Phil Wood: WAR, what is it good for?

|
Sports,MLB,Nationals,Phil Wood

If you inspect the back of a 100-year-old baseball card, the statistics you find listed for position players are usually no more than games played, batting average and fielding average. Any earlier than that and there are no stats at all, just an advertisement -- usually for cigarettes. A few years later they started to list runs scored, but in general the stats provided were pretty basic.

How things have changed. Baseball stats of the 21st century are far more complete, so much so that, in some cases, an interpreter is necessary.

Some of them are quite helpful. OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) tells a pretty revealing story about a player's offensive skills, just as WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) does for a pitcher. The sabermetrics of player evaluation have changed the game. Most clubs, if not all, employ a front office analyst to sort things out for the general manager and scouting staff.

Of all of the "new" numbers, however, the one that causes the most confusion is WAR (wins above replacement). It's designed to show how many additional wins a player is responsible for than a replacement level performer, say a minor league call-up or bench guy. There's no standard formula for calculating WAR, but position players are evaluated on their skills both offensively and defensively by the trio of websites that use it the most: Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs.

Here's my argument: In hundreds of hours of conversation with scouts over the past decade, I've yet to hear a scout from any club bring up a player's WAR number. It's never happened.

To whom, exactly, is WAR important? Most fans could probably guess the all-time War leader, a gentleman in pinstripes named Ruth.

Off the top of your head you'd guess that Adam LaRoche led the 2012 Nationals in WAR with his 33 homers and 100 RBIs and a nearly flawless glove. Not so fast, buddy. Baseball Reference assigns Bryce Harper a 5.0 WAR, while LaRoche checks in with a 4.0. Ryan Zimmerman scores a 3.8, Ian Desmond 3.2 and Danny Espinosa 2.4, despite an NL-leading 189 strikeouts. Michael Morse, with 18 home runs and 62 RBIs in only 406 at-bats, managed a puny 0.6. San Francisco's Buster Posey led the NL with a 7.2 WAR, while Angels rookie Mike Trout led all of baseball, scoring an impressive 10.7.

Until WAR passes the sniff test -- and by that I mean it shows up on the back of a baseball card that still smells of gum -- it's going to be a tough sell for a lot of fans. With no standardized formula, or agreement between the various websites that employ it, it seems destined to languish in the pocket protectors and briefcases of only a fraction of enthusiasts.

To quote the late Edwin Starr from his 1970 Motown hit: "War! Huh. Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothin'."

Starr had something more serious in mind, but you get the picture.

Examiner columnist Phil Wood co-hosts the "Mid-Atlantic Sports Report" and is a regular contributor to "Nats Xtra" on MASN. Contact him at philwood@ washingtonexaminer.com.

View article comments Leave a comment