Bill James: not a “statistical guru,” not impressed by WAR

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Over at NBC SportsWorld, Joe Posnanski has a profile of Bill James. The man often described as the father of sabermetrics and, at other times, described as a “statistical guru.”

Guess what: he hates that label. He freely admits that he’s not particularly great at math and data processing and that, contrary to the accusation often leveled at him, he doesn’t much care about statistics. At least not as ends. To him they are means to understand baseball better and, most importantly, to cut out the b.s. that informs so much baseball thinking, mostly from insiders.

And you wanna know what else? He’s not at all impressed by Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the stat that has become a proxy in the larger battle between stat-oriented people and traditional baseball people:

“Well, my math skills are limited and my data-processing skills are essentially nonexistent. The younger guys are way, way beyond me in those areas. I’m fine with that, and I don’t struggle against it, and I hope that I don’t deny them credit for what they can do that I can’t.

“But because that is true, I ASSUMED that these were complex, nuanced, sophisticated systems. I never really looked; I just assumed that the details were out of my depth. But sometime in the last year I was doing some research that relied on these WAR systems, so I took a look at them, and … they’re not very impressive. They’re not well thought through; they haven’t made a convincing effort to address many of the inherent difficulties that the undertaking presents. They tend to get so far into the data, throw up their arms and make a wild guess. I don’t know if I’m going to get the time to do better of it, or if it will be left to others, but … we’re not at anything like an end point here. I assumed that these systems were a lot better than they actually are.”

There may not be a more important figure in baseball analysis. But there may not be a more misunderstood figure than Bill James. Go read Posnanski’s piece to get a better handle on what James has been up to for the past 40 years.