WAR, Win Shares and the Hall of Fame
The Hall of Fame ballot came out on Monday and, as usual, there’s enough happening to keep JoeBlogs powered up for the next two months. We’ll give you lots and lots (and lots) of Hall of Fame content leading up to the Jan. 23 election announcement.*
There are 26 players on this year’s ballot, and to kick things off, I’ll list them off along with their career Win Shares and a key question to ask about each of them.
Let me pause for a moment: We’re going to use Win Shares today instead of WAR, for two reasons. One, Bill James’ final Handbook is about to come out — The Bill James Walk-Off Edition — and I’m going to miss it terribly, and so we’re going to honor Bill’s invention of Win Shares.
But two, I’ve been thinking a lot about Win Shares lately, and how much different some of our Hall of Fame arguments would be if Win Shares had been widely accepted instead of WAR. You probably know: Bill is very, very, very down on WAR. We’ll go through some of the reasons in another post, but we can begin by saying that he believes WAR — both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs versions — not only fails to answer the key baseball questions, it doesn’t even bother to try and answer them. Bill writes an essay in the new handbook about Win Shares and the mistakes he made with it, but he still believes it to be much more accurate than WAR, and he uses one example, the case of Steve Garvey vs. Ron Cey.
As you will know if you’re old enough: Garvey was viewed as one of the game’s biggest stars when he played. And Cey was, well, not. Garvey did big, noticeable things — he won an MVP award, he got 200-plus hits six times, he was a consistent .300 hitter, he won a bunch of Gold Gloves (mostly on reputation).
Cey, meanwhile, ran funny (that’s why they called him “Penguin”) and was more like a .260 hitter and never finished higher than eighth in the MVP balloting and never won a Gold Glove or had much of a reputation as a defensive third baseman.
Bill believes Cey was the better player. He believes that Cey was better because he did lots of little things that Garvey did not. He walked a lot, Garvey never walked, so Cey’s on-base percentage is actually 25 points higher. More of Cey’s hits were for extra bases. And while he didn’t have the reputation, he was actually a good third baseman, and third base is a more important position than first.
Yes, Bill believes Cey to be better … but only JUST A LITTLE better. By Win Shares, it’s a virtual dead heat, Garvey with 279 Win Shares, Cey with 280.
By WAR, though? It’s a blowout. Cey’s WAR of 53.8 is basically SIXTEEN WINS higher than Garvey’s. Bill thinks that’s so absurd — Cey was 40% better than Garvey? — he cannot even understand how anyone can look at that without saying, “Something is broken here.”
We’ll talk more about that later. For now, I just want to talk a bit about how different all of our perceptions might be if we used Win Shares instead of WAR, which obviously COULD have happened had things played out differently.
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