Tomase: In defense of Bill James, who's actually on Eck's side when it comes to Frank Robinson

John Tomase
February 08, 2019 - 12:02 pm

Was the death of a beloved Hall of Famer the right time to grind an axe about your hatred of baseball's most polarizing stat?

If you're Bill James, of course it was!

The father of Sabermetrics and a long-time advisor to the Red Sox, James found himself on the receiving end of an even more beloved Hall of Famer's ire when he posted the following about the late Frank Robinson on Thursday:

"By the way, Baseball Reference WAR insists that the most valuable player in the AL in 1966 was not Frank Robinson, but Earl Wilson, a pitcher who was 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA, one point better than the league ERA of 3.44. Look it up. No offense; just thought I would mention it."

Outgoing and personable Red Sox color man Dennis Eckersley, who's as close to a broadcast saint as we have in these parts, responded succinctly.

"Shut up," he tweeted.

It's easy to see what Eckersley saw -- a famed stat-head using Robinson's death to sanctimoniously declare the 1966 Triple Crown winner didn't actually deserve the MVP. This became a big deal, and so James subsequently deleted the tweet and apologized.

But Eck and others would be surprised to learn that he's actually on their team.

Bill James hates WAR about as much as any fan who believes a hitter's contributions can be summed up by average, homers, and RBIs alone. He started a civil war in the analytics community after the 2017 MVP Award went to Houston's Jose Altuve by noting that the actual WAR leader -- New York's Aaron Judge -- was nowhere near as valuable as Altuve and shouldn't have received the consideration that he did.

The whole debate over wins above replacement can get wonky, but James' objection boils down to this: WAR totals do not correlate to actual wins. The 2017 Yankees won 91 games, but Judge was given credit for contributing to 100 of them, because that's what New York's run-differential predicted it "should" have won.

(Irony alert: That relation of runs scored and runs allowed to winning percentage is called Pythagorean wins, and James invented it decades ago because he recognized it better predicted future success than actual winning percentage).

I'm assuming Eckersley is no great fan of WAR, but guess what? Neither is Bill James! They would very much be wearing the same jersey on that debate stage.

"I am not saying that WAR is a bad statistic or a useless statistic, but it is not a perfect statistic, and in this particular case it is just dead wrong," James wrote of Judge vs. Altuve. "It is dead wrong because the creators of that statistic have severed the connection between performance statistics and wins, thus undermining their analysis."

As for the idea that it's somehow distasteful to make this aside on the day of Robinson's death ("I don't think it's the time to debate whether he deserved the MVP," WEEI's Lou Merloni tweeted, for instance), spare me. James didn't impugn Robinson's character, and he certainly didn't disparage his legacy. He simply noted that the favored stat of too many blindly devoted analysts would've given the MVP to a clearly undeserving player. That he chose to do so on a day when Robinson's name was in the news is how this works.

(Another aside: James needs to doublecheck his math. Wilson went 18-11 in 1966 between Detroit and Boston with a 3.07 ERA, not 18-12, 3.43. He also blasted a career-high seven homers with a .799 OPS. Not bad for a pitcher, but still not MVP.)

"My point about Robby, of course, is that he was a very great player, and the statistical wrinkle which suggests that he was NOT the MVP in league in '66 needs to be fixed," James tweeted after the furor erupted. "I'm sure that those of you who actually follow me got the point."

Some fans hear James' name and contort their faces like they're trudging through a field of the ripest manure. He has spent his career telling them everything they know about baseball is wrong, and they resent it.

This is not one of those times. He meant no disrespect to Robinson's memory or Eck or our very own Framingham Lou. Quite the opposite.

He's on their side.