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.