Musings: This Means WAR

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

specific hitters.

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

googled WAR.