WAR is a good, imperfect, idea

I was probably most disappointed in Rob Neyer, if only for this sentence here.

Hippeaux does make some good points, which I have not excerpted because I can’t excerpt everything.

That’s fine, so far as it goes, but if that’s the way Rob saw things, I’d very much like to know why he chose to focus on complaining about Hippeaux’s use of the royal “we” and some goofy everyman schtick in which he stands up for the masses of “dunder-heads” Hippeaux supposedly insulted. Although I’m genuinely curious; does Rob honestly think there aren’t people out there who use WAR in a very literal sense? Because I can certainly attest that isn’t true. Just in the last three days I’ve gotten emails and Twitter messages wondering how Justin Verlander can be the consensus Cy Young frontrunner when C.C. Sabathia leads the A.L. in fWAR, and at least one email from an angry Red Sox fan wondering how I could possibly pretend Curtis Granderson is even a viable MVP candidate when Jacoby Ellsbury has an fWAR a full win better at the same position. So yes, these people are out there, and I’m more than a little miffed at how Rob could not have come in contact with any of them if he’s really the man of the people he purports to be.

Now, do I think those people are stupid? Of course not. I mostly blame myself for that. Because I can easily see how the way we (yes, we) write about these numbers in our everyday vernacular could lead to those incorrect perceptions. I don’t think we do a good enough job of backing up every so often to make sure we’re explaining things clearly, instead getting used to talking to people who already understand the concepts, assuming our audience understands them as well, and becoming more and more conversational in the way we reference them. That’s not a cardinal sin or anything, but it can be difficult for someone who walks in to the middle of the conversation to pick up on things, and getting confused is totally understandable.

I am neither a mathematician nor a statistician, so I’m not in much of a position to critique the hard math underlying WAR or any other stat. My specialties, as it were, are economics and philosophy, and I do think there’s a useful critique of WAR that can be built from those disciplines. First of all, there’s the pretty straight-forward problem that, as long as inputs are unreliable the final product will always be unreliable as well. And given that everyone knows defensive metrics can be tricky, and that single season defensive metrics are particular unreliable, numbers that rely on those measurements to attempt to judge a player’s total value will also be at least a bit suspect. I’m hardly breaking new ground here I know, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth saying every so often anyway.

Of course, that observation is absolutely not an indictment of the idea of WAR. The idea of WAR, to take all of the factors that go into being a productive baseball player and determine a player’s value based on how they perform in all aspects of the game, is just fine. People have been doing that forever, and they’ll continue doing it until the end of time. And using a consistent formula like WAR to attempt to do that is certainly a step up from just tossing off top-of-the-head opinions on the bar stool or something. But just because we mean well doesn’t mean we know everything we need to know, and that doesn’t mean we don’t know that we don’t know those things. But until we do have a more reliable way of measuring defense, we’re always going to have a problem with trying to add defensive value to offensive value to create a total value. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and we won’t. It does mean we ought to be more careful in the amount of certainty in these numbers that we imply with our usage of these numbers, and that applies to me as much as anyone.

On one point, Hippeaux was entirely correct: as these advanced metrics gain more and more acceptance and become more widely used, it’s inevitable that people are going to misunderstand them and use them incorrectly, and that effect will compound itself over time. Perhaps Rob Neyer’s friends won’t do that, but some of mine do, and yes, people who comment on blogs and talk about baseball on Twitter and explain sabermetrics to their friends. That doesn’t make them stupid, or dunder-heads, it’s a natural consequence of a growing idea and constantly progressing discussion. And savaging Hippeaux or complaining about his use of the word “we” did absolutely nothing to advance the discussion or help anyone.

11 thoughts on “WAR is a good, imperfect, idea

  1. Eric

    Rob's article was so juvenile – but it is something I have come to sadly expect from him.

  2. Noot

    Here's the problem with abstractly using "we" without specifying who "we" is. If you're trying to remind people about the dangers of over-valuing Player X's WAR because of certain caveats, then I can't see anything wrong with that. But Hippeaux didn't say "we" was himself, the writers on this site, e-mailers, or followers on Twitter; he just said "we", leaving everybody to speculate about who specifically is misusing it. So everybody pointed the fingers at themselves, and of course they're gonna respond with "I'm not misusing it. Who is?" Failing to specify left everybody thinking that Hippeaux was criticizing them personally, and if that criticism was unwarranted, then, well, of course they're going to respond like that.

    • BrienJackson

      Well, to turn that back around on you, who is "everybody?" Because personally, I only saw one person do that. And who exactly needs to ask "who is misusing WAR?" as though they've never seen someone do so? Again, I only saw one person do that.

      Saying Hippeaux should have been more specific for clarity's sake is one thing, getting that bent out of shape over it is another.

