Why Assume WAR Overemphasizes Defense?
Recently Dave Cameron took to ESPN Insider to pen a column about Andruw Jones, how he stacks up against Derek Jeter, and what his Hall of Fame prospects might look like. Dave's a great writer, as you know, and he's at his best when handling provocative topics. It's a compelling read since, according to WAR, Jones stacks up nicely next to the Yankee legend.
I really only have one issue with it. At the end, he starts to back off. I can respect that on the one hand, because there is so much we don't know about defense and how it might impact Wins Above Replacement totals. On the other, he leaves no room for the possibility that Jones's defense could make him even better than WAR shows him to be.
While no one can deny the number of base hits that Jeter has accumulated, the idea of Andruw Jones being in the defensive company of Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson and Ozzie Smith could certainly be a contentious claim. Data should be used to inform our discussions, but we should not be slaves to the numbers, and there is a reasonable discussion that can be had about the scale of credit that should be given to players for their defensive abilities.
Certainly, Jones should get a significant boost for his defensive chops as he was widely seen as the game's best center fielder during his prime. He won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves, after all, so it is not only the numbers that see him as a historically elite defender. However, there are enough legitimate questions about defensive metrics, especially those from before this century, that we should be careful with equating defensive specialists with those whose value was created in more traditional ways.
I like that we're all going to stop short of assigning too much value to WAR. One number should not tell us everything. But with regard to defense, I don't like that our default assumption is that WAR overrates players who derive relatively more value from their defense. If we're throwing our hands up and saying "I don't know" then let's not then turn around and say "but I know if anything his defense is overvalued." Maybe when it's all said and done, when we really have a great sense for how to evaluate and then contextualize defense, players like Jones and Mike Cameron and Smith will have been sold short by WAR.