Has sabermetrics lost the WAR? Or, is resistance to the movement’s flagship statistic a two-front battle that is no longer worth fighting?
For the past several years, “sabermetricians” and “traditionalists” have battled over the relative importance of different statistics, with the award season being the most frequent battleground. In 2010, the SABR crowd won a key skirmish when Felix Hernandez was awarded the Cy Young despite winning only 13 games, the fewest ever logged by a recipient. However, this year, the traditionalists struck back with Miguel Cabrera’s MVP victory over Mike Trout. Despite Trout having a WAR that was 30% better, the voters overwhelmingly supported of Cabrera, who won the first triple crown since 1967.
So, why did the Baseball Writers Association of American (BBWAA) reverse course from 2010, when it overlooked Hernandez’ low win total, and base the 2012 MVP on traditional stats like batting average and RBIs? Did the voters change their minds about the validity of sabermetrics, or was there a backlash against the increasingly arrogant tone taken by its advocates? Or, does it simply have to do with the packaging, as Rob Neyer has suggested? If WAR wasn’t such a silly sounding acronym, would the BBWAA have been more appreciative of Mike Trout’s all around talent?
Although wins had long been a measure of pitching prowess, its flaws were readily apparent, making it low-hanging fruit for sabermetricians leading up to the 2010 Cy Young vote. However, the debate wasn’t won by shifting the paradigm dramatically from wins to wins above replacement. Instead, the focus was on underlying peripherals: statistics that add up to an impressive WAR, but can also fight their own battles. Metrics like innings pitched, hits and walks allowed, strike out rates, and even park adjusted ERA all argued on behalf of Hernandez, and the BBWAA was receptive. In addition, the Cy Young is unburdened by the nebulous concept of value, so some of the subjective arguments usually involved in an MVP debate were not part of the equation.
The 2012 MVP debate was not as easily defined, although, ironically, Trout’s skills have held sway over traditionalists in the past. Whether based on sabermetrics, old school stats, the eye test, or any combination of all three, a center fielder who can steal bases and hit for a high average would normally be the darling of MVP voters. However, it seems as if the electorate could not get past the aura of Cabrera’s historic achievement as well as his perceived importance in the Tigers’ lineup (as well as the role he played in allowing the team to sign Prince Fielder). In other words, the BBWAA didn’t reject WAR, or more precisely, the skills its tries to encompass. It simply placed a greater weight on offense and factored in the sabermetric bogeyman known as intangibles.
It seems silly to regard the 2012 MVP vote as a referendum on WAR because, quite frankly, the metric isn’t ready to be put on the ballot. The problem with WAR isn’t its name or the number of decimal points used in its presentation, but rather the inherent flaws and questionable assumptions built into its calculation. If anything, before thumping their bible, sabermetricians would be better off hashing out internal debates on the metric. After all, if the saber crowd can not coalesce behind one of the two versions (published by fangraphs and baseball-reference), it becomes much harder for those with a less intimate understanding to take either or both at face value. So, instead of changing the name of WAR, sabermetricians, and those who rely on sabermetrics for analysis, would be better advised to pick their fights more wisely.