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WAR: What is it good for?

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Tim Thompson
April 30, 2013

Iíve have a confession. OK, perhaps more of a reiteration: I donít do humans. Errr ... sorry, thatís the movie-line guy in me.

What I meant to say is: I donít do stats. Donít get me wrong, I know their relevance and I follow some stats, but I guess Iím old-school when it comes to the numbers of significance in baseball.

I think batting average is a fair gauge on how well a player can hit, but I also realize why itís not quite as crucial as it used to be. In today's game, on-base percentage and slugging percentage probably are more accurate measures of a player's offensive ability. But, because batting average always has been widely used and understood, itís easier for the average fan to compare players using that stat than it is to use OBP or slugging.

As one example of how baseball stats have evolved over the years, there now is a stat known as OPS, which simply is the player's on-base percentage plus his slugging percentage. Can you name the last player to bat over .400 in a season? Can anyone tell me who was the last player to post an OPS of over 1.400 for an entire season?

I would venture a guess that most casual fans know the answer to the first question: Ted Williams is the last player to clear the .400 plateau, doing it in 1941 at age 22.

Fewer could probably guess the second answer: Barry Bonds in 2004, at age 39. That season he set an all-time record with a 1.4217 OPS -- never mind the fact that only he knows what was in his body. You can imagine my "surprise" when I saw this and realized this cameo may be where Barry learned to cheat. (What you donít see in that clip is Steveís dad getting busted cheating in an attempt to beat Barry.)

I want to know a player's batting average because it tells me if the guy can hit. I want to know the on-base percentage because it tells me about his ability to get on base, without getting a hit. I want to know the home-run numbers because they tell me about a guy's power potential. I want to know the number of RBIs a player collects because it tells me his ability to hit in certain situations.

There are stat gurus who analyze every stat in order to determine a player's worth, but Iím not that guy. Why? Because fans donít see the players as the coaches and managers see them. We donít see them in the clubhouse. We donít see their commitment (or lack thereof) to the team, outside of what the team lets us see. There are just so many factors that factor into a player's character that makes him a better fit for a team than one who with slightly better stats but a crappier attitude. Stats donít lie, of course, nor do they tell the whole story.

The reason for this post is because I want to talk about Wins Above Replacement, more commonly known as WAR. From what I read the technical definition of WAR is: a non-standardized sabermetric baseball statistic that claims to show how many more wins a player would give a team as opposed to a "replacement-level," or minor-league/bench player at that position.

Baseball Reference uses six components to calculate WAR for position players:

  • Batting Runs
  • Baserunning Runs
  • Runs added or lost due to Grounding into Double Plays in DP situations
  • Fielding Runs
  • Positional Adjustment Runs
  • Replacement level Runs (based on playing time)
Baseball Reference, at the most basic level, uses two components to calculate WAR for pitchers:
  • Runs Allowed (both earned and unearned)
  • Innings Pitched
My first problem with WAR is that itís based off of a ďreplacement-levelĒ player, or basically an "imaginary" player. If you are going to use a stat that takes into account what a replacement-level player WONíT do, how can you not consider what they MIGHT do. Thatís how I see it, anyway.

My second major problem with WAR is that there is no clear cut way to calculate it. Three of the main "stat" sites (baseballprospectus.com, fangraphs.com, and baseball-reference.com) all calculate WAR differently. Really? Can you imagine those sites calculating batting average differently?

You may remember when I had to explain to Ma how the magic number works. Well, this time Iím looking for an explanation. Can someone, anyone, please give me a lay-person's version of what exactly this stat is, and why it has value? Or, to borrow the question from Elaine Benes: "WAR: what is it good for?"



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