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A call for moderation in WAR usage

Feb 1, 2013, 2:34 PM EDT


Jim Caple of ESPN takes what I think is a decent, moderate approach with respect to the war over WAR. Basically: it’s a cool stat that can be useful, but let’s not rely on it too much or consider it an argument-ender.

Of course, because that’s moderate, I expect almost no one to like it. It’s really, really hard to be a moderate these days.

I do take issue with one thing, however. At the outset of the article he notes his displeasure with how often WAR was used in the MVP debate between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera last year, and criticizes WAR proponents for relying on it too much. I agree WAR did become a big talking point in all of that, but it wasn’t because of the statheads’ doing.

I read a lot of baseball writing. I bet I read more daily baseball writing and back-and-forth Tweeting among baseball people than about 95% of even hardcore baseball fans do. I have to. It’s my job. And I can say that my distinct WAR takeaway from the Trout/Cabrera thing was that WAR was brought up by non-statheads as some kind of bogeyman, as opposed to statheads as pro-Trout evidence, on the order of something like 3 to 1.

The dialogue was like this:

Pro Trout guy: “Trout for MVP!”

Pro Cabrera guy: “You and your fancy spreadsheets and stats, thinking WAR is the be-all, end-all. God, Cabrera is doing something amazing! Why do you have to reduce it to WAR, WAR, WAR?!!”

Pro Trout guy: “He’s an amazing defender and a great baserunner. Who said anything about WAR?”

Pro Cabrera: “There you go again! WAR WAR WAR!! Enough with the stats! Watch some games.”

Anyway, if your mileage varies, great, but it certainly seems to me that WAR is used as an insult by those who hate it more than it’s used as an argument-ender by those who like it.

100 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. arungupta27 - Feb 1, 2013 at 2:44 PM

    WAR doesn’t pass the eye-test

    • Detroit Michael - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:23 PM

      2012 AL leaders in Bb-ref WAR:
      Mike Trout
      Robinson Cano
      Justin Verlander
      Miguel Cabrera
      Adrian Beltre
      David Price
      Alex Gordon
      Matt Harrison
      Chris Sale
      Tie-Torii Hunter
      Tie-Ben Zobrist

      2012 AL leaders in BBWAA MVP balloting:
      Miguel Cabrera
      Mike Trout
      Adrian Beltre
      Robinson Cano
      Josh Hamilton
      Adam Jones
      Derek Jeter
      Justin Verlander
      Prince Fielder
      Yoenis Cespedes

      Other than the BBWAA’s reluctance to vote for pitchers, there’s a lot of agreement on who the top 5 players were and then the lists start diverging. I don’t know what eye test that list doesn’t pass.

    • okwhitefalcon - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:40 PM

      I toe the line of moderation not only on the stat itself but in the way it’s represented by both sides.

      Metrics guy’s condescending tone is insufferable while old school guy’s tone is shortsighted.

      Both extremes come off as dismissive to the point of total white noise – static.

  2. skids003 - Feb 1, 2013 at 2:45 PM

    Craig, I’m surprised it hasn’t been declared politically incorrect.

  3. Chris Fiorentino - Feb 1, 2013 at 2:45 PM

    I TOTALLY disagree with you there Craig. I think it is completely the opposite. WAR is used not just as an “argument-ender” by those who like the stat, but it is used as an “argument-beginning, argument-middle and argument-ender” In other words, just do a quick search on how many “best of” articles Matthew has written, and see what stat he uses to rank his players. WAR is probably used 99.999% of the time. Of course, he will always preface it with “Not that WAR is the be-all, end-all stat” but let me rank the people I am going to talk about by WAR because, well, it is the “be-all, end-all”.

    I have always said that WAR is a great stat for GMs who are building a team, but why I would compare two guys who play different positions by WAR is simply insane. The positional adjustments are subjective and stupid and the defensive portion of WAR is equally subjective.

    • nategearhart - Feb 1, 2013 at 2:50 PM

      It’s a great shorthand, though; if a writer understands how WAR is calculated he or she can expand on the discussion by speaking to the individual pieces making up the WAR if necessary. When you are in a word-crunch like on most of the HBT posts, or on Twitter, it’s a handy way to convey more-or-less how you feel about a player.

    • ezthinking - Feb 1, 2013 at 2:54 PM

      My God, I’m on board with Chris.

      While it’s been cold here in the Midwest; I didn’t realize hell froze over as well.

    • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 2:55 PM

      Said something similar below. It’s just silly to try to reduce something as complex as a players overall performance into a single number. There is a reason we have all these traditional statistics and they’ve worked for over a century. You have to look at them as a whole, but not try to formulate them down into some sort of tell-all number. Too much gets lost in translation.

    • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:06 PM

      Sorry Chris, there isn’t a single stathead or baseball fan with strong saber-tendencies that uses WAR as the be-all end all. Anyone that knows anything about stats knows enough to never rely on a single number and they know both the strengths and weaknesses of each approach and each metric. You won’t find any true stathead that uses WAR for anything more than a single data point….most often, it is used as a starting point, which is decomposed into it’s components (as some components are much more reliable than others). Plus, any real stathead knows that WAR isn’t particularly precise (i.e. a WAR of 6.1 can’t be treated as necessarily greater than 5.9 because the metric simple doesn’t have that level of precision, whereas a WAR of 6.1 is always significantly greater than 4.1).

      Your beginning, middle, and ender argument further demonstrates your complete lack of familiarity with statistically-based arguments, which are far longer and use far more data than a single point. The stat community argues about stats with each other far more than they do with anyone else, and none of those arguments begin and end with WAR.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:25 PM

        Paper bag I didn’t realize that you were there at every single debate I ever had with a stat head. Just because YOU don’t use WAR doesn’t nobody does.

      • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:57 PM

        Chris, I read a lot of baseball stat oriented work. No baseball statistician uses WAR as the be all end all. Not one. It is used often as a point of reference, especially when trying to compare pitchers to hitters in terms of value, but it is only one piece of the puzzle, and those puzzles usually have lots of pieces.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:53 PM

        lol paper bag

      • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:54 PM

        I’m offended. I don’t use paper or plastic, I bring my own re-usable cloth bags.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:56 PM

        Ditto, but it’s still funny. Keep it up and you’ll soon have a couple of personal trolls, like me.

      • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:58 PM

        eh, Chris has been calling me paper bag for at least a year….at first, I assumed it was asking for one because my brilliance made him hyperventilate, but then I realized that wasn’t true….and he meant it in a derogatory fashion.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:00 PM

        Maybe he’s trying to tell you not to show your face in that t-shirt….

      • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:02 PM

        Today I am wearing a Saints T-shirt with Williams and 34 on the back (as in reefer enthusiast Rickey Williams). No share there.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:08 PM


        IDK who that is, of course. Last night I wore a t-shirt that said “adiddas,” does that count?

      • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:11 PM

        Well, since the name of the company was misspelled on your shirt, that probably counts for something.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:14 PM

        or however you spell it. i’m not trying to make a statement w/ it.

      • atxjustin - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:01 PM

        Chris, didn’t realize that every debate you had with a so called “stat head” was representative of anyone one who relies on saber-metrics. Got to agree with Paper here, any “stat-head’ that uses WAR (or any single stat) as and end-all be-all likely has no real grasp of statistics or saber-metrics.

      • ryanrockzzz - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:04 PM

        PaperLions, I see WAR used as the sole argument for a player all the time. Granted, many times the person(s) who are doing this are not the most educated baseball fans, but I certainly don’t think you can say every single debate is as well rounded as well hope it would be.

        I think a better truth to your point is how WAR as a useful stat, gets misused across the board. Sometimes as the sole flimsy leg on which a baseless argument stands, but other times to cross analyze players who do play different positions, which certainly raises its own issues.

      • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:08 PM

        I agree. I do see people use WAR inappropriately all the time (e.g. as the sole basis for an argument conclusion), but those are the same people that misuse all stats because they really don’t have a grasp on their purpose and utility…whether the stat is WAR or ERA.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Feb 1, 2013 at 7:03 PM

        I guess I lost faith in WAR in 2008 when I had more than one stat-head tell me that Skip Schumaker and his 8 hrs, 46 rbis and 103 ops+ had a better season than Ryan Howard who led the league in HRs(48), RBIs(146) and had an OPS+ of 125. Why? Because Skippy’s WAR was 1.7 and Ryan Howard’s WAR was 1.5. How a guy can lead the league in HRs and RBIs and not even rate enough to be a starter according to WAR is the reason the stat blows.

      • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 7:34 PM

        That is one argument for preferring Fangraph’s version of WAR. The baseball reference version is too funky for me, I don’t like the defensive metrics or positional adjustments they use.

        The thing to keep in mind is that WAR (wins above replacement) is not the same as raw value as WAR is scaled for each position. So….if Howard had 3.0 WAR and Schumaker had 3.0 WAR that just means that both were about 3 wins better than a replacment 1B or 2B, respectively….NOT that Howard was less productive than Schumaker in a raw performance perspective.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Feb 1, 2013 at 10:07 PM

        Exactly!! I know that. But when people are putting together their “best of” lists or comparing one player to another, they use WAR when it is a useless stat in comparing two players of different positions. I would never ever even mention WAR when comparing a pitcher to a 1B…or a SS and a RF. Like I said before, if I were a GM and wanted to figure out which 2B to sign, I would definitely use WAR as a helpful stat to differentiate between a few second basemen. But if I were voting for the Hall of Fame, or putting together my list of the greatest players of all time, WAR would be a stat at which I would not even look…again, unless it was to compare two players of the same position.

