A call for moderation in WAR usage

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Jim Caple of ESPN takes what I think is a decent, moderate approach with respect to the war over WAR. Basically: it’s a cool stat that can be useful, but let’s not rely on it too much or consider it an argument-ender.

Of course, because that’s moderate, I expect almost no one to like it. It’s really, really hard to be a moderate these days.

I do take issue with one thing, however. At the outset of the article he notes his displeasure with how often WAR was used in the MVP debate between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera last year, and criticizes WAR proponents for relying on it too much. I agree WAR did become a big talking point in all of that, but it wasn’t because of the statheads’ doing.

I read a lot of baseball writing. I bet I read more daily baseball writing and back-and-forth Tweeting among baseball people than about 95% of even hardcore baseball fans do. I have to. It’s my job. And I can say that my distinct WAR takeaway from the Trout/Cabrera thing was that WAR was brought up by non-statheads as some kind of bogeyman, as opposed to statheads as pro-Trout evidence, on the order of something like 3 to 1.

The dialogue was like this:

Pro Trout guy: “Trout for MVP!”

Pro Cabrera guy: “You and your fancy spreadsheets and stats, thinking WAR is the be-all, end-all. God, Cabrera is doing something amazing! Why do you have to reduce it to WAR, WAR, WAR?!!”

Pro Trout guy: “He’s an amazing defender and a great baserunner. Who said anything about WAR?”

Pro Cabrera: “There you go again! WAR WAR WAR!! Enough with the stats! Watch some games.”

Anyway, if your mileage varies, great, but it certainly seems to me that WAR is used as an insult by those who hate it more than it’s used as an argument-ender by those who like it.

Justin Turner is a postseason monster

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A not-insignificant amount of the Dodgers’ success in recent years has to do with the emergence of Justin Turner. In his first five seasons with the Orioles and Mets, he was a forgettable infielder who had versatility, but no power. The Mets non-tendered him after the 2013 season, a move they now really regret.

In four regular seasons since, as a Dodger, Turner has hit an aggregate .303/.378/.502. His 162-game averages over those four seasons: 23 home runs, 36 doubles, 83 RBI, 80 runs scored. And he’s also a pretty good third baseman, it turns out. The Dodgers have averaged 95 wins per season over the past four years.

Turner, 32, has gotten better and better with each passing year. This year, he drew more walks (59) than strikeouts (56), a club only five other players (min. 300 PA) belonged to, and he trailed only Joey Votto (1.61) in BB/K ratio (1.05). He zoomed past his previous career-high in OPS, finishing at .945. His .415 on-base percentage was fourth-best in baseball. His batting average was fifth-best and only nine points behind NL batting champion Charlie Blackmon.

It doesn’t seem possible, but Turner has been even better in the postseason. He exemplified that with his walk-off home run to win Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cubs. Overall, entering Wednesday night’s action, he was batting .363/.474/.613 in 97 postseason plate appearances. In Game 4, he went 2-for-2 with two walks, a single, and a solo home run. That increases his postseason slash line to .378/.495/.659, now across 101 plate appearances. That’s a 1.154 OPS. The career-high regular season OPS for future first-ballot Hall of Famer Albert Pujols was 1.114 in 2008, when he won his third career MVP Award. Statistically, in the postseason, Turner hits slightly better than Pujols did in the prime of his career. Of course, we should adjust for leagues and parks and all that, but to even be in that neighborhood is incredible.

In the age of stats, the concept of “clutch” has rightfully eroded. We don’t really allow players to ascend to godlike levels anymore like the way we did Derek Jeter, for instance. (Jeter’s career OPS in the playoffs, by the way, was a comparatively pitiful .838.) Turner isn’t clutch; he’s just a damn good hitter whose careful approach at the plate has allowed him to shine in the postseason and the Dodgers can’t imagine life without him.