I got back-to-back emails last week from Brilliant Readers that pretty much sums up my frustration with so many gripes about baseball statistics. The first was written to defend the pitcher's win. I was actually glad to get that because I obviously did not do a good enough job making the irony clear in my In Praise of Pitcher Wins (Sort Of) post last week. Maybe if I had titled it "In Praise Of Pitcher Wins (Not Really)" or "In Praise of Pitcher Wins (LOL; I Spend 99.2% of the Article Ripping Pitcher Wins)" the point might have been clearer. But I heard from so many people who actually thought I was PRAISING pitcher wins, and they wanted me to know pitcher wins are not a good way to measure pitchers and that they're a waste of time and all those things I have spent 500,000 words on the last few years. Ah, well, when you hear from that many people missing it, then it's the writer's fault. I obviously did not get the point across well enough.
But some Brilliant Readers did get my intention, and one in particular made a well-reasoned argument that wins, flawed as they are, do tell us with a pretty decent sense of accuracy whether a pitcher is good or not, especially over a long career. OK, put that thought away for a minute.
The next email was from another Brilliant Reader who had myriad complaints about WAR. This too was well-reasoned, and it made the point that WAR is far from perfect, that the formula between Baseball Reference and Fangraphs is quite different, that it's ridiculous to take out the human element from baseball analysis and simply determine who is the best player by the decimal points of WAR.
It was good to read those back-to-back, because in just two emails I felt like I had seen the arc. The first BR wants too little from stats. The second BR expects ways too much.
Take the wins email. It is absolutely true that if a pitcher wins 20 games in a season, he almost certainly had an excellent season. It is even more true that if a pitcher wins 250 games in a career -- 300 games in his career, even more -- he will have had an excellent career, no exceptions. But, with all due respect: So what? How is this useful? Do we really have that hard a time determining whether a pitcher is "good" or "bad?" This feels to me like when they have one of those contests where you have to guess how many jelly beans are in the jar. Sure, you could guess "a lot." You probably won't win the contest.
If a pitcher wins a lot of games over a career, yes, he's good. It's also true that if a pitcher pitches a lot of innings, he's good. If he gets a lot of starts, he's good. Heck, since 1901, 10 of the top 11 in hits allowed are in the Hall of Fame, and the only one not in the Hall of Fame is Tommy John who has a great Hall of Fame case. The point is that we should expect a whole lot more from our baseball stats than vague "He's good" tips. Take these 10 pitchers:
-- Bob Gibson
-- Sandy Koufax
-- Pedro Martinez
-- Herb Pennock
-- Jack Morris
-- Jamie Moyer
-- Juan Marichal
-- Bret Saberhagen
-- Jim Kaat
-- Jerry Reuss
Let's rank them by wins and see what we get:
1. Jim Kaat (283)
2. Jamie Moyer (267)
3. Jack Morris (254)
4. Bob Gibson (251)
5. Juan Marichal (243)
6. Herb Pennock (241)
7. Jerry Reuss (220)
8. Pedro Martinez (219)
9. Bret Saberhagen (167)
10. Sandy Koufax (165)
OK, is that how you would have lined them up for Game 7 of a World Series? No, probably not. Now, how about we rank them by WAR and see where that gets us:
1. Bob Gibson (85.6)
2. Pedro Martinez (75.9)
3. Juan Marichal (64.0)
4. Bret Saberhagen (54.7)
5. Sandy Koufax (54.5)
6. Jamie Moyer (47.3)
7. Jim Kaat (41.2)
8. Jack Morris (39.3)
9. Herb Pennock (36.9)
10. Jerry Reuss (33.1)
Well, that might not be perfect … but that gets us a lot closer to what our heart and mind tells us, doesn't it? The biggest problem with wins, it seems to me, is not that it tells us inaccurate things. It is that, so often, it doesn't tell us anything at all.
But, then there's the other side of the argument. Look at the WAR list again. Bret Saberhagen is .2 WAR better than Sandy Koufax. Would anyone -- including Bret and his family -- make the argument that Sabes was a better pitcher than Koufax or had a better career? No. Of course not. Would you definitely want Jamie Moyer to pitch Game 7 over Jack Morris? We know Morris had a pretty good Game 7. And this is a major argument that people want to make against WAR in its various , that it is not flawless, that it is not accurate to the 10th or 100th of the decimal point, that its components (particular the defensive components) are desperately flawed, and thus it allows people to regurgitate the garbage-in, garbage-out argument that helped make O.J. Simpson a free man (for at least a little while).
