Following an approximately five-hour offseason, the Detroit Tigers start playing baseball again today in spring training action against the Atlanta Braves.
I could use this spring training kickoff column to talk about my insanely high expectations or about how those insanely high expectations will inevitably fail to be met. Instead, though, I’m going to fight the power and speak out against WAR.
No, not actual war. (You didn’t actually think I was going to talk about something substantive on our Voices page, did you?) I’m talking about wins above replacement, the stat ESPN has dubbed the future of baseball statistics.
Here’s WAR in a nutshell: By calculating a player’s UZR, BABIP, pythagorean record and other statistics through a linear rates system (no, I don’t know what any of that means), we get a number. The number is supposedly how many wins that player gives a team over his backup.
Opponents of WAR, such as myself, like to point out that tangible statistics — think hits, batting average, home runs — should be given precedence when deciding the value of a player. Because, you know, they’re measures of actual happenings on the baseball field and not the result of an obscure calculation very few understand.
It’s still infuriating that some gave rookie superstar Mike Trout consideration for MVP over the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, the first winner of the coveted Triple Crown since 1967, because of WAR.
Most of those people were talking heads on ESPN, who spent the day Cabrera won MVP citing Trout’s high WAR as enough reason for him to win it. To them, the anti-WAR crowd was too feeble-minded to understand the godsend that WAR is not only to baseball, but to all of humanity, as Sam Miller writes in a recent piece for ESPN the Magazine.
“We live in a world of disagreement on epochal issues that we can’t resolve even when the science is unambiguous: evolution, vaccines and climate change among them,” he writes. “These issues are daunting. Relying on science that’s hard to understand can be scary. So, the tendency is to cling to the comforts of ideology and tradition — even when those ideologies are wrong, even when the traditions are outdated.”
At that point, it dawned on me. WAR is laughable to me because I don’t live in a world where baseball deserves the same amount of careful, dedicated analysis as the study of complex sciences that could alter the future of humanity.
Instead, I live in a world where baseball is a game in which grown men swing wooden sticks at flying spheres and occasionally run on a giant dirt diamond. I’d like to treat it that way.