There's been this wonderfully entertaining joke running around Twitter lately. (I'm going to spoil it now for the five of you who haven't noticed it yet, for which I don't apologize, because I'm saving you a lot of annoyance.) Someone on your timeline will tweet "Whoa" or "Yikes" or "Wow" in front of a retweet. You will click on this retweet, and find another retweet, also tagged "Wow." You will keep clicking on retweets until you realize that you've fallen, Ozzie Smith-style, into an internet Mystery Spot, at which point you'll say "Heh, good one, guys" and then quietly seethe with hate for ten minutes before finding something better to do, like writing a poem or reading seven or eight articles on Cracked.
I won't say I didn't fall for this gag, but I will say that I caught on after only the first click. It's not that I'm particularly clever, it's just that I've been reading baseball writing for years. I know a trap when I see one. There are of course times when I'll still fall into one, mostly when I haven't had enough caffeine. That was the case last morning in the local paper. I'm not going to link to Bob Ryan's piece, you know the piece I mean. It had that tremendously clever linkbait title that played on an overplayed and underlistened Edwin Starr song. It's going to be torn apart by a thousand different bloggers today, because that's what it was designed for. We'll get whipped into a frenzy, it'll make us look even more like fanatics, and in two weeks it'll be Heyman's turn to get us going. And so on, and so on, westward the wagons, across the sands of time...
Enough rambling. Point is, one line in the piece got my attention, and actually is worth grappling with a bit: "WAR is believed to be the ultimate rating measurement of a player..." We'll leave out that "rating measurement" is redundant as all hell and just focus on the "ultimate" part. Does anyone actually think that? I mean this seriously. Anyone out there think of WAR as "the ultimate stat," as the number that makes the other ones all irrelevant? Or are all of you thinking "wait, there's like three different formulas for WAR, which one is Bob talking about?" (He appears to be talking about Baseball Prospectus's version, because it's clearly the nerdiest. I mean, "Prospectus" is way too many syllables for a sports website.)
"Ultimate" really intrigued me, though, since I'm a Latin geek (yeah, we're going classical today). It means last. We use it as a superlative, not because it means awesome or amazing, but because it means it's the final version. Ultimate basically means "nailed it, nothing can be better." It's Pedro's changeup, 16-year Lagavulin, or Mark Hamill's Joker. Can't be improved upon.
I will freely admit that I'm a humanities major, more interested in narrative, perspective, and assorted artsy horse puckey than the math and science end of baseball, but I'm pretty sure that "can't be improved upon" isn't a concept that exists in sabermetrics. The Irish comic Dara O'Briain has a fantastic line about this, in discussing the idea that science "doesn't know everything":
Well, science knows it doesn't know everything. Otherwise, it'd stop.
That's where sabermetrics is. Anyone claiming it's a magic way to instantly predict what will happen in any given season, in any given game, in any given at-bat, is a fool. And also probably made of straw. It's a science, and science is just watching what happens, writing it down, and trying to determine what might happen next. It's anything from "it's generally easier for left-handed hitters to hit right-handed pitchers" to Shane Victorino's Range Factor. It doesn't always work, and when it doesn't work, they try to fix it. BPro tinkers with their PECOTA system every year, in an effort to make it better and more accurate. It's as though they know it's not perfect. If it were, Matt Wieters would already be in the Hall of Fame and the White Sox would never make the playoffs.
What drives me most nuts, I think, is that this dismissive strawman crap is coming from a Boston writer. If any sports town should understand the value of applying critical thinking to baseball, it's this one. The greatest player in franchise history wrote a book called "The Science of Hitting," for crying out loud. David Ortiz, the face of the franchise for the last decade, was acquired at least in part because somebody ran a computer simulation of how his hitting patterns would translate to Fenway Park. The city went most of a century without a championship, but had won two within five years of being acquired by people willing to tinker and learn.
More importantly, all the other teams noticed. Every team looks at stats, and not just the old-school slash line stats. The "war over WAR" was over, if ever it really happened, the moment Doug Mientkiewicz (hot damn, I can still spell it after all these years) caught that throw from Keith Foulke in October of 2004. Billion-dollar businesses don't let a competitive advantage last long, and strangely it's more profitable to know things than to remain ignorant out of respect for tradition.
No one was angry that Miguel Cabrera won last year's MVP because Mike Trout had a higher WAR. They were upset because Trout was a better player, and generally it seems reasonable that the better player should win MVP. Ryan even admits that Trout was better, all but admitting that he's only arguing with this mythical saber nerd who looks at WAR and nothing else. He seems to be annoyed at the mere fact that WAR exists, which... Being angry about WAR itself is like being angry about batting average, or inches. It's not perfect, and no one claims it is. It's a way to put into a simple number that which we can see. It's another way to improve our understanding of the best game there is.
Over the last thirty years, people who love baseball, both inside and outside the sport, have devoted immense amounts of time and effort to learning more about the game. For the most part, especially early on, these people weren't paid for their work. They were simply people who watched baseball every day, came up with questions about what they saw, and set out to answer them. They've answered dozens of those questions, improved our understanding of the tiny nuances of the sport, and unlocked enough knowledge that now the pro teams themselves are spending millions to learn more. That anyone could look at that hard work, that burning desire to better understand the game, and feel contempt... It's sad, to say the least.
Sabermetricians know they don't know everything. That's why, with any luck at all, they won't stop.