Monday, 22 February 2016

There's More to Baseball than WAR

I love baseball statistics. The way we harbour records for every conceivable event is admirable and imaginative. However, the recent trend towards boiling a player's value down to one solitary number, like some kind of grocery store bar code, is having deleterious consequences for how we interpret the game.

As one tool in a wider evaluation arsenal, Wins Above Replacement is very effective. In a practical sense, it allows for a concise overview of production, while also representing true advancement in the field of baseball analysis. Yet, despite being a progressive statistic, WAR can also lead to a somewhat parochial view of the game from fans. Nowadays, our natural opinions are too frequently modified by this one number, which stifles the romance of baseball with an arrogant absolutism. We now seek permission from charts and graphs before experiencing the game's natural emotion, as baseball is reduced to a distorted idealism.

Of course, Sabermetricians will disagree with my view, and that is understandable. Their quest is to develop new ways of attaining total objectivity when analysing baseball. I have no issue with that. In fact, I encourage them wholeheartedly and often use the fruits of their work to substantiate my opinionated writing. However, I don't agree with WAR totally monopolizing our interpretation of players, teams and history, as has noticeably been the case in recent years. That goes against everything baseball is supposed to represent, and even threatens to undermine the progress being made elsewhere in Sabermetrics.

Naturally, some will say that the onus falls on individual people to exercise their own judgement with regard to baseball statistics. Nevertheless, that's difficult when every television show or podcast refers to WAR almost as a proxy for genuine analysis. Again, this could be viewed as innovative and forward-thinking, but also lazy and damaging to the idea of baseball as a broad, multi-faceted and idiosyncratic pursuit.

You see, for many of us, baseball is the highest form of escapism. It's a game. We fall in love first with its nuance and atmosphere, then graduate to its tactics and technicalities. There's a cultural mystique to baseball, an implacable magic that exists regardless of what mathematicians believe. It spawns folk heroes, like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, who were beloved not for data on a page but for big swings and bigger personalities. Sure, that data can validate their work and place it in historical context, but it shouldn't necessarily override the essence of their being, nor the spirit of their play. First and foremost, they were icons who captured the public's imagination. Their assault on baseball history contributed to the legend, but that was an ancillary concept. People loved them for who they were and what they represented, not solely for what they achieved on the isolated diamonds of Major League Baseball.

Even when playing devil's advocate, there are unavoidable problems with using WAR as the ultimate indicator of player worth. For instance, the Baseball-Reference model places a value of 71.8 wins on the career of Derek Jeter. That ranks just 88th all-time. How on earth are we supposed to take that seriously? How can we trust a system that says Larry Walker, Mike Mussina and Chipper Jones were more valuable than Derek Jeter? Perhaps that's the case after hours spent cooking up a statistical potion in the lab, but instinctively, there's no way any of those players outranks the Yankee captain. We're talking about a true legend of this game; a guy who grabbed the baton passed down from Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, then led the New York Yankees to five World Series championships with amazing contributions on the biggest stage. Only five guys ever to lace a pair of cleats amassed more hits than Jeter, but you're telling me Chipper Jones was more valuable? That's incomprehensible.

Ultimately, we all like different aspects of the game in unique ways. Some people love the smells and sounds of a ballpark, while others are fascinated by the numbers. Of course, these two concepts aren't mutually exclusive. A statistician can love beer and crackerjack in the bleachers, just as a baseball purist can enjoy mining troves of data on his favourite players. However, when our thoughts and feelings are predetermined by WAR, part of baseball's mystique is lost, and part of the game day experience is diluted. Moreover, I feel that people who don't worship at the altar of Wins Above Replacement are being marginalized and viewed as somehow less intelligent or passionate about baseball than those who do.

In this regard, the cult of advanced analytics is becoming dictatorial. It's their way of the highway. Increasingly, we're told which players to idolize, which trades to like, simply because of one number, one WAR rating. Admittedly, that number represents the finest work ever done to codify baseball performance, but I believe it should still be secondary to our own feelings conceived naturally while watching a game, not implanted while scrolling through the Twitter feed of a data analyst. Many will argue that listening to the statistical chorus is optional, but that's my point: baseball analysis has been almost totally consumed by analytics, to the point where WAR is held aloft as an omniscient force, and there's little time for breakdowns of the physical game at hand.

In the modern age, any player with a negative WAR is shunned, discarded, written off as irrelevant. We only have time for dynamic players who excel in a multitude of areas. That is arguably a positive thing, because it concentrates our attention on what truly matters, but again, what if the casual fan just loves the excitement of home runs and doesn't care that Chris Davis is less than adequate in the field? There has to be a place for that. We must be allowed to like certain players and certain teams on a personal, spiritual level, without earning the scorn of number-crunchers, who are keen to steer us down a path of righteousness.

Now please don't misinterpret my stance. I'm not some crusty scout bearing a grudge. But if fans don't trust their own eyes and instead rely on recycled, metric-ordained opinion, we're going to lose sight of baseball's soul, which assuredly was never about digits on a website. By all means, use analytics to support your views and enrich the debate, but please don't regard WAR as the one and only starting point for opinion. It is a starting point, and people are entitled to use it freely as such, but its recent transformation into the definitive conscience of baseball is selfish and dangerous.

Baseball can't be reduced to one number. This is a wonderful game that has beguiled millions of people for hundreds of years with the breadth of its variety and the depth of its unpredictability. There has to be room for the art, as well as the science; for the human, as well as the computer. By no means should we disregard WAR or admonish those who work so hard to defend its sanctity. But we also shouldn't lose grasp of our instincts, or tease those who view baseball through a more traditional prism.