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Winning is Underrated; WAR is Overrated

Baseball’s focus on maximizing surplus value is making the game less fun.

Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

I’m going to start this one out with a controversial statement. I think WAR is doing bad things for baseball, that it’s a fundamentally flawed statistic. Now, allow me to walk this hot take back furiously. I don’t think WAR is wrong. I don’t think it misrepresents what it’s trying to do. It’s not telling lies about players. Mike Trout really is that good. I think it’s a better holistic description of a player’s total contributions than anything else we have right now, and the general concept of a WAR framework is great. None of this is my problem with WAR. My problem is that boiling teams down to a single number (total WAR, playoff probability, you name it) leads to some bad outcomes and some bad ways of thinking about the game.

I like to tell people that my job (I work in finance) just involves counting to ten, only I’m REALLY good at it. That’s not actually true, but it comes closer than you might think. A lot of the work is in taking a ton of disparate and noisy data and distilling it down to something that you can count on two hands. I’m reminded of this description when I think about baseball analytics. At its core, thinking about baseball in an analytical way boils down to taking a bunch of data about events and turning them into one number. WAR? Yep (it’s convenient that non-Trout WAR is single digits). Exit velocity? Same idea. Do you want to add up a team’s wins? WAR and addition have your back. What if you want to see how much switching from one player to another will do? WAR and subtraction. When it comes down to it, that’s why analytics are so appealing. They’re a simple language for talking about fundamentally complex things, like ‘why is this player better than another?’

This is also the problem with baseball analytics. With all the powerful player-analysis tools we have, the desire to port the same type of thinking to the question of how teams should be built is overwhelming. Surely if we can look at every action Tommy Pham takes on a baseball field for a year and say ‘6 wins worth,’ we can do some similar kind of accounting for all the decisions the Cardinals make. That’s where ideas like win curves come from. When we talk about teams’ projections; and whether they should sell, buy, or hold based on those projections; our brain is really just taking an objective function and adding things up. That’s a big problem. What a team ‘should’ do isn’t really something you can define objectively. It certainly isn’t something you can define with an equation.

There’s a prevailing view in analytic baseball writing these days that teams should maximize their contention windows, that they should line up a bunch of players who are all good and team-controlled at the same time and compete for championships. If your objective function is winning championships, that’s fine. My point, however, is that that’s an absurd set of goals to expect everyone to have. If we think of expected championships as the currency of baseball teams, everything is easy. Everything is also ridiculous. Let’s say I offer you a deal. The Cardinals can have the Marlins’ last 25 years as their next 25 years. That’s two titles guaranteed! I did a little quick math- there are 30 teams in baseball. 2 out of 25 is a lot better than 1 in 30, the pure random odds of winning a championship in a given year. Now, I don’t know you, friend, but I don’t think you’d take that deal. I certainly wouldn’t. I feel sad and deflated when hearing about the Marlins, and I only have to do it in small chunks of time, rather than year round.

You might argue that I’m missing the point. The Marlins only made the playoffs twice. They didn’t get a lot of bites at the apple, they just ran hot in their two looks. The whole idea of building your team in cycles, though, depends on the calculus that 10 10% championship expectations is the same as a single championship. If the math of team-building is going to work, 23 bagels and two wins has to be equally valuable as 25 years of 8% odds of winning.

Once you stop believing that this math makes any sense, chaos breaks out. An example: you might remember the Padres’ hot pursuit and eventual signing of Eric Hosmer this winter, despite the Padres being ‘bad,’ to use a technical term. Putting the question of whether Eric Hosmer is actually good aside, I saw a lot of arguments that he’s wrong for them because he doesn’t move the needle at all. The Padres with Eric Hosmer and the Padres without Eric Hosmer both have roughly a 0% chance of winning the World Series this year. If you just ignore the tyranny of optimizing for championships, however, everything makes much more sense. To put it simply, the Padres think they’ll suck less if they sign Eric Hosmer. They think that fans are going to come out to the park and watch some crisply hit ground balls (a Hosmer specialty). Some people see that as inherently a worse idea, a *less correct* idea, than running out an outfield of (I’m approximating) 17 Rule 5 draft picks- what if one of those guys (looking at you, Allen Cordoba) delivers 3.35 million dollars of surplus value?! What if they trade one for a middle reliever who is underpaid by 2 million dollars? Imagine the surplus value and the WAR per dollar spent. Imagine the controllable years! I just don’t buy it.

Look, at the end of the day, defining what a front office does is hard. If you want to be purely abstract and economic about it, they’re probably trying to maximize a long-term cashflow. This cashflow is kind of complex, though. It’s the net present value of all the money fans will spend on merchandise and tickets, all the revenue the team draws from the ballpark itself, and all the money they make from their broadcasting and advertising. A simpler way to think about it might be to say that front offices try to make fans like their team enough that they spend money to support them. Somehow, it’s popular these days to take that incredibly abstract goal and say, ‘yeah, but how many championships are they going to win in expectation in the next seven years?’ The math just doesn’t track. Those two things aren’t the same. I don’t even think that this is a controversial view- it’s just one that people in the analytic community take as necessary. How are you going to do analytics if the metrics for success are qualitative rather than quantitative?

