Skip to content

Great Moments in completely missing the point

Apr 16, 2014, 9:45 AM EDT

savingsaccountcalculator

Here’s an Op-Ed railing against the Wins Above Replacement stat. One could spend many years consciously attempting to miss a point and not miss a point so badly:

Yogi Berra is, bar none, the winningest baseball player in history. He played 17 seasons, and the Yankees won 14 pennants and 10 World Series. His manager, Casey Stengel, called him his manager on the field. His position, catcher, is critical, touching the ball on every pitch. He won three MVP awards and made 15 All-Star teams . . . According to WAR, Berra is the 97th best player of all time. 97th! By comparison, Jeff Bagwell is rated 35th. Bagwell played 15 seasons, winning one pennant and no World Series. He made four All-Star games and won one MVP. But he is 62 places better than Berra, the winningest player of all time . . . how could a player who contributed to so much more winning be rated so much lower? No offense to Bagwell, who I liked, but does anyone believe he is more valuable than Berra?

WAR is certainly not immune from criticism. It’s got a number of flaws and a number of blind spots. Anyone who doesn’t question stats like WAR or anything else for that matter is abdicating their critical thinking. But it seems like one must actually understand what the hell WAR is trying to explain before bashing it like this. Saying WAR stinks because Berra’s Yankees won more than Bagwell’s Astros is like saying batting average is flawed because it measures above average players too.

I’m not personally a stats guy. I’m a fellow-traveler. A member of the liberal arts wing of the stat people, as it were. I am totally unqualified to do any seriously heavy lifting when it comes to statistical analysis. But I do at least attempt to grok what statistics attempt to explain. To criticize them, to the extent I ever do, on their own terms, not on some invented terms I make up. Why people never seem to do this with sabermetric statistics is beyond me.

If a reporter wrote this ignorantly about economics or general science they’d be fired. Why we allow this sort of thing in sports is beyond me.

(link via Baseball Think Factory)

  1. johnnysoda - Apr 16, 2014 at 9:47 AM

    To be fair, I’m not sure anyone knows exactly how to calculate WAR.

    • Kevin S. - Apr 16, 2014 at 9:49 AM

      http://www.fangraphs.com/library/misc/war/

      • cur'68 - Apr 16, 2014 at 9:52 AM

        Wiki-how has a pretty good one, too

        http://www.wikihow.com/Calculate-Baseball-WAR

      • renaado - Apr 16, 2014 at 9:57 AM

        Dang.. You beat me at the line cur’68.

    • cktai - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:12 AM

      http://www.baseball-reference.com/about/war_explained.shtml

    • spudchukar - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:22 AM

      The art of analogy is dead, be it Baseball, politics, or religion. I see it every day. Two notions have to be analogous in order to be meaningful. The WAR stat has plenty of issues of its own, without this inane comparison. The author is a fool.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:22 AM

      I don’t know how to calculate Gross Domestic Product, but I have an idea of what it measures and what it doesn’t.

      • metroplexsouthsider - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:44 AM

        Hell, Berra ain’t even the greatest *catcher* in history. The guy sounds like he should be bald, in his 80s, wearing high pockets and being a curmudgeon, but his Twitter pic says he’s younger than I am.

      • bolweevils2 - Apr 16, 2014 at 3:18 PM

        That depends on how you rate who the greatest players are. If it’s based on how many championships that players team won in his career, as it apparently is for this guy, then he’s right.

  2. cur'68 - Apr 16, 2014 at 9:56 AM

    I’m not flying into a rage at the author of that piece. He represents a good third of the people who comment on here. But that’s his failing: representing those who don’t want to know. WAR is not that hard to comprehend though its a matter of opinion what factors you consider most important when working it out. B-ref does it one way and Fan graphs another. Either way what you have is an objective measure. Not an eyeball test. Not “in games I saw”. Not in GG, AS nods, MVPs, or any other subjective measure. Just the numbers. And that’s why its better.

    • unclemosesgreen - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:05 AM

      Yuppers. The article itself is kind of fun because he also backs up his point with stuff Ted Williams said. A little Carl Yastremski poking also happens because that’s what Yankees fans from Westport, CT like to do.

      • cur'68 - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:49 AM

        I dug his ignorance, really. It was cool to see someone so embracing the willful right not to know.