      • paperlions - Feb 2, 2013 at 9:17 AM

        Well, but all HOF voting is based on comparing players at the same position…..but yeah, in general, it is too often ignored that WAR is a position specific stat that is scaled to show relative value to a hypothetical “next guy in line”, which is why it is a value stat, not a performance stat, per se.

    • kirkvanhouten - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:18 PM

      A vast majority of people I see on hear only cite WAR exclusively when there is a wiiide gap between two players. IE, player A has a 10 WAR and player B has a 5 WAR. In that case…yeah, I’m fine ending the argument there. If it 6 to 5, I agree, you probably need a LOT more context.

      Positional adjustments aren’t that subjective BTW. 100 years of baseball history has pretty much shown that defensive importance and how much offense can be sacrificed basically goes like this:
      P-C-SS-2B-CF-3B-RF-LF-1B-DH. It’s actually really easy to measure to, since every year creates a very large sample of how players at each of those positions performed.

      Really, most WAR arguments go like this:

      Person 1: Jack Morris deserves to go to the hall
      Person 2: But he only has a 35 WAR?
      Person 1: But WAR is stupid, look at all those wins!

      WAR is a tool, just like many others. More than any other existing singular statistic, it does a the best job of conveying a players value, or even a combination. Let’s use it, learn from it and build off it, not reject it out hand because it’s too new for us to accept.

  4. brewcrewfan54 - Feb 1, 2013 at 2:48 PM

    Sure, and I’m also going to drink in moderation tonight.

  5. evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 2:51 PM

    I have to completely disagree with his assessment of the MVP discussions. I am a Detroit fan, so perhaps I had a slightly different perspective, but I feel like I got a pretty good idea, and to me, it was more like this:

    Pro Trout Guy: Trout for MVP!

    Pro Cabrera: Cabrera for MVP! He’s leading or at the top in all these statistical categories… (proceed to list many stats, much more than the Triple Crown three)

    Pro Trout: But Trout is leading in WAR and SB, and is having one of the best rookie seasons ever!

    Pro Cabrera: WAR is a flawed stat, and baseball has successfully used these other traditional stats to evaluate talent and performance for 100 years. And being a rookie should have no bearing on the MVP discussion.

    Overall though I would agree with the moderate here: WAR can be useful, but is not and end-all-be-all and is far from exact. To truly evaluate a pitcher you should look at all the stats, as a collection, and not try to reduce everything into a single number.

    • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 2:57 PM

      To truly evaluate a player**

    • nategearhart - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:06 PM

      “baseball has successfully used these other traditional stats to evaluate talent and performance for 100 years”
      Playing devil’s advocate here, but how do you know baseball’s evaluations using these stats was “successful”? How do you know that other means wouldn’t have identified better players and peformances?

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:36 PM

        How do I know? Because baseball is a sport, and those in a position to evaluate the player WATCH them play. Nobody is saying “damn that kid looks like a nightmare out there, he doesn’t look like a good player at all, but his WAR is off the charts!” Talent wasn’t slipping through the cracks simply because an advanced statistic hadn’t been invented yet.

      • nategearhart - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:40 PM

        I’ll agree that when checking out potential prospects, you are right. But I’m thinking more along the lines of comparing players, for trade and award purposes. Also, I’d be willing to bet that there were players who had seasons that were underappreciated because they had a low RBI total or low fielding %, that affected their playing time, or their services being retained at all.

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:50 PM

        It’s very possible, but at that point I’d say that the scouting would be to blame for doing a poor job. Even though fielding, range, baserunning etc. stats didn’t exist many moons ago, those scouting/evaluating would still be able to assess those qualities, and would still put stock in them, even though there was no stat to quantify it. If they chose to discount those things, it would be due to their own preference to put more stock in things that were able to quantified at the time.

    • Bill - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:07 PM

      I mean, that’s delusional. Nobody uses those traditional stats to evaluate talent anymore, and nobody has for years. It was very easy to illustrate that Trout had a better season than Cabrera last year without using WAR, and tons of people did just that.

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:11 PM

        “Nobody uses those traditional stats to evaluate talent anymore, and nobody has for years.”

        Oh really? So you don’t think some of the first things a GM looks at is AVG, RBIs and the like? You think they are going straight to advanced metrics like WAR? Please…

      • Bill - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:14 PM

        That is correct. Any GM that gives serious consideration to AVG and RBIs will be out of a job very quickly.

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:16 PM

        I said you have to look at the collection of stats. Plus, there are many “traditional” GMs out there still. Dombrowski just called himself that the other day.

