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Saturday, February 02, 2013

Let’s corral the WAR horse

Yes, I like WAR as a statistical measure.

My issue is this: I don’t like the increasing over-use of (and over-reliance on) WAR as THE definitive evaluation of a player’s worth.

Such as, “Mike Trout had a 10.7 WAR and Miguel Cabrera had a 6.9 WAR, so anyone who thinks Cabrera deserved to be the American League MVP should be strip-searched, tied to an anthill and forced to rely on dial-up for his Internet connection for the remainder of his pathetic life.”

Look all stats have their limitations.

madvillain Posted: February 02, 2013 at 02:09 AM | 29 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: miguel cabrera, mike trout, sabermetrics

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   1. Super Creepy Derek Lowe (GGC) Posted: February 02, 2013 at 10:46 AM (#4360609)
Jim, I didn't realize you were a poster here. I used to love Win Blake Stein's Money.
   2. I Am Not a Number Posted: February 02, 2013 at 11:09 AM (#4360611)
Mike Trout had a 10.7 WAR and Miguel Cabrera had a 6.9 WAR

Isn't this a case where WAR is especially useful? The gulf between Trout and Cabrera was huge enough to overwhlem any of the specific issues with the WAR calculation. Even if WAR were so imprecise as to carry with it 20% error margins (which I don't believe anyone thinks), Trout would still come out on top.

Caple would have been better served comparing players with WARs of, say, 4.5 and 4.2, where the noise in the calculations could easily account for the erroneous ranking of one player over the other.
   3. bookbook Posted: February 02, 2013 at 11:24 AM (#4360617)
It's all relative. Earl Weaver would have probably played Ryan over 37-year old Jeter at SS (as he played Mark Belanger), but probably would have been ecstatic to have 26-year-old Jeter, defensive warts and all.

Of course, Caple voted for Trout over Cabrera, because what WAR captured (that winning baseball is about more than just that moment you swing the bat), was clear to him without the stats' help.

The Justin Upton example was, unlike the other two, a good example of the limitations of WAR.
   4. TJ Posted: February 02, 2013 at 03:43 PM (#4360768)
From Caple's article- "Who got the better end of last week's Justin Upton-Martin Prado trade, Atlanta or Arizona? Again, your analysis depends on your source. Baseball-reference has Upton's career WAR at 13.1 while FanGraphs has it at 17.1. That's a significant difference, in WAR terms. Prado's WAR is 15.8 in both and as high as 5.4 last year, according to baseball-reference, which could be good news for Diamondbacks fans. (Upton's two WAR numbers for the 2012 season were 2.5 by FanGraphs and 2.1 by baseball-reference.) But aren't most fans and experts hailing Atlanta for fleecing Arizona in the deal?"

Prado is 29 years old and pretty much at his peak performance right now. Justin Upton is 25 and still heding into his prime. Most are hailing Atlanta for fleecing Arizona because the chance that Upton will produce 15+ WAR over the next three years is a lot better than of Prado doing the same, and Caple should know this. if he doesn't, he's a dolt. If he does and didn't mention it, I can only assume he did not because it didn't fit his narrative...
   5. Howie Menckel Posted: February 02, 2013 at 04:42 PM (#4360785)
eh, I don't know that "peak age" is QUITE as granular as that, is it?

If Prado was 33 or if Upton was 22 and had these last 3 years under his belt anyway, I'd agree with your point for sure. 29 vs 25? a fair point to make, yes, but....

   6. Matt Clement of Alexandria Posted: February 02, 2013 at 04:51 PM (#4360789)
As with any statistic, just citing a number and dropping the mic isn't analysis.

What bugs me about many anti-WAR articles, though, is that they talk about WAR as if it were just a mic drop, not a publicly available number whose components are published and easy to compare and analyze.
   7. Darren Posted: February 02, 2013 at 04:52 PM (#4360790)
My issue is this: I don’t like the increasing over-use of (and over-reliance on) WAR as THE definitive evaluation of a player’s worth.

