SPORTS IRREVERENCE AND MORE FROM THE OTHER TIP OF THE GOLDBERG
WAR: What’s it good for: absolutely nothing?
Confession #1: This was going to be a "power ranking" (Bleacher Report-style) of the AL Cy Young candidates, sparked in part by a discussion I had yesterday with a (fellow featured) columnist; he writes for the Mariners, and I write for the Phillies. That companion piece of sorts is forthcoming.
Confession #2: I love almost every sport, and get especially geeked up on baseball. I respect Bill James and his disciples--and even some of his educated detractors. But sometimes, I just hit my limit when stats are just parroted without any regard to common sense. Please read on.
So...what was going to be an article about the AL Cy Young Award race somehow generated this column. This column was inspired (just now) by an hour or two spent studying all of the relevant stats, and then spending a little more time on something called WAR.
You may already know that WAR means "Wins Above Replacement." It was designed, I learned, by Sean Smith of baseballprojection.com who wanted to create a single number that represents the number of wins that a player (pitcher or position player) has added to his team.
Now, it is, admittedly, a pretty cool thing when somebody can create a system that reduces our research, or maybe our shopping, time. We all benefit from people's brainstorms multiple times every single time we turn on our GPS or get travel fares from "expedia"--pardon the plug. Even a mini technophobe like me.
But what I can't handle is the slavish devotion by some (I'm not picking on my new friend from Seattle by the way) to stats that they probably could not figure out if you locked them in a library for a week.
How many times are passer ratings quoted mindlessly by TV analysts and sports radio jocks as if they are the end-all and be-all of ranking quarterbacks?
How do you like the computer rankings that feed into the BCS system in college football? Do you find yourself quoting the RPI index every March heading into the field of 64, or 65, or whatever mad number has taken over NCAA college hoops? And then, do you find yourself feeling like you really knew went into that index?
My suspicion is that, if you're like me, you throw around those BCS rankings and RPIs when and only when they serve your alma mater or favorite team. Otherwise, they're a bunch of hooey.
Well, I won't call mathematicians who are smarter than me, or baseball fans who are more comfortable with these numbers, delusional or manufacturers of hooey They mean well, and in some cases, do the research that would be impossible for us to do.
My point is this. There are many Web sites that provide plenty of traditional numbers available for our use. Most fans have some sense of players around the league. Judgment calls have to be made all of the time, and there is no single stat that can do all that work for us!!
The 2010 AL Cy Young race is especially interesting, as most people’s top two candidates—CC Sabathia of the Yankees and Feliz Hernandez of the Mariners—are also 1 and 2 in WAR. (Hernandez is currently tied with Jared Weaver at 5.3, just behind Sabathia’s 5.4.) Not too bad. It seems as if I can even learn to be a WAR-monger.
Down the list, WAR gets a little troublesome for me. WAR informs me that the A’s Trevor Cahill (16-7, 2.84, with a 1.075 WHIP) is worth less to his team than either John Danks of the White Sox (13-11, 3.80, 1.216 WHIP) or Jeremy Guthrie of the Orioles (10-14, 3.92, 1.195 WHIP). Cahill is ranked 14th, behind Danks (11th) and Guthrie (12th).
Is WAR a great super-stat, or does its usage indicate that baseball is being analyzed by a parallel universe? Oh yeah, WHIP (which is just one of many more traditional stats for pitchers) means walks plus hits per innings pitched. One can even calculate this easily on a dollar store calculator.
Not enough evidence to go to war on WAR? Okay, if you were using WAR to analyze NL MVP candidates, you may find your own top five or so not too different from what happens in the “WAR” room.
The Top Five War-friendly NL position players, in order, are: Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Aubrey Huff and Troy Tulowitski. Huff’s having a nice year, but a little high at #4, but that’s not too bad. Perhaps, you were looking for emerging superstar Carlos Gonzalez, who is leading the league in batting average and tied for first in RBI and runs, and 4th in homers? He’s #12, four places behind Angel Pagan, a decent player, but his .294/10/67 with 75 runs scored and an OPS of .778 is pedestrian.
Were you looking for Ryan Howard? He’s ranked #52 in WAR, behind well, 51 other position players, some of whom are named Michael Bourn (15), Jamey Carroll (45) and Jeff Keppinger (48.) No comment…that lunacy should speak for itself!
ALL I AM SAYING IS GIVE COMMON SENSE A CHANCE
The idea of a single stat is not a bad one, and at times it seems to get us close to the pin, but I am appealing to even the quasi-stat geeks not to quote WAR to me when making an analysis. In fact, don’t quote me any number that you could not quote me the mathematical formula for, be it RPI, BCS or passer rating (and it is passer rating, and not quarterback rating.)
If you do insist on going to WAR as your source, I’m going to ask you why a little known Indian(s)—(by way of South Korea)—right fielder named Shin-Soo Choo is ranked #2 in the AL in WAR while putting up these numbers: .285/20/82 with 74 runs. Of course, I didn’t realize that he was worth more than MVP candidates such as Josh Hamilton, Joe Mauer, Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano.
Need more ammo against WAR? BJ Upton (23) is having just as good or better a year than Mark Teixeira (24).
Oh, I get it: the WAR room computers respect the fact that BJ went to war against his own teammates (especially Evan Longoria, ranked #1) earlier this year.
Okay, time for me to chill out. I’ll go back to my peaceful ways once I declare my war on WAR to be over.