      • Jeremy T - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:20 PM

        No, probably the first thing they’d look at would be internal scouting reports, and probably their own proprietary stats. I’d guess that they also look at things like wOBA, FIP, swing percentages, perhaps some fielding metrics if they don’t have many first-hand scouting reports, and other things like that. I highly doubt a GM uses WAR as anything more than a brief summary. However, there’s a very good chance most competent GMs use, in at least some form, the components that WAR is made up of, and I’d be absolutely shocked if the general manager of a major league baseball team is using batting average and RBIs as significant inputs.

      • Bill - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:34 PM

        All “I’m a traditional GM” means nowadays is “I have stats people who look at that stuff for me.” The Tigers aren’t making any decisions based on average or RBI.

    • mordecofe - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:10 PM

      Also, what about the comments (many of them) that because Miggy has been doing this for a while and it’s Trout’s rookie season that Miggy should get the MVP? You completely forgot that, which happened ALL the time. Being in the league for a while and being very good many years while not winning MVP should not have a bearing on the MVP discussion for any given year.

      More often, the pro-Trout-ers were saying you need to take into account defense and baserunning, as they are important aspects of the game, as well as offense.

      Yes, WAR can be skewed, but few people were using it as the only stat. In fact, it’s funny, but all the “old-school” skills people might have pointed out – again, baserunning, defense, etc – fit Trout to a tee. It’s similar to when Pedroia won the MVP in large part due to factors like that.

    • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:10 PM

      That isn’t how any of the MVP debate went….at all. Pro-Cabrera people bashed WAR, people that understand baseball said, “fine, let’s ignore WAR altogether.” They then demonstrated, without using any version of WAR, that Cabrera was a slightly better batter than Trout, but that Trout was a far superior baserunner and a far superior defensive player who played a tougher position and that Trout’s advantage in baserunning and defense far outweighed Cabrera’s advantage at the plate. Then pro-Cabrera people said, “Triple crown, end of story.”

      It was the Cabrera contingent that tried to use a narrow sample of numbers (and horribly incomplete flawed ones at that) as the beginning, middle, and end of the argument, not the other side.

    • Francisco (FC) - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:13 PM

      There were many intelligent discussions about that debate that highlighted individual aspects of each player’s performance, including different sets of defensive statistics, comparisons of where they hit in the lineup affecting run scoring and RBI totals, their speed and hitting capabilities not to mention how large the margins were in each category.

      Your attempt to reduce that debate to just “WAR and SB” is really a disservice to that healthy discussion. If anything I found that most Pro-Cabrera folks clinged to the triple crown (a feat that includes RBI of all stats!) facet more often than not.

      And this line I have to laugh at:

      has successfully used these other traditional stats to evaluate talent and performance for 100 years.

      You think Errors and Fielding Percentage tell the story on a player’s defensive ability? RBI tells the full story on how a valuable a player is in driving runs home? You think baseball evaluation hasn’t evolved over the decades to come up with new ways to more accurately assess player talent level?

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:26 PM

        Did I say ANY of those things? No. Stop jumping to conclusions.

        I said you have to look at the COLLECTION of stats. What do you think WAR is? It’s using those SAME traditional stats and formulating to a single number. It’s not accurate. Does that mean I think RBI or other traditional stats are 100% accurate? NO. Like I said, you have to look at all of them as a collection.

      • Jeremy T - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:43 PM

        WAR is absolutely not using those same traditional stats, and the fact that you think it is makes me even more convinced that you’re arguing against newness and complexity in general, instead of WAR itself.

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:50 PM

        When I say “traditional stats” I don’t mean just the standard AVG, RBI, HR etc. I am including things like UZR. Those more “advanced” type statistics I would include in traditional, because they don’t use such complex formulas as WAR. I wouldn’t sit here and debate something I have no clue about. Give me a little bit of credit…

      • Francisco (FC) - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:53 PM

        Yes. You did, by characterizing Pro Cabrera people as like this:

        Pro Trout: But Trout is leading in WAR and SB, and is having one of the best rookie seasons ever!

        And that was it! Your attempt to summarize the debate reduced it to a mis-characterization of the debate. So yes, you said that. Own it and move on.

      • Francisco (FC) - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:54 PM

        Grrr.. Word Salad! I meant to say: “characterizing Pro-Trout people like this”.

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:05 PM

        I think you’re misinterpreting what I said.

        You say I reduced the Trout argument to WAR and SB, but I also reduced Cabrera to other stats. Stats alone never tell the whole story, that’s why we watch the games, isn’t it? Saying I did the Trout argument a disservice isn’t true, it was a simple relation of which stats each player was leading the field in. Cabrera in RBI, HR, AVG and several others, and Trout is WAR and SB. And if you’re going to sit here and tell me those 2 stats weren’t cited repeatedly in the MVP discussion on Trout’s behalf, well then you’re just being biased.

