By MARK KNUDSON @MarkKnudson41 Special to WoodyPaige.com
All of our professional sports are becoming about “the numbers.” Baseball always has and probably always will be the worst offender of the group. For whatever reason, statistics – season and career – have been a bigger focus – an obsession in a lot of cases – among baseball fans, media and even players than in any other sport.
And while the advent of Fantasy Football has made football players individual stats a much bigger deal than they ever were before, baseball is still well out in front in that category, especially given the rise of analytics and sabermetrics. Everything from the number of times the ball rotates on its way to home plate to the amount of ground an outfielder has to cover to run down a fly ball is scrutinized, analyzed and evaluated. Every play has a numerical grade now.
All this has led to the new wave of statistics, chief among them “Wins Above Replacement” or WAR. It’s the all-everything stat devised to grade baseball players both offensively and defensively. It even accounts for “park adjustments” thanks to the national media’s obsession with downgrading offensive statistics accumulated at Coors Field in Denver. Even though it is characterized as being “non-standardized,” WAR is the darling of the sabermetrics crowd and has become, sadly, the bottom line for many who vote on post-season awards.
It’s likely that WAR (and home run) leaders Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins and Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees will walk away with league Most Valuable Player awards next month. This despite the fact that there are more deserving candidates in each league, players who did more for their teams this season under pressure situations…but who didn’t wow the sabermetrics gang.
That’s the real injustice. Even though he wasn’t much of a baseball fan, Albert Einstein summed it up best with this quote: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Valuable is a word that can have multiple meanings. But for those of us who played the game, valuable means much more than statistics. While stats are important when evaluated the right way, there are lots of other things that go into making a player “Most Valuable.” MVP’s make their entire team better by doing many things that don’t show up on a stat sheet. The heights to which a player can lead his team (being in the play-off hunt should be mandatory) should be a major factor in voting.
Still, there’s no getting around the use of statistics as a key evaluator. So having an accurate catch-all statistic to judge a player’s value could be a good thing. It would benefit players like Colorado’s Nolan Arenado who excel just as much – if not more – on the defensive side of the ball. However, WAR has not evolved into that rock-solid statistic as of yet, and it may be several more seasons until it does. A home run, run batted in and batting average are concrete statistics – there’s no room for interpretation. However, WAR is NOT concrete. Every evaluator or outlet that compiles WAR figures comes up with a different numerical grade. A player could be ranked first in WAR by one outlet and fourth by another.
WAR is still “conceptual” in the words of one analytics expert (who is a proponent of WAR) I spoke with. According to this expert, there are two big problems with the stat as it’s currently produced. First, the “R” part = “Replacement.” WAR is judging a players value and contribution against someone who would replace him. Problem is, that replacement player does not exist, which is where the interpretation part comes in.
The second drawback is the lack of precise defensive metrics. Since it’s often times pure speculation as to whether or not a defensive player should have caught a ball he didn’t get to, or whether or not he actually “saved a run,” we’re left with more guess work and interpretation. The expert believes that the ever increasing use of Statcast as a measuring stick will provide more data and lead to more accurate and precise defensive evaluations in the coming seasons. But for now, the data remains incomplete.
So when Stanton is judged to have a WAR of 8.82 from ESPN and 7.6 from Baseball-Reference, you can see why it’s hard to draw a concrete conclusion. Yet this is going to be the determining factor in who is anointed as being “Most Valuable” to his team.
Houston’s Jose Altuve (7.94 WAR from ESPN and 8.3 Baseball Reference) should win the American League MVP pretty easily. His Baseball Reference WAR is tops. Judge (8.75 from ESPN, tops in the AL and 8.2 from Baseball Reference) is among the best of the rest in the AL, but given that voters dig the long ball, he will likely win over the more deserving Altuve – who did many more things to help his team win the American League West, including leading baseball in hitting at .346 and hits with 204 (his fourth straight 200 hit season)…plus 24 home runs and Gold Glove defense…than the one-dimensional Judge and his 52 home runs did for the Yankees.
In the National League, there’s no clear-cut choice between Arenado (7.34 from ESPN and 7.2 from Baseball Reference) his teammate Charlie Blackmon (6.33 from ESPN and 6.0 from Baseball Reference) and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (6.94 from ESPN and 5.8 from Baseball Reference.) Each had a fantastic season and led there team into the post-season. Yet Stanton and his 59 home runs will likely win the MVP even though his Marlins team was nowhere close to being a play-off team. Stanton did not have an at-bat this year with anything on the line for his team. Not one.
There will also be votes for ESPN’s top WAR player, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto (9.56) even though the Reds had a worse year than the Marlins and none of Votto’s at bats were in meaningful situations, either. It’s not inconceivable that Votto will get more votes than one or more the three most deserving candidates who had to go to the plate in pressure situations the last two months of the season.
And that’s what’s wrong with WAR.
No one who compiles stats for a living can understand the difference in circumstances under which an at-bat can occur. Coming through in the clutch DOES matter, and should count for more. In the eyes of discerning voters, it will. But those voters are likely to be outnumbered by the WAR mongers.