Weekly Download Vol. II No. 26

Walk by Foo Fighters.  Some of you know of my fascination with advanced baseball statistics.  (N.B. I call them “advanced” not because I have some advanced intellect that can understand them, but because it took “advanced” intellects to conceive them and then to simplify them to be ‘splained to a Letters Major.)  One that I’m currently fascinated with is Wins Above Replacement level (acronym “WAR”).  There are two reasons I’m fascinated with it.  First is what it measures (N.B. I’m currently reading a book by D.F. Wallace that is a super-duper layman’s version of the history of the mathematical concept of infinity (N.B. that is, I’m reading it on the nights I’m not out partying my balls off…..).  The book has these great asides called IYIs (If Your Interested) where he gets deeper into the mathematical concepts that he’d previously discussed in fairly layman-ish speak.  I skip these but they’re probably necessary to a complete understanding.  As such, you can consider these next two paragraphs IYI.).  For those who don’t really care about baseball statistics and are just curious as to where I’m going with this, feel free to skip the following two paragraphs. (N.B. most of this comes from Baseball between the Numbers by (among others) Jonah Keri (if you are even remotely interested in this stuff, this is a fantastic read).  I also consulted baseball-reference.com, fangraphs.com and (the hammer) Wikipedia.).

IYI: There are a few different ways to calculate WAR.  Each way essentially measures how many wins a position player’s (they have one for pitchers also, but it makes even my eyes glaze over) performance contributes to his team’s record over the course of a month, a season, or even career v. that which would have been contributed by a “replacement level” player.  Essentially, it determines the value in wins of having a certain player on your team.  They (advanced baseball statisticians a/k/a Sabermetricians (the “Saberstars”) (N.B. this is also the name of a my fantasy baseball team)) are able to do this first, because Saberstars are uber-brilliant-dorks, and second because of the detailed history in existence for Major League Baseball games.  From this detailed history they are able (from a probability standpoint) to determine what they call Run Expectancy for any situation on the baseball field.  Run Expectancy is the expected (or average) number of runs scored in a given inning for a given situation.  For these purposes, let’s assume a runner on first with no outs.  The Run Expectancy for that situation is around .5. What this means is that when this situation has occurred in the history of baseball, teams score one run about half the time.  Starting from this .5 chance of scoring a run situation, the next batter can either increase or decrease his team’s Run Expectancy based on his performance.  If the next batter strikes out, then the new situation is a runner on first and one out. For this example we’ll say in that situation teams score a run 40% of the time. So the Run Exectancy would now be .4.  Based on the batter’s striking out he has decreased his team’s chances of scoring a run that inning by 10%.  However, if the batter hits a single advancing the runner to third leaving the situation as runners on first and third and no outs then (hypothetically) the chances of that team scoring a run that inning have increased (say) to 75%.  Run Expectancy is now .75.  This means the batter increased his team’s chances of scoring at least one run by .25.  The Saberstars take the tiny results of all these plate appearences and combine (and do some other pocket-protector-grade mathematical stuff to) them to a get a figure called Weighted Runs Above Average (“wRAA”).  This is then combined with runs prevented and runs allowed using some pretty hot shit defensive metrics/analysis for each player that I really can’t even begin to fathom.  This total results in a number of runs contributed.  Then they use something called (I shit you not) Pythagorean Win Expectancy which is just a fancy way they’ve come up with to say 10 runs=1 win.  Based on PWE, they then determine the number of wins contributed by a specific player.

IYI: Just for a point of reference, baseball fans, the highest career WAR is owned by Babe Ruth with around 180.  This means that during his career, the Yankees (and Sox) garnered 180 addtional wins than they would have had simply a replacement level player been eating hot dogs and smoking cigars.  The highest active player is A-rod, soon to be surpassed by Pujols no doubt. (N.B  If my brother can tell me who’s in third place on the active list, I’ll buy him a steak.)  I would also say that WAR doesn’t really enlighten us too much on who the best players are.  That is, one (watch it) might have guessed Babe Ruth was No 1 all time.  But it does reveal some highly under/over-rated players e.g. Jeff Bagwell – 35th all-time v. Don Mattingly – 279th.

