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What WAR is good for

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 6, 2013 10:29 AM

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Playing nine innings while hoping reports of a haircut didn't affect Andrew Miller's unintentional Expos-era Bill Lee homage ...

The best compliment I have ever received in this business, absolutely the best, and I don't even know what would be second, came from Bob Ryan.

He might not remember it, but what with him being a huge reason I'm in this business and that my respect for him only grew after I became fortunate enough to work with him, well, I'll never forget. We were in our hotel bar in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics, having a few post-gold-medal hockey game beverages with a couple of other stray sports writers.

carltonstevefinn72.jpgBob of course knows everybody and everybody of course knows Bob and only a small subset of obsessed East Coast baseball fans knows me, and so as he was introducing me to a writer from a California paper, he said, "Chad writes really smart, funny stuff about baseball. He keeps me on my toes. HE KEEPS ME ON MY TOES!''

Let's just say no other professional validation has really been necessary since.

I bring this up because -- well, dammit, my massive ego likes telling the story. But there's a more relevant and timely reason. You may have read Bob's column last weekend, the one in which he railed against Wins Above Replacement as a judgment rather than an actual statistic of which "intelligent people have signed off on this utterly bogus piece of baseball idiocy."

The piece whacked the hornet's nest of animosity between old-school writers and those immersed in sabermetrics, spurring the usual exasperated and snarky rebuttals that occur whenever one side aggravates the other. I'm not sure how much grief Bob got for the piece, but there was some, and it would be patently unfair to mention him in the same breath as an ancient in-my-day troll like Murray Chass. When it comes to advanced metrics, he really does try to stay on his toes, which I think should give him plenty of leeway even if he does loathe a particular useful statistic. Plus, he votes for Tim Raines for the Hall of Fame, which is worth a couple more bonus points, I say.

Bob's chief complaint about WAR, whether we're talking the Fangraphs or Baseball-reference versions, or Baseball Prospectus's WARP, is that the baseline for what constitutes a replacement-level player is vague. Which is true. But that doesn't invalidate the statistic by any means. Even if the baseline for what constitutes a replacement-level player is confusing, the data used to compare player vs. player against that baseline wherever it happens to be set is telling and valuable.

WAR, in its various incarnations, attempts to summarize a player's entire contribution to his team with one statistic that tells you how much more valuable he is to that team than the proverbial replacement-level player. No one that I know of claims it is the perfect stat. But it is one more useful tool to help a fan view the game through another prism, to provide another metric for thorough player evaluation, and to offer further perspective on a player's greatness.

If you saw Pedro Martinez pitch during his 1998-2001 peak in Boston, or if you just glance at all the black ink on his baseball-reference.com page, you know he's truly an all-time great. But it's always fun to explore a player's place in the game further, and WAR helps provide even more context and information

woodwilburfinn36.jpgFor instance, Pedro's 11.4 rWAR in 2000 is 35th-best all-time among pitchers -- but fourth-best since 1920, behind only '85 Dwight Gooden (24th, 11.9), '72 Steve Carlton (27th, 11.7), '97 Roger Clemens (tied for 28th, 11.6), and '71 Wilbur Wood (tied for 32d, 11.5).

I mean, how about that? Perhaps we were unaware that Wilbur Wood, who had a 1.91 ERA in 334 innings in '71, was so brilliant that particular season? I was. And appreciate that WAR showed me something I didn't know -- yes, that it kept me on my toes with the reminder.

2. Whether you favor a particular advanced metric (I personally favor OPS+, even though it isn't perfect because it's an easily explained, accessible way to compare players across generations who played under various factors) or are a frightened curmudgeon who refuses to acknowledge any of them at all, there simply is no denying that your team isn't doing its due diligence if it isn't gathering as much information -- through scouting, sabermetrics, and any other measure that may provide an advantage-- as possible.

It's often said that the 2004 Red Sox won because of chemistry, and there's no doubt in my mind that a loose, devil-may-care band of players was required to overcome the franchise's history, not to mention a 3-0 hole to the Yankees. But advanced metrics also played an enormous role in putting that roster together, whether we're talking about discovering the underappreciated value of David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller or Mark Bellhorn.

