April 6, 2019


Against the Statheads: Major League Baseball's statistics revolution benefits the bosses most of all  (Kyle Paoletta, April 4, 2019, The Baffler)

THE MOST TALKED ABOUT PLAYER in baseball doesn't exist. It's not Mike Trout, the LA Angel widely viewed as the most meteoric talent to stride across an outfield in decades, and it's not Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, the two free agents who signed to $300 million deals this offseason. Each of these players may rate among the most recognizable in the sport, but in terms of attention from baseball writers, general managers, and owners, none of these superstars can approach the Replacement Level Player.

Not that the Replacement Level Player is a gold standard--just the opposite. The concept has its origins in 2001, when Baseball Prospectus's Keith Woolner attempted to articulate a not particularly intuitive concept: how terrible can a player be and still make the major leagues? The metric he developed to answer that question, Value Over a Replacement Player, or the positively Star Trekian VORP, posed the Replacement Player as a minor league lifer, the sort that's useful for little beyond spending a week in the majors filling in for an injured star. VORP was later refined into Wins Above Replacement--WAR-- a more all-encompassing figure that measures how many extra wins a player contributes to a team's record as compared to what that Triple-A scrub could. If one can't "play above replacement level," then they surely can't hack it in the big leagues, and no appellation is more cutting than that of being "worse than replacement level," a subprime distinction held by only thirty-nine players last season. The best of the best are the players like Trout, who routinely lifts the Angels to ten more wins each season than they would have recorded with a Replacement Level phantasm.

Baseball-Reference--an encyclopedic source heavily relied upon by baseball writers--introduced their version of WAR in 2010. Since then, it has completely overtaken the sport. Over the next three years, Bleacher Report would call it "Baseball's Most Perfect Statistic" and ESPN proclaimed, "WAR is the Answer." Last season, a debate briefly surfaced over which Red Sox deserved the American League's MVP award more, WAR darling Mookie Betts or the power-hitting J.D. Martinez, who surpassed him in home runs and runs batted in: two marks of hitting prowess that have reigned since the sepia-tinted years of Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. Martinez' gaudy numbers didn't cut it. He slipped all the way to forth in the MVP vote, behind Betts and two other players who lapped him in WAR. In a few short years, WAR has gone from a peripheral stathead obsession to baseball's most irreplaceable metric.

Despite its name, the rise of WAR has influenced today's baseball fans and writers to think about the sport not in terms of wins and losses but dollars and cents. As Rick Paulas pointed out in Vice last year, even as the reliance on analytics has led to some "players who once weren't appreciated getting their just due," it has more importantly precipitated a discourse that comes "down to who's worth the money and who's not." Paulas nods to the emergence of the concept of "surplus value," analysis that determines which teams are winning more games than you'd expect based on their payroll. Which is to say, the teams underpaying their players the most. The need to identify arbitrage opportunities is in the DNA of these stats: when he introduced the concept of the Replacement Level Player back in 2001, Woolner wrote "A commodity which is easily available to all teams at no or low cost confers no competitive advantage, and therefore is of minimal value."

The type of "value" all these teams are searching for is exemplified by pitcher Gio Gonzalez's 2017 campaign. That year, he recorded a remarkable 6.5 WAR for the Nationals, a mark that, if you believe the number crunchers, was worth $68 million in value to his team's billionaire owner--while Gonzalez was paid only $12 million. Likewise, a similar notion of value allowed the Angels to justify the jaw-dropping twelve-year, $430 million contract extension Trout recently signed to. Sure, that's DuckTales money, but based on Trout's yearly WAR, he could easily outplay the money he's being paid in a third of the time he's signed for.

WAR (worker above replacement value) is, of course, driving the entire global economy and the fact that a machine can do your job more cheaply than you is why you'll support UBI:

Posted by at April 6, 2019 8:58 AM