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Bob Ryan

WAR stat in baseball is complete nonsense

Was Mike Trout the best all-around player in baseball last year?

You kidding? Who doesn’t know that? No one combined offensive and defensive skill to the extent he did. It’s barely a debatable topic.

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So why is there no American League MVP plaque with his name on it sitting atop a mantel somewhere, or, as was the case with one or two of Larry Bird’s NBA prizes, perched on a refrigerator?

He didn’t win; that’s why. Miguel Cabrera did. And there are people out there who consider this the dumbest decision since “Ordinary People” emerged as Best Picture over “Raging Bull” for 1980.

Most of those people are quite taken with what is known in the trade as “analytics.” Or “metrics.” They crunch numbers, and that’s it. To them, voting for any baseball award is superfluous and perhaps even dangerous. I’ll amend that. Voting is definitely dangerous. It’s what leads to such inane decisions as Miguel Cabrera winning the American League MVP when Mike Trout was so clearly and obviously and statistically the best player in the American League.

There’s a war going on in baseball. Did you know that? If you came of baseball age when a long game was 2:45, it was a failing of significant proportion for a starting pitcher not to go nine, all World Series games started at 1 p.m. local, and there was no such thing as a DH, you probably don’t know it. But if your surest sign that spring is coming soon is the appearance of “Baseball Prospectus” on your bookstore’s shelf, you are already a soldier in this skirmish. In your mind, you stand for progress and enlightenment. Speak to you not of “Triple Crowns.” You’d rather rhapsodize about BABIP.

I come from that quaint generation of yesteryear, but I do respect the New Math of baseball. This is no revisionist history, either. Check it out if you like. I nominated Bill James for baseball sainthood many, many years ago. He has influenced how we see the game and evaluate the participants (managers, too) more than any single individual in the last century.

James taught us that batting average, by itself, is merely a curiosity, that stolen bases are vastly overrated, and that where things are done (i.e. which ballpark) is a critical component of any player or team evaluation, and he opened our eyes to the immense value of a good leadoff man.

He has taught us that, well, a lot of things in baseball aren’t what they seem.

He led a true revolution in baseball thinking and has performed a valuable service. If Alexander Cartwright gets into the Hall of Fame for his 19th century baseball contributions, then Bill James should go in for the ones he made in the 20th.

But it turns out that baseball history is no different than world history. Sometimes a revolution is ripped out of the hands of its original leaders and commandeered by zealots who don’t know when to stop.

OK, OK, it took me a while, but I’m here. This is an official declaration of war on, yup, WAR.

For those of you who don’t know, WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. In “Baseball Prospectus,” it is known as WARP, or Wins Above Replacement Player. Same thing.

WAR is the stat de tutti stat for the baseball fans we affectionately refer to as “seamheads.” WAR is believed to be the ultimate rating measurement of a player, combining a variety of offensive and defensive computations (there are also pitching stats) and then coming up with a number that allegedly tells us all how many more wins per season said player is worth over, yeah . . . here’s the problem.

It’s how much more Player X is worth than a player that doesn’t exist!

I wish I were making this up. I’m not. Here is the explanation for WAR/WARP on page xiii of the 2013 “Baseball Prospectus”:

“WARP combines a player’s Batting Runs Above Average (derived from a player’s True Average), BRR (Baserunning Runs), FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average), an adjustment based upon position played, and a credit from plate appearances based upon the difference between the ‘replacement level’ (derived from looking at the quality of players added to a team’s roster after the start of the season) and the league average.”

Got that?

Now, even if you are conversant with BRR and FRAA, there remains one little problem in accepting the notion that WAR is a relevant tool with which to evaluate and separate players.

It’s ultimately based on a judgment. It’s not a statistic!

This “replacement player” who constitutes the very linchpin of the entire premise is mythical. There is nothing measurable or precise about his existence. Yet supposedly intelligent people have signed off on this utterly bogus piece of baseball idiocy.

Let’s go back to Trout vs. Cabrera.

Central to any MVP argument involving position player vs. position player (as opposed to the always fruitless endeavors of position player vs. pitcher vs. relief pitcher) is how one interprets the word “valuable.” We could debate that one until the Pirates win another World Series.

Trout was a better pure baseball player in 2012 than Cabrera. Until his legs fall off, he always will be. But Cabrera is now baseball’s best hitter, and the Tigers aren’t very deep in quality bats. He meant a whole heck of a lot to his team, even if he was no threat to win a Gold Glove. His OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was .999. That’s pretty good.

Trout’s OPS was .963. He was an absurdly productive baserunner (start with 49 of 54 in stolen bases and go from there). You could have produced a Top 25 reel of highlight catches. Adjustments? He hit better in his third at-bats than in his first two.

I’ve always been more of a Player of the Year guy. I would have voted for Mike Trout.

But it’s not because his WAR (9.1) was better than Cabrera’s (6.6). If I’m going to deal with a stat, I prefer a stat that is actually a stat, not a shaky opinion.

WAR is nonsense. I urge General James to get control of his troops.

Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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