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INFIELD CHATTER: WAR isn't everything, or the only thing

Context crucial when interpreting baseball stats

Free agent outfielder Bryce Harper made his major league debut in April 2012. He’s racked up 3,957 plate appearances in 927 games.

Free agent infielder Manny Machado is three months older than Harper, but didn’t crack an MLB lineup until August 2012. He has only one fewer career game yet 117 more plate appearances.

According to Fangraphs, Harper has been slightly more valuable to his team, accumulating 30.7 wins above replacement in seven seasons, whereas Machado racked up 30.2. The gap widens going by the figures at Baseball Prospectus, which has Harper’s WAR total at 35.5, whereas Macho’s is only 28.9. But if you ask the number crunchers at Baseball Reference, Machado holds a significant edge, with 33.8 WAR compared to 27.4 for Harper.

What gives?

The simplest explanation is all three services use different WAR formulas, and truly digging deep on which composite is most accurate would require more than the 549 words I’ve got left. But as the prizes of this year’s free agent class juggle team offers, fans most certainly will encounter baseball wonks opining on which player is worth what money and why, and a lot of those arguments are going to use some version of WAR as a fulcrum.

Almost as certainly, other folks will weigh in to counter that people put too much emphasis on WAR, that numbers can’t tell an entire story about a player and there’s something to be said for how a player fits into a clubhouse. While those points are valid, they’re often perceived to be offensive by the folks deeply invested in providing numerical context for what we see on the field.

Unsurprisingly, the extremists aren’t really listening to each other, while moderates are able to find a happy medium.

On the Aug. 28 episode of the Ringer MLB Show podcast, host Michael Baumann and guest Ben Lindbergh took a step back from discussion of Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola to discuss the utility of wins above replacement in assessing player worth. Lindbergh invoked Tom Tango, the senior database architect of statistics for MLB Advanced Media.

“They’re just frameworks — they are ways of weighing various contributions against other contributions” in areas like offense, defense and baserunning, Lindbergh explained of Tango’s mantra. “I think we can all agree with the basic idea that those things are all worth something, so we want to take them all into account.”

Baumann interjected with the key point: “It’s just trying to paint a total picture of a player’s value. And if you’re not going to use WAR, but you’re going to try to decide who the most valuable player is, you’re doing that math in your head. And this is just letting somebody else do the math for you.”

WAR formulas rely on measurable on-field performance, weighted and blended with equations that resemble rocket science, to distill scores of individual numbers into one composite. What critics often disregard is that the people who build and use these formulas understand the inherent limitations.

“Each of those components comes with some degree of measurement error, or some bias or some decision that someone made at some point that this is how we’re going to measure this thing,” Lindbergh said. “And that part, I think, is imperfect and often gets improved, which I think dismays a lot of people” when WAR is adjusted retroactively.

“If we had the grand unifying theory of baseball and we knew everything with certainty — and maybe one day we’ll get closer to that point — then we could say that we only need one WAR. As it is, there are different ways that you can look these things. … I think it’s a feature to have a few different varieties that allow you to pick and choose how you want to evaluate players. But it does lead to some confusion.”

Few data analysts think only WAR is useful in analyzing players, and no WAR-averse fans say only raw talent matters. Most importantly, MLB front offices aren’t using the WAR values fans find online.

Everyone can see the back of the baseball card. WAR is just an attempt to consolidate and prioritize.

Don’t give it any more — or less — weight than it deserves.

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