    • grumpyoleman - Apr 16, 2014 at 1:02 PM

      “Either way what you have is an objective measure.”

      You spelled subjective incorrectly.

  3. rollinghighwayblues - Apr 16, 2014 at 9:57 AM

    For whatever reason, people love to throw Bagwell into arguments that completely have nothing to do with him.

    • chacochicken - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:28 AM

      I heard he almost split a baby in half once.

      • chew1985 - Apr 16, 2014 at 3:04 PM

        And he killed himself a bar when he was only three.

  4. yahmule - Apr 16, 2014 at 9:58 AM

    I agree with you until the final paragraph. People write this ignorantly about economics and general science all the time.

    • lukedunphysscienceproject - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:28 AM

      No kidding. It’s getting to be like 6 Degrees of Jeff Bagwell.

    • lukedunphysscienceproject - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:30 AM

      Whoops. Stuck that reply under the wrong comment. That was meant for rolling highway.

    • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Apr 16, 2014 at 11:30 AM

      To paraphrase Degrasse-Tyson: That’s the good thing about WAR: It’s true whether or not you believe in it.

  5. thedoubleentandres - Apr 16, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    I posted this somewhere randomly yesterday but Im gunna do it again, it’s must read stuff. Deadspin had it up as the worst baseball column ever

    http://thedailynewsonline.com/opinion/article_9fe71590-c1ae-11e3-8c1d-0019bb2963f4.html

    • renaado - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:07 AM

      Wow… Certainly some complicated stuffs here i’d say…

    • Eutaw's Finest - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:19 AM

      Yikes… this is just lazy. Both from a writing standpoint and an analysis standpoint. I’m self admitted slow to get on board with sabermetrics, but at least I understand the value in them versus the basic stat lines.

    • yahmule - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:20 AM

      I was amazed that didn’t make it over here as a thread.

      • thedoubleentandres - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:29 AM

        This was my favourite part…

        Scouts are no longer gruff men with beer guts and a cigar dangling from their mouth but computer geeks who wouldn’t know a good baseball prospect if one came up and slapped them in the face with a Louisville Slugger.

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:33 AM

        It’s like someone watched Trouble with the Curve and thought it was a documentary, and not a horrible movie.

      • yahmule - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:35 AM

        Would a good baseball prospect really do that? Hard to picture even Albert Belle doing that.

    • lukedunphysscienceproject - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:39 AM

      Thank you for this. That was the greatest thing I have ever read in my life. By greatest I mean most hilariously bad, of course. It’s so great to picture some fat old man, pounding away on his underwood, stopping to fix his errors with white out, grumbling under his breath, struggling to make deadline for his one 500 word weekly column.

      I guarantee I know exactly what his opinion would be about every single thing in the world.

    • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Apr 16, 2014 at 11:35 AM

      “Now get off my lawn!” he meant to say…

  6. dapperdan50 - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:00 AM

    The only thing I disagree with in this post: “If a reporter wrote this ignorantly about economics or general science they’d be fired.” It happens all the time, more these days than ever, as the US of A turns away from science—at least whenever it finds things out that we don’t want to know.

    • Francisco (FC) - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:57 AM

      More science is being done at the South Pole than in the US. Stex can back me up on this.

  7. Liam - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:04 AM

    “Both outstanding, but a clear edge to DiMaggio. His teams certainly won a lot more. Isn’t that what WAR purports to measure?”

    Let me answer this. No, that is not what WAR purports to measure.

  8. Eutaw's Finest - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    “He played 17 seasons, and the Yankees won 14 pennants and 10 World Series. His manager, Casey Stengel, called him his manager on the field. His position, catcher, is critical, touching the ball on every pitch. He won three MVP awards and made 15 All-Star teams . .”

    So here’s my thing. I’m not a saber-junkie by any stretch of the imagination. I get it… I just don’t get INTO it as much as others. But even from an average fan stand point, I can look at the quote above and question how so much emphasis can be placed on non-statistical data and team accomplishments to prove one to be the GOAT (or the very least, much much better that WAR proves).

    The TEAM won 14 pennants and the TEAM won 10 WS. That’s a team stat, not an individual accomplishment, and Yogi had the luxury of having a phenomenal supporting cast to get him to the promise land. Not to cross sports, but this likens to the Terry Bradshaw being a HOF QB based on rings not stats. If this were tennis or golf? Different story. But this is a team sport.