      • Francisco (FC) - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:15 PM

        You’re again mis-characterizing the debate. No. Intelligent baseball people didn’t only cite WAR and SB as the single leading factors for Trout and you know it. Check many of the online pieces and you’ll find very good comparisons were made on every aspect of their play.

        My general impression is was that Cabrera out edged Trout offensively by a small but significant power margin. However Trout outpaced Cabrera defensively and in general base running skills (which is more than just SB btw).

        The only people arguing “Triple Crown, end of story / WAR end of story” are trolls and to use them as part of the debate is to do a disservice to that debate.

        If you want to say: “They were plenty of trolls saying yelling Triple Crown / WAR ” at each other fine. But the great majority of baseball articles and serious discussion went far beyond that.

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:27 PM

        I don’t know why you, and apparently others, feel like the example argument I posted was anything more than an extremely over-simplified version that I personally witnessed on many occasions, akin to the example argument in the article. I never said WAR and SB were the only factors in the Trout argument, just like AVG, RBI and HR weren’t the only factors in the Cabrera argument. Those just happen to be the stats each player lead the league in and were often cited for the respective side’s argument.

      • bh192012 - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:41 PM

        How can you say they’re a collection of traditional stats, when everyone calculates WAR differently? What traditional stat adjusts the winning-ness of a player based on position? It’s nothing like any of the traditional stats.

        I’m not saying it’s flawless, by definition it includes flaws. There is bais built in depending on who’s WAR you’re using and how THEY value certain things. That’s also the reason it’s not a collection of traditional stats. They’re adjusted (weighted) by opinion.

        WAR is a frothy mix of stats and opinion.

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 5:15 PM

        Well first off, I’m not saying WAR is a collection of stats. It’s a formula-based stat in which the formula consists of other, more simple stats. And some of those stats, in turn, are based off even simpler stats.

        As far as using a “collection,” my point was that WAR is not an all-encompassing stat, and should not be the basis of evaluation, but instead the collection of ALL stats should be looked at. I think when you try to combine and formulate the simple stats into more complex ones, you lose a lot in translation. To me, it’s impossible to quantify something as complex as a baseball players performance into a single number, in this case, the WAR statistic.

    • geoknows - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:16 PM

      I agree, it seems that every Trout vs Cabrera conversation I heard, the person on the Trout side brought up WAR.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 1, 2013 at 5:41 PM

        Trout lead in defense, base running, tied for wRC+ (offense) and played a tougher position.

    • kirkvanhouten - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:21 PM

      “baseball has successfully used these other traditional stats to evaluate talent and performance for 100 years. And being a rookie should have no bearing on the MVP discussion.”

      This is beyond silly.

      Hey guys, I know I could take some medicine to cure my illness, but for 100 years, bloodletting worked just fine. Down with new knowledge!

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:22 PM

        “Hey guys, I know I could take some medicine to cure my illness, but for 100 years, bloodletting worked just fine. Down with new knowledge!”

        Except bloodletting never worked, so that is an inaccurate analogy.

      • kirkvanhouten - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:25 PM

        To which I reply “boo-yah”

        “Could that ancient practice of bleeding patients really have done some good? A scientist says new research on how germs thrive in the body suggests it just may have — for some people.

        Bacteria need iron to cause infections. The body has defense mechanisms to make it harder for germs to suck iron out of someone’s blood or other tissues. But deadly germs can get around that so-called iron blockade, and understanding how might lead to better treatments.”

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:34 PM

        You’re really stretching here…

        I’m not saying don’t use WAR. I’m saying use it with everything else, and don’t discount traditional stats.

        That being said, how many people do you know are bleeding themselves when they get sick? How many managers look at hitter vs pitcher AVG when making a lineup? It’s just a bad analogy.

      • Jeremy T - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:34 PM

        You want a better analogy? Alright fine.

        Hey guys, I know I could hop on a plane to get from New York to London, but for 100 years, wooden ships worked just fine! Down with new knowledge!

        Come on, though, you knew the point he was trying to make, right?

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:42 PM

        Uh yeah, I knew the point he was trying to make, but the analogy didn’t fit.

        THE POINT IS: The advent of WAR does not make traditional stats obsolete. Boats still serve a purpose, even though they’ve been around thousands of years, right? Just because a plane exists does not make boats obsolete.

      • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:57 PM

        The bloodletting thing is a good example. It didn’t work well, but it worked better than any other idea people had….just like using HR, AVG, and RBI. Those three things are actually pretty horrible at evaluating offensive contributions, so when/if teams ever used them to estimate a player’s production, they were not good at estimating player value….just like leaches weren’t very good at curing patients.