It is striking to me that wins could have such a low bar and WAR such a high one, that wins could still be of some use because -- to use a GPS analogy -- it can generally locate where Philadelphia might be while WAR is of no use because it might tell you there's a traffic jam on Schuylkill Expressway when that was cleared up like TEN MINUTES AGO.
Of course WAR in its various forms is not perfect, not near-perfect. There's a substantial margin of error involved; I think everybody knows that. But is perfection even the point? Take this year's MVP balloting. According to Baseball Reference, Jose Bautista leads the American League in WAR. This has led people to argue whether or not Bautista deserves to be the MVP -- after all, his Blue Jays really have never been in contention, and WAR is not a perfect stat (Jacoby Ellsbury leads the league in WAR according to Fangraphs) and so on.
But I would say that the fact people are even having this argument suggests that WAR is accomplishing something. In 2006, Grady Sizemore might have been the best player in the American League -- he led the league in what people are now calling rWar (Baseball Reference WAR) and fWar (Fangraphs WAR) -- but he got pretty close to 0.0 consideration for MVP. I think now people would give him a bit more respect. The point is that WAR often does exactly what I think statistics should do. It challenges. It offends. It forces people to think rather then act automatically based on old and sometimes outdated thoughts. And it pushed people to defend their thinking, to show their work, which I think is good.
I wouldn't want people to use WAR lazily, to put any emphasis on a two tenths of a point difference, to just blindly follow. But, to be blunt about it, I really don't think that's much of a problem. People who go to the effort to use WAR, to understand it, generally seem to know that it's a tool, like all statistics. It's adaptable. You can use your own defensive observations pretty easily, just as an example. And it will get better. It will get more precise. Even now I would argue it gets us much closer to something real than blunt instruments like wins or RBIs or batting average. I'll say this: If it ever gets to the point where people just start using WAR blindly, without critical thought, then it will be past-time to find the next thing.
Continuing on the Bautista theme: I think WAR will prevent us from getting an egregious MVP choice for quite a long time. I could be wrong. But based on WAR, there have been seven players in baseball history who have contributed 4 or less WAR and won the MVP award, and I don't that's as likely to happen now. These, to me, are the egregious choices. You could always argue that one guy deserved the MVP over another, but assuming they both had surpassing seasons then it's only that: A fun argument. Was Ted Williams better than Joe DiMaggio in 1941? Fangraphs has Teddy Ballgame with 11.9 WAR to DiMaggio's 10.6. But a 10.6 WAR is a great, great season. DiMaggio was a deserving MVP. Start there. Now we can argue whether Williams deserved it more (I think so).
Point is, I don't think we will get a 4.0 WAR winner for a while.
Here is a list of those:
1979: Willie Stargell (2.3 rWAR; 2.8 fWAR)
-- The ultimate "soul of a team" winner, Stargell and Keith Hernandez shared the MVP award even though Pops only played in 126 games. His WAR wasn't even close to his teammate Dave Parker, who might be in the Hall of Fame had he won his second MVP award and been viewed as the driving force of the "We Are Family Pirates."
1992: Dennis Eckersley (3.0 rWAR)
-- I've written about this before … for a long while, American League voters had this fetish about giving closers MVP awards. Rollie Fingers got one. Willie Hernandez got one. Eck got one. Eck's is probably the most egregious because he might not have even been the best relief pitcher in his own division, 39 of his 51 saves were won by two runs or more (heck, five of them were by FOUR runs or more), and he only pitched 80 innings.
1987: Andre Dawson (2.7 rWAR, 3.7 fWAR)
-- His WAR is so low because of two things that hardly seemed to matter in 1987 -- he didn't walk (Dawson had a .327 on-base percentage) and his big power numbers were in many ways an illusion of context (at home, in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, Dawson hit .332/.373/.668; on the road he hit .246/.288/.480). The writers thought they were making a break through by giving a hitter on a last place team the MVP, and I applaud those sentiments. They just happened to give it to the wrong guy that year. … I also mean this as no knock on Dawson, incidentally, who in other years like 1981, 1982 and 1983 had a real MVP case).
1996: Juan Gonzalez (2.8 rWAR, 3.7 fWAR)
-- Here's a good example of a voting catastrophe that, I honestly believe, would never happen in 2011 because of WAR. Sure, there would be people who might argue for Juan Gone because of his 47 homers and 144 RBIs. But it just seems utterly unthinkable to me now that anyone would have voted for him over Ken Griffey (9.7 WAR), Alex Rodriguez (9.4 WAR) or Chuck Knoblauch (8.8 WAR). I just don't think the voters as a collective would do that now.