See, all these single-number analytical ideas have a problem, a problem that I think I can diagnose. It’s a problem I run into a lot of the time at work. When you have a convenient one-size-fits-all metric like WAR, championship odds, or surplus value, the urge to do something grand with it is overwhelming. Why go to all the trouble of building the valuation system if it can’t always tell you what you should do? To have it tell you what to do, though, you need a number to try to maximize. Your options, if you’re looking at surplus value over time or championship value over time, are pretty limited. You can’t take a bunch of championship probabilities, discount them over time, and figure out how fun that’s going to be for the fans. You can’t look at a graph of surplus value to figure out if some kid in Baltimore is going to give up on the Orioles for life if they trade Manny Machado for three B prospects this summer.

When you switch your view of what a front office should do from ‘win championship EV points’ to ‘make fans like their team,’ lots of decisions that attract mockery in analytical corners of the internet make more sense. The Royals kept the band together for one last run last year. The Giants are doing it this year. The Orioles are somehow keeping the band together without ever having had a band. The A’s and Rays operate in a perpetual twilight of contention. I feel pretty confident that none of those decisions optimize long-term championship EV.

I also feel pretty confident that people in Kansas City had a more enjoyable summer last year watching their 2015 World Series participant team struggle along with the championship core still intact than people in Queens, who watched the Mets strip their 2015 World Series participant to the studs to save a few million dollars and, therefore, gain some hypothetical future championship equity. I want to swing around to the initial point I was making, many tangents ago. The Padres signed Eric Hosmer, and they didn’t get any more likely to win a championship this year. Hell, they might have gotten less likely to win a championship in the future, when they’ll have some money tied down with an aging first baseman. That doesn’t mean it was a bad decision.

Put yourself in a Padre fan’s shoes. Imagine watching last year’s team. Someone named Carlos Asuaje just had 350 plate appearances for your team. Manny Margot and Cory Spangenberg featured prominently. Jered Weaver pitched 42 innings! Jered Weaver’s average fastball velocity last year was 84 mph. Your team allowed 200 more runs than it scored, and it basically did it by fielding minor league players. It must be nice to have someone out there to watch now, even if the team isn’t going to win a championship this year. Most teams aren’t!

Think of another franchise, the Orioles. I referenced them up above briefly. They’re facing a big decision this summer, namely what they’re going to demand for Manny Machado. The math, if you believe in surplus value, is easy. Machado is owed 8 million dollars the rest of the year. He’s projected for about 2.5 wins the rest of the way- 10 million dollars a win, 25 million dollars. Machado’s surplus value is 17 million dollars, worth something like the 100th best prospect in baseball. That’s nonsense, though. That’s not what Manny Machado is worth. That’s what he’s worth in economic terms, sure. I really hope that I never become the kind of fan who wants my team to trade its transcendent star for a 20-year old pitcher in A ball in pursuit of some mythical optimization. Give me one last summer of Machado hitting, of Machado’s smooth actions in the field and cocky demeanor at the plate.

Think of it one more way. Imagine that the Cardinals really stink it up the rest of the year. Let’s say they’re projected for 77 wins next year, easily on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Should they tear it down? Should they ship out Mikolas and Ozuna in the offseason, find someone to pay them a king’s ransom for Paul DeJong or Jack Flaherty? I would hope they wouldn’t. I don’t want to think of the kind of team I’d be watching all summer if they did. The tyranny of WAR, of expected championships and contention windows, would tell you that they should, though. It’s all there, right in the math.

One thing that’s so perverse about boiling everything down to winning as many championships as possible is that it doesn’t really match the fan’s experience of the game at all. If you follow a baseball team, you’re following the regular season for 90% of the time, minimum. This metric might say that there’s no difference between winning 60 and 80 games. I mean, c’mon. Rooting for a team that loses all the time is no fun. If you think the Cardinals are frustrating this season, imagine rooting for a team that wins 20 less games than they do. You’d tear your hair out, probably. I certainly would. Baseball is a sport that we experience in a very small way every day. It’s a feeling of frustration or joy that you experience a little bit at a time for weeks on end, based on whether your team is streaking or slumping. It’s exhilaration at a close playoff race. It’s hope that your team can make up 4 games in the loss column in three weeks. A building block to all of these emotions, though, is not being terrible. Winning regular season games is important. It might not matter to the broad sweep of history, but it certainly matters for the day-to-day experience of the fan.

One of the draws of analytical thinking is that there’s always a right answer, if you can only find it in the noise. It’s one of the reasons I like baseball so much. It’s not the only reason, though. I like the personalities, the feats of strength, the suspense. That mix of qualitative and quantitative pleasures is the essential magic of sports. You can’t have one without the other. So, I implore you, don’t try to reduce baseball to an equation. When you have the urge to think of every player as an asset, to blur the years together and work out how your team can be terrible for five years to be great for the next five… resist that urge! That way lies madness. It’s a great way to make baseball less fun. At that point, what are we even doing here? It’s a game! I’m a lot happier when I think of it that way.