Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Judgement of WAR

What makes WAR a judgement, and not a statistic, is the favorable rating it gives to variables that may have little to do with what a particular hitter is supposed to be doing.  WAR, at its own peril, eschews the roles that, historically, hitters have been given.  Instead, WAR judges hitters on a level that’s absent of roles.  Given how much a hitter’s role plays into his statistics, though, I don’t see how judging hitters on a plane that’s absent of role could possibly be fair.

Since WAR is biased against fat sluggers, let’s use them as an example against a leadoff hitter.  According to WAR, if a slugger is to have as much value as a leadoff hitter, then they must play great defense in, say, centerfield or second base; and they must steal bases.  If a slugger cannot do these things, then their WAR will be decreased.

The biggest problem here is that, in the history of baseball, fat sluggers were never asked to fulfill the duties of a leadoff hitter.  They are never placed at the top of a batting order and expected to steal a base -- because you want them to hit homers.  They are rarely placed in centerfield or shortshop and expected to make spectacular diving catches or picks -- because you want them to hit homers.  How many home runs does a fat slugger hit for you when he’s sitting in the DL because he injured himself crashing into the wall to save a bomb from leaving the park?  None, and that’s why managers like to play fat sluggers at first base.  The fat slugger can stand there, catch the ball, and be in better shape to be productive when they come to the plate.

Now, suppose a WARhead became manager of an MLB and wanted somebody like David Ortiz or Prince Fielder to prove their worth in the lineup by placing them at the top of the order and forcing them to steal bases.  When that player quickly lands on the disabled list, do you know what their WAR is?  Zero.  I think we can all agree that getting zero out of a player is counterproductive.

Such a move would be counterproductive to everyone who hits ahead of a fat slugger in the batting order, too.  Typically, fat sluggers receive more breaking balls because pitchers try to pitch around them, while pitchers will challenge the hitters ahead of fat sluggers because they don’t want those hitters to get on base and become potential additions to the fat slugger’s RBI total should he homer.  This baseball strategy has a couple of consequences: 1) The OBP of leadoff hitters is increased because the pitcher’s fear of the fat slugger gives them a better selection of pitches to hit, and 2) The fat slugger will hit into more double plays because they receive more breaking balls, in addition to their placement in the batting order dictating that they will often come to bat with runners on base.

According to the judgement of WAR, though, having a lower OBP and hitting into a lot of double plays takes value away from a hitter -- therefore leading to a bias against fat sluggers.  But WAR does not take into account the fact that, as a hitter, the fat slugger has the most difficult job in the batting order because they generally see the least amount of good pitches to hit.  So, yes, this means that the fat slugger will ground into more double plays.  But it’s the fat slugger’s job to swing the bat, and it’s the fat slugger’s job to help get hitters ahead of him on base by being the hitter that pitchers are most apt to pitch around, therefore giving the hitters ahead of him better offerings since a pitcher doesn’t want to issue a walk before the fat slugger steps to the plate.  In my view, seeing a fat slugger ground into double plays is often a necessary evil borne out of a situation that they helped create, since their presence helps hitters ahead of him get on base.

But in the judgement of WAR, this situation is a Catch-22 -- the fat slugger is given no credit for helping improve the OBP of hitters above him, but he’s given all of the negative attention for grounding into a double play.  WAR is calculated to judge the fat slugger’s worth based on what he can do as a leadoff hitter without taking into account that he’s not a leadoff hitter, he’s a fat slugger.

This role-absent judgement of hitters has led to some laughable judgements from WAR, like rating 1995 John Valentine above 1995 MVP Mo Vaughn, and giving 2002 David Eckstein a nearly equal rating to 2002 MVP Miguel Tejada.  Such judgements may fly in fantasy baseball, but in reality if you have a lineup full of David Ecksteins or John Valentines, then your team is going to lose.  Hard.  You need that fat slugger to drive these players across home plate.

I don't want to take value away from the roles of hitters placed above the fat slugger in lineups, but the harsh judgement WAR gives to players like fat sluggers isn't right, and it ignores basic baseball strategy.  Then to see WAR postulated as a hard "statistic" that isn't up for argument, that's just incredibly annoying.  Many baseball fans, like myself, are sick of having Sabermeticians talk down to us.  WAR is a judgement, not a statistic.

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