Bill James vs. The Noise

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that there has been a ton of discussion online lately about the AL MVP vote and the discussion took an unexpected turn when Bill James got involved and attacked the utilization of the various WAR metrics.

Baseball-Reference.com’s Sean Forman has been responding to James and throughout it all, Sean has taken the high road and displayed his usual restraint. He’s also collected a bunch of links related to the discussion that are well worth checking out. You can see those here:

https://www.sports-reference.com/blog/2017/11/a-discussion-of-war-wherein-i-ardently-attempt-to-avoid-any-war-related-puns/

This comes from the Baseball Prospectus piece that Sean linked:

Back-fitting a team’s actual wins to a player’s value, as James suggests, repackages the same problem in a different form: we still have hitters who get on base but don’t get driven in, or pitchers who keep the ball on the ground but have poor fielders behind them, and we then have to decide how to fairly adjust for those situations.

In fact, James built his career upon observing and skewering such incongruities, so it seems rather strange for him to criticize a more statistically reasonable approach—using the grand mean value of a run to the entire league—as opposed to the noisier estimate of what a run ended up meaning to a particular team (and even then, still only the average value to that particular team). The fact that a player’s value is not fully realized does not mean that player has no unrealized value. Put another way, even if Reds hitters struck out to complete every inning in which Joey Votto drew a walk, it seems odd to claim that those walks were that much less worth doing.

— snip —

Sticking with Baseball Reference, we can correlate team WAR (batting and pitching combined) with winning percentage, and the correlation is .93,3 which means that bWAR accounts for about 87 percent of all run scoring and prevention in baseball. That’s pretty darn good, and not atypical for the various WAR systems. Does that leave 13 percent of what happens on a baseball field unaccounted for? It sure does. But again, so what? WAR doesn’t pretend this variance does not exist; it merely refuses to punish individual players for the inherent volatility we enjoy seeing in the game. And while there are those who enjoy complaining about WAR for this reason, my sense is that many of these people would complain about WAR regardless.

Source: Jonathan Judge, Baseball Prospectus

3 comments for “Bill James vs. The Noise

  1. Eraff
    November 26, 2017 at 8:23 am

    “Do I believe What I’m seeing…am I seeing what I believe?”

    Joey Votto’s walks are not things that Pitchers do…they are things that Joey Votto does… and I believe Bill James commentary pushes at the Fact that all of Joey Votto’s walks may not be equal.

    I have a “reality” in my head that Gary Sheffield would not allow you to walk him in an RBI situation….another “reality” that tells me that some .230 Catchers are tougher outs in “clutch” situations—they reach beyond the nicks and bangs and deliver great ab’s. I also have a “reality” that Adam Dunn had over 8000 “Free” plate appearances to do whatever he liked to do/whatever he could do…… but not things that were actually important in making many, many bad teams better.

    I like that fact that James Fathered an approach that recognizes the relative low importance of Batting Champs— do we even talk much about that anymore????

    We cannot live by the Stats as they stand…and we dare not dismiss them—this is furthering the development of these statistics.

  2. Jimmy P
    November 26, 2017 at 11:28 am

    I’m not a fan of WAR, personally, or any other all-inclusive mash-em-up stats that reduce all the game’s complexities to a single number. I realize it’s the holy grail for mathematicians, but as a fan it’s never been useful to me.

    I get that it is easier and simpler to have one number, one stat. But I much prefer to look at a wide variety of statistics and try to think through “true value” based on that, including situational information. The value of Juan Lagares’ glove will shift depending upon which team he’s on, for example. I just don’t believe in the “one number” approach to measurement; the game is so much richer & more complicated than that.

  3. TexasGusCC
    November 26, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    This topic started with James saying that WAR takes every outcome the same, despite the differences in situation. He says that hits in the clutch in late innings are harder to get than earlier in the game. I have no problem with this and have argued it, especially with a certain first baseman notorious for empty homeruns.

    Forman takes James’ thoughts and twists them around in a way I think is disrespectful. As Eraff points out, a good player like Sheffield would not let you walk him and his teams won often. Votto passes the buck with ease and his teams are cellar dwellers. It’s not a fair statement because rosters play a role, but a baseball follower can understand this difference and it has been a major criticism of Votto’s from within his own organization, from baseball commentators and Cincy fans.

    As a GM, I don’t want a cleanup hitter that I’m paying a fortune to each year to worry about his stats but not his team’s record. Votto’s has the best bat control and pitch recognition in baseball, so he must start being more a producer and less a spectator. In fact, Daniel Murphy is a better producer now because he wants to do damage while Votto’s wants to take a walk. Who would you rather have?

    But back to James’ point, he realizes and states that it’s not easy to have a perfect WAR outcome. For example, when a player like Judge has a 8 WAR after last year and middling pro like Duda has a 2 WAR, in my opinion it’s preposterous to actually say that if you switched these two players the difference is only six wins for this past year. But, Forman from B/R and Cameron from Fangraphs need to protect their bread and butter and so they openly disagree with such obvious statements.

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