Posted by sean on November 21, 2017
This article assumes a lot of prior knowledge about the discussion of Wins Above Replacement, you can catch up here
- How Baseball-Reference.com calculates WAR and how others do:
WAR-Wins Above Replacement Explanation
WAR-Runs to Wins (this is especially relevant)
Competing WARs Comparison Chart
- My Answer to “I Don’t Like How Complicated WAR Is and How It Is Constantly Changing.” “WAR is Like GDP for Baseball”
- Bill James: Judge and Altuve, and then
Bill James: MVP Followup
Joe Posnanski: More on WAR, following up on Judge and Altuve.
- Dave Cameron's reply to James: Putting WAR in Context: A Response to Bill James
- Jonathan Judge at Baseball Prospectus wrote an excellent piece on variability in WAR: Prospectus Feature: Bill James vs. The Noise
- Bill James and I discuss on twitter what I think is the crux of the matter
- Rany Jazayerli on how WAR should handle luck
First off, none of us are here without Bill James. We are all at our very best merely Chaucer or Joyce to his Shakespeare. All sabermetrics predating him flowed into his work and all sabermetrics after him carries echoes of his work.
To the discussion at hand.
At its nub, I see this debate/argument/kerfuffle falling along the lines of an argument pitting Results vs Process. This debate goes back at least as long as statheads have gathered online to discuss MVP votes and what the award means. In five minutes of digging, I found this 1997 discussion from rec.sport.baseball. Every year, this exact same debate happens on websites and online forums. EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Every single discussion of this piece (that I've seen), whether on Twitter, BaseballThinkFactory.org or in the comments on Joe Posnanski's piece eventually distills down to this discussion.
To highlight that, I was struck by how Bill James ended his piece.
"What creates value for a baseball player is winning games."
This is a formulation that never, ever would occur to me and very likely would not to the other publishers of WAR who have weighed in. Dave Cameron, for instance, stated:
“What did each player do, as an individual, to help his team try to win games?”
Bill is saying (I'm paraphrasing): "Winning games [or Wins] creates value for a baseball player." Note that it's undetermined as stated if value ONLY comes from wins, but that's a small point.
Dave is saying, and I would also say: "Player value creates wins." I think when we talk about "luck" or "variance" we are saying that some portion of wins also comes from something outside of the players' control, so it's not a necessary and sufficient (in a mathematical sense) relationship. Wins aren't only created by direct player value.
From those very different paradigms, the entire argument flows and each side makes decisions based on those differing views.
Now through years of arguing and debate, I have come to the conclusion that these two differing approaches, when considering how to value a season already in the books, are largely a matter of taste and worldview. Looking forward, I think the latter is better, but in looking back I'm fine with a person taking either approach to evaluating the value a player added to during a season. In interacting with Bill on Twitter, I believe that he's steadfast that his view is correct and ours is wrong (or "nonsense", "misleading", "in error" to use his words). I disagree and believe each viewpoint has merit and is, on this issue, largely one of personal preference.
In order to place my marker on what I think our WAR metric's usefulness is, I'm going to elaborate on my views here.
- Baseball-Reference.com's WAR tells us how many wins a typical team would lose if the player was replaced with a replacement-level player.
- I believe that value assessment is relevant to the MVP vote (though not necessarily definitive).
- Were I to vote, my criteria would be: "If I was a GM on April 1 and knew all of the players' performances for the season ahead, which player would I choose?"
- Again, if you don't like that, I harbor you no grudge, and you can choose differently, but
- You also are never going to convince me that your way is the One True Path™ that we all must follow.
- As Jonathan Judge mentioned in his piece linked above, the WAR values should be viewed as containing error bars. I've never invested the time necessary to make this improvement (truth be told: all of my statistics is pre-bayesian, so I'm a dinosaur in that regard).
- So when WAR is as close as it was at the top of the AL and NL this year, I'd probably look at things like team success, WPA (clutch play), and more in making my ballot.
I think that covers it.
Two last points--one that amused me and one that didn't. First, Altuve and Judge were very close in WAR and Judge had the edge if you combine B-R, BP, and FanGraph's numbers. Reading Bill's article you would think that Judge won in near-unanimous fashion, but Altuve won in a romp. Judge led Altuve on two of 30 ballots. The voters knew what was what. They knew Altuve and Judge were the top two and then considered them relative to each other and came down very heavily on the side of Altuve. So any view that the MVP has or will become a rehash of the WAR leaderboard seems overwrought.
Lastly, there was one thing that made me a bit melancholy in reading Bill's initial piece and Joe Posnanski's follow up. Both Bill and Joe relate that Bill was reticent to comment on flaws he saw in others' work due to not wanting to "punch down" on young analysts and made a conscious decision not to engage: "At that time it was my policy not to argue with younger analysts. I was much more well-known, at that time, than they were, and it’s a one-way street." Initially, I found this rather patronizing, though I understood what Bill was saying. After thinking about it more, it made me a bit sad. We can discuss this stuff without arguing. We all share a mutual purpose in learning what is true and what is not. We all love baseball. I can imagine that going to war for years with Elias and the baseball establishment could lead to cynicism and a winner-take-all viewpoint, but I am disappointed that my peers and I missed out on Bill's mentorship and expertise.
postscript: I have a lot of stuff to do and very little bandwidth to keep discussing this, so I apologize if I don't engage with your (I'm certain) very well-reasoned arguments.
Editor's Note: You have my permission to republish any or all of this (please do!) provided you link to this original post and attribute it to me. Sean Forman