“Mike Trout had a 10.7 WAR and Miguel Cabrera had a 6.9 WAR, so anyone who thinks Cabrera deserved to be the American League MVP should be strip-searched, tied to an anthill and forced to rely on dial-up for his Internet connection for the remainder of his pathetic life.”


So I've decided to stop arguing with the voices in my head.
   8. boteman Posted: February 02, 2013 at 04:55 PM (#4360791)
Walt Davis last week raised the excellent point that the line where Replacement Level is drawn can materially affect the resulting WAR calculation. That is a contributing factor in the difference between B-Ref and Fangraphs WAR results.

Also, the few Facebook comments that I read attached to Jim Caple's article demonstrate that the people who are paying attention to advanced stats "get it". And the children shall lead.
   9. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 02, 2013 at 04:59 PM (#4360794)
What bugs me about many anti-WAR articles, though, is that they talk about WAR as if it were just a mic drop, not a publicly available number whose components are published and easy to compare and analyze.

What's amusing to me is that the same writers who complain about WAR are often the ones who wax poetically about the virtues of the all-around player, as opposed to the one-dimensional slugger. The fact that the all-around player benefits from WAR doesn't seem to register with them. But when they see two articles of faith (Triple Crown Winner = automatic MVP vs. All-Around Player > One Dimensional Player) colliding head-on, leave it to them to pick the one that they can attach a familiar comfort food number to.
   10. Rickey! trades in sheep and threats Posted: February 02, 2013 at 05:09 PM (#4360796)
RE: WAR - there exists a component of the baseball mutliverse that does behave as Caple's cartoon of WAR proponents behave. I have seen argument here and elsewhere to the effect that a .5 difference in WAR is the final word on what player is or was better for a given period. I do think Caple overstates the size of this contingent of WAR fans, but probably because they are often far more vocal than the more nuanced positions you see some folks taking in this thread.

RE: Trout vs. Miggy - that was a situation where WAR really did tell the story, and the so-called old school ignored the all around player in lieu of their dedication to stats; namely the triple crown stats.

RE: Prado/Upton - a lot of the "fleecing" of AZ is due to Upton's age and Upton's upside; a lot of the previously stated "fleecing" arguments have been walked back with the extension Prado just signed (making it more than just 1 year of Prado for 3 years of Upton), and more pointedly to the larger question at hand here, a big chunk of Prado's WAR value from 2012 comes from his defensive valuations as a LF. Defense, of course, is one of the shadier aspects of WAR's components.
   11. madvillain Posted: February 02, 2013 at 05:17 PM (#4360797)
I thought the article was actually pretty well thought out, which is why I posted it. It's not a head-in-the-sand type anti-SABER article and while it doesn't bring any new facts or arguments to the WAR case that haven't been talked about here before, it is balanced look at how we should use WAR to evaluate players.

The main point I agree with is (again, nothing new to BTF but fairly rare in the MSM) is that WAR is a starting point for evaluating players and not a monolithic perfect measurement.
   12. Darren Posted: February 02, 2013 at 05:30 PM (#4360804)
I actually RTFA for a change, and I think it fails to make its case well. It makes a big goof by comparing WAR to batting average:

Look all stats have their limitations. If a player has a .329 batting average, that probably means he's pretty good. But for an accurate measure of the player, we need more information. How many extra-base hits does he have? How many times does he walk? How many stolen bases? How many runs, how many RBIs? How many double plays has he hit into? The same is true for a player with 40 home runs. Does he have a .300 average to go with them, or a .230 average? Does he strike out a lot? How often does he walk?

The same approach should apply to WAR.


Well, no, that's the same. WAR does exactly what he's describing--it goes beyond one aspect of a player to consider just about all of the important ones. What should be done with WAR, actually, is to understand that although it's quite comprehensive, it's not perfect.
   13. Darren Posted: February 02, 2013 at 05:38 PM (#4360807)
If a player has a .333 batting average, we know he gets a hit once every three at-bats. It is a statistical fact. But if we say a shortstop has an Ultimate Zone Rating of 12.4, well, it means he's likely a very good fielder but we also have to assume that the theory behind UZR is indeed an accurate measure of fielding ability. It might be (more so with infielders) but it certainly isn't precise and inarguable.