Perhaps Theo Epstein's greatest strength as a general manager is collecting information from all sides -- the baseball ops people like Ben Cherington, a wizened former GM like Bill Lajoie, and the various sabermetrics wizards -- and using the knowledge gained to make an extremely informed decision. If you still want to think it's all about chemistry, I suggest reading Baseball Prospectus's "Mind Game'' on how the Sox really succeeded.

3. If you require a name to actualize the concept of a replacement-level player, or readily available talent, I offer you 2012 Scott Podsednik, who in the span of three months last season was purchased by the Red Sox from the Phillies, traded to Arizona in the Craig Breslow deal, released by the D-Backs two days later, and re-signed by the Red Sox. Now that's readily available. Not sure about the talent part, however.

4. Actually, I'm only being slightly facetious when I suggest that the entire daily Red Sox lineup, post-Dodgers blockbuster, was pretty much replacement-level every day. During the final two games of the season -- or as I prefer to recall them, the final two games of Bobby Valentine's managerial career -- the Red Sox' No. 3 hitter was Daniel Nava.

5. I recognize that advanced metrics can be intimidating. Sometimes I'll read something by Dave Cameron or Jonah Keri or Ben Lindbergh or one of the many other sabermetrically savvy writers out there who make up the new mainstream and I'll wind up both impressed with the particular piece and frustrated that it's out of my personal range.

Sam Miller's recent thoughtful take on WAR for ESPN the Magazine was one such piece. But in striving to understand as much as my wee brain will allow, there are some resources I've leaned heavily on when trying to grasp, utilize or explain certain advanced metrics. The SABR glossary and Fangraphs library are both detailed and yet accessible, and I've relied on Alex Remington's explanations of specific stats on "Big League Stew'' so often that my bookmarks of them have figuratively become dog-eared.

Sabermetrics can be intimidating, but if you have the patience and the will to learn what the data is trying to tell you, it can be another illuminating, even rewarding, way to look at baseball.

westmorelandryanfinn36.JPG6. Sincerest best wishes to Ryan Westmoreland, the former No. 1 prospect in the Red Sox organization and admired son of Rhode Island who announced his retirement from baseball Wednesday at 22.

Westmoreland, touted by Baseball America in 2010 as a "potential 30-30 player who could one day bat third in the Red Sox lineup,'' underwent surgery in March 2010 to remove a cavernous malformation from his brain stem. After making encouraging progress in an attempted comeback, he suffered a setback last July that required a second surgery.

It's impossible not to wonder what might have been -- he was ranked ahead of Josh Reddick (3), Anthony Rizzo (8), and Will Middlebrooks (19) among Red Sox prospects three years ago -- but given his grace, bravery and determination in the face of incredible adversity, it's easy to have faith that Westmoreland has many extraordinary accomplishments ahead.

7. Jose Iglesias is off to a nice start this spring -- 6 of 20 with four extra-base hits -- and its certainly encouraging. You want to see a player with his dazzling defensive skills make it, and perhaps he is figuring it out at the plate enough to be relevant to this year's Red Sox. Ideally, he'd keep hitting throughout the spring, go down to Pawtucket and put up an OPS a hundred-and-fifty or so points higher than the .589 he has in 783 Triple A plate appearances so far, and be ready to help should injury affect Stephen Drew at some point.

8. Another Red Sox prospect approaching a crossroads, 25-year-old Ryan Lavarnway, is off to a slower start this spring, hitting .143 with a .414 OPS in a puny 15 plate-appearance sample size. All it takes is a nice 3 for 4 day for his numbers to look much better, but it also must be noted that they are currently right in line with his Marc Sullivan-like .157/.211/.248 performance in 166 plate appearances last year. With circumstantial evidence currently suggesting that David Ortiz will play far fewer than 162 games this season, Lavarnway could be in line for significant time at designated hitter. But first, you know, he probably ought to prove he can hit.

9. As for today's Complete Random Baseball Card:


In case you were wondering, Battle's career WAR was 0.2. Get it? Battle ... WAR? You were wondering, right? OK, I'll leave now.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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