Give me OBP, give me OPS, give me IPO, give me WPA, give me K/BB; just don’t give me RBI! If you’re going to give me RBI, Mr. McCarver, I’d rather you gave me nothing.
And then came WAR.
The concept was ratified by the sabremetric Godfather, Bill James, who’d created Win Shares according to a similar ideology in 2002. It was a neoclassical economist’s wet dream, like baseball GDP: an elegant equation which accounted for all the sport’s diverse variables and yielded a single number roughly reducible to the oldest and most hallowed statistic of them all, the win. Hallelujah.
Wins Above Replacement is a beautiful idea. Euclidean grace in a quantum world. A simple answer, not only for age-old baseball conundrums like “Mantle or DiMaggio?”, but also a formula for unprecedented comparisons like “Rickey Henderson v. Johnny Bench” and “Roy Halladay v. Alex Rodriguez“.
There’s only one problem. It doesn’t work.
At least, not yet. Not in the fantastically straight-forward way we try to use it. The idea is so good, so clarifying – like democracy or the rational market – that we really, really want it to work, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief just a little while longer in the hope that it might.
...The cruel irony, the I-could’ve-had-Sean-Doolittle-and-all-I-got-was-stupid-Barry-Zito irony, is that the problem with WAR is the same as the problem with RBI. It frequently measures context as much as performance. Especially when used to evaluate single seasons, it doesn’t sufficiently account for the inevitable variations in opportunity and environment.