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 5:23 PM

        They’re not perfect, far from. Which is why I said (for like the 5th time now) you should look at the collection of all stats when evaluation a player.

        Again, neither analogy is appropriate. Bloodletting did work, but not well? Well the collection of traditional stats has worked, and worked well, which is why they are still used today, after over 100 years of baseball and countless advanced statistics and sabermetrics invented. Do you realize how long WAR has actually been around? It isn’t new, and there is a reason that it hasn’t replaced other traditional stats, because the collection of those traditional stats paints a better picture of overall importance than a single number of WAR could ever do. All stats are flawed, but the more complex the formulas to create those stats become, the more flawed those stats become.

    • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:21 PM

      The mock conversation in the OP was highly simplified, as was Craig’s. I was just trying to give a simple example of the arguments I was seeing on a daily basis. It’s not like something I’m just making up, that was literally how most of the arguments went that I was privy to.

      • Jeremy T - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:23 PM

        Then either you were arguing with people who didn’t know what they were talking about, or your memory of those arguments is tainted because you didn’t know what they were talking about.

    • cktai - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:26 PM

      No-one was trying to reduce everything to a single number. The discussion between Cabrera and Trout was not just about WAR vs RBI.

      Most of the people I saw defending Trout based it on the fact that he was a better fielder on a more difficult position, that he was a better base runner, not just when it comes to stealing bases but also when being advanced by the batter, and the fact that the three triple crown stats which Cabrera happen to lead in did not reflect the fact that Trout and Cabrera were for the year equally proficient offensively.

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:44 PM

        “No-one was trying to reduce everything to a single number.”

        That is exactly what WAR is, an attempt to reduce a player’s entire performance, on both sides of the ball, into a single statistic. That’s what I meant.

      • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 5:00 PM

        Yes, that is what WAR is….but no one without their head up their ass argued based on only WAR because that would be a terribly incomplete argument…it would be like arguing for Cabrera because of the triple crown as if that somehow was a complete picture of baseball production/contributions.

        Feel free to search online for some 2012 AL MVP discussions and good luck finding any saber-oriented writers that used WAR as the entire or primary basis for their opinion.

      • evan5 - Feb 1, 2013 at 5:31 PM

        Dude, paperlions, when did I ever say that was the only thing argued for Trout? Was the statistical categories that Cabrera led in the ONLY thing argued for him? Obviously not. Again, it was an extremely simplified version of the argument I witnessed first-hand on countless occasions that specifically countered the stats each player lead the league in. Were those stats the entire basis of each argument? Of course not. But are you going to sit here and tell me they weren’t the most prevalent part of the debate?

      • cktai - Feb 1, 2013 at 9:07 PM

        I like how you read the first sentence of my comment and ignored everything that came after.

  6. historiophiliac - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:00 PM

    War. What’s it good for?

    • Jeremy T - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:04 PM

      Oh wait, I know this one! It’s absolutely nothing, right? Hoo boy, you sure are clever.

  7. Detroit Michael - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:06 PM

    In the 2012 AL MVP debate:
    – Fangraphs WAR said Trout was the best player
    – Baseball-reference WAR said Trout was the best player
    – Baseball Prospectus WARP said Trout was the best player
    – Bill James’ Win Shares said Trout was the best player
    – There are no other widely-available methods that attempt to measure a baseball player’s total value. Certainly the triple crown statistics don’t attempt to do that.

    Obviously, someone can start with any of the above statistics and adjust them to correct perceived deficiencies and take into account factors, including subjective ones not readily quantifiable, that are not taken into account by those statistics. However, most of the pro-Cabrera arguments tried to completely ignore the fact that ALL of the attempts to measure player value favored Trout.

    • kirkvanhouten - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:23 PM

      Also, common sense says Trout is the best player.

      Traditional stats along show that Miguel Cabrera was a *slightly* better hitter.
      They also showed that:
      -Mike Trout was a much, much better fielder
      -Mike Trout was a much, much better baserunner.

      Why would that have not made up for their small gap in hitting??

      • Jeremy T - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:26 PM

        I have yet to hear a response to this very simple argument that makes any sense at all

  8. Jeremy T - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:31 PM

    I’m starting to think that Craig has a Google news alert for “WAR” just so he can post articles like this one, and then sit back in his chair, puff at his bubble pipe, and watch the comments section and hit count explode

    • cur68 - Feb 1, 2013 at 8:33 PM

      . . .while stroking his cat and drinking the tears of The Blogger Murray Chass.

  9. Gobias Industries - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:37 PM

    I didn’t get sick of these arguments back in November. I’m really glad that I have the opportunity to hear them all over again.

    • Jeremy T - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:41 PM

      *shrug* the alternative is A-Rod/steroids. It’s February, what are you gonna do?

