MLB 2011: Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia and the Uselessness of WAR

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MLB 2011: Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia and the Uselessness of WAR
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Ah, the silliness and utter despair inherent in war...and Major League Baseball?

Yes, even on this horrid, rainy day when other world and domestic problems loom, my mind has been stuck on war, or is it WAR, as it relates to baseball. And it’s not even the pennant wars or even some good old-fashioned beanball wars. Not even the Billy Beane / Michael Lewis/ Brad Pitt Moneyball wars.

Two weeks ago, I warned of the developing gangland skirmishes between old school and new school baseball fans. The old-guard gang is The Blues—a breed who wants no part of all of the new stats and analytics that baseball is swimming in currently. They just don’t relate to all those weird numbers and statisticians running amok telling them that RBI(s), ERA and wins and losses don’t even matter.

On the other corner is The Reds, who scoff at the old ways and seek clarity, beauty and solace at all the ways individual players can contribute to winning efforts even when they’re not.

Or something like that.

I labeled myself a Green two weeks ago, as I wish to see the beauty of the game as it always has been yet want to avail myself of some of the newer analytics for a bigger picture. If green connotes pacifism, so be it, even if that does not quite describe me politically or with respect to my analytical inclinations.

Well, maybe it does these days, as I’m once again up in arms about WAR, as in “Wins Above Replacement.” Yes, last year, I made the pun in a Bleacher Report piece about WAR being good for absolutely nothing, even if I neglected to give it the Edwin Starr treatment. All Blues, Reds and budding Greens may enjoy this.

 

In a nutshell, here’s the problem with WAR, if you can even figure out whether to use the set of WAR calculations offered by baseball-reference.com or Fangraphs.com.  I’m sure there are dozens of other variations lurking in the ether.

It is not that the stat is good for absolutely nothing; it’s just that there is no one single stat—super-stat or otherwise—that  should do all of our thinking for us. While new stats may have been designed to open up new thinking pathways, overly relying on them has actually crippled this exercise. 

 

THE CY YOUNG RACES

Take the National League Cy Young race, for instance. There are some very good hurlers having some terrific years. Until recently, I thought it was very close between the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels (till his last few starts) and now, Ian Kennedy.

To simplify the discussion, let’s just take a look at the years being posted by the Phillies’ Roy Halladay (last year’s unanimous CYA winner and deservedly so) and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Pitcher

W-L

ERA

IP

H

K

BB

WHIP

BAA

Halladay

18-6

2.41

226

204

217

34

1.05

.240

Kershaw

20-5

2.27

227.2

170

242

53

0.99

.208

In looking at the above stats, most baseball fans would see that both aces have been outstanding, but Kershaw has had the better year—and by a fairly decisive margin.

The only stat where Halladay has an edge is in K:BB ratio, but Kershaw actually has a better K/BB differential (189 to 183), and is significantly harder to hit.

Let’s go to the WAR room on this. Fangraphs.com has Halladay at an 8.0 WAR, and Kershaw is rated at 6.8 with Cliff Lee at 6.7. If that makes sense to anyone, please explain it to me.  For their part, baseball-reference.com has Halladay at 7.2, with Kershaw and Lee tied for second at 6.8.

Full disclosure: By geography and practice, I am a long-time Phillies fan. I respect everything I know about Halladay, have a rational and irrational devotion to Lee, and hope they are heading our rotation for the next 45 years. But, there ought to be an investigation if anyone other than Kershaw wins this year. And if you’re a dead-Red WAR guy, you can’t vote for Kershaw, can you?

I did not even go into the fact that the Dodgers have an abysmal record when Kershaw does not pitch; not true for either Halladay or Lee, even with the team’s current six-game losing streak.

Let’s go to the AL and look at the two pitchers who are tied for pitching WAR (at 7.0), per Fangraphs—the Yankees’ CC Sabathia and the TigersJustin Verlander.

 

Pitcher

W-L

ERA

IP

H

K

BB

WHIP

BAA

Sabathia

19-8

3.00

237

230

230

61

1.23

.255

Verlander

24-5

2.29

244

170

244

56

0.91

.190

 

Once again, can anyone in their right mind explain to me why these two pitchers’ WAR values are even close? And, I really don’t care if Verlander pitched in Yellowstone and CC pitched in a phone booth. CC has been outstanding, Verlander has been amazing.

Oh, and when you explain it to me, try to do so without the use of mega-nerd stats.

 

Another problem with WAR is that there are big discrepancies between the Fangraphs and baseball-reference models.

In ranking the AL pitchers, Fangraphs has Dan Haren third at 6.2 with his teammate, Jered Weaver, fifth at 5.6. And Baseball-reference? Weaver is third at 6.7, and Haren is 13th at 4.1.

I should not even go into hitters, but I will, with just a quick glance at NL hitter rankings.

Ryan Howard—a player that Blues love and Reds don’t—is ranked No. 41 at 2.6, behind guys like Clint Barmes and Nick Hundley.

How about Dan Uggla, once thought of as a dark-horse MVP candidate? His WAR is calculated at 1.6, the 71st highest in the NL, behind, well, 70 other guys.  Uggla may not make my Top 10 MVP candidates, but would be an easy Top 15 to 20. 

 

THE GOOD OLD DAYS?

I am not one to pine for the good old days when even counting stats were not updated in the daily box scores, There was no internet and one hoped that their local newspaper printed the Top 10 league leaders while you jonesed for the Sunday paper, where all the individual players who qualified had their stats listed.

David Maxwell/Getty Images

It’s great that we can pore over a wealth of stats; it’s not great when we lean too hard on numbers that aren’t even close to being unified or perfected. It invades the point of silliness when some fans castigate other fans for having the gall of placing some importance on RBI, runs, batting average, ERA and wins.

Yes, some of these dreaded counting stats are influenced by home ballparks and teammates, but they are still important in telling a lot about the worth of a player.

Further, in figuring out the most deserving candidates for awards, it pains me to see writers and fans twisting themselves into pretzels over ground ball ratios and the like.

News flash: we’re not scouts and GMs.

Even in my most all-inclusive, magnanimous Greenish state, I fear that the jargon of the Reds will so drown out that of the Blues that baseball fans will start having conversations like this:

   "Do you remember how dominant Pedro Martinez was in 2000? 23-4, 2.07, 313 strike—"

   "Who cares about those numbers? You mean his 8.3 WAR. That’s nothing—he had a 10.1 WAR and an ERA-plus of 291 the very next year. I think there was one game where he actually boosted his WAR a whole 0.93. The fans went crazy."

Oh yes, this fan would go crazy if he were ever part of such a conversation—except in humor.

And the baseball fan in me will also rebel if either CC or Doc wins the Cy Young this year.

 

Matt Goldberg, a featured columnist for the Philadelphia Phillies and all-around baseball fanatic, is also a noted humor author and speaker. For more information, please visit www.tipofthegoldberg.com

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