There's a pretty good chance I'm going to screw this analogy up, but you're here for the knock-knock jokes, not the Sabermetrics. Here goes:
Imagine someone developing an offensive statistic that's similar to OPS. Take slugging percentage, add on-base percentage. Simple. But before the statistic is finished, you have to multiply the number of triples by 30 and add it to the total. Instead of OPSBI, it's TOPS.
The inventor could make an argument for TOPS. It's a way to factor speed and baserunning. And because you don't know a lot of lumbering oafs with a bunch of triples, it's a decent proxy for defense, too. TOPS, everyone. It's going to change baseball.
Except … wait, isn't that something susceptible to sample-size chicanery? Players' triples totals vary wildly from year. A few bounces in a given year could boost a player's TOPS dramatically. Random players would show up on the TOPS leaderboard, like Eric Young Jr. this year. Some players would stay at the top every season. Others would dip in and out, seemingly at random. It would be something of a junk stat.
This is how some baseball fans see WAR.
Maybe you're one of them. I empathize. It wasn't that long ago that Nyjer Morgan was one of the very best players in baseball according to WAR. In 2009, Morgan was worth 27.8 fielding runs above average, the best mark in the National League by about 13 runs. He wasn't just one of the better fielders in the league, according to the stats. He was almost twice as good as the next guy. As such, his WAR was 10th in the NL, just ahead of Ryan Braun and Joey Votto.
And a lot of people said, say, wait, that doesn't seem right. Nyjer Morgan, one of the best players in baseball? That doesn't … no, that doesn't track. Four years later, Morgan is playing in Japan because the rest of baseball agreed.
In that respect, it seems like using defensive numbers to arrive at a single number is going to produce a lot of Nyjer Morgans. Last year, Darwin Barney was a defensive god; this year, he's a lineup liability. You're getting the same volatility that you'd get with TOPS.
But while defensive metrics are subject to sample-size chicanery, and while players like Morgan and Barney flit in and out of the leaderboards every season, they're pretty danged handy. This is where the analogy with TOPS falls apart. Adding triples to OPS is worthless. Adding defense to offense is exceptionally worthwhile. So we need a player to help convince the world that it's important to factor defense into player evaluation -- important enough to deal with the blips and bloops you'll get with single-season defensive metrics.
Carlos Gomez is our champion, then. Rejoice in the player beloved by the eyes and numbers. No one could disagree on this player. So let's take a look at him. The defensive stats:
Fielding runs above average: 19.1
Defensive runs saved: 34
And the eyeball test:
I could watch those for hours.
Gomez is having an absolutely superlative season with the glove. No one will argue that. How many times have you seen a player rob a lead-changing home run in the ninth inning? Gomez has done it twice. When you're trying to put a value on a player for the season, you absolutely have to take his defense into account. You can say the same thing for players like Andrelton Simmons and Manny Machado, but for some reason the player that sticks in my head is Gomez. So you have two choices:
- Make all the defensive evaluations up as you go along, even if you're seen 5 percent of the player's innings in the field
- Use a handy, if flawed, single-season defensive number
Because you have to do something. You can't just look at Gomez's season and describe it as a 20-homer, high-strikeout season. That's like saying Breakfast of Champions is a book about car dealerships.
You can't just say, "He's having a good year with the bat, and a Gold Glove-caliber year in the field" because that doesn't mean anything. All Gold Gloves aren't created equal. Jeff Francoeur has a Gold Glove. Derek Jeter has five. Just mentioning the possibility of an award doesn't tell us enough about how good Gomez has been.
You can't just say, "He's a good all-around player, and I don't see the need to rank him," because this is the Internet, you monster. We have to make lists and rank things or else our ISPs come for the modem.
More than almost any other player in baseball, Gomez makes me say, "Give me the numbers." When I see of list of players ranked by value, I expect to see Gomez ranked near the top because he can hit well and field like an interested Andruw Jones. He's third in National League WAR by both the FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com metrics, which is about what the eyeballs and ol'-fashioned gut feelin' would suggest.
I have problems with single-season defensive metrics. But it takes a player like Gomez to realize how silly it would be not to have them. We'll never have perfect defensive metrics, but if you're using a stat that fails to include Gomez's defensive contributions, there probably isn't much of a point to the stat. Keep the defensive numbers coming.
If you're skeptical of WAR, then, remember Carlos Gomez. The Reds will.