The Continued Problem of Defensive Valuation and WAR

## The Continued Problem of Defensive Valuation and WAR

Anyone who tells you that any single statistic, without greater context, can tell you everything you need to know about a player’s performance is probably selling you something. I suspect that even the purveyors of some variation of WAR/WARP – Wins Above Replacement Player – would agree with me that, while WAR does seek to be a comprehensive statistic indicating a player’s value, even it is subject to nuance, explanation, discussion, and evaluation.

In its present incarnation, WAR is but another tool in the tool belt, it’s just a hell of a good and thorough one. A swiss army knife, maybe? One of those really huge ones with all kinds of awesome stuff in it … and also some things that you just know you’re never going to use.

That is all to say that, just because some folks try to use WAR’s knife as a hammer doesn’t make WAR a bad statistic. You just have to wield it responsibly.

This is all predicate to a new incarnation of the long-standing debate and evolution of WAR as a seriously-considered statistic. The weakest link in WAR is, and has always been, defensive value. Advanced defensive statistics do the best they can, but the nature of the skill is so varying and borderline subjective that it can be hard to quantify with the same accuracy we can quantify offensive performance or pitching performance or even baserunning performance.

Jeff Passan takes an aggressive swipe at the defensive component of WAR calculations, and, while I don’t agree with everything he says, I do think it’s an important reminder of WAR’s potential flaws. At FanGraphs, Dave Cameron responds at length to Passan’s piece. This is deep, deep inside baseball stuff, but I think it’s very important to understand if you want to dig into baseball analysis in a meaningful way. (Which you may not want to do, and that’s also fine.)

Cameron’s piece winds its way to a fundamental question of whether too much of the “run prevention” value of defensive WAR is being assigned to position players, and not enough is being assigned to pitchers (note that because FanGraphs’ WAR uses FIP in its calculation, it is arguably saying that whatever “good” stuff happens in the field of play defensively is entirely attributable to the defense, and not the pitcher). You could argue that the same is true of Baseball Reference’s version of WAR. We know that pitchers can’t get credit for every ball in play that is converted to an out, but shouldn’t they get credit for some of them?

For now, this is a question without a terribly satisfying answer, because we don’t yet know how to more perfectly quantify defensive ability, and that ability’s relationship to run prevention vis a vis the things that a pitcher does to impact where the ball goes and how hard. Throw in defensive positioning – if the defender was there instead of there, and thus makes the play, does that make him more valuable? The pitcher’s pitch was successfully executed either way, so what is his value? – and this all becomes really freaking difficult stuff.

Noted saberist and Chicago Cubs consultant Tom Tango takes on a part of the issue with what always strikes me as the most sensible approach: admitting that which we do not know. Specifically, Tango discusses the possibility of not being able to give all defensive runs saved to individual defensive players. This may leave some folks unsatisfied, but why pretend or fake something when, for now, we simply do not know the True answer?

To that end, I will be fascinated to learn the impact that the new fielding data we’ll soon be receiving from MLB in the form of video and radar compilations from ballparks’ recording systems.

Within two years, I have a feeling that this entire WAR conversation will change dramatically. For now, we’re left to wonder, question, discuss, and do the best we can.