The problem with Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in baseball

I love baseball statistics. The way we harbour records for every conceivable event is admirable and imaginative. However, the recent trend towards boiling player value down to one solitary number, like some kind of grocery store bar code, is having deleterious consequences for how we interpret the game.

As one tool in a wider evaluation arsenal, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is very effective. In a practical sense, it allows for a concise overview of production while also representing true advancement in the field of baseball analysis. Yet despite being a progressive statistic, WAR can also lead to a somewhat parochial view of the game. Nowadays, our natural opinions are too frequently modified by this one number, which stifles the romance of baseball with an arrogant absolutism. We now seek permission from charts and graphs before experiencing the game's natural emotion, as baseball is reduced to a distorted intellectual idealism.

Of course, sabermetricians will disagree with my view, and that is understandable. Their quest is to develop new ways of attaining total objectivity when analysing baseball. I have no issue with that. In fact, I encourage them wholeheartedly and often use the fruits of their work to substantiate my opinionated writing. However, I do not agree with WAR totally monopolising our interpretation of players, teams and history, as has noticeably been the case in recent years. That goes against everything baseball is supposed to represent and threatens to undermine the progress being made elsewhere in the analytical field.

Naturally, some will say the onus falls on individuals to exercise their own judgement regarding baseball statistics. Nevertheless, that is difficult to do when every television broadcast or podcast refers to WAR as a proxy for genuine analysis. Again, this could be viewed as innovative and progressive, but it is also lazy and damaging to the idea of baseball as a broad, multi-faceted and idiosyncratic pursuit.

You see, for many of us, baseball is the highest form of escapism. It is a game. We fall in love first with its nuance and atmosphere, then graduate to its tactics and technicalities. There is a cultural mystique to baseball, an implacable magic that exists independent of mathematical dogma. Baseball spawns folk heroes like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, who were beloved not for data on a page but for big swings and bigger personalities. Sure, that data can validate their work and place it in historical context, but it should not necessarily override the essence of their being, nor the spirit of their play. First and foremost, they were icons who captured the zeitgeist. Their assault on baseball history contributed to the legend, but that was an ancillary concept. People loved them for who they were and what they represented, not solely for what they achieved on the isolated diamonds of Major League Baseball.

Even when playing devil's advocate, there are unavoidable problems with using WAR as the ultimate indicator of player worth. For instance, the Baseball-Reference model places a value of 71.8 wins on the career of Derek Jeter. That ranks just 88th all-time. How on earth are we supposed to take that seriously? How can we trust a system that says Larry Walker, Mike Mussina and Chipper Jones were more valuable than Derek Jeter? Perhaps that is the case after hours spent cooking up a statistical potion in the lab, but instinctively, there is no way any of those players outranks the Yankee captain. We are talking about a true legend of this game, a guy who grabbed the baton passed down from Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle then led the New York Yankees to five World Series championships with clutch contributions on the biggest stage. Only five guys ever to lace a pair of cleats amassed more hits than Jeter, but you are telling me Chipper Jones was more valuable? That is incomprehensible. 

Ultimately, we all like different aspects of baseball in unique ways. Some people love the smells and sounds of a ballpark, while others are fascinated by the numbers. Of course, these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. A statistician can love beer and crackerjack in the bleachers, just as a baseball purist can enjoy mining troves of data on their favourite players. However, when our thoughts and feelings are predetermined by WAR, part of baseball's mystique is lost, and part of the gameday experience is diluted.

Moreover, people who do not worship at the altar of WAR are being marginalised and viewed as somehow less intelligent or passionate about baseball than those who do. In this regard, the cult of advanced analytics is becoming dictatorial. It is their way or the highway. Increasingly, we are told which players to idolise and which trades to like simply because of one number, one WAR rating. Admittedly, that number represents the finest work ever done to codify baseball performance, but I believe it should still be secondary to our own feelings conceived naturally while watching a game, not implanted while scrolling through the Twitter feed of a data scientist. Many will argue that listening to the statistical chorus is optional, but that is my point: baseball analysis has been almost totally consumed by analytics, to the point where WAR is held aloft as an omniscient force, and there is little time for breakdowns of the physical game at hand.

In the modern age, any player with a negative WAR is shunned, discarded, written off as irrelevant. We only have time for dynamic players who excel in many areas. That is arguably a positive thing, because it concentrates our attention on what truly matters, but again, what if the casual fan just loves the excitement of home runs and does not care that Chris Davis is less than adequate in the field? There has to be a place for that. We must be allowed to like certain players and certain teams on a personal, spiritual level, without earning the scorn of number-crunchers who are keen to steer us down a path of objective righteousness.

Now please do not misinterpret my stance. I'm not some crusty scout bearing a grudge. But if fans do not trust their own eyes and instead rely on recycled, metric-ordained groupthink, we are going to lose sight of baseball's soul, which assuredly was never about digits on a webpage. By all means, use analytics to support your views and enrich the debate, but please do not regard WAR as the omniscient vanguard of opinion. It is a starting point, and people are entitled to use it freely as such, but its recent transformation into the definitive conscience of baseball is selfish and dangerous.

Baseball cannot be reduced to one number. This is a wonderful game that has beguiled millions of people for hundreds of years with the breadth of its variety and the depth of its unpredictability. There has to be room for the art as well as the science, for the human as well as the computer. By no means should we disregard WAR or admonish those who work so hard to defend its sanctity. But we also should not lose grasp of our instincts, or tease those who view baseball through a more traditional prism. There is room for everyone in the baseball cognoscenti. Nobody should be excluded based on the terrain of their passion.


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