Like most fans, I enjoy a spirited Spring Training competition. Non-roster invitees, young upstarts, and the previous year’s hangers-on engage in friendly warfare for what usually figure to be 2 or three “TBD” slots on a team’s bench, bullpen, or the back of the starting rotation. For this year’s defending National League champs, there could conceivably be only one (or none) as-yet-spoken-for job to win in Florida this spring, and one of those on the outside looking in figures to be a player who appeared in all but 19 games for the Cards in 2013.
The world champion Boston Red Sox headline the list of teams with a win-loss record (97-65) more than four games worse than what both fWAR and rWAR expected. The obvious knee-jerk response to this statement for many would be to scoff at WAR for declaring the World Series winners to be worse than they actually were. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Both fWAR (106-56) and rWAR (104-58) rated the Red Sox as the best team in baseball, and predicted the team to be much better than what their record turned out to be. As we all know, the bullish stance taken by WAR on the Red Sox played out as expected in the playoffs, which ended with the Sox defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in a 6-game Series that wasn’t as close as its length made it look.
The feel-good “worst to first” narrative of this year’s Boston team was a media favorite this year, and there was substantial outcry when John Farrell finished second in Manager of the Year voting to a former Red Sox skipper who’d somehow turned up in “flyover country.” Whether Farrell’s contributions as a clubhouse leader were responsible for several Red Sox turning in stellar individual performances is up for debate. The fact that WAR rated the Sox so well, however, reveals that Farrell was in fact working with a fantastic baseball team. Unfortunately for fans of baseball “magic,” the reason for the success of the 2013 Red Sox is clearly that its players (as measured objectively against all of the other players in baseball) were really, really good. The question we’re left with, then, is why the Sox were “only” able to win 97 games.
It is my fervent hope that Part 3 of the WAR study will be up at some point tonight. First, though, and briefly: we all kind of knew this was going to happen. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball right now, and it isn’t particularly close. The 25 year-old 2-time Cy Young winner has led the National League in ERA each of the last 3 years while averaging over 230 innings pitched, was best in strikeouts in 2011 and 2013 (having finished 2nd in 2012 by one K), and in both 2012 and 2013 led the league in pitcher Wins Above Replacement and adjusted ERA+.
For a couple of years, baseball has speculated that Kershaw would be the first 30 million dollar man, and today it happened. Shortly after filing for arbitration, Kersh and the Dodgers got to work on what would be a 7-year, $215 million dollar contract extension with a player opt-out after five years. The deal is surprisingly reasonable in length given Kershaw’s stature and youth – He’ll only be 32 (the same age Adam Wainwright is today!) when his seven years are up.
Critics of WAR calculation often argue that the formula has too many variations to be consistent. Just about every year, statisticians (or if some critics are to be believed, cyborgs) announce significant changes to various WAR components. In fact, the two most widely accepted authorities on the subject – Baseball Reference and Fangraphs – can’t seem to agree on the best way of deriving the number. A major step toward WAR uniformity came recently when the sites’ editors agreed to use the same replacement-level record (48-114) in deciding how many Wins Above Replacement to allocate across the whole of baseball (1000). The basic idea is this: in an entire baseball season, 2,430 games are played. If all teams were allotted 48 wins, establishing the replacement level, the total number of wins would be 1,440. This leaves 990 wins above the replacement level to be allotted amongst the teams. The first thing you likely notice is that 990 and 1000, while very close, are not the same number. Well, the agreed-upon performance of a replacement-level team is actually based on a set winning percentage – .294. Over the course of a 162-game season, a .294 record would actually yield 47.628 wins, which we all know is not possible. Allot that exact number of wins to 30 teams, however, and you’re left with something much closer to 1,000 (1,001.16) for the number of wins above replacement to be distributed.
Those who accept and use Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as a tool to think about baseball have enough knowledge of and/or faith in its framework and methodology that they often treat WAR’s general accuracy more as a given than as a point of contention. On the other hand, a large number of baseball “traditionalists” refuse to acknowledge the possibility that the calculation could work at all. Still more are simply turned off by the cold indifference of numbers purporting to represent their heroes’ worth in the abstract. Unlike home runs or doubles, WAR is not something a player can do. It’s an artificial number derived by measuring a player’s performance against that of a person who does not even exist.
As a result, public debate about WAR (and sabermetrics in general) tends to focus on whether the calculation works and not how well. This isn’t exactly surprising. Given sports media’s widespread fixation on the yes/no rather than reasoned discussion of contested issues, the actual mechanics of such a polarizing thing can take a back seat to the perceived Big Picture. The “yes” crowd, while continuing to use advanced analytics to frame their discussion of the game, retreat to niche forums to discuss the ocean of grey that exists in baseball numbers. Naysayers soldier on, discounting advanced metrics as nerdy attempts to rewrite a narrative made clear through obvious stats while scoffing at WAR for its ignorance of mysterious baseball attributes such as “grit” and “the will to win.” The fertile middle ground, as it were, remains largely unplowed. Even as things like WAR and BABIP (batting average on balls in play) make more frequent appearances in mainstream baseball journalism, the presence of “sabermetric” stats in mass-consumption media often feels more like casually hip namedropping than an invitation to discuss why and how well they work.
We all know how it turned out: Greg Maddux (along with longtime teammate Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas) swept into the Hall of Fame, his name appearing on over 97% of ballots. Amidst a week of debate, controversy, anger, and scandal, the Professor’s election was entirely justified and surprised exactly no one.
Maddux’s resume has something for everyone. Fans of advanced metrics point to his 107 career Wins Above Replacement, or the fact that he led the league in adjusted ERA+ each year of his historic run of four consecutive Cy Young Awards (1992-95). For the counters, his 355 wins trail only Warren Spahn among pitchers who were born after 1900. He threw over 5,000 innings, and started at least 25 games twenty-two years in a row. He handled a bat with skill, fielded his position as well as any pitcher in history, and dominated hitters during an era of video-game offensive output with middling velocity and a slight, 170-pound frame. Greg Maddux is a living legend, one of the greatest baseball players of anyone’s lifetime, and any person harboring even a shred of doubt about his Hall of Fame candidacy needs to have their head checked.
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A little bit about myself: I am a native of southern Illinois and lifelong fan of the game, particularly the St. Louis Cardinals. I have a wife and kids, enjoy playing and listening to music, and recently transitioned from legal practice to full-time legal writing.
How I expect the site to work: I don’t really know. I needed a place to articulate my thoughts about baseball. There will probably be a mix of short-form observations, longer research pieces, guest posts (hopefully), personal stories, and humor. I’m going to try as best I can to keep it all generally baseball-related. I’ll need readers before I worry about much else, but I hope that down the road my site can be a place where baseball fans with different interests both inside and outside of baseball can come together and find some middle ground. Please comment, share, recommend, troll, or do whatever you think might lead people to the site. If you’re interested in sharing your own thoughts in a post here, please feel free to contact me.
Friends and family have told me to start writing about baseball for over 20 years. This is my attempt.