Opinions

A WAR on Analytics? Not So Fast

“Confirmation bias is the tendency to give more weight to evidence that confirms our beliefs than to evidence that challenges them.”

– Kathryn Schulz

Let’s start off with this: I’m a die-hard White Sox fan. I’ve lived and breathed this team for years. I’m also a very analytically-inclined person by nature – it makes sense, I’m the Editor-in-Chief of Diamond Digest, a page that prides itself on using analytics to make informed observations on the game we all love.

This next fact might surprise you: I thought Jose Ramirez was going to be the American League MVP last night.

By most metrics, it made a ton of sense, as we see below. Ramirez and Abreu were close in almost every offensive category, while Ramirez made up a lot of value by playing a more valuable position on the field.

Winning MVP as a first baseman is difficult, because you must be SO good offensively to make up for the fact that you play a less defensively valuable position. Take, for example, Freddie Freeman, who posted the same amount of fWAR (3.4) as Jose Ramirez despite playing 1B. That is truly impressive and is a huge part of the reason why Freeman won MVP.

As the votes came in and Abreu was awarded the AL MVP, if you are not a fan of the Chicago White Sox, you likely thought this was a horrible choice. There were cries of this being a “loss” for analytics, that the subjectivity of the awards rendered them useless, and even called for certain voters to never have a vote again. Indeed, statistically, because of the additional value Ramirez creates for his team by being the fourth-best defensive 3B in the AL – while Abreu is T-2nd most valuable defensive 1B in the AL – Ramirez has what I believe to be a stronger case to win MVP.

So, is that it? Can we go home now?

Not exactly – we’ve only gone through my opinion.

First, it’s important to note that, in fact, there is a numerical argument to be made for Abreu. If you don’t trust me, take it from Eno Sarris:

“When you see raw emotion like Abreu showed when he won, it’s awkward to talk about the numbers. The good news is there’s a numerical case for the White Sox star. Ramirez may have had the higher Wins Above Replacement tally in some places, but Abreu was the better batter, and resting your case on always-iffy defensive metrics in a short season is probably folly. Use a different defensive stat, for example, Statcast’s Outs Above Average, and Ramirez shows as the 14th-best third baseman and Abreu in a tie for the second-best defensive first baseman in baseball. Well-earned hardware, well-earned tears.”

– Eno Sarris

Later – and more importantly – a very interesting question came in from a very wise man on Sox Twitter, one that I think we all need to see and consider:

You see, Nathan brings it all back to the age-old question: where does a player’s value come from? Depending on who you are, you will answer that question differently.

The way many analytically-inclined people will answer that question is through numbers: fWAR, OAA, wRC+, wOBA, OPS, FIP, etc.

The way many “old-school” baseball people will answer that question goes in a different direction. What did each player do off-the-field for the team? Do their on-field numbers reflect a full body of work over the course of a full season? As for statistics: did you drive in runs for me? Did you prevent runs from scoring?

Is either one wrong? No. Do I prefer one over the other? Of course – like I said before, I’m analytically-driven. But to say one side is “completely wrong” while the other is “completely right” is short-sighted, naïve, and, frankly, narrow-minded. Ignoring one area and placing all your faith and trust in the other leads to biases – never blind yourself to another’s point of view, especially when you don’t agree with it.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

– Stephen R. Covey

What’s my point in all this? I’m going to tackle this from the analytical perspective. The analytically-minded people will often under-appreciate the human element of the game of baseball. Not only is it fundamental to our own understanding of the game, but it’s fundamental to understanding why Jose Abreu – and not Jose Ramirez – was awarded the Most Valuable Player Award last night.

The game of baseball is wonderful because of this human element. It’s wonderful because no matter how long I sit behind my computer, think through every possibility, and come up with what I consider a pretty fool-proof solution to every situation, the baseball gods laugh at me and say, “watch this.” It’s wonderful because when I eviscerated the White Sox for signing Jose Abreu to a 3-year deal, citing his pretty clear decline statistically since 2018, he responded by posting numbers worthy of MVP consideration.

In short, it’s wonderful because I can’t explain everything with numbers.

For example, Jose Abreu was a better hitter this year because he hit the ball harder and in the air more often. Statistically, that makes sense. But how he got to that point wasn’t taken into account nor measured. Of course, Jose watched more film, saw more data, and understood pitchers better. But he also clearly put the time in off-the-field to get better, serving as a leader in the clubhouse by his own actions, and taught these same skills to other players. He held himself accountable for getting better this season, and players took note of this and responded accordingly. I’m not making this up either – there are plenty of player and coach testimonials to Jose Abreu’s impact (read: value) off the field. Look at fellow foreign-born players such as Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, and Luis Robert. Ask them who played a huge part in their growth at the major league level – Jose Abreu. Abreu added value to the White Sox by helping others get better and serving as a leader. There is value in leadership, too. Coincidentally, Abreu happens to have a lot of that as a long-time veteran. The problem for many is that it is very difficult to find that value on a stat line.

