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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Minuteman News Center: Giandurco: This means WAR

If we don’t end WAR, WAR will end us! (trips over imported blunderbuss stand)

I have frequently argued how economic statistics do not always give an accurate appraisal of the current climate. The same happens in sports, at times. I’d like to demonstrate why a currently voguish baseball statistic is vastly misleading, in the hopes of engendering healthy skepticism in fields other than sports.

The statistic called “Wins Above Replacement,” or WAR, is considered the best all-around rating methodology for everyday players (as opposed to pitchers). It supposedly shows how many wins a player adds or subtracts from his team, compared to just an average player at his position. I would like to use several well-known position players and their WAR statistics to evaluate this rating system.

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. In his magisterial biography, journalist Allan Barra (no relation) surmises that Berra may have been the greatest catcher of all time, but was at least in the top 4. He was named to the All-Century team as the American League catcher.

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, who played a much more crucial position. Since the entire WAR concept is based on winning, 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?

...I can go on. Take Carl Yasztremski, ranked 28. While a Yankee fan, I really admired Yaz as a kid. He was great. But his Sox never won a World Series, and he had a career average line of .285, 22 HR, 90 RBI, and 89 runs scored. There is simply no comparing the two men’s achievements, yet Yaz is ranked five spots higher than DiMaggio.

I think this brief overview shows that WAR is not rational, and also that all of us need to be skeptical when “experts” throw around statistics, especially when based on new and untested metrics. Often, such stats turn out to be meaningless in the real world. For example, we have finally regained all the jobs lost since 2007, but most of the jobs created have been low-wage, meaning that income inequality has gotten worse, not better, ever since the people who talk a lot about “income inequality” took over Washington

Repoz Posted: April 16, 2014 at 08:21 AM | 106 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history, sabermetrics

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   101. cardsfanboy Posted: April 21, 2014 at 01:30 PM (#4690333)
I dont think I really disagree with you, but I want to clarify this. Bill James was saying it was impossible (or nearly so) for some player e.g. Kaline or someone to have saved 25 runs in RF. And his argument was that no team was saving 400 runs on defense (8 x 25) or some argument akin to that...

My guess of his argument is that some of those runs that the player is saving is coming at the expense of another player. His point is when you say a (these are clones...example same player, just different names) (CF)Player A saves 25 amount of runs and compare him to (CF)Player B who saved 15 amount of runs, that you have to look at how those runs are saved before you can say A is better than B(or worth more). If A had a crappy corner fielders next to him, and was taking balls that an player B right fielder is getting, then you are doing a disservice to argue the other one was better. If everything else was the same but we swapped player A with Player B... do we assume that all the sudden 10 runs in defense is going to be lost? Of course not.

ANd that is the pt. I was making with your pt; your claim about teams getting 20 hits to the OF would be true, if you could find a season like that. But in REALITY that doesnt happen teams produce hitting and fielding and pitching stats that are very close to one another. And they are being paid commensurate sums to one another, so we have really good reason to think that we have fielders that are getting very similar numbers of balls it to their zone. Your argument is totally theoretical and doesnt exist in the real world of MLB.

And my point was YOU NEVER LOOK AT RAW INDIVIDUAL DEFENSIVE STATS WITHOUT STARTING AT THE TEAM LEVEL. You have to build a model from the team up, and use an estimate from there. Any system that looks at a thoroughly discredit concept like range factor is making a huge mistake. And there is not one single advanced system out there that looks at range factor for that exact reason.

The point of theoreticals is to show the flaws with a model by pushing it to the extreme end and giving an example, so that you can decide if that is a flaw to live with or if you need tweaking... The reason why people have stopped using range factor is because the theoretical completely shows how inaccurate the system is, and inspired people to come up with a different approach to grading defense(for players we don't have pbp data on)

   102. CrosbyBird Posted: April 21, 2014 at 09:15 PM (#4690712)
If you have to choose between two players, let's call them Puster Bosey, a catcher, and Breddie Breedman, a first baseman. Puster Bosey has a three year weighted average of 5.5 WAR and Breddie Breedman has a three year weighted average of 5.8 WAR. They both want the same amount of money--20 million per for 6 years. Do you give Breddie your bread or do you put it out for Puster?

I would submit that baseball GMs would overwhelming choose the catcher in that situation. Would you do otherwise?

It's probably the right move, but that's almost entirely because the 30 games the backup catcher plays are probably worth at least .3 more WAR than the 10 games the backup 1B plays. Maybe even less so now with interleague play where you can DH my Puster Bosey a few times.

I'm not sure though, with 6 years on the contract. Catchers almost certainly wear down more quickly than other players; my expectation is that Breedman will age better than Bosey in your hypothetical, and therefore become less valuable more slowly.

No one actually thinks that the best seasons of all time were a bunch of 19th century pitchers.

There's a difference between the best seasons and the most valuable relative to replacement, I would think. Without some sort of timeline adjustment for nutrition, exercise improvement, equipment, and technology, I would speculate that the best seasons (measured as relative to zero) are almost all post WWII.
   103. Karl from NY Posted: April 22, 2014 at 10:04 AM (#4690970)
I would submit that baseball GMs would overwhelming choose the catcher in that situation. Would you do otherwise?

It took a day but I finally have the answer to this. 5.5 WAR catchers are more scarce than 5.8 WAR first basemen and that's why they would choose the catcher. The former is a Piazza or Pudge kind of talent who comes on the market once a decade or so, while a 5.8 WAR 1B/DH type shows up every couple years. They would want to grab Mauer while he's available knowing there are always more chances to add a Prince Fielder type.

There's a meta-level here, the availability of market-rate WAR at a given position, which is not constant.
   104. CrosbyBird Posted: April 22, 2014 at 02:36 PM (#4691277)
There's a meta-level here, the availability of market-rate WAR at a given position, which is not constant.

Good point. I expect that 1B is a much higher-variance position, offensively, than catcher.
   105. zenbitz Posted: April 22, 2014 at 03:00 PM (#4691301)
That's what I was trying to say. WAR = value in a baseball sense of winning games, not necessarily tied to scarcity. The distributions across various positions are not identical - and are barely close enough to normalize. Catcher WAR (and probably pitchers) isn't normalized in such a way that they are equivalent when tied to availability. So one would expect Bosey to get paid more $/WAR than Breedman.
   106. Ron J2 Posted: April 22, 2014 at 03:22 PM (#4691335)
#105 Speaking of which, I'm working on a study to see whether that's the case in practice.
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