Friday, May 23, 2014

"My Skin is Against Me": Critical Race Theory & Baseball, Part III. C. Flaw in the "objective" Wins Above Replacement statistic

C.  Flaw in the "objective" Wins Above Replacement statistic
        The placement of an asterisk leaves a lot to subjectivity.  Whether there should be an asterisk, how much weight to give the asterisk, and what the asterisk means (if anything) are all relative to the observer.  On the other hand, modern day statisticians have been working on complex mathematical equations that compare players across all eras objectively.  
        Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an estimation of the number of wins a player adds to his team in any given year.[i]  Basically, because you have player A on team B, as opposed to a replacement player (denied as a bottom-tiered major league/top-tiered minor league player), team B won X number of additional games than they would have otherwise.[ii]  For example, Miguel Cabrera had an estimated WAR of 7.5 in 2013.[iii]  Therefore, it is estimated that the 2013 Detroit Tigers won 7.5 more games with Miguel Cabrera than they would have had they called up their third baseman from Toledo (the Tiger's AAA team).
        WAR is a valuable tool when comparing any player's value to another.[iv]  WAR allows for shorter seasons, various size ballparks, "pitchers eras", contraction, and expansion by always comparing a player against a "replacement player" from the same year who was playing in the same number of games, with the same number of teams, etc.[v]  However, WAR has a fatal flaw when it comes to calculating the value of pre-integration players.  Pre-integration players "replacement player" is significantly worse than a post integration "replacement player" because the Major Leagues did not allow all of the best players to play. 
        For every African American player who began to play in the Major Leagues, there was one less roster spot to be occupied by a white player.  It follows that many players who were considered "replacement" caliber pre-integration were much worse, and many regular players were in fact, "replacement" level.  Thus, after integration, WAR compared players against a much better replacement player, and players would have to perform substantially better in order to get "wins above" what the replacement level player could produce.
        This hypothesis is supported by the significantly greater presence of pre-integration  players on all time WAR leader boards.[vi]  Six of the top ten players on the Career WAR Rankings (Ruth 183.6, Cy Young 168.4, Walter Johnson 165.6, Cobb 151.1, Speaker 133.6, and Wagner 131.0) all played their entire careers in segregated baseball.[vii]  Further, of the four post integration players listed in the top ten, two have been implicated as users of performance enhancing drugs (Barry Bonds 162.4 and Roger Clemens 140.3).[viii]  The two remaining PED-free, post integration players on the list are both African Americans (Willie Mays 156.2 and Hank Aaron 142.6).[ix]  Without the above criticism of the WAR calculation, an otherwise objective review of the top ten WAR players would yield a finding that the most valuable players of all time are, for the most part, white.  On the other hand, when accounting for the weaker "replacement player" for pre-integration players, pre-integration players WAR is diminished.
        WAR, as is currently calculated, provides supposedly objective evidence to the dominant group narrative of the superiority of pre-integration players.  However, a counter narrative emerges when the otherwise objective WAR calculation properly factors in a reduction based on the vastly inferior "replacement player" pre-integration players are compared to.  For this example, players who played their entire careers before 1947 have their career WAR total reduced by 30%[x], players who played before and after 1947 have their career WAR total reduced by 15%[xi], and players implicated in PED use are omitted.[xii]  The recalculated top ten career WAR players looks like this:
1)  Willie Mays                                                       156.2
2)  Hank Aaron                                                      142.6
3)  Babe Ruth                                                         128.5
4)  Cy Young                                                           117.9
5)  Walter Johnson                                                115.9
6)  Rickey Henderson                                           110.8
7)  Tom Seaver                                                       110.5
8)  Mickey Mantle                                                 109.7
9)  Stan Musial                                                      108.9
10)  Frank Robinson                                             107.2

        This is not a perfect ranking[xiii] but it exemplifies three important parts of a counter-narrative.  First, the greatest African American players are vastly under-rated in the number of wins they created for their teams within the traditional WAR calculation.  Second, many of the greatest post-integration white players (Seaver, Mantle etc.) are similarly under-rated.  Finally, Babe Ruth is not the greatest player of all time.  Ruth's maintaining third place on the list, despite a deduction, is a testament to his greatness; however, Mays and Aaron, whom played in baseball's true golden era, are markedly better in terms of career WAR.

[i] War Explained, Baseball Reference, (last visited April 13, 2014).
[ii] Id. (The advanced statistical formulas used to determine WAR are outside the scope of this article).
[iii] Miguel Cabrera, Baseball Reference, (last visited April 13, 2014).
[iv]  War Explained, Baseball Reference, (last visited April 13, 2014).
[v] Id.
[vi] Baseball Reference, Career Leaders& Records for Wins Above Replacement,, (last visited April 13, 2014).
[vii] Id. (years played in career can be seen by clicking on an individual players name)
[viii] Id.
[ix] Id.
[x] This is a somewhat ambiguous number.  30% is probably not a great enough reduction, but is used here to simplify the illustration.  A proper reduction will be left to sabermaticians.
[xi] See footnote 113.
[xii] This is not to say these players are undeserving, rather to keep the example limited to one factor.
[xiii] Most glaring is the lack of any Negro League legends. 

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