Friday, May 21, 2010

Guest post: WAR the new answer in baseball

This is the first guest post on Baseball In-Depth, and it's by Graham Womack, who writes about baseball on his blog Baseball: Past and Present

Baseball-Reference posted a pair of blog entries this week, ranking the best position players and pitchers not in the Hall of Fame. The metric for ranking: WAR.

WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, seems to be the latest trendy stat in the baseball world, joining such past Stat Du Jours as OBP, WHIP and UZR. Every day, it seems, there’s another blog or Tweet on a player’s WAR data. It interests me, but most of it washes over my head, like I were a foreign exchange student attempting to mingle with locals. I don’t know if I could calculate the stat to save my life, a bad thing if I ever encounter baseball-loving street toughs.

I’m good with historical facts and analysis. I started reading baseball books in elementary school and can rattle off many facts, like who won the World Series in 1912 (the Boston Red Sox, after Fred Snodgrass of the New York Giants muffed an easy fly ball.) An old-timer recently asked me to pick the most durable pitcher all-time, and I’ve since wondered why I said Walter Johnson and blanked on Cy Young. I’d take either hurler over his choice, Nolan Ryan, but that’s beside the point.

I struggle more with obscure metrics. I made a list this afternoon that I titled, “Let’s learn some shit.” Among the things I’m clueless on:

  • Strat-o-Matic: Baseball lovers who grew up in the 1970s speak of this in hallowed terms, recalling times they played it with other kids. Based on their descriptions, I think it was a board game, though I have no idea what it looks like. The name seems entirely inappropriate for a children’s game, more fit for something that swingers bring to key parties.
  • VORP: I know this pertains to pitchers, and based on the name, it sounds related to velocity. Anyone else’s guess is as good as mine.
  • OPS: I know about slugging percentage and on-base percentage, and I’m guessing this is some combination of the two, but that’s where my knowledge ends. To be honest, I’m not 100 percent sure there even is a statistic called OPS, just as I wouldn’t lay money without checking Wikipedia that a family called the Hapsburgs ever ruled in Europe, let alone their country.
  • What a fungo bat looks like: Players talk about taking infield practice and having balls hit to them by fungo. Don’t know if I’ve seen one. The name makes it sound like a moldy stick stored in the dark, damp recesses of a bathroom.
Then there’s WAR.

It’s an interesting idea, ranking players by comparing their performance to anyone who could’ve taken their place. I see good and bad.

On the down side, looking at the metric for a career seems to favor players who lasted longer over more talented stars who flamed out earlier. Shoeless Joe Jackson, who got banned at 32 for helping throw the 1919 World Series is ranked 33rd on the Baseball-Reference list, behind Sal Bando, Buddy Bell and Jim Wynn. I don’t care about any metric: Shoeless Joe gets in my Hall of Fame well before those men.

Other parts of the list are more solid. Aside from active and recently retired players, Pete Rose was the top position player, followed by Lou Whitaker, Barry Larkin and Bobby Grich. The top eligible pitchers were Bert Blyleven, Luis Tiant, Rick Reuschel and Tommy John. I could make good arguments for enshrining each man.

The list featured other players I had overlooked, like Tim Raines or Graig Nettles, ranked ninth and eleventh among Cooperstown-eligible position players, respectively.

I still think the final decision on a player’s Hall of Fame merit needs to weigh as much with their performance as with what they meant to fans, writers, fellow players and baseball in general. I don’t know if that can be determined with any metric, however advanced. Still, if WAR highlights underrated players and at least gets them into the Cooperstown discussion, maybe it’s a good thing.

Graham Womack writes frequently about the Hall of Fame, as well as the history and current state of baseball for his blog, Baseball: Past and Present

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