    • historiophiliac - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:01 PM

      Amen. And, I didn’t even get a good call and response going… 😦

      • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 5:02 PM

        Don’t you have a Nikey or Pumma or Gnu Balance T-shirt calling your name?

      • historiophiliac - Feb 1, 2013 at 5:15 PM

        Perhaps. I buy my workout t-shirts at the outlet place — most of them the printing is off-center, etc. Frankly, my t-shirt collection would make you cry.

  10. Mark - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    I thought Caple’s article was poorly written. Anybody who understands what WAR is knows that it’s not some be all and end all argument. More often it’s the people who don’t like WAR who suggest that people who do like WAR use it that way.

    As for his other complaints:

    If you don’t like FIP based WAR than you can use baseball reference WAR. It’s just a framework. He complains that Nolasco had an awful season by ERA but fWAR showed him doing well. It comes down to whether or not you believe that a pitcher has little to no control over things outside of K/BB/HR or not. But that’s not a flaw in WAR.

    Or his argument about how Morris gets criticized just because of WAR. Again, nobody JUST uses WAR to prove Morris isn’t a HoF…because virtually every statistic can and has been used to show he isn’t one.

    As for the Trout/Cabrera debate, most of the saber writers actually broke down each component of each player’s game to see who produced the most value. And they did it without using WAR.

    Another argument is that nobody knows how to calculate it. It may be difficult to calculate, but it’s not impossible like he suggests. It’s not like there’s a hidden theory behind it, as there have been tons of articles related to explaining how to break it down.

    Then he criticizes it because it comes out with different ratings. That’s not a bad thing – it just depends on which theory/framework you believe more in. I like FG model better because I prefer FIP/UZR over what Baseball Reference uses, but I know others who swear by rWAR. Bottom line is in most cases you get the same results.

    The best part of it all? Early on Caple argues that WAR is being overused because of the Mike Trout ESPN LA article. Yet if you look at the article, they use the following to determine which player is better:

    Baserunning (steals, running first to third, avoiding DP)

    Yes, it uses WAR to introduce the fact that Trout > Cabrera, but they expand on it and look at the finer aspects of each player’s production.

    For the TL:DR crowd – Caple tried to prove that all saber people do is use WAR, and ironically the evidence to use it disproves his entire article. More hilarity ensues when at the end of the article Caple suggests saber people would do better to look at a variety of statistics, most of which were looked at in the article Caple uses to claim that WAR is overused in arguments.

  11. raysfan1 - Feb 1, 2013 at 3:57 PM

    During the Great Trout Vs Cabrera MVP debate of 2012, there were a lot of very good, insightful points made back and forth between erudite fans on either side. There were also a lot of “Triple Crown, ’nuff said” and “10.7 WAR > 6.9 WAR, ’nuff said”–each of which was general followed by a snide comment about the other side.

  12. takingbovadasmoney - Feb 1, 2013 at 4:26 PM

    Lol. Claptrap is such a lame. He touts WAR then claims he never mentioned it. Why back away from WAR now Claptrap? Doesn’t matter that there is no one recognized way of calculating the stat. It proves once and for all that Brendan Ryan is a better SS than Derek Jeter. WAR proves it!

    • paperlions - Feb 1, 2013 at 5:07 PM

      First, it isn’t WAR that shows that Ryan is a better defensive player than Jeter, but every defensive measure including the eyeball test does. And it isn’t close.

      Second, WAR shows that Jeter is a far better SS than Brendan Ryan.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 1, 2013 at 5:48 PM

      Doesn’t matter that there is no one recognized way of calculating the stat

      Because WAR isn’t a stat any more than hitting is. fWAR is a stat, rWAR is a stat, WARP is a stat and they each are calculated the same way, the sum of their components /10. Now each uses different proprietary components involved, but that’s not an issue.

      (r/f)WAR(P) is actually incredibly easy to calculate. Calculating the components is harder, but no one ever argues that. In fact, you can create your own version of WAR if you want. Create a metric to determine offensive performance and apply it to everyone objectively. Then do the same for defense, and position, and playing time, and base running. Add them all together and voila, you have WAR…

  13. moogro - Feb 1, 2013 at 5:02 PM

    This post is easy to summarize: Ground rules all can agree to is that you can’t drop WAR or VORP unless you are ready to unpack it to describe what you like and why.

  14. hushbrother - Feb 1, 2013 at 7:40 PM

    How about Win Shares, then?

    • jwbiii - Feb 1, 2013 at 10:22 PM

      I don’t like the fielding metric James uses. To use his term, it’s his bullshit dump. We can measure hitting value well. We can measure pitching value well. We have various measures of fielding, none of them are particularly great. James stuffs everything that is not hitting or pitching into his fielding metric.

  15. jwbiii - Feb 1, 2013 at 10:25 PM

    Caple better be careful about calling for moderation in WAR usage or John McCain will get medieval on his ass.

