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Bob Ryan

Ready to do battle over WAR

Can’t we all get along?

Do people who disagree about such a pleasant topic as how to discuss and evaluate baseball need to get nasty about it? Golly, gee. I sure hope not.

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Last week in these pages I asked a simple question: Do Mr. Joe and Mrs. Joe Average care about the new assortment of baseball statistics? Or are the vast majority of people content to discuss baseball the way their elders have done for well over a hundred years? Are batting averages, runs batted in, wins, and ERA all they need to know in order to enjoy the game? Or are they really into on-base percentage, OPS, and, most of all, WAR? That’s all I was asking. Well, yes, I did suggest they might cast a wary eye at WAR (Wins Above Replacement), and I’m about to do it again.

But, really. I was just asking a simple question. Nowhere did I say I didn’t embrace all the expanded stats, with the exception of WAR, of course, since WAR is not a stat, but an educated opinion/guess. I just wondered how many people who love baseball are really into the new stats, as opposed to the zealots who have embraced them with the passion of religious converts.

I heard from a lot of people, some of them very nice and polite, and others itching for a fight. The interesting thing about the latter group is that they didn’t seem to read what was written. So, I’m going to try again.

I am NOT against the concept of sabermetrics. At least 10, maybe 15 years ago, I wrote a column advocating Bill James for the Hall of Fame. I think we all owe Bill James a great deal of thanks for opening our eyes to aspects of baseball that had been hidden. I know there were others in the movement — John Thorn comes to mind — but Bill James had the broadest reach in spreading that particular gospel, in large measure due to the fact that in addition to being in possession of a mathematical mind he also had, and has, a very appealing way with words. The man can write. His Baseball Abstracts were always great reads, as have been all his books. And I look forward to his new one, “Fools Rush Inn.” He is among my favorite authors, in any literary genre.

But there is a limit to sabermetrics. I think so, anyway.

Sabermetrics have done a lot to increase our understanding of offense and pitching. No problem there. But I have a very big problem with the current attempts to quantify defense. When I hear about such things as “UZR,” my eyes glazeth over.

I had no issue when Bill James and others brought us range factor, a good attempt to identify those fielders who covered substantial ground, as opposed to those who didn’t. Range factor was quite enough for me. But there is only so much parsing one can do with defense. Who decides whether a ball was really catchable or not? Can’t we just rely on what we’ve seen?

Strictly guessing, but one of the things that I believe irks the stat guys is the subject of Gold Gloves. Anyone who follows baseball half seriously knows that far too many Gold Gloves have been given to the wrong people. Often a guy gets one a year too late. These culprits are the managers and coaches who vote. They just don’t put that much effort into it. Too many more important things to do, I guess.

In response, the New Breed Stat Guys have come up with a variety of stats to quantify defense. I know this is a nitpick, but how do they account for shifting? I’ve got a growing number of 5-3s in my scorebook on which the third baseman was playing between the first baseman and second baseman during a shift. I would be better off putting down 3½-3 or 4½-3. How does this factor into a third baseman’s, ahem, range? Just asking.

Another thing: ballpark factor. What could possibly be more subjective than attempting to project the effect of a ballpark on someone’s overall performance? We’re not just talking about obvious home-road splits, but an actual attempt to modify a pitcher’s record by factoring in the quirks of a ballpark. Yes, it matters. It’s a nice abstract idea, but it can’t be quantified, and that’s that.

OK, here we go. Let’s talk WAR or WARP, Wins Above Replacement or Wins Above Replacement Player. The ultimate absurdity.

I have a question for the WAR guys. Ever heard of Hurricane Hazle?

That would be Bob Hazle, a then 26-year-old outfielder the Milwaukee Braves called up from Triple A in the summer of 1957. In 41 games he hit .403 and compiled an OPS of 1.126. As a replacement player. Where’s the calculation on him? Where’s his WASP, Wins Above Starting Player? If the entire premise of WAR or WARP is to calculate the superior performance of an existing player over a mythical replacement player, then what happens when the replacement player far outperforms the regular he replaced? What’s his WASP?

Now I’m guessing the WAR guys have heard of Willie McCovey. Two years after Hurricane Hazle came out of Triple A to help Milwaukee win a pennant and World Series, McCovey emerged from Triple A to put together a pretty nice two-month stint for the Giants. He had two triples and two singles off future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts in his first big league game. In 52 games he hit .354 with 13 homers and 38 ribbies. He had an OPS of 1.085. He was Rookie of the Year. Pretty good for a “replacement player,” wouldn’t you say? Wonder what his WASP was?

The WAR people also have the audacity to calculate post-mortem WARs for players of bygone eras. Ty Cobb, for example. I’m just wondering how they come up with a WAR of 9.8 for Ty Cobb in 1909 when there were no farm systems, when players came to the big leagues after being purchased from independent minor league teams and thus there was no mechanism to identify just who the next “replacement player” was or where he would come from? Ty Cobb was pretty good. We don’t need a WAR number to tell us.

I’ll tell you this. If, on any given occasion, there are 35,000-plus people in Fenway Park, no more than 2,000 of them have the slightest interest in WAR. It’s probably closer to 500.

WAR is of interest only to people to whom WAR is of interest.

Oh, boy. I can hear those computers firing up right now. Just leave out the cuss words, OK?

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