    The writer goes on to talk about his managers feelings about Yogi, how critical his position is on the field, and awards. I get the 3 MVPs. Legit and not worth arguing. However can we really use All Star appearances as justification? In comparison, A-Rod has been in 14. Does this mean A-Rod is almost as good as Yogi? It’s a bad standard to set, especially since fan voting plays a major role there (glorified popularity contest).

    So really how I read this is “Yogi had a very good team that had some major accomplishments as a team, the fans loved him, his manager loved him, and he won 3 MVPs. Therefore, WAR’s assessment of him as an individual player is way off base.”

    • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:26 AM

      I get the 3 MVPs. Legit and not worth arguing.

      With the enormous caveat that both versions of WAR have difficulty incorporating defensive catcher statistics, was he really the best player in each of his MVP years? In ’51 and ’54, I don’t think his defense can make up the huge gap between Berra and Williams, and what about ’55 with Mantle?

      Yogi was obviously a great player, but let’s also not forget that it was win the league and go right to the WS.

      • Kevin S. - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:39 PM

        Actually, I’d argue that given the general issues with defensive metrics of the time, how valuable we now know pitch-framing can be, the specific challenges presented by evaluating left field defense at Fenway park and the respective defensive reputations of Williams and Berra, their roughly neutral defensive ratings (against their positions) are probably not reflective of their defensive contributions, and while it may not be likely that defense overcomes the 2-2.5 WAR gap between Berra and Williams in ’51 and ’54, that gap probably falls within any reasonable confidence interval. The nearly 5-win gap between Mantle and Berra in ’55 is a lot harder to justify. I probably would have voted for the Splinter in ’51 and ’54, and he unquestionably had the greater career, but when looking back, we would need gaps closer to that one to definitively say the wrong guy won the MVP.

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 16, 2014 at 1:14 PM

        I’m still really uneasy with how much the latest pitch framing numbers seem to be worth. With its’ infancy, I’m not ready to agree that it can be 3-4 wins worth alone. We also have no way of back dating this information without a time machine.

      • Kevin S. - Apr 16, 2014 at 1:28 PM

        Perhaps not 3-4 wins, but one win? I can buy Yogi as a true +10 catcher, and Ted as a true -10 defensive left fielder. That closes the gap. Like I said, maybe it’s not likely, but I don’t think it can be confidently ruled out.

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 16, 2014 at 3:45 PM

        Yeah that works. I’m just thinking of one of the RAB emails where someone extrapolated McCann’s value through 15 games over 162 was worth almost 4 wins. But 1 win or 1.5 at the top end just feels more palpable.

      • Kevin S. - Apr 16, 2014 at 4:02 PM

        Well, it’s pretty effing stupid to extrapolate defensive numbers from 15 games out to 162 (and for catchers we probably shouldn’t project out to more than 135 games or so anyway). I mean, does anybody actually think Omar Infante or Jason Heyward is going to be a +60 fielder this year, just because their UZR/150 is in that range?

  9. nymets4ever - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:13 AM

    WAR is an absolutely asinine stat

    • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:18 AM

      Why is that?

      • 18thstreet - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:48 AM

        I’ve seen websites whose comment boards have an “ignore” feature. I wish we had one here.

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:51 AM

        On a site as read as this, I think it would hamper a lot of discussion in my opinion. Maybe I’m a bit more pollyanna-ish than Craig, but I don’t think this comment section is anywhere close to 90% sh!t.

      • Alex K - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:57 AM

        I’m with you on that, Church. I thought he was really high on his estimate, too. I don’t think it’s anywhere close to 80% either.

    • sophiethegreatdane - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:22 AM

      I totally agree on WAR.

      And the world is flat, not round. I used the eye test. I don’t care what all the “science” says, that’s just one opinion. It’s time I stopped learning new things about the world because, you know…‘Murica!

    • sandwiches4ever - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:25 AM

      I’m going to regret asking, but why do you think that?

      • yahmule - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:29 AM

        Part of his schtick.

    • Kevin S. - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:40 PM

      It’s not a stat, it’s an estimate of value. Generally a pretty good one, at that.