1974: Jeff Burroughs (3.6 rWAR, 3.9 fWAR)
-- Or this … it astounds me how often American League voters have given this award to a Texas player who did not have that good a season.* Well, it astounds me how often American League voters have given this award to Texas players period. Burroughs. Juan Gone. Juan Gone again. I-Rod. A-Rod. Hamilton. That's amazing, isn't it? The Rangers only reached their first World Series LAST YEAR. There were few great hitting choices in 1974, which is why Burroughs won. Reggie Jackson certainly could have won the award. Bobby Grich could have won it, and maybe then people would have given him more Hall of Fame consideration. But this should be said: Burroughs had a very good offensive year; it's his defensive numbers that shatter his overall WAR. So if you believe those numbers to be overstated, this is not as egregious a choice as others.
*I should say here that while I think WAR will prevent us from getting egregious MVP choices, I could be wrong. There is a contingent suggesting that Michael Young should be an MVP candidate even though his rWAR and fWAR are both less than 4 and he's slugging .406 on the road this year and he's mostly a designated hitter. So if he indeed proves to be an MVP contender, I will have to concede that I'm wildly overstating the effects of WAR.
1950: Jim Konstanty (3.6 rWAR)
Well, the voters felt like they HAD to give the MVP to someone on the Phillies. After all, that was the year of the Whiz Kids, the year the Phillies -- after three decades of pain -- finally won a pennant. But picking Konstanty was just kind of nutty. Oh, he had a good year as a reliever and occasional starter, but come on. Here's something interesting. As Sept. 23 began, the Phillies were 7 games up with 11 games to play. Konstanty would pitch in six of those 11 games. And here's how he did:
-- Sept. 23: Pitched scoreless inning in 3-2 loss.
-- Sept. 25: Gave up two runs in bottom of the eighth in 5-3 loss.
-- Sept. 26: Came in with Phillies up 5-4 and gave up two runs, though Phillies came back to win.
-- Sept. 27: Gave up losing run in 8-7 loss.
-- Sept. 28: Pitched two scoreless innings in 3-1 loss.
-- Sept. 30: Gave up four runs in loss that pulled Brooklyn within one game.
Your 1950 MVP! I'm thinking had WAR been around, his teammate Robin Roberts might have won the 1950 MVP award. And while someone else might have been a better choice -- Eddie Stanky and Jackie Robinson and Stan Musial all had great years -- Roberts, at least, had an MVP caliber year.
2006: Justin Morneau (3.8 rWAR, 4.0 fWAR)
-- I think (hope?) this will be the last really misguided MVP choice. I guess people were talking about advanced metrics like WAR in 2006, but their effects were still quite muted. This was the year that Sizemore might have been the best player in the American League but there were other more prominent choices who would have been better than Morneau. I personally thought the MVP was Morneau's teammate Joe Mauer. But the guy who finished second in the voting was someone you may have heard of, a guy named Derek Jeter, and there was the expected uproar out of New York when Morneau won. Thing is: I think those guys in New York were right. If it came down to Jeter and Morneau, I think Jeter was a clear winner as his 6.3 WAR suggests.
This year, we have a great MVP race … in both leagues, really. The American League gives us a great hitter on a non-contending team (Bautista), a dominating pitcher (Justin Verlander), a speedy outfielder (Ellsbury), a force-of-nature second baseman (Dustin Pedroia), a Yankees centerfielder with power and speed (Curtis Granderson), a Red Sox first baseman who is an artist at the plate (Adrian Gonzalez). All of them are having great years. All of them are worthy candidates. Based on WAR, maybe you can throw in an underrated player from Texas (Ian Kinsler), a Detroit masher (Miggy Cabrera). It's great.
And in the National League, rWAR says that Matt Kemp is having clearly the best individual season. I don't have a National League MVP vote, but I would expect the voters will weigh that heavily. Kemp has been absurdly good in 2011. But Justin Upton has had a phenomenal year -- fWAR has Upton and Kemp separated by an irrelevant margin -- Troy Tulowitzki has been exceptional, Ryan Braun was my preseason MVP choice and he's putting up an MVP-type year, those Phillies pitchers are pretty awesome. The guy I like watching is Joey Votto. I saw him play three games in Chicago, and it reminded me: he was the runaway MVP last year, and he's almost EXACTLY as good this year. In fact, because he is scoring a bit better on defense he will probably have an even higher WAR this year than last.
And this gets at exactly why I love WAR. It makes things more fun. Should we be a slave to it? Of course not. But, is that even necessary to say? I mean: should we be a slave to anything?