Cameron: A discussion about improving WAR

From Dave Cameron at FanGraphs on September 8, 2014:

Jeff Passan is one of the most aggressive advocates for FanGraphs in the mainstream media, regularly citing data and concepts from our leaderboards and helping to educate the masses about different ways of viewing baseball. He’s certainly not an old-school guy who wants to be left alone with his pitcher wins and RBIs, and he’s more than happy to embrace new ideas supported by data. But he still has some problems with WAR, and specifically, the defensive component that can allow lesser hitters to be listed as among the most valuable players in the game alongside some of baseball’s greatest sluggers.


I don’t agree with everything Passan wrote in the piece, but his criticisms of the metric aren’t entirely off base. It is easier to evaluate run scoring than run prevention. WAR is flawed and an imperfect model. Some of the assumptions in the construction of the model may be entirely incorrect, and as we get more information, we may very well find that some of the conclusions that WAR suggested were incorrect, and maybe not by a small amount. Just as the statistical community is quick to highlight the problems with pitcher wins and RBIs, it is fair for Passan to highlight the problems with WAR, especially if the purpose of that discussion is to help improve the model. 

So let’s talk about Passan’s suggestion to improve WAR. Primarily, he suggests lowering the value of defense in the calculation, perhaps by regressing a player’s calculated value by some degree. This isn’t the first time this has been suggested, and there are plenty of people who I respect who hold a similar opinion. It’s not a crazy suggestion, and it might even be a better alternative. But let’s work through the implication of that change so that we can evaluate the two methods side by side.

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Originally published: September 8, 2014. Last Updated: September 8, 2014.