  10. sophiethegreatdane - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:19 AM

    “His position , catcher, is critical, touching the ball on every pitch.”

    Except for, you know, the ones that were, um….hit.

    • Eutaw's Finest - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:20 AM

      Well played. Well played indeed…

      • sophiethegreatdane - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:23 AM

        Give that fan a contract?

    • jerseydevi1 - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:48 PM

      Unless you accept the premise that by calling the pitch, he “touched” it, if not physically, then figuratively.

  11. [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:20 AM

    It supposedly shows how many wins a player adds or subtracts from his team, compared to just an average player at his position

    Basically just pilling on here, but when you can’t even get what a stat supposedly shows right, why should I bother with the rest of the column.

  12. mindenjim - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:20 AM

    I see the new stats, primarily, as a way to attempt to measure intangibles. They provide one more way to build the DNA that defines a player, each a gene that only gives a contributory morsel of information. Some genes are more predictive than others, but none absolutely. That’s the beauty and mystery of baseball and life. Never forget–Baseball IS Life!!

  13. Old Gator - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    Because if we didn’t allow spawrtsriters to author consistently ignorant and stupid posts and pay them for it, they might decide to go to medical school instead.

    • unclemosesgreen - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:27 AM

      Indeed, OG, I’m sure that authoring ridiculous op-ed’s for the Westport, CT Minutemen isn’t preventing Vinny from curing cancer or achieving cold fusion.

    • yahmule - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:33 AM

      On the other hand, incompetent sportswriting never straight up killed anybody.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/01/opinion/more-treatment-more-mistakes.html?_r=0

  14. norcalfrog - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:26 AM

    I don’t really give a rats rear about whether or not WAR is useful or correctly calculated… I am, however, most impressed with Craig expanding my vocabulary with the word “grok”. Never heard it, never seen it, and I looked it up and it is real and now a fine word to use in scrabble or quiddler the card game… Baseball makes me smart, in spite of WAR!

    • Gamera the Brave - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:33 AM

      From one NorCal denizen to another – check out Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”, which is the origin of the work “grok”.

    • blabidibla - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:36 AM

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stranger_in_a_Strange_Land – must read.

      • pauleee - Apr 16, 2014 at 11:45 AM

        Fun Fact: I still have a copy of it I checked out from the library – in 1977.

        Think it’s time for a re-read.

    • kalinedrive - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:38 AM

      It is “real” because Robert Heinlein invented it and “Stranger in a Strange Land” is a good book. Don’t forget to use TANSTAAFL, too, but not in Scrabble.

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:45 AM

        I know TINSTAAPP and TOOTBLAN, but TANSTAAFL is a new one.

      • kalinedrive - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:51 AM

        There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:54 AM

        Ah thanks

  15. temporarilyexiled - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:34 AM

    I equate WAR to baseball’s new adventures with instant replay. Great idea…execution needs work…

    We know (or can easily find out) what WAR truly measures. That so many use it as “exactly what you use to measure a baseball player’s exact place – now – or anytime in history” is where I cringe.

    I didn’t (and probably won’t) read the entire article. Just on a level of looking at the Berra vs. Bagwell argument, I can totally understand the “reasoning” used. I don’t have a problem with it.

    That said, did someone stick way too many pins in a Jeff Bagwell’s likeness voodoo doll? It’s bad enough already how his public perception has been so damaged after such a great career. Now, he has to be used on the wrong end of a tug-of-war argument discussing much ado about nothing?

    I think you probably CAN measure a baseball player’s worth, using lots of stats – and lots that haven’t yet been come up with or made popular.

    The number of people who impress me with how they use the stats we do have is really low.

    • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:49 AM

      That so many use it as “exactly what you use to measure a baseball player’s exact place – now – or anytime in history” is where I cringe.

      Making an absurd comparison here to make a point. We all know what guns are supposed to be used for. If I use it to stir my coffee in the morning, does that make the gun’s function stupid?

      Aka, just because people use the stat incorrectly, doesn’t make the stat bad. Be careful when people use r/fWAR as a definitive measure. Be careful when people place definitive value to r/fWAR early in the season, when defensive stats aren’t close to stabilized. Understand there should almost be built in error bars (i.e. a 4.5 player and 5.0 player could be almost equivalent, depending on non-offensive aspects).

