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Why I'm retiring WAR (but not what it stands for)

It's time to stop with the silly headlines, and allow Edwin Starr to sleep the sleep of the just.

Jared Wickerham

I'm really serious about this. It's time to retire WAR. Not the metric or the methodology, or even the overarching name: Wins Above Replacement. I think those are just too valuable and too ingrained to just dump. There was a war between Wins Above Replacement and Bill James's Win Shares, and WAR won the war.

Which I think is sort of a shame. There were a lot of things to like about Win Shares. But it's pointless to ignore the facts on the ground, and anyway Win Shares aren't available anywhere even if we (read: I) wanted to use them.

So say hello (again) to Wins Above Replacement. We're stuck with the methodology, and we're stuck with the terminology, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The acronym has to go, however.

Bill James once described sabermetrics as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball". And if the search is all you care about, you can use whatever terms you like. Whatever makes you happy. But if you also care about communicating with other people -- whether you're a sabermetrician, or simply believe that sabermetricians' work is valuable -- the terminology does matter. Words matter.

And WAR isn't a good word.

For one thing, baseball's not a war. Baseball is not football, and the more we distinguish baseball from football, the better off we are. That's why, when writing about baseball, I shy away from the words "offense" and "defense" and "attack" and similar football-centric terms.

For another, WAR just looks and sounds ... silly, don't you think? Have you ever noticed how many baseball people -- writers, broadcasters, ex-players-turned-analysts -- sort of sneer every time they say "WAR"? I feel a little ridiculous every time I write it. I'm not going to argue that Mike Trout would have picked up a single additional first-place vote in the MVP balloting if so many of his boosters hadn't said WAR so often. I do believe that ridiculous-sounding acronyms don't help the cause of objective analysis, in the long run.

So what's the alternative? We don't want to say Wins Above Replacement again and again. Too much of a mouthful. What I suggest is that do use Wins Above Replacement upon (as they say) first use ... and switch to Wins -- yes, with a capital W -- afterward. Let's be honest: Nobody has a solid idea of what "replacement" means anyway, and in fact different methods for computing Wins Above Replacement use different definitions of replacement.

Nobody cares about that. What everybody cares about is winning games, and the way you win games is having better players than the other team. It's all about the wins, baby. So why don't we just call them that? But with a capital W. Lest anyone be confused. People have a tendency to get confused.

Oh, and there's another thing about Wins Above Replacement ... the decimals are ridiculous. One of the great things about Win Shares is they're whole numbers. It actually makes more sense to round off Win Shares (Shares) than Wins Above Replacement (Wins) because Shares tend to be larger numbers, so rounding leads to less imprecision. But the principle is the same: Decimals imply a precision that is neither real nor credible. According to FanGraphs, Cliff Lee finished last season with 4.9 Wins (or fWins), Wade Miley with 4.8 fWins. Does anyone really want to argue that that's a meaningful distinction?

I would rather just look at all the pitchers who round to five fWins -- and there are a lot of them, from Gio Gonzalez (5.4) to Cole Hamels (4.6) -- and then get to cracking with the real research.

Which is what anybody's serious is already doing. See, people like me (and probably you) are accused of "just looking at one number and thinking you know everything." No, we don't do that. We do look at Wins, to get an idea. When I see that Verlander's got 6.8 (or 7) fWins and David Price has 5.4 (or 5) fWins, I'm going to guess that Verlander probably had a better year. But when I see a dozen pitchers clustered right around 5 Wins? I'm not going to assume anything. I'm going to study on that.

Wins Above Replacement is really useful for two things. It's really useful for comparing groups of players. If you want to compare the 1993 draft class to the 1997 draft class, something like Wins Above Replacement is the best tool. Hell, it's really the only tool. It's also useful for comparing individual players -- say, if you're trying to determine who was the best player in the American League this season -- but it's often of limited usefulness, because the method does miss some things. And we do the method, and ourselves, and the pursuit of the Truth, a disservice if we pretend that Wins Above Replacement is more than it is.

So I'm retiring WAR, and I'm cutting back on the decimal points.