      • Noot

        By "everybody", I mean the people who got "bent out of shape" over the post. If you only mean Neyer, then there's nothing else to say, but you seem to be saying the reaction was over the top from more than just him.

        • BrienJackson

          Yes, on both counts. I did think that more than Neyer were over the top in their response, but that particular part was directed at Neyer specifically.

          • Noot

            The reason for that reaction from others may have something to do with the "defensive crouch" mentioned by 27up-27down below, but it probably has more to do with the lack of specificity. I know this wasn't the intention, but to me, the piece read as a criticism of the people who have popular baseball websites where they write about advanced statistics in baseball including WAR. Wisely or unwisely, those particular people will undoubtedly take offense if the criticism is unjustified.

  3. 27up-27down

    For years, the pioneers or early supporters of sabermetrics have been constantly under attack by mainstream baseball writers. Perhaps they have been in this defensive crouch for so long that any critique of a stat like WAR looks like an attack on their work (even when it clearly isn't like yesterday's post). I can forgive writers like Neyer for this understandable emotional reaction. That said, i think he owes Hippeaux an apology for some of his personal comments. His post today saying simpy "excellent work today" does nothing to retract yesterday's reaction.

  4. David

    Can we (we = all of us) at least agree that if you base your fantasy team around having the WAR-leader at each position, you're likely going to win? That's a safe statement to make, I hope? :)

  5. chris

    I read yesterdays post when there were approximately 40-50 comments. I wanted to leave a comment about my observation of the post but based on the direction of where the comments were going I thought it better that I didnt. I sent Brien a message on twitter about how people take things so personal when commenting back and forth after a post. I left it before yesterdays post.

    I love baseball. Period. I played it growing up, in high school and college. I coach it at the high school level and I umpire little league. But in the end, its a game. To take it one step further, its a game played by other people. Aside from the team I coach, I have no vested interest in whether or not Derek Jeter ends up the greatest Yankee of all time or not. Or whether or not Roger Clemens used steroids or HGH. I am still fairly young, 28, but baseball being super meaningful ended 6-7 years ago. Now its just entertainment. Do I have my opinions on the things I listed above? Absolutely. I think the Yankees shouldve traded for Jimenez, I think that Girardi is a crappy manager and I think that Cashman is a lot like AJ Smith of Chargers in the NFL and is letting his ego get in the way of being a great GM. But in the end they are my opinions. You dont have to agree with them. I dont expect most people to agree with them. But just because someones opinion is different from yours doesnt mean that you should tear that person down as an individual or attack that person.

    I grew up a traditionalist when it comes to stats. But as time has gone by I have grown to see the value of advanced metrics. I use them even at the high school level when deciding how to pitch to a certain player. I sometimes wonder if sabermetrics are taking a lot of the fun out of the game from the view point that well based on this stat adn this and this and what not projections we know who will win at what score and whos going to win it. but again that is just one of my outlandish opinions. I know just enough about advanced statistics to be dangerous. which is both good and bad. Bad because I end will be the person who ends up being the "we" and using WAR blindly. Good because I am trying to learn more about them and accept them.

    Now, I understand sabermetricians and the view that they have been fighting for so long only to have their work be questioned (I am one of the people who questioned for a long time). But in the end if your work is sound then your work will speak for itself. You dont have to tear down a person for questioning your work, you can pick apart teh analysis and the work that was used to disprove your work but there is no need to make it personal.

    Im sure some of the personal attacks were made out of an emotional reaction, much like the Amy K. Nelson report about the Blue Jays, but that still doesnt excuse the fact that it was done. Herm Edwards was addressing the NFL rookies and was talking about twitter and basically said… before you hit send read it, think about it, maybe have someone else read it, then read it again then think about it again. I think the same thing applies when commenting on post.

    • michael

      As neither a true sabermetrician, baseball player, nor anything, I really, really appreciated this.

  6. Mike

    "and at least one email from an angry Red Sox fan wondering how I could possibly pretend Curtis Granderson is even a viable MVP candidate when Jacoby Ellsbury has an fWAR a full win better at the same position. So yes, these people are out there,"

    This is so stupid and disingenuous. If a week later, Granderson passed Ellsbury in WAR, you would get an email from the same person saying how WAR isn't that precise and shouldn't be used like a sledgehammer. You're talking about FANS. Any port in a storm, that's the majority of fans I'm sad to say. Stop pretending like we need blog posts from people like Hippeaux who clearly have a marginal understanding of the subject they're talking about so we can straighten out people who have an even more marginal understanding. None of these people matter when it comes to "furthering the understanding of baseball" or whatever BS excuse you gave for your friend's "thoughtful, well-meaning" blog post entitled "Is WAR the new RBI?" Totally thoughtful, well-meaning headline there.

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