Get Lost, Bill James!
I hate sabermetrics. I’ll just get that out in the open. I hate ‘em. Not as bad as the Yankees, but I still hate them. I find all of them awful, but in particular, WAR is just the worst. It is vague, meaningless, misunderstood, and misinterpreted. In short, it’s just like the Dickey trade – people don’t get what it means, but they want to look like they do, so they start complaining about something or other.
Here’s why I hate WAR. Number 1, its name does an absolutely terrible job of expressing what it means. If a statistic is called “Wins Above Replacement,” I would expect a few things out of that statistic. 1, defensive WAR plus offensive WAR would add to give total WAR, and 2, the WAR of every player on a team would give the win total of the entire team. I have addressed numerous people about the second concern, and their response is always the same: “Well, you’ll just have to get used to it, because there’s no team WAR.” Am I missing something? Isn’t a team the sum of its players? Shouldn’t the wins contributed to a team by each player add up to the amount of total team wins?
On the subject of the second concern, I don’t have any kind of answer yet, but to me, this is another problem with WAR. The only possible explanation for the fact that offensive and defensive WAR don’t add to give total WAR is that one is weighed more heavily than the other. However, this presents problems. As even sabermetricians have acknowledged, 99% of major league baseball players are at least decent in the field (barring the Adam Dunn type players). The far majority of defensive plays will be made by the fielder, regardless of whether that fielder is elite or average. Therefore, theoretically, defense should be weighed more heavily for some players than others, but the only way to calculate how much to weigh defense would be to use that players defensive WAR, and we’ve gotten ourselves into a circle without an end. WAR is using the same marketing tactic that Toyota uses, when it says, “90% of Toyotas sold in the last 15 years are still on the road today.” That seems impressive at the beginning, but if you examine it, it doesn’t mean that 90% of Toyotas sold 15 years ago are still on the road. That statement covers cars sold anytime during the last 15 years, so out of those 90% of cars still on the road, half of them have been sold in the last 7.5 years, and should definitely still be on the road. WAR is the same – it takes into account plays made by a defensive player, but doesn’t realize that on the majority of defensive plays, any defensive player would suffice. For example, if you compare two shortstops and find that one fielded 95% of ground balls hit his way, and one fielded 97% of balls hit his way, it doesn’t seem like a big difference. However, what WAR fails to tell you is that any average fielder could probably have fielded about 91% of those balls. So in reality, the difference between the fielders should be 6% to 4%, which seems like a much bigger difference.
Another great problem with WAR is the replacement player that it speaks of. WAR doesn’t seem to realize how rare it is that players compile a stat line like Ike Davis did in 2012. Davis hit only .227, but hit 32 home runs with 93 RBIs. His WAR was 0.7. In other words, if the Mets replaced Davis with a replacement level player, their first baseman would contribute 0.7 wins less than Davis did. Ridiculous. Ike provided more wins than that in one game when he hit 3 home runs. For doing that, he should get credit for a full win. A replacement player, who would probably bat about .230 with 10 home runs, doesn’t have the tools that Ike does, like raw power and pitcher intimidation factor.
WAR constantly overrates the replacement player. In a classic example, Joe Saunders’ 2009 season, during which he went 16-7 with a 4.60 ERA, earned him a WAR of 0.3. What the WAR people don’t realize that even pitching 186 innings in a season is something that a replacement player is probably not going to be able to do, and doing that alone should be worth more than 0.3 wins. Saunders pitched 186 innings and won 16 games, and we’re supposed to believe that a pitcher the level of Chris Schwinden was worth just 0.3 wins less to his team? Ridiculous! Also, with pitchers, shouldn’t a complete game shutout go directly to the WAR total? If you want to give a little to the defense and a little to the offense, that’s fine, but if you pitch a complete game, that’s one win gained directly by a pitcher. The same could be said of a four home run game, or a game in which a hitter gets 6 hits. Regardless of whether the rest of the team had been performing at replacement level, that one player directly supplied the win, so shouldn’t they get credit for it in the form of WAR? WAR doesn’t recognize that going 16-7 isn’t something that one can just do, regardless of how much your defense or offense helped. To go 16-7, you need a quality that a replacement player does not have, which lets you pitch deep into games, get the right hitters out, and not allow runs when the game is on the line. A replacement player couldn’t just come up and go 16-7. And WAR needs to recognize that.
Another example of the absurdity of WAR can be seen by comparing different seasons for hitters. For example, as stated above, Ike Davis had a WAR of 0.7 in 2012. Carlos Lee also had a WAR of 0.7 in 2005. In both of those seasons, the player hit 32 home runs, but in 2012, Davis batted .227, while Lee batted .265. Lee, with no disrespect to Ike, who was battling Valley Fever, should not be grouped with a hitter who hit .227 while he hit .265. If you want to pin the difference on defense, you can try, but it just exposes another great fault of WAR: weighting components for different players. Carlos Lee had a oWAR of 1.6 in 2005, which in itself is absurd, because 32 home runs and a .265 average is worth more than 1.6 wins, and he had a dWAR of -1.6. Davis had an oWAR of 0.9, and a dWAR of -1.1, which is also absurd, since his fielding percentage was 13th – that’s better than half – among MLB first basemen. If the two WARs are combined for each player, Davis ends up with -0.2, and Lee with 0.0. However, this was not the case. In Lee’s case, we can deduce that his dWAR was valued as roughly half as important as his oWAR, since when you subtract the dWAR, about half of the original oWAR is left. However, with Davis, the dWAR was valued as roughly 1/6 as important as his oWAR. Why? Lee played about 180 more innings in the field than Davis did, but that still doesn’t account for a difference that big. Therefore, the only explanation that I can think of is that the WAR formula noticed something unimportant in the stats – perhaps that Lee played multiple positions, none of them well, or perhaps that first basemen are thought to play the easiest position in the field – and turned it into a gross misrepresentation of how valuable a player is to his team. WAR has to realize a few things – 1, that replacement players aren’t as good as they think, and 2, that defense, as explained, is mostly unimportant. Until the sabermetricians learn that, WAR will continue to be unimportant.