Baseball is a team sport, but it sure gets lonely at times.
The pitcher stands at the center, for example, spitting and pacing before thousands. The infield stays lively, but there’s stoicism in the faces of outfielders whose involvement in the game is either nil or total. When a fly ball isn’t plummeting towards the outfielder’s glove, he simply waits. Basketball has the free throw, and football the field goal, but no other team sport is so composed of discrete events whose outcome is solely on the shoulders of individual players. In baseball, if the ball’s on its way, it’s up to you (and no one else) to do with it what you will.
Perhaps because baseball is made up of separable, individual-centric events, that’s the direction researchers went when, decades ago, they started thinking analytically about baseball. They sought to figure out how good a player was by isolating his performance, inching toward a single measurement quantifying a player’s contribution to his team.
Today, that metric exists. Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is the culmination of the first wave of “sabermetrics,” the study of why teams win and lose baseball games—mature fruit of an idea first planted by Bill James in 1977 and watered, tended, and pruned by statisticians and analysts like Mike Gimbel (in 1990), Keith Woolner (1995), and Voros McCracken (2001). It’s a fairly intuitive concept: Take all the runs a player contributes at the plate, on the basepaths, and in the field, then calculate the additional games a team would win should they have this player rather than a scrub from AAA. It’s what the Society for American Baseball Research (or SABR) probably always dreamed about: a single metric that communicates, in one glance, a rough understanding of the value a player added to his team.