The second and more fascinating part about WAR to me is the base-line, the Above Replacement-level part.  To calculate WAR, for a given year, the Saberstars must also calculate what a Replacement-level player would contribute in wRAA to a given team.  A Replacement-level player or Replacement-level talent is a floating concept in the Saberstar community (and don’t you know that’s an exciting place to live), but the clearest definition is something like “talent that is freely available for the least cost, such as major league minimum, without having to give up value elsewhere.”  RL players are below average major league baseball players that can be acquired at will.  Interestingly, the Saberstars speculate that given the current state of Major League Baseball, a team full of replacement players would cost about $10m a year to field and would win about 40 games (a historically low number, but still, the fact that such a team could win 40 (about 25%) games tells us something about the very nature of professional baseball.  What, I’m not sure.  But I do think it’s along the lines of don’t ever think you can successfully gamble on it.)

To create these types of RL dependant stats (and there are way more of them than just WAR) the Saberstars have to calculate what a RL player’s (at a given position) stats would be for a given year, based upon a lot of really, really difficult math and the current league average for a lot of things.  Skipping all that in preference of actual numbers, in 2010, MLB player Greg Dobbs (chosen because he is almost exactly my age and a former Sooner) had essentially replacement level stats for a corner infielder. In 88 games he batted .196 (N.B. although the Saberstars hate batting average as a stat and for good reasons from which I’ll spare you), slugging % of .331 and hit 5 home-runs.  Baseball fans understand these aren’t great stats.  According to the Saberstars, this type of contribution (and its translation to wRAA) was freely available to teams for minimal cost.  He was a below average major league player. (N.B. now that doesn’t mean people refer to Dobbs as a “replacement player” like a scab, but just that his stats were very similar to what the Saberstars calculated as Replacement level for that year.) Having said that, we must understand that Greg Dobbs is better at baseball than approximately 99.99975% (=750 (players on major league rosters)/307m (U.S. pop.)) of everyone else in the United States.  Think about that.  He is better at baseball than you and I will prolly ever be at anything (N.B. expect for Dulin at flying and potentially my son at leading the free world.)  And for that, his contibution to a sport for which he has worked his entire life is relegated to the baseline from which the “really good” baseball players are measured. He’s simply Replacement Level.  There’s something both ironic and tragic about that.

So that got me thinking.  Who would I consider a RL rock band.  And currently, the first one that comes to mind is Foo Fighters.  (N.B. now it’s important not to perceive this as a slight to FF.  They are RL in the same way that Greg Dobbs is RL. By implication this means they are a better rock act than 99.99975% of people (I guess in America) but it also means that even in comparison to all other rock bands they are still really, really good. However, there are bands that are far, far better.  Foo Fighters level of talent is such that on one side is all other people creating rock today and on the other side is everyone who’s really good at it.) Now there was a time (late 90s – early 00s) when I considered FF one of the only bands that mattered.  They seemed to be making important music and Dave Grohl shouldered the whole post-Nirvana-Cobain-suicide-thing admirably.  The Colour and the Shape is just outside my U.N. of favorite album’s list.  See WD Vol. I N36.  And Everlong is one of the truly great songs of the 90s (that list is coming). As such, I would consider their career JAR (Jams Above Replacement-level) (N.B. you had to know that was coming) to be fairly strong, definitely in the top-100 (with The Beatles and Stones being the Ruth and Barry Bonds of that list.  I see Pearl Jam as kind of the Mickey Mantle of the list. (N.B. ’cause it’s my list)).  But currently they’re….eh.  Their new album Wasting Light is kinda bland with a lot of yelling.  It’s not bad musically, but…..ok.  Don’t waste your time on it unless you really like Foo Fighters.

Then I considered in the history of rock music, who is the all-time RL band.  Who is the one band who is/was really good, (in the grand scheme of things, prolly great) but just (for this reason or that) not good enough or did not have a career to be considered any more than the baseline to which the highest echelon of really great rock bands are compared?  I made my selection. This band had (maybe still has) a long sustained career, they are replete with cliched rock band drama, they’ve had some really big hits (and good songs), some really big turds which in general have balanced each other out which (IMO) allow them to remain at the very lowest level (the Greg Dobbs’ level) of great rock bands.  Your task: Guess who.  Enjoy.

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