it’s not very complicated.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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