WAR Apologies

When Bill James went after everyone’s favorite advanced stat, he started a much-needed discussion about baseball analytics – and an examination of the modern baseball writer. 

About a month ago, my neighbor and I met at our shared fence. We’re recent neighbors without years of history, but we’ve found introductory common ground in baseball. He’s a Mets fan, but found his way to them after his inherited (and beloved) Brooklyn Dodgers moved cross-country. He’s of a rarer baseball blood, the kind that has direct lineage with a bygone era. It’s the first time I’ve had access to a living time-capsule.

We talked about teams, of Cooperstown visits and nearby ballparks. Somehow the conversation moved to stats, and I was rolling. I darted between WAR, BABIP and a bunch of other acronyms. Between launch angles and exit velo, and how the shift robbed Mark Teixeira of way too many hits. We touched on the Moneyball Athletics, and the nebulous-but-somehow-knowable influence of luck on anomalous outcomes.

A conversation where I expected to be the student never played out. My neighbor, whose baseball exposure easily doubles mine, casually admitted how much I was teaching him. I expressed it as the new conventional wisdom.

Instantly, the dissonance rattled me.

If you’ve ever used words or phrases because you’ve seen or heard others use them, then when asked to define what you’ve just said or written, you can’t do it with any cohesive brevity, that’s what it felt like. I raved about measurements and concepts like DRS and Pythagorean expectation without understanding the practicality or the etymology of any of it.

I’ve never been asked to teach anyone about the new analytics normal. I never thought I would, either. In that blip of dissonance, I thought what I was doing was mimicry at most: the unbridgeable gap between what you’re saying and what you understand about what you’re saying. Spewing convention while raging against convention, it felt like a personal baseball reckoning had come.

Soon after, Bill James would make it public.

***

The article is called “Judge and Altuve,” so named because of its flashpoint case study. It’s written by Bill James, who needs no introduction, but Rany Jazayerli, writing for The Ringer, summed up James’s credentials perfectly: “Saying that sports analytics as we know it would not exist without Bill James has been a cliché for so long that pointing out that it’s a cliché has itself become a cliché.”

James is a forward thinker and a founding father. He is a statistician and a theoretician in both the creator and discursive traditions. He helped make something that didn’t really exist, and laid the groundwork for future entrants in the discipline to discuss and expand on it.

What he’s not is a passive disseminator. He didn’t spread the seeds and let the sabermetric forest grow wild. Periodically, he swings an axe.

That’s what he did in “Judge and Altuve.” James took aim at the new conventions in the modern baseball discussion. Specifically, he went after Wins Above Replacement (WAR). His gripe wasn’t strictly on its application, which The Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg described as “the de facto way the league’s MVP races are decided,” but also on a disconnect in the way the stat is used by the baseball community – James sometimes uses the term “analysts” to describe the collective he’s writing about – today.

According to James, the most important directive of baseball’s sabermetric revolution was to connect numbers with contributions to wins and losses. It was, in this way, birthed by a rejection of incomplete statistics and the false correlations the adherents to those numbers drew, often to prove a biased point. By his estimation, WAR – especially within the context of the AL MVP race between Aaron Judge and eventual-winner Jose Altuve – abandons the basic directive.

James has two key issues with the current use of WAR. First, he doesn’t believe a team should receive credit for its expected production above its actual production (what sometimes gets called “peripherals,” of which a popular example is Pythagorean expectation, a metric of James’s own creation). And second, he rejects the easy dismissal of luck as an immeasurable, non-skill based variable that a player shouldn’t get rewarded and/or punished for.

You’ll likely recognize these terms: WAR; peripherals; Pythagorean expectation; luck. They are the new shorthand, the new conventional, in almost all baseball discussions. You’ve likely seen or heard them used by your preferred analyst, or on your preferred baseball site. They get thrown out as if they were natural common knowledge. More accurately – and at their worst — they’ve become metaphors for whatever pre-formed take the analyst is trying to prove. As James writes, what the analyst is doing with stats that don’t connect to wins is “choosing which stats you will pay attention to and which you will ignore, based not on their connection to wins and losses, but based on your own prejudices.”

That’s a damaging summation of the common modern baseball mind: equating it to what it rejected in the first place.

***

The trouble with faulty conventional wisdom is that it must fundamentally influence whatever comes after. The fault is integrated in everything that blossoms from it. In the WAR discussion, for Bill James, the fault was in disconnecting contributions to wins and losses from the stats we’ve equated to excellence, possibly to verify a biased theory. The game is about winning games. The analytics that are now an entry-level requirement for any conversation fail to take that into account, as does a chunk of the sabermetric base.

But the faults in conventional wisdom can also be its benefits. When the fault is recognized, it become–or should become–an important part of the inevitable correction. Everything that governs the world works like this: a constant cycle of acceptance, rejection and revision. It never ends. The conventional creates a linear course that those who come after follow until it’s no longer the best path. James wanted a course correction. The Aaron Judge-Jose Altuve debate was the crossroad he was looking for. At a minimum, it was a great conversation-starter.

James explores the sabermetric side of the discussion in full detail. He explains how analysts adjust for the relevance of winning and losing in most other statistics with informative, understandable ease. Where he points out shortcomings in the analytic process, he does so with clearly plotted examples. It’s as strong a guide as it is a rebuttal.

But the writing/discussion side doesn’t get its own vital examination. Sabermetrics as a mainstream phenomenon is recent enough that when many of its practitioners and consumers think about the dialogue around the game, they can remember a pre- and post-advanced stats world with primary experience.

Especially for that group – young (and willing) enough to change the conventional wisdom they were raised with, but old enough that today’s “conventional wisdom” is the extreme opposite of the recent past they became fans in – change happened so swiftly in the baseball discussion, adaptation to the change was helter-skelter. I don’t believe most writers, talking heads and analysts are trying to deceive by drawing correlations that James would say are non-existent, or worse, self-serving. It’s just that for a lot of us, adopting the dominant sabermetric style guide was necessary to be part of the modern baseball zeitgeist. That’s not a bad thing.

But doing so in the quickest, shallowest way possible may have been a bad idea. Poorly integrated change is mimicry at best. It’s an imitation for resemblance, meaning it’s without the depth of understanding. In baseball, mimicry the survival mechanism – that is, adapting to the new normal as quick as possible – eventually brought on James’s criticism. This is as true for sabermetric development as it is for baseball writing and discussion. Though if it’s indeed a true fault, it’s on its way to correction. I’m confident more will be said on this in the near-future.

***

A couple days ago, I ran into my neighbor again, this time while retrieving our garbage cans. He mentioned that he’d come across more advanced stats lately, and every time he sees them, it reminds him of me. I tried to hedge a little bit. I briefly mentioned Bill James, and hoped what I shared wouldn’t affect his enjoyment of the game. He noted there’s no baseball on right now to know for sure.

But we agreed that if our teams win, we’ll be happy nonetheless.

Khurram Kalim is a lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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