Earlier this week, there was a dust-up about the WAR statistic (Wins Above Replacement), which, yes, is quickly becoming a tired old fight.
ESPN’s Jim Caple wrote a nice piece about WAR, but one that ultimately makes an argument that doesn’t need to be made. The essence of the argument was, “WAR shouldn’t be used as the only statistic.” I don’t think anyone would dispute that in this day and age.
So it’s quite a credit to FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron that he was able to write a response piece that didn’t suffer from the same level of “did this really need to be written”-itis. Indeed, Cameron’s article – “What WAR is Good For” – is one of the better statistical analysis pieces I’ve read in quite some time.
The thrust of Cameron’s piece, as indicated by the title, is that WAR – like so many other statistics – is valuable because it seeks to answer a question that we all have about baseball. Indeed, the real value in the article to me is the idea that statistics are answers to questions, and the better statistics tend to be the ones that answer the narrowest, simplest questions.
Here’s a particularly engaging section from Cameron, which will become my go-to attack on W/L record, at least with respect to those persons who appreciate nuance:
Whether it is batting average, strikeout rate, swing percentage, or average velocity, each one was designed to answer a pretty simple question. How often does that player get a hit? How often does he swing? How hard did that pitcher throw his fastball? These are questions that are worth asking, and so we track things in baseball that allow us to answer those questions with data, assuring us of getting a pretty accurate answer in most cases. In fact, I think a litmus test for the usefulness of a statistic can be simply translating the definition into a question and figuring out how often anyone ever asks that question?
Let’s take Wins for a pitcher, for instance. For a long time, they’ve been hailed as one of the most important statistics in baseball, but the actual question that statistic is answering goes something like this.
“How many times did that pitcher complete at least five innings, leave the game with his team having outscored the opponents through the point at which he was removed, and then watch his relievers finish the game for him without surrendering the lead that his teammates helped create in the first place?”
No one would ever ask that question. It’s not something that’s worth knowing, nor does it help anyone understand what actually happened in any real way. And that’s one of the reasons why W-L record for a pitcher has been marginalized and will eventually just be discarded, since it serves no real purpose. It answers a useless question, making it mostly a useless statistic.
The entire article is well worth your time, especially if you’re endeavoring to broaden your statistical background. Cameron’s approach is largely inclusive – more stats are a good thing – which is a good attitude to have in an age where so many statistics are available to us. In that way, Cameron and Caple ultimately agree: WAR, like many other stats, is best used as a piece of the puzzle. It offers one answer – or, perhaps more accurately, one slice of the answer pie – to one of the questions worth asking.