The Limits Of War or Ben Zobrist Isn't Really A Superstar?

ST PETERSBURG, FL - JULY 17: Infielder Adrian Gonzalez #28 of the Boston Red Sox takes the throw at first as Ben Zobrist #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays cannot beat it out during the game at Tropicana Field on July 17, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Over at It's About the Money Stupid, someone named Hippeaux leads this piece with the story of Tony Batista, who collected 110 RBI in 2004, while also posting a .272 on-base percentage. Batista is portrayed as the poster child for the meaninglessness of RBI; apparently we all learned a lesson from this ... but maybe not the right lesson?

Give me OBP, give me OPS, give me IPO, give me WPA, give me K/BB; just don’t give me RBI!  If you’re going to give me RBI, Mr. McCarver, I’d rather you gave me nothing.

And then came WAR.

The concept was ratified by the sabremetric Godfather, Bill James, who’d created Win Shares according to a similar ideology in 2002.  It was a neoclassical economist’s wet dream, like baseball GDP: an elegant equation which accounted for all the sport’s diverse variables and yielded a single number roughly reducible to the oldest and most hallowed statistic of them all, the win.  Hallelujah.

Wins Above Replacement is a beautiful idea.  Euclidean grace in a quantum world.  A simple answer, not only for age-old baseball conundrums like "Mantle or DiMaggio?", but also a formula for unprecedented comparisons like "Rickey Henderson v. Johnny Bench" and "Roy Halladay v. Alex Rodriguez".

There’s only one problem.  It doesn’t work.

It doesn't work? It doesn't work at all?

Oh, but that's not what Hippeaux is arguing. Because of course you can't argue that. See, he begins the piece with an indictment of RBI. Then launches into an indictment of Wins Above Replacement. But which works better? Who's going to win more baseball games? A lineup composed of the top nine RBI guys in the majors, or the top nine WAR guys? I'll take the WAR guys, and I think Hippeaux would, too.

No, what he means is that it doesn't work as well as we think it does.

At least, not yet.  Not in the fantastically straight-forward way we try to use it.  The idea is so good, so clarifying – like democracy or the rational market – that we really, really want it to work, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief just a little while longer in the hope that it might. Because it’d be so great to know with statistical certainty that Albert Pujols was worth $200 Million, that we really couldn’t win that pennant without Andy Pettitte, that Jacoby Ellsbury is definitely the AL MVP, and that Ben Zobrist is exactly 9.3% better than Adrian Gonzalez. Darn that dream.

The cruel irony, the I-could’ve-had-Sean-Doolittle-and-all-I-got-was-stupid-Barry-Zito irony, is that the problem with WAR is the same as the problem with RBI.  It frequently measures context as much as performance. Especially when used to evaluate single seasons, it doesn’t sufficiently account for the inevitable variations in opportunity and environment.

Of course WAR is sometimes (or frequently) context-driven. Of course it doesn't always "sufficiently account for the inevitable variations in opportunity and environment."

When Hippeaux says WAR doesn't work "in the fantastically straight-forward way we try to use it," what he really means is that it doesn't work in the way you -- that is, you dunder-headed fools who aren't as smart as Hippeaux -- try to use it.

Can you say "straw man"?

Who's trying to use WAR that way, exactly? Who is arguing that Ben Zobrist is EXACTLY 9.3 percent better than Adrian Gonzalez? None of my friends are doing that. Are yours?

As Hippeaux correctly notes, "WAR’s move to the mainstream is deeply tied to the rising popularity of FanGraphs."

When you go to the individual "leaders" pages on FanGraphs, the default ranking is according to Wins Above Replacement. A lot of people -- including a lot of baseball writers -- use those pages, and are informed by them. But very few baseball writers are going to just copy those rankings onto their MVP ballots. Dave Cameron is as responsible as anyone for what happens on FanGraphs ... But is Dave Cameron going around arguing that Ben Zobrist is EXACTLY 9.3 percent better Adrian Gonzalez? I really really really doubt it.

In fact, Hippeaux does acknowledge Cameron's perspective:

Even WAR’s adherents, like Dave Cameron, generally admit the margin of error is at least 15%.  When we stubbornly suggest that 0.5 WAR means anything, we are grossly exaggerating the statistic’s accuracy, even according to its creators.  It remains true that any reasoned discussion of an individual’s contributions still requires analysis of the various components that go into WAR, as well as several that don’t, and, as such, subjectivity reigns.

There he goes again with the we.

You know what makes me want to poke someone in the eye with a sharp stick? When someone writes we when he means you ... and isn't honest enough or brave enough to identify you. Are there particular writers or broadcasters who have been abusing WAR this season? Is someone out there actually suggesting that Carlos Lee is just as valuable on defense as Troy Tulowitzki?

Because if nobody is doing those things, then Hippeaux is wasting his considerable talents against a straw man. If somebody is doing those things, then Hippeaux should tell us who. Otherwise we can only assume that he's engaging in mere sophistry.

Hippeaux does make some good points, which I have not excerpted because I can't excerpt everything. Single-season UZR's can be terribly misleading, which everyone's known for a long time. FanGraphs does a poor job with catchers' defense, which was excusable for a long time, but maybe isn't anymore, considering the PITCHf/x work that's been done recently. But considering only hitting statistics and positional scarcity, WAR is a great starting point for any discussion of a player's value. And the defensive stuff is generally reliable, too. As long as you don't go nuts and assume that one season of data tells you everything.

My advice to would-be iconoclasts like Hippeaux? Be specific in your criticisms, with examples of actual people who are making the actual mistakes you say we are making.

This might have been a compelling article if Hippeaux had restricted his critique to Ultimate Zone Ratings and the analysis of catchers' defensive value. But with the unsupported critique of what we are supposedly doing, what might have been compelling becomes merely useful. Assuming you can see past the intellectual bankruptcy.

See? THAT is being specific.

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