It's statistical fact only in that an official scorer saw the play and called it a hit. It doesn't tell us that the guy hit a seeing a single through the left side that a good SS would have had or rather a rocket off the green monster. It doesn't tell us that whether it was a triple down the line that a speedster hit or a flyball that barely missed going out of the park.

On the other hand, a UZR distinguishes liners from flyballs from grounders, etc. And it's a very simple concept to wrap your head around too: how many more or fewer plays (converted into runs) than average does this player make? It's not precise nor inarguable, but neither is batting average.
   14. Walt Davis Posted: February 02, 2013 at 06:08 PM (#4360813)
Also part of the reason that many saber folks (or at least wannabe saber folks) are saying Atlanta fleeced Arizona is because these folks have as much trouble letting go of past beliefs in the face of contrary numbers as many other folks. That is they remember Upton's age 21 and 23 seasons, when he appeared to be a budding superstar, while largely ignoring his age 22 and 24 seasons which were thoroughly average. A similar thing happened with Mike Napoli last year when many folks around here talked about him as if he was still hitting like he was in 2011.

We're human beings -- we have our favorites and we have trouble letting go of our favorites.

Back to Upton-Prado: look just at Rbat. B-R puts it at 61 to 39 in Upton's favor over the last 4 years (or 42 to 26 over the last 3 if you prefer). That's a pretty big gap (over 5 runs a year) but the current positional adjustment between RF and 3B is 8 runs a year. You don't need to credit Prado with LF defense to make these two guys similar in production terms, you just need to adjust for Prado's new position (and assume he'll be average or better there defensively which he has been to date).

But, sure, you don't have to push very far into the weeds to start preferring Upton -- i.e. 29 to 25. Go further and Prado is something of a late bloomer and late bloomers often collapse early and quickly. On the other hand, depending on how you want count this, it's 4 years of Prado vs. 3 years of Upton for the same money. Then you get to the prospects.
   15. SoSH U at work Posted: February 02, 2013 at 08:55 PM (#4360863)
It's not precise nor inarguable, but neither is batting average.


Well, batting average is a heck of a lot more precise. I know the official scorer gets trotted out, but he's really not that important in the grand scheme of things. Most hits are clear, as are most errors. For the average batter, he probably doesn't have an impact on more than a half-dozen ABs per season, and there's no reason to think it's significantly slanted one way or the other (such as some guy is routinely getting credited with more unwarranted ROE than some other guy).*

It's not a good measurement of value, but it is very accurate at measuring what it's designed to measure. And that's true pretty much across the board. The simple stats are a bit more accurate in performing their limited function. The more complex ones are less precise, but more useful in providing a picture of a player's ability.

   16. TJ Posted: February 02, 2013 at 09:12 PM (#4360870)
I think people are willing to forget last year for Justin Upton due to the thumb injury, which can wreck a hitter's season. The primary reason I fall into the "Arizona got fleeced" camp is while I see Upton and Prado having similiar floors (2-3 WAR), I see Upton as having a much higher ceiling (Prado's 5.4 last year may be it for him, while Upton has MVP-type WAR potential). I just don't see much room for improvement for Prado. Don't get me wrong, I like Prado as a player. I just suspect that last season may have been his career year, and it's always a good idea to sell high on someone like that- especially if you can get a Justin Upton in return.
   17. Sean Forman Posted: February 02, 2013 at 10:23 PM (#4360906)
Jim, If you ever want to talk about Wins Above Replacement, I know you know where to find me.

Also no one except a handful of economists can compute GDP, but that doesn't stop anyone from deciding one quarter was better than another.