      • temporarilyexiled - Apr 16, 2014 at 11:06 AM

        Knew one of “you” would take me way too seriously. But don’t take “me” too seriously.

        That you’re not among those I’m making an “absurd comparison” about is not in dispute.

        I said what I meant. I accurately described WAR earlier in my post. I just didn’t show it any love. Numbers just don’t make me all tingly all over. Apparently they do for multitudes.

  16. sophiethegreatdane - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:35 AM

    I’d like to propose a new stat: GWAR. GWAR will measure the Wins Above Replacement heavy metal band.

    Iron Maiden is like a +100 GWAR.
    GWAR themselves would be a 0.
    And you’d have, like, Bang Tango and Trixter at -100 GWAR.

    • chacochicken - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:40 AM

      Oderus Urungus is above replacement level. RIP Dave Brockie.

      http://www.avclub.com/video/gwar-covers-billy-ocean-93870

    • yahmule - Apr 16, 2014 at 11:19 AM

      I like this and it would give music fans something else to argue about, which they totally need. Teased hair would be an immediate 20 GWAR penalty on my scale.

      I would give Iron Maiden at least +100 GWAR. Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, too.

  17. Liam - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:37 AM

    ‏@VGiandurco 27m
    @NateSilver538 NS, I know you’ll hate this – but I think it may spur a long-needed review of the value of #WAR http://bit.ly/1nqiRi6

    What a delusional tweet from the article writer.

  18. hansob - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    I fully support any article that attempts to lure the FireJoeMorgan.com guys out of retirement.

  19. chip56 - Apr 16, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    As Craig said, WAR has a lot of flaws and blind spots and using it without question or analysis is lazy.

    I don’t mind using it in conjunction with other metrics (both advanced and traditional) but it seems that there are very few centrists on this – you’re either solely using WAR to evaluate baseball or you’re evaluating baseball the wrong way is the theme I get from a lot of fans and some evaluators (Brian Kenny).

    • hansob - Apr 16, 2014 at 11:32 AM

      I don’t know that the Brian Kennys of the world are saying that if you’re not using WAR, you’re wrong, as much as they are saying that if you’re using pitcher wins, RBI, world series titles, perceived grit, and TWTW, you’re wrong.

      My guess is that if someone gave a reasoned argument that Berra should be higher because he was an underrated defensive catcher and leader, even the most fervent WAR proponents would have have no problem saying that you’re probably right. There are plenty of articles out there on how WAR doesn’t do certain catchers justice.

      • chip56 - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:33 PM

        My hope is that you’re correct when you say that no one would argue Berra’s leadership should count towards his value. However, I feel that there would be plenty who would roll their eyes at the notion of leadership being a measure of value just as they do when the words, “good clubhouse guy” or “clutch” are brought up.

      • bisonaudit - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:53 PM

        “good clubhouse guy” is one thing. Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. But, “clutch” that’s an eye roller.

  20. PanchoHerreraFanClub - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:49 PM

    “If a reporter wrote this ignorantly about economics or general science they’d be fired.” If this were true nobody would have a job at FOX News!

    • Michael - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:50 PM

      Dammit. You beat me to it.

  21. Michael - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:49 PM

    “If a reporter wrote this ignorantly about economics or general science they’d be fired.”

    Or hired by Fox News, because their disagreement clearly means there’s “controversy.”

    Unfortunately, economics and science have their own version of the stat-hating sportswriter/sports-talk radio loudmouth

  22. natsattack - Apr 16, 2014 at 2:08 PM

    Batting average is thus a terrible stat because it claims Mike Trout was better than Chris Davis, even though Davis hit way more home runs.
    /sarcasm

  23. Devin Rambo - Apr 16, 2014 at 2:14 PM

    I think a better headline for this post would be “Great Moments in Articles Ghostwritten By Hawk Harrelson”.

Leave Comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

Featured video

Who's outside looking in on playoffs?
Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. R. Castillo (2545)
  2. J. Hamilton (1957)
  3. M. Trout (1913)
  4. J. Heyward (1908)
  5. D. Ortiz (1865)
  1. J. Ellsbury (1807)
  2. S. Pearce (1788)
  3. C. Kershaw (1758)
  4. D. Jeter (1749)
  5. A. Pagan (1722)