clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The fight over WAR obscures the fact that MLB has moved on

Teams aren't using WAR, so why are we demanding Buster Olney talk about it?

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, there was a giant dustup when Buster Olney tweeted that Josh Donaldson was an MVP candidate (YES!) because of his RBI total (NO!). The response was pretty deafening, as defenders of advanced statistics came out of the woodwork to try to hold Buster accountable. He subsequently defended himself, saying that he is not always for hard-core wonks, and that a substantial portion of his audience has a much more casual interest in the game, and especially in statistics.

Well, that made a lot of other people mad, because...well, I'll let our friend Jesse Spector, of The Sporting Newsexplain in his own words:

"Holding out against advanced statistics at this point is indefensible.... It is the job of the media, though, to inform the audience, not to oversimplify because of a perception that people will not understand."

Now, as a fellow traveler through sabermetric circles, I sympathize with Jesse, and with everyone else out there who wants some of our leading experts to speak, write, and tweet more intelligently about the game we all love. It's frustrating to think that people might be wrong on the Internet, and that someone with a huge following is encouraging that wrongness.

The trouble is that we, too, are wrong.

That rolling laughter you heard in the late afternoon was not the Internet responding to my funny Twitter jokes at the expense of the participants in this debate. Rather it came from the front offices around the Major Leagues, as executives at 30 different front offices took a moment from their otherwise busy schedules to laugh at the plebes fighting over a small patch of dirt that they had long ago forsaken.

Because, reader, trust me when I say that no Major League teams are using WAR to make their decisions. They have, in the overwhelming majority of cases, moved past it. They each have their own databases and data collection systems. They have their own formulas and approximations of value. And those systems and formulas and approximations are undoubtedly more advanced than anything WAR can provide using publicly available data. If you were running a MLB club, you would have so much more information at your disposal than anything we can glean from WAR.

Wins Above Replacement is a tool. Sure, it's a more precise tool than RBI, but a tool nonetheless. While it's one of the better ones we have available to us, it is in no way the be-all end-all of any argument about value or team building. It's a fun starting point for an argument, but it's just an approximation. There are also at least three different calculations of the metric, and those calculations often as misused as runs batted in themselves. Indeed, WAR does not have a monopoly on the truth even with itself, as evidenced by the fact that bWAR, fWAR, and WARP can't resolve their differences. It has barely any greater claim to some kind of capital-T truth than RBI do. And, in that regard, screaming at every reporter that they have to use WAR or WAA (wins above average) or WPA (wins probability added) or wRC+ (weighted runs created, adjusted) is not just counterproductive, but silly. It suggests a level of certainty in the metric(s) that no one should have. Ultimately, I want to believe that most of us understand this.

And pretending we have the objectively right answer is the same as demanding everyone think about baseball the way that we do. And that's not fair. WAR is not the Pope, and visiting dignitaries should not have to kiss its ring to talk about the game. It's not our place to look down on people who want to talk about RBI any more than it is the place of Jeff Lunhow to look down on people who are using WAR to talk about his Astros while he uses the pre-cog computers from The Minority Report to plot out Houston's continued rise to dominance over the American League. And it's not fair to demand that Buster Olney and his colleagues constantly "educate" the masses when we don't even know what the right lesson plan is.