Edit:
And one more thing it seems a bit churlish to argue it can't be computed and in the second breath ##### about me needing to write 1500 words to describe it.
   18. Sean Forman Posted: February 02, 2013 at 10:25 PM (#4360907)
I agree with Walt on the replacement level issue. I don't see any real reason for FG and B-R and BP to not agree on a replacement level that we all can use. The numbers will look a lot more alike if we do that.
   19. dave h Posted: February 02, 2013 at 11:05 PM (#4360917)
I assume Jim Caple never flies, since he presumably does not know how to build an airplane, and therefore cannot trust it.
   20. Walt Davis Posted: February 03, 2013 at 12:58 AM (#4360949)
The primary reason I fall into the "Arizona got fleeced" camp is while I see Upton and Prado having similiar floors (2-3 WAR), I see Upton as having a much higher ceiling (Prado's 5.4 last year may be it for him, while Upton has MVP-type WAR potential). I just don't see much room for improvement for Prado.

I think everybody agrees with this although many of us just use the short hand of "29 vs 25." This advantage for Upton though has to be weighed against the value of the prospects (about which there's a wide range of opinion) and the years of control.

This is one of the ways in which free agency has complicated our lives. Pre-FA, this would have been a trade of the rest of Upton's career for the rest of Prado's (plus prospects), with those two guys priced at essentially the same annual value. That would be a fleecing or something close to it. But Arizona didn't have the rest of Upton's career, they had the next 3 years of his career plus an exclusive negotiating window to extend him beyond those three years. The current 3 years cost $38 M and those extra years would have cost them a lot assuming he would even agree to sign.

On the other hand, the DBacks only received one year of Prado and an exclusive window unless there were some informal negotiations that we don't know about. Whether we treat this as 1 year or 4 years of Prado makes a big difference.

If I'm the Braves, I do this in a second. They had just 1 year of Prado, supposedly extension negotiations had taken place with no resolution, they didn't really have that much use for the prospects they gave up it doesn't seem, they have a passable 1-year 3B option in Francisco plus parts. They are now a quite young and athletic team and we can pretty comfortably project that they will be even better at LF, RF, 1B and SS in 2-3 years. Nice.

I am also concerned about Prado. Late bloomer, has only about 1 season's worth of games at 3B, 3B is not generally a position you pick up at this point in a career unless you were at SS or maybe 2B for the last 5+ years. If the DBacks were a better team, I could see him having enough value as a super-sub as a fallback but the success of this move depends on him handling the transition to full-time 3B.
   21. The kids disappeared, now Der-K has too much candy Posted: February 03, 2013 at 08:24 AM (#4360975)
I had issues with the article (which people here have touched on) but am largely with madvillain here. I don't think Caple is anti-WAR, just with using it unthinkingly - and that's a sentiment we can all get behind...
   22. cardsfanboy Posted: February 03, 2013 at 12:39 PM (#4361046)
RE: Trout vs. Miggy - that was a situation where WAR really did tell the story, and the so-called old school ignored the all around player in lieu of their dedication to stats; namely the triple crown stats.


My problem with it, is that I think it overstates the story. Yes I think that Trout should be the MVP for many reasons mentioned, but I do not for a second believe the gap is as big as they make it out.

Miggy played in 20 more games, posted basically the same park adjusted offensive numbers, played what most considered to be an acceptable, if not average third base. To think that the defensive difference and running is able to make up a 20 game difference, and add another 50% extra value on top of that, doesn't pass the smell test. Heck, it's not like all 139 games Trout played was in centerfield, he only played 110 of his games there. I just don't see baserunning and defense making up that much ground. Basically War is saying 110 games of great centerfield is worth more than 2 wins over 154 games of average defense at third base... That a 171 ops+ over 139 games(54rbat) is more valuable than a 165 ops+ over 161 games(52rbat)...which again doesn't pass the smell test.

Note: I think that Trout was the MVP of baseball last year and got ripped off, I do not think that he was a 4 wins better player than Miggy... 2 wins, sure, I can see that.

Edit: another way to think of it, is that defense and baserunning in war is compared to average, not replacement level(for many legitimate reasons) so a player who plays a handful of games and does well by defense and baserunning is getting an advantage over a player who plays a full season at average level. By war measure, a guy who only plays one week in the season, and does good in the field for that week, gets more dWar than a league average guy over the course of the season. A full time player who is average at these things, can never, ever make up ground over that guy, no matter how many more games he plays.