    I just came here to make a snarky political comment and ran into an interesting (sort of) baseball discussion.

  16. halohonk - Feb 1, 2013 at 10:56 PM

    Gees triple crown beats a War stat in my book. And im a huge Trout fan. Trout will get his due. Once they move him down in the order a few years from now he could be a 50/50 guy. Now thats MVP for now he can set the table for Albert & Josh. Man the possibilities are staggering. We could have 4 guys hit 40 hrs this year. I dont know if that has ever been done before ?

  17. jonrox - Feb 1, 2013 at 11:07 PM

    WAR is an approximation of any given player’s value. If there are criticisms with the way war is calculated or if a specific element of baseball is being undervalued by WAR, then let’s talk about that. It’s a cop out to say that WAR is being over or under used without talking about the inputs to the stat.

    WAR is designed to be the end-all stat. If it’s not, let’s adjust it rather than dismissing it.

    • raysfan1 - Feb 2, 2013 at 12:34 AM

      “You should always use more than one metric in evaluating a player…”
      Quoted from Fangraphs articles “What is WAR?”

      WAR was designed as a summary stat, not an end-all-discussions stat. It’s a handy tool but is not all encompassing, and is not meant to be. There is no flawless stat.

  18. louhudson23 - Feb 2, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    “Baseball stats are like a bikini,they show you a lot,but they don’t show you everything.”-D.Dyer

  19. macjacmccoy - Feb 2, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    How funny is it that Craig who is never bias when it comes to the Braves who has used WAR as a big part of his arguments when it comes to players being good or bad or a good signing or bad signing or a good trade or bad trade is now down playing the importance of WAR. His apparent change in stance couldnt be bc Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, and Michael Bourn have a higher combined WAR and fWAR then BJ Upton, Justin Upton, and Chris Johnson. That’s impossible because Craig is never bias when it comes to the Braves on field play. Even though its a little strange he didnt hesitate writing a story about the Mariners getting better in 2013 when they really werent (in his opinion) but still hasn’t acknowledged this fact about the Braves in a story. But Im sure its just an over site bc he is never bias.

  20. Jonny 5 - Feb 2, 2013 at 3:59 PM

    War is a necessary evil I guess. I’ve heard this before. Somewhere before…. Oh well, the baseball version of WAR is just another tool for evaluating players. It’s up to the person what tools they prefer to use, combine, or exclude to get the answer to their questions. Used singularly War is useful but doesn’t pat anyone on the back for sac flies and other things a player may or may not do to help their team win but also hurts their stats. But yeah, it’s a good stat, not a perfect picture of value IMO but a good stat for reference purposes. I prefer fangraphs version to BR version honestly. I like the inclusion of range. It pleases me.

  21. brianabbe - Feb 5, 2013 at 4:13 AM

    There is one thing that WAR does not account for in its calculations, quality of competition. One of the better non-WAR arguments I read is that Cabrera played something like 55 games against the three worst pitching staffs in the AL last year, the Twins, Indians and Royals. That’s a significant portion of his sample size that was skewed by lousy pitching. Meanwhile, Trout faced the Rangers, A’s and Mariners that same % of the time, all considerably better staffs than his counterpart’s division rivals. Now, I’ll still go on record as claiming Cabrera as the best hitter in the game, but even his numbers were inflated.

    WAR has its other flaws to me. As Voros McCracken has pointed out, the DIPS numbers and BABiP does not apply to knuckleballers the same as anyone else, and there are decades of data supporting that. Dickey was largely sold should by his FIP, and even FanGraphs posted that WAR should be ignored for Dickey, projecting that he was likely worth two more wins than his WAR indicated.

    My bottom line with the AL MVP was this. If the margin is negligible, then yes, you must look at the full overview of accomplishments, although you should do this regardless. With the NL MVP, however, there were a handful or more of candidates within the margin of error. You cannot use WAR to say that Braun, Posey, Wright, Molina, McCutchen or Headley are better/worse than their peers when they’re separated by a win or less. When the margin is three wins, however, you can look at the full picture and see Trout’s full value was just flat out better than Cabrera. Look at it this way. On the days when both look human and finish 0-4, who would you rather have on your team? I don’t think its tough decision stretch to say Trout at his worst still provides elite defense, whereas Cabrera becomes completely worthless that day.

    • brianabbe - Feb 5, 2013 at 4:17 AM

      As for concerns and complaints about positional adjustments, I’m sure everyone is perfectly content with being treated/paid the same as their peers, even though they may have a job that is more difficult than their peers. There may be something to be said about a minor difference in some positions. That being said, complaining about the player who plays a more difficult position and does it well just sounds like the jealous employee who thinks he should have his boss’ job and would do it that much better.

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