WAR: What is it Good For?


Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Well, in the words of Edwin Starr, WAR is good for “absolutely nothing.”  That’s not quite the case when it comes to Major League Baseball. 

So, what is the obsession with this new age, 21st century statistic that has swept the baseball world by storm?  It has turned economics majors into baseball aficionados and forced the old guard out of scouting.  One number has never reigned supreme over the rest of statistics, until it was time for WAR.

The nucleus of the issue with WAR remains the way that it is tabulated.  For example, Baseball-Reference’s way of going about calculating WAR is much different from that of Fangraphs.  Unlike a statistic such as Home runs or doubles, WAR does not have a distinctive representation across the board. 

For over a century, baseball folk kept track of things happening in baseball through simple calculations that did not require an Ivy League degree or a universal knowledge of advanced calculus.  As the money has grown exponentially, owners got smart, and put the people with the most brainpower in control of their multi-million dollar industries.  Usually, putting smart people in power is never a bad idea. 

Throughout the annals of history, each individual statistic has meant something different.  In this case, Home runs are not a direct correlation of batting average, the same way that the number of strikeouts a batter has is inverse of his number of doubles.  What WAR can do, is extrapolate all of those numbers into one great pot of information, and come out with a number that supposedly quantifies every single at-bat and base running instance in the game.

Maybe you’re unfamiliar with what WAR really is.  To simplify, it stands for Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which helps to quantify how much better player A is when compared to an average player at his position.  A quick summation: < 0 = replacement player, 0-2 = sub, 2+ = starter, 5+ = All-Star and 8+ = MVP level. 

Even those in charge of handing out these vital statistics that so many base their decision-making on, have this to say: “There is no one way to determine WAR. There are hundreds of steps to make this calculation, and dozens of places where reasonable people can disagree on the best way to implement a particular part of the framework,” says Baseball-Reference, “…WAR is necessarily an approximation and will never be as precise or accurate as one would like.”

That statement in itself reveals that WAR has created an imperfect system.  There can be no dispute over triples, slugging percentage or total bases, but WAR is completely up to individual interpretation on what matters and what does not.  In attempting to rewrite the American Pasttime, this new progressive group has nearly set the sport back.  The art of hitting the ball on the right side of the infield to move the runner to third with less than two outs is unquantifiable by a computer.  Drawing a 10+ pitch at-bat out of a starting pitcher when the team has a thin bullpen; also, not quantifiable. 

WAR does a marvelous job of exposing players who have defensive deficiencies, or don’t have a particular adeptness at being fleet footed on the basepaths, that much is for sure.  Its flaw is that it cannot stand alone.  In accordance with other numbers, WAR can be a MVP so to speak.  It can certainly be one of the more valued statistics, but there is no way that it can stand by itself to quantify the greatness of any one player.

Taking a look back on the history of Reds baseball with this giant WAR umbrella hanging over head creates quite the atmosphere.  Every year since 2009, Joey Votto has been the club leader in the category, even regardless of his inability to drive in runs, which may or may not actually be true, another side effect of WAR.

The all-time highest WAR for a Reds player since they officially joined the National League back in 1890?  Of course, it’s a tie.  WAR, in fact, has settled nothing in that department.  Joe Morgan in 1975 and ole’ William Pearl “Billy” Rhines for the 1890 Red Stockings.  Of course, the majority is familiar with the dominating season Morgan had all-around, whether it was on the bases, in the field, or most importantly, at the plate.  On the other hand, deadballer Billy Rhines chucked over 400 innings that year, yet managed to keep his ERA under 2, and his moustache neatly trimmed.

While Mike Trout sets the Major League circuit ablaze with his obscenely high WAR numbers and internet geeks everywhere continue to gawk at his ability, do not neglect to remember that his team has not so much as finished in second place either year he has been around.

It may be an old-fashioned way of thinking, but in order to be the best, you have to win. 

You may not always win the WAR, but certainly, you can be victorious in battle.