I thought the article was actually pretty well thought out, which is why I posted it. It's not a head-in-the-sand type anti-SABER article and while it doesn't bring any new facts or arguments to the WAR case that haven't been talked about here before, it is balanced look at how we should use WAR to evaluate players.


Agreed. I think that too often around here the knee jerk defensive reactions prevent people from accepting the article based upon it's merits.

   23. DJS and the Infinite Sadness Posted: February 03, 2013 at 01:42 PM (#4361122)
I am also concerned about Prado. Late bloomer, has only about 1 season's worth of games at 3B, 3B is not generally a position you pick up at this point in a career unless you were at SS or maybe 2B for the last 5+ years.

He's not really "picking it up" at this point though. He only has a season's at 3B specifically, but he does have about 60% of his career starts at 2B/3B/SS. It's not like he's been completely away from the infield either - he had 39 2B/3B/SS starts last year and 34 (of 91 total) in 2011.
   24. DJS and the Infinite Sadness Posted: February 03, 2013 at 01:48 PM (#4361125)
A full time player who is average at these things, can never, ever make up ground over that guy, no matter how many more games he plays.


But he does, you just typically find the "credit" for that average play at the position elsewhere. Having the value of playing a position in the offensive value is ugly from an accounting standpoint, but we're mostly used to it, so it tends to look weird otherwise.
   25. Harveys Wallbangers Posted: February 03, 2013 at 05:28 PM (#4361281)
speaking of trout i was surprised to find out he will be playing left field in 2013

i guess this peter kid is supposed to be devon white with a jet pack but boy, i just cannot get my head around a guy with trout's ability defensively being moved to a lesser position.

then again, maybe the angels will set a record for fewest doubles/triples allowed in a season
   26. cardsfanboy Posted: February 03, 2013 at 08:14 PM (#4361429)
But he does, you just typically find the "credit" for that average play at the position elsewhere. Having the value of playing a position in the offensive value is ugly from an accounting standpoint, but we're mostly used to it, so it tends to look weird otherwise.


I don't get this...

If after 110 games played, player A has a defensive value of +5 and he gets injured and doesn't play another game. Player B who has a defensive value of 0 at 110, then goes out and plays 52 more games at league average, he doesn't gain any defensive ground on the other guy. It doesn't make logical sense. There is inherent value for just being on the field, especially if you are league average defensively.

Yes he can make ground up with his bat, but that doesn't matter in the slightest. The design of defensive components penalizes average players who are in the lineup everyday.
   27. greenback calls it soccer Posted: February 03, 2013 at 09:11 PM (#4361529)
There is inherent value for just being on the field, especially if you are league average defensively.

This is recognized in WAR. DJS is saying, I think, that all the Replacement Level-to-Average value is, for accounting purposes, being thrown into the offense column. That's a presentation issue, and not an issue with the usefulness of the overall stat.
   28. McCoy Posted: February 03, 2013 at 09:23 PM (#4361554)
This is recognized in WAR. DJS is saying, I think, that all the Replacement Level-to-Average value is, for accounting purposes, being thrown into the offense column. That's a presentation issue, and not an issue with the usefulness of the overall stat.

what you do offensively is being counted for in the offensive category but league average defense is not. The best argument you can make for league average defense being counted in those additional games is by arguing that the league average defensive player's replacement value will go up as he plays more games. Now then it goes up regardless of how good his defense is or isn't so it isn't really a good argument.

The problem with average is nothing new. Bill James was arguing against average 30 years ago because of problems like this.
   29. Eric J can SABER all he wants to Posted: February 03, 2013 at 09:59 PM (#4361623)
The best argument you can make for league average defense being counted in those additional games is by arguing that the league average defensive player's replacement value will go up as he plays more games. Now then it goes up regardless of how good his defense is or isn't so it isn't really a good argument.

But if he were bad defensively, his negative defensive score would get bigger in more playing time, thus reducing his WAR.

Replacement value for hitters also goes up as they have more playing time, regardless of how good they are as hitters. What's the difference?

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