One of the biggest ironies of the new stat age is that the development of sophisticated and nuanced analytical tools like WAR provide the reader with a shortcut and enable the same type of lazy, simplistic analysis the tools were created to avoid. One doesn’t need to travel very far to find instances of this sort: see the use of single-season fWAR to settle debates on All-Star selections/snubs or MVP ballots. For the uninitiated, this is “doing it wrong”. WAR is comprised of many components: baserunning, fielding, and offense, among others. When it comes to fielding, a large sample of data is required in order to ensure reliability. In fact, many say that 3 seasons of UZR data is a good sample size. But single-season fWAR considers only the UZR data in that given year. This doesn’t mean that single-season fWAR is useless, just that some caution and editorial discretion is required in its application.
This isn’t the fault of WAR’s framework, although one can be forgiven for wishing there was some sort of warning sign attached to it on the Fangraphs’ leaderboards with a blinking light and a flashing message: “BEWARE! Small sample sizes still apply! Especially with the defensive component!”. Rather, the misuse of the framework is more user error than anything else. Drivers are responsible for knowing how to properly operate a car; analysts are responsible for knowing how to use WAR. They’re also responsible for not intentionally misuing WAR, or any other stat, to serve a preexisting agenda.
This gets us to a simple point, which is this: it’s the duty of the analyst to use the tools and frameworks wisely, with humility and honesty, and to create a margin of space which allows for tolerance and ambiguity. This is decidedly antithetical to the approach found so often in many popular forums: assert a controversial opinion, get pageviews, profit. But it’s a better approach. It’s not easy, and it requires far more work than making a few clicks on Fangraphs and spouting off an opinion on “Who’s better this year”, but it’s the way to circumvent the dogmatism and unsophisticated analysis we find so distasteful when we see it anywhere else.
One of the most hair-raising parts of George Orwell’s book Animal Farm is when the animals look through the window and find that the faces of the pigs have become indistinguishable from the faces of the humans that they all worked together to overthrow. The symbolism is unmistakeable: once they achieved their goals they became what they hated. The message is of course a political one, but it has bearing in the world of baseball analysis. This movement – call it a SABR movement, a stat movement, a mouth-breathing basement-dwelling movement, whatever you like – is only gathering more and more steam. WAR is on Baseball Tonight. David Cone broadcasts the virtues of FIP to the entire YES Network audience. It’s only getting bigger and stronger.
As the movement expands it will become easier to develop a more rigid orthodoxy. This isn’t necessarily bad. In a religious sense orthodoxy maintains the purity of a belief system, prevents false doctrines from gaining root amongst believers, and roots out heretics. In the world of baseball analysis it is far less coherent, systematic or discursive. But there’s still orthodoxy. There’s still a set of rules, however loose, analysts are playing by. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but the risk is that orthodoxy can turn into dogmatism, which will stifle the innovative and free-thinking spirit which animated the movement in the beginning. Then the movement will stop growing, and it will be dead and boring. Consider this a call to keep that spirit alive, to keep hustling and thinking outside the box, to not use single-season WAR in an irresponsible way and to be ready to set aside WAR and any other metric, state or framework as inferior when the next innovation comes along.