Are some of my fellow writers going to dismiss this as a “boomer argument?” Probably – heck, I’m only 23 and I’m still one of the oldest on the site. Is any of this to say Jose Ramirez isn’t a leader in his own right? Absolutely not. This isn’t about tearing down Ramirez – it’s about building out Abreu’s case.

Sure, RBIs are an absolutely flawed stat – you rack up more RBIs if your team puts more runners in scoring position. As one of the best offenses in baseball, the White Sox did exactly that for Jose Abreu. Sure, batting average, hits, and runs scored can’t give you all the information you need to evaluate a player’s performance. I think there’s a pretty good understanding of that too. What there seems to be a lack of understanding of is that “value” is a subjective term to those who follow the players and the game – numbers hold a lot of value, but not all of it.

Let me be clear: analytics hold a very important place in baseball. Analytics make players better, they make us smarter; they help us quantify what is so unknown. Analytics are valuable, and I will never stop working with them, nor trying to quantify things using them. However, they’re not infallible, and they don’t explain everything. Take WAR – Wins Above Replacement – for example. There are at least three very popular calculations of this statistic: rWAR, fWAR, and WARP. Which one is “correct”? Depends on who you ask.

You see, even in the objective, there is subjectivity. Choosing to use a certain subset of objective statistics is a subjective decision. There is no “correct” way to analyze a player’s performance – there are simply more and less popular ways of doing so. Too often – in baseball and in life – we think of things in this way: “because what I believe doesn’t correspond with the result, the result is wrong.” This is simply not true; there is nothing that makes any individual the arbiter of the “correct” way to analyze anything – in this case, a baseball player’s performance and “value”.

And this argument is certainly not limited to those who are analytically-inclined! Those who prefer a more “old-school” brand of baseball have long decried the “nerds” taking over baseball – and I’ve long spoken out about the importance of those who believe as such needing to listen to us “nerds.” Respect goes both ways.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”

– Bryant H. McGill

I think the analytics community was given an important reminder last night – this game isn’t played on computers, and value doesn’t come down to only one number (especially a number like WAR, which is calculated differently from different sites).  “Value” comes from more than just your preferred statistics.

This should be clear to all of us too – we weren’t taught WAR in Little League. We were taught the value of being a good teammate, working hard, and helping make others better. There’s no “analytics community” if the “old-school community” isn’t there to play catch with us, take us to games, and teach us everything that caused us to fall in love with the game. If you’re going to ask for a seat at the table, don’t try to take one away from the person who set the place for you.

All of this is to say that yes, the awards this season – and every season – maintained a sense of subjectivity. In a sport that is beginning to come to understand the importance of data and objectivity, these awards remind us that just because a player isn’t YOUR MVP doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be considered THE MVP. These awards ensure the human element of baseball remains relevant – these beat writers follow the teams around, have a pulse on the clubhouses, and see some of the things that numbers miss. For that reason, I agree with the current process for awards voting – even if the results aren’t always what I would deem “correct.” Of course, I would prefer advanced analytics to take the driver’s seat in awards voting. That doesn’t mean I think there shouldn’t be anyone else in the car guiding the conversation.

So, no, analytics didn’t “lose” last night. They didn’t even take a step backwards. They – and all analytics folks, myself included – were given a reality check and a friendly reminder. Remember what you learned growing up. Remember these are humans playing the game. Remember that your way of analyzing baseball isn’t the only nor “correct” way – no matter what your own personal biases might say.

The strength of being analytical is not just in understanding what you know, but also understanding what you do not know – and cannot quantify.

So, congratulations to Jose Abreu and Jose Ramirez on incredibly valuable seasons. The value you put on the field in a 60-game season was a joy to watch – except when Ramirez was torching the Sox in the last week of the season. Your value off the field will likely never be quantified outside of these awards, but certainly played a role in how we got here.

Some of us will accept that last fact. It will drive others nuts. Heck, we had a spirited discussion about this last night as a page. I maintain here what I said before: neither is wrong, unless we stop listening to one other.

You will always find value in places you wouldn’t expect.

“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”

– George Eliot

Jordan Lazowski

2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame and current Editor-in-Chief. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, and I haven't left since. Lifelong White Sox fan, self-proclaimed nerd, and Lucas Giolito's biggest supporter. Feel free to reach out and talk baseball! Twitter: @jlazowski14

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