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Opinion: Counterpoint: Bill James is Good, but WAR is Bad

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I’ll start this off with a confession: I am a stat-head. It’s me, I’m the nerd looking at BABIP, xFIP and K-BB%. I consume the baseball statistics alphabet soup like I just came in from the cold and it’s… well, alphabet soup.[Jeff]

The great majority of advanced statistics help us glean underlying meaning from the events that happen around us as we soak up the game we love, and baseball is better for them. Baseball is unique among team sports in that it is a series of discrete events woven together in the greater tapestry of a game. Madison Bumgarner unleashes with a wicked fastball. A discrete event. Yasiel Puig at the plate recognizes the pitch and rips a scorching line drive up the middle. A discrete event. Brandon Crawford breaks perfectly on the ball and makes a diving grab. A discrete event. Three discrete and measurable events in a second that result in an out, and all three players did the right thing, but Puig gets nothing but an out for his effort. That doesn’t seem fair, and advanced statistics allow all three players to get their due for doing the right thing.

The millions of discrete events over the course of a season allow us to investigate and analyze, data-mine and glean information. It allows us to better understand the game. Why did Jeff Samardzija suddenly become terrible with the White Sox? A quick perusal of his fangraphs page tells you he threw his worst pitch (his slider) more than he did in any other season. It’s a fixable issue, and one the Giants surely looked at before scooping him up in free agency. Why did Chris Colabello suddenly become good? Well, he became extremely lucky, as his league-leading BABIP would tell you.

Bill James made this quick interpretation possible. He was likened to Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union in the takedown of Bill James and analytics we posted yesterday. He is more the Voltaire. His revolutionary words inspired multiple Robespierres across the league, and their Reign of Terror is sweeping through. Low-value clutch/scrap/grit guys whose on-base percentage match their weight are being marginalized. People are starting to recognize that runs batted in and pitcher wins are as much about the team around a player as the player themselves. No more does a righty who has a reverse-platoon split get trotted out there against lefties because he’s “supposed to” hit them well. This can now be recognized and platooned, putting another wrinkle in the strategy of the game. The richness and depth of baseball is enhanced by advanced statistics.

Here’s the thing. The real rub of it all with regards to yesterday’s article: I agree.


WAR is a bad statistic.


WAR is plain awful, because it is a reductive stat, and by their very nature, reductive stats deny the grandeur and awesomeness of the numbers that went into said statistic. In an attempt to give a short-hand value to a player, their hundreds of thousands of discrete events over the course of a season are smoothed and boiled down into a single number. A number without value. To whit, there are multiple proprietary WAR calculation methods, with convoluted formulas based on multiple statistics (some flawed, like UZR).

There’s no unifying statistic that will be able to adequately describe a baseball player’s on-field contribution. Albert Einstein, the greatest mind of the twentieth century, and perhaps ever, died without completing his Theory of Everything, his unifying formula to describe the universe. While there are great minds in baseball analytics, none are Einstein, and any attempt to reduce everything into one digestible chunk (in this case, WAR), will fall short.

So I agree, let’s all, as a community, take WAR and throw it out the window, but make sure that we don’t take things like ISO, line drive rate or Z-Swing% with it.  That is a bull-headed way of approaching things. That method made Joe Morgan the poster boy for those who are fighting back against advanced statistics, even though advanced statistics took the things Joe Morgan did well (walks and defense) and pointed out that they were extremely undervalued and that Morgan may just be the greatest second baseman of all time.


In the immortal words of Edwin Starr: WAR. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.


But to amend Starr’s words: a lot of other advanced statistics will teach you a lot, if you let them.

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