Monday, January 6, 2014

The Lying Heart of WAR

David Pinto, over at his blog Baseball Musings, sort of inadvertently makes a very accurate observation regarding how infielders with high career WAR fair in MVP vote shares:
The most interesting thing about the lists is that they show a systematic bias. The underrated players tend to be skill infielders (2b, 3b, ss), and outfielders who did not hit a ton of home runs. Power hitting first basemen and outfielders dominate the overrated lists, although some catchers appear there as well. Over time, MVP voters overrated power and catching defense, while underrated OBP and infield defense.
More generally: WAR reflects more favorably upon any infielder that doesn't play first base, but those players generally don't make out well in MVP voting. Thus illustrating the heart of the Sabermetrics v. Old School Stats conflict.

One of David's commenters to this post, pft, digs deeper into how unfair WAR judges MLB players:
WAR basically gives middle IF’ers and CF’ers a huge handicap and introduces a bias against those playing lesser positions.

I am pretty sure there are many great defensive players in the minors who never make it to MLB, but great offensive players are so rare teams find room for them, even if they can’t field their position very well. Yet offensive talent in general is treated as a commodity in equal supply as defensive talent.

Also, there are likely a great many skilled LH players who simply were unable to play any IF position but 1B and they are docked -10 runs per every 600 PA (or 1 Win)...

I just think more weight should be given to how a fielder played his position than the position itself which in some cases is determined not by skill but by other factors such as team needs, or handedness.
This is one of the best retorts against WAR that I've read, and kudos to pft for not lacing it with profanities. Something I've been, uh, apt to do when discussing WAR.

pft brings organizational needs into account - an important point. Some prospects who are viewed as spectacularly talented hitters will be removed from more demanding fielding positions so they can focus on their hitting. Best example I can think of for this is Bryce Harper, who was a catcher in high school and junior college. After the Nationals drafted Harper, they didn't want to risk injuring his knees by having him behind the plate so they converted him into an outfielder. According to WAR, this defensive conversion makes Harper less valuable because a power hitting catcher is supposedly more valuable than a power hitting outfielder - but according to the Nationals, Harper's value lies in getting as many productive years as they can out of his bat.

So is it fair for WAR to penalize Harper? No, of course not. This is one reason why WAR isn't a stat. WAR is a judgement - and, in my view, it's a poor judgement.

There are other examples of organizations placing prospects in less demanding fielding positions to maximize their hitting... Dave Winfield and Mark McGwire were pitchers in college. They didn't pitch in MLB. The reasons for that are self-evident.

And the reasons for organizations doing what they can to maximize the offensive potential of talented power hitters should be self-evident: sluggers improve players hitting ahead of them. For example, let's look at the effect Frank Thomas had on White Sox hitters.

In 1995, Frank Thomas batted third for the White Sox and hit .308/.454 OBP, with 40 HR and 111 RBI. This guy was a force of fucking nature. The White Sox leadoff hitter in 1995 was Lance Johnson. Up until 1995, Johnson was a career .281/.321 OBP hitter - but he hit .306/.341 OBP in 1995. It can be argued that hitting in front of Frank Thomas improved Johnson's stats.

Other examples can be found - Thomas had another 40 HR campaign in 1996. Tony Phillips hit ahead of him, and the 37 year old career .266/.374 OBP hitter went .277/.404 OBP in 1996. Dave Martinez also batted ahead of Thomas in 1996. Martinez was a career .269/.329 OBP hitter before 1996, but he hit .318/.393 OBP in 1996.

Sabermetricians like to scoff at RBIs as being a useless stat, since sluggers need men on base to drive them home. What isn't mentioned in this argument is that elite sluggers make the hitters in front of them better. If you pay attention to just only WAR, then you could insert David Eckstein into the third spot on the lineup and expect him to amass the 134 RBIs that Frank Thomas raked in 1996 because the same hitters would be in front of him. But Eckstein wouldn't make those hitters better. Pitchers aren't afraid of batters like Eckstein, so they'll feel free to pitch around hitters in front of him.

But pitchers feared Frank Thomas - dude was a physical fucking freak. He was an NFL linebacker standing at the plate, just wanting to crush fucking balls over the goddamn fence. Pitchers shit themselves when he came to the plate. So, just in case Thomas unloaded on them, pitchers needed to attack hitters in front of him to try and get them out so they didn't become runs. This means those hitters would see more strikes to hit, and if they are capable Major Leaguers, they took advantage of that.

Elite sluggers like Frank Thomas didn't benefit from having good hitters batting before him to drive in - they created great hitters in the lineup and then drove them in. That's why Frank Thomas put up multiple 100+ RBI seasons. And yes, the White Sox put him at 1B/DH: to maximize his value as a slugger by improving the hitters batting ahead of him.

I like to call this basic baseball strategy. This strategy should be incorporated into MVP voting, because if a slugger an organization chose to put at first base makes hitters in front of him better, doesn't that make him quite a valuable player?

But WAR doesn't recognize baseball strategy. That's why WAR doesn't have a lyin', cheatin' ole heart - WAR doesn't have a heart, period. The primary flaw of WAR lies in it judging all players as equal without noticing the role they have on the team; whereas baseball is played through roles. You have leadoff hitters, cleanup hitters, sluggers, and catchers who can provide pop in the seven hole of the lineup. These roles lie at the heart of baseball, and as a fan, I can't fathom some cold, supposedly all-encompassing "statistic" which refuses to take the heart of baseball into account.

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