By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
This Means WAR
War is hell. So, as far as I’m concerned, is WAR.
WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, is the chic, in-style statistic used to determine a
baseball player’s total value to his team. I thought it would be a good idea to look into
how a player’s WAR is determined, so the other day I googled it.
My head is still spinning.
The first thing I learned is that there is no standardized way determining a WAR. The
Baseball Reference formula, rWAR (sometimes called bWAR), is different from that
used by Fangraphs, fWAR, which is different from the Baseball Prospectus version, or
WARP. If that isn’t confusing enough, statistics such as wOBA (weighted on-base
average), UZR (ultimate zone rating), UBR (ultimate base running), and DIPS (defense
independent pitching statistics) all figure into a WAR. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to lie
down before I fall down.
I’m not against baseball statistics; in fact, I like most of them – when I can understand
them. The first stat I ever learned was this: whoever scores the most runs wins the game.
That seems pretty straight-forward, as does this: whichever team wins the most games
finishes first. So far, so good. But it’s gotten to the point where you need a PHD in
Advanced Mathematics to keep up.
Mathematics, that’s a word I don’t like. When I was in grammar school they used to call
it arithmetic. I was pretty good at it back then. I caught on to addition and subtraction
pretty quickly. I took to multiplication with no problem, and I got the hang of division,
even long division. School was fun back then; You know the old song lyric, “Reading
and writing and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.”
But then, along about the seventh grade, the word arithmetic got elbowed aside by a more
high-fallutin’ term, mathematics, and all the fun, at least for me, went out of it. Instead of
learning addition and subtraction I found myself in algebra class. It was all downhill from
there. It even spoiled the lyric of the song.
I realize that the old fashioned baseball stats are not infallible; a player’s batting average
might not tell the full story of his prowess at the plate, but it gives you a pretty good idea,
especially when it’s combined with his on-base and slugging percentages. A pitcher’s
wins and losses don’t necessarily tell you about his effectiveness on the mound, but it’ll
give an idea of how well his team does when he’s pitching. And I have to admit that the
saves stat is ridiculous. Now, blown saves, that’s worth paying attention to.
Defensive statistics are especially troublesome to calculate, but through the use of
modern formulas and computerized data, fielders can be better positioned to where a
batter is most likely to hit a ball in certain situations. That explains the dramatic rise in
recent years of infield shifts, especially against left-handed hitters. Red Sox outfielders
now carry index cards in their back pockets to refer to in positioning themselves against
But the old-fashioned way of figuring things out still has value, too. For a decade
centerfield in Fenway Park was patrolled by Johnny Damon, then Coco Crisp, and Jacoby
Ellsbury, all of whom had great speed and were terrific at chasing down flyballs, but all
of whom had weak throwing arms. Base hits to centerfield meant that runners
automatically went from first to third or from second to home. But now, with Jackie
Bradley, Jr. in center, Mookie Betts in right, and Andrew Benintendi in left, all with
strong, accurate arms, base runners better think twice about taking an extra base. It
doesn’t take a professor in Calculus to reach that conclusion. All you have to do is watch
a few base-runners get gunned down.
But let’s go back to WAR. Because there is no standardized way of defining exactly what
a WAR is, Major League Baseball doesn’t even recognize it as an official statistic. That
has not stopped its true believers from advocating its use. Let’s call them WARmongers.
They are not necessarily bad people, but, whether wittingly or not, they’re taking the fun
out of the game.
The romance of baseball is in what takes place on the field. It’s great athletes competing
against one another, the battle between the pitcher and the batter, the diving stop by an
infielder or the leaping catch in the outfield, a long home run or a runner beating out an
infield hit. It’s sitting in the stands commiserating with a friend – or even a complete
stranger – about what’s likely to happen next; or it’s sitting at home in front of the
television, leaning forward in your seat as the count reaches 3 and 2 with runners on base,
knowing that there are thousands of others leaning forward in front of their TVs, too.
It’s the simplicity of baseball that makes it great, not its complexities. There are three
outs to an inning, and it’s three strikes and you’re out. That’s all you really need to know
to enjoy a game. Sure, it helps to know if a particular batter can hit left-handed pitching
or not, or if there’s someone ready in the bullpen. It even helps, I suppose, to know what
a player’s WAR is, and whether or not it’s a bWAR or an fWAR, but we all fell in love
with the game of baseball, not the science of it.
It’s important for the people in the baseball operations department to stay up to date on
all the latest analytics, and it’s just as important for the manager to buy into all that, but
the most important thing is for the players on your side to be better than their counterparts
on the other team.
A little learning, it is said, is a dangerous thing. That’s true - and